The Great American Novel

Chasing the White Whale in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick

I think that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is the Great American Novel. There are a handful of other claimants, but the search for the White Whale—I think—knocks them all into a cocked hat.

Yet it was not always thus. Published in 1851, it took decades before it was recognized for the masterpiece it was. In his Conversations 1 with Osvaldo Ferrari, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges makes an interesting observation:

I believe that [Moby-Dick], upon publication, remained invisible for some time. I have an old an excellent edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the eleventh edition published in 1912. In it, there’s a not-too-long paragraph about Melville, describing him as a writer of travel novels. And though it mentions Moby-Dick, it is not distinguished from the rest of his books. It’s on the list but there is no mention that Moby-Dick is far more than a traveller’s tale or a book about the sea.

This makes me wonder how many American books written in the last sixty years will suddenly emerge to future generations as the *new* Great American Novel. Will it be something that we now regard as second-rate stuff? We may never know: The future is a closed book.

The Great American Novel

It Has Already Been Written—In 1851

All the time I was growing up, I kept hearing of writers wishing to write the Great American Novel—as if it were hovering in our future. It actually became something of an obsession with many. Sorry to disappoint, but I think the Great American Novel was written in 1851 by Herman Melville. It is called Moby-Dick, or The Whale. To date, I have read it three times, and each time was a revelation to me.

Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Proust, and Jane Austen, Melville was a highly inconsistent author. If you read Mardi: and a Voyage Thither (1849) or The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade (1857), you are dealing with a folk philosopher who is interested only in somewhat uninteresting bon mots. He did write some great short fiction, such as “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853); “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” (1854); “Benito Cereno” (1855); and finally “Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative)” (1892). Of the other works I have read, they run the gamut from interesting to “Why Was This Written?”

His Novel Is Still as Relevant as Tomorrow’s News

On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1819, Philip Hoare wrote a fascinating article for The Guardian entitled “Subversive, Queer and Terrifyingly Relevant: Six Reasons Why Moby-Dick Is the Novel for Our Times.” You can find it here.

There have been many other American novelists whose work is near great. I am thinking of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe (though he wrote only one unfinished magnificent novel in The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym), Henry James, and William Faulkner.

I am not trying to discourage my fellow countrymen from trying their own hand at the Great American Novel, but I think that before long the medium of the novel will no longer be as important as it once was. And then, a major consideration, who will still be around to read it?


Serendipity: Waiting To Be Annihilated

American Writer Herman Melville (1819-1891)

On November 20, 1856, Nathaniel Hawthorne met with Herman Melville in England. In his English Notebooks, Hawthorne describes his friend as having “by way of baggage, the least little bit of a bundle, which, he told me, contained a night-shirt and a tooth-brush…. [H]e is a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen.” He goes on to describe their meeting:

He stayed with us from Tuesday till Thursday; and, on the intervening day, we took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills (sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind) and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.