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MOBY-DICK, Herman Melville's sixth book, was published in 1851. It was a work in which, as the novelist Walker Percy has written, Melville first fully felt "the happiness of the artist discovering, breaking through into the freedom of his art." Moby-Dick began as yet another young-man-goes-to-sea story, but it grew into an encyclopedic work in which the first-person voice of the narrator, Ishmael, fractures into multiple voices. The highly digressive narrative about the whaleship Pequod incorporates meticulous descriptions of the whaling business (from its wage structure to its inventory of weapons and tools), bawdy sailor songs, lyric celebrations of seafaring life, as well as flights of speculation about human destiny. This wonderfully multifarious book, however, is eventually taken over by the "monomaniac" Captain Ahab, who turns the Pequod into an instrument for achieving his singular and focused purpose: to hunt and kill the great white whale that, on a previous voyage, had dashed his boat to splinters and ripped him half to death.

Although a few critics recognized the imaginative power of Moby-Dick, most recoiled from what one reviewer called its strange "horrors and … heroics." Melville's reputation continued to decline until the 1920s, when Moby-Dick was rediscovered as a protomodernist work. Readers in the 1930s and 1940s, shocked by the rise of totalitarian dictators in their own time, felt an eerie prescience in Melville's story of how a demagogue fuses his personal need for vengeance with the popular will. More recently, scholars have noticed that Moby-Dick is not only a book that touches with prophetic insight on timeless themes of human cruelty, but that it was also a careful political allegory tied to the ominous events of its own time—a meditation on the American ship of state heading for doom.

Today, Moby-Dick is probably the most discussed work in American literary history. It probes many themes that remain salient in our time—religious, philosophical, environmental, and sexual, as when Melville celebrates the love between an American boy (Ishmael) and a tattooed cannibal (the harpooner Queequeg). The scholar Harry Levin remarked that "the investigation of Moby-Dick might almost be said to have taken the place of whaling among the industries" of the United States.


Hardwick, Elizabeth. Herman Melville. New York: Viking, 2000.

Parker, Hershel, and Harrison Hayford, eds. Moby-Dick as Doubloon: Essays and Extracts 1851–1970. New York: Norton, 1970.


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