Fred and I are taking an adult ed class on Moby Dick at Denver University - so many signed up that they raised the cap from 30 to 40 then started a wait-list - the adult ed dept was baffled - usually these "revisit the classics" courses attract 6-10 students. They didn't even want to offer Moby Dick - "Oh, nobody reads that." English Department Chair Dr. Clark Davis is our guide.
Herman Melville tells us everything known in the 1850's about whales, from myths and misinformation to descriptions part by part (The Tail, The Fossil Whale, the Fountain), along with everything we need to know about whaling ships and crews. In often complex sentences which reach to the heavens and into the soul for metaphors, he weaves all we need to know, into a sparse narrative about a particular ship in quest of a particular whale.
We experience the watery world - the "sleek" glassy water above a calm whale; a patch of ocean so dense with krill (which he calls brit) that it resembles a sun-drenched meadow in which the baleen whales swim like great harvesters with open mouths; a magical chapter in which the crew of a whaling boat find themselves in the midst of a huge pod of whales - below in clear water they can see newborn calves with their mothers, and young whales nuzzle the boat whose occupants scratch their skins like visiting dogs - while on the periphery the bulls swim so close together that the boat cannot leave the calm enchanted circle; and a typhoon that tatters the sails, its electrical energy causing the masts to glow like unearthly candles, then flings lightning that reverses the ship's compasses.
Starting with explaining the terms "fast" (a fish in someone's possession) and "loose" (nobody can justly claim it), he goes on to classify human society into the "fast" and "loose" - "What are the sinews and the souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish... What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish? What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish?... And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?"
When we finally meet their quarry, we discover we are entirely prepared for the encounter - every action has been made familiar through Melville's hundreds of pages of apparent digressions, so that at the critical moment, we know the score, the risk, the whalers' bravery and their ultimate powerlessness, against that prey bent on their destruction.
A modern novel and a novel for the ages, Moby Dick is both a potent story and a series of profound meditations on history, will, the natural world, humanity, courage, resourcefulness, camaraderie and the struggle to live. The author says, "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme." He has done so - thank you for that, Mr. Melville!