In search of ‘Moby-Dick’ off the coast of Long Beach


On Saturday afternoon, I found myself (along with a crew of librarians, readers and friends of the Los Angeles Public Library) on a boat off the coast of Long Beach, looking for whales. The event was part of “What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?” — a monthlong series of events meant to highlight the relevance of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel for a contemporary audience, and especially a Southern California one.

“Moby-Dick,” of course, is the story of Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest for the white sperm whale that, in a previous encounter, took his leg. But it is also a white whale in its own right: labyrinthine, elliptical, digressive, a loose grab-bag of a book in which Melville reflects on everything — from cetology to whaling techniques to meditations on mortality and philosophy, all narrated by a crew member who memorably tells us to call him Ishmael in the novel’s opening lines.

Before I go on, a confession: I have never read the book. It’s one of those classics I’ve carried around with me since college, looking for the right moment in which to take the plunge. I did, however, work my way through Matt Kish’s monumental “Moby-Dick in Pictures,” which features a drawing for every page of the novel, as well as Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Why Read Moby-Dick?,” which makes the case, in 130 concise pages, for Melville’s magnum opus as a book that encapsulates, in the most fundamental sense, American life.


Inspired by Hawthorne, written at a moment of great national division (Melville’s father-in-law was a judge who ruled on the Fugitive Slave Act), it is a novel that continues to speak to us: about obsession, identity and the power of one individual (the revenge-crazed Ahab) to take a dangerous situation and kick it into overdrive.

The whale watch, I should say, was anything but dangerous: The day was warm and the water was calm, barely a whitecap among the swells. We saw a blue whale and a minke, tracking them at a distance as the whalers of the Pequod must have done. Most impressive was a pod of dolphins, 200 or so of them swimming beside the boat, leaping, racing, churning the sea into a kind of boil.

Along with Paul Gilmore, who teaches 19th century American literature at Cal State Long Beach, and Kera Mathes, a marine biologist at the Aquarium of the Pacific, I had been asked to be a speaker; my role involved reading passages from the book over the boat’s PA system as the cohort watched the whales.

“There is no life in thee, now,” I read as we bobbed in the stillness of the ocean, “except that rocking imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her. Borrowed from the sea, by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God.”

This is what gets overlooked about “Moby-Dick” — indeed, what I have overlooked about “Moby-Dick” — that, for all its fabled difficulty, it is full of gorgeous writing, which is, of course, what draws its readers in.

Here we see the nature of literature: to immerse us not only in the thoughts and observations of a writer but also in his or her specific words. It’s why books continue to live, long after their moment, why even stories such as this one, set in a past that is itself no longer accessible, remain accessible nonetheless. The buzz of implication, E. M. Forster called it, the way a novel can evoke (and, in a very real sense, preserve) its moment, but I prefer to think of it as living literature.


In the end, this is what the whale watch offered, a way to bring “Moby-Dick” to life. We were not carrying harpoons, but we were on a boat, hunting after whales in open ocean with the intention of engaging with them where they live.

For three hours, in other words, we were brought around to thinking about “Moby-Dick” not as a classic of the canon but as an experience. When I got home, I took out my copy of the book and, with the memory of our afternoon on the water fresh in my imagination, opened it to the first page.


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