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Subaquatic homesick blues

Is Melville’s Moby-Dick the ultimate American novel?
Even today, it haunts a nation’s thoughts and

Moby Dick; 2hrs 30mins. Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Orson Welles. A mad captain enlists others in his quest to kill a white whale. ("TV Guide", 20 November 1961)

Isn't that America, the thing itself, right there? "I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine." So said Ishmael, after Ahab's appearance on the quarterdeck of the Pequod to charge the crew: "I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now?"

“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?" Ishmael reflects on the white whale, the sea for the moment eddying quietly up against the hull. "Or is it, that as an essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows - a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?" Do we even need to hear these voices?

Ahab is always out there, with the whale ahead of him and Ishmael always along for the ride. Here he is by way of Edmund Wilson, writing in 1962 in Patriotic Gore on the civil war general Ulysses S Grant: "I do not want to add to the bizarre interpretations already offered for Moby-Dick by suggesting that it anticipates the civil war, but" - and then he is off, at first starting slowly ("there are moments, in reading the Memoirs, when one is reminded of Captain Ahab's quest"), and then carried forward as if by the force of the story itself, as if the story itself were history, Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, Grant in pursuit of Robert E Lee, the first story, not the second, the real history the country has made, or has always sought.
Here again is the novelist E L Doctorow, in 2007, addressing a jeremiad called "The White Whale" to a joint meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, riding the waves of Moby-Dick ("It will take more than revelations of an inveterately corrupt administration to dissolve the miasma of other-worldly weirdness hanging over this land"), then trying to find solid ground even as the ship pitches high on the sea ("Melville in Moby-Dick speaks of reality outracing apprehension . . . reality as too much for us to take in, as, for example, the white whale is too much for the Pequod and its captain. It may be that our new century is an awesomely complex white whale"), but the white whale looms up only to disappear, now a new century, now the constitution and the great white buildings it built, now America's enemy as Doctorow sights him. For one who does not want to add to the bizarre interpretations already offered for Moby-Dick, it is a relief to come back down to earth, open the book, and read, as I did in the autumn of 2008, these prosaic words:

"Grand Contested Election for the Presidencyof the United States.

Is any of that even needed? Is Herman Melville needed in November of 1851, sitting in his house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, writing to Nathaniel Hawthorne, when Melville was 32, "A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book"? Or in 1891, the year he died, thinking back on that day, he not only the only one left to remember it, but the only one to care? Today, is the book even needed? As James Conant has written, "Certain forms of speech seem not to require recovery, because they seem to have always been with us and are everywhere still with us." The book reads the culture and the culture reads the book; thus one might open the paper on a Friday morning, scan the events listings, and find this triple bill at a place called the Great American Music Hall: "Or, the Whale, the Federalists, Emily Jane White". As Ishmael mused, just before coining his trio of headlines: "And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this."

It is the most famous opening line in American literature, in the American tall tale, in the American shaggy dog story. It contains all possibilities. When, some years ago, I saw a CALL ME ISHMAEL bumper sticker on a car in Oakland, California, it didn't occur to me that it was a souvenir of someone's visit to the Melville museum in Pittsfield; I figured it was something the Oakland writer Ishmael Reed had had made up.

Why is it not a cliché? Because it rings a bell, because the line snaps back like a fore boom? Or because it speaks for the American as a creature of disguise and self-invention, each one an embodiment of his or her own country, fated to act out its whole drama in his or her own skin? John Smith, James van Sciver, Abe Gratz, Sergius O'Shaughnessy, Roberto Maggiore, Fritz Schneidermann - any of those could be the name Ishmael is hiding. "Call me Ishmael" means we will never know what it is.

There are many great endings in American literature, as if the country's most poetic stories incline toward the end of America, that being contained whole in the skin of a single character, as an explicit or hidden theme. These endings are always political, whatever their costuming in private dramas of love or money: no matter what passport the reader might carry, they momentarily implicate the reader as an American. As with Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, with its Dutch sailors sighting the New York coast for the first time. As with his Tender Is the Night, with Dick Diver somewhere in upstate New York, waiting, "like Grant in Galena". As with Philip Roth's I Married a Communist, with all of those its story consumed living on for ever as stars, each his or her own furnace:

Neither the ideals of their era nor the expectations of our species were determining destiny: hydrogen alone was determining destiny. There are no longer mistakes for Eve or Ira to make. There is no betrayal. There is no idealism. There are no falsehoods. There is neither conscience nor its absence. There are no mothers and daughters, no fathers and stepfathers. There are no actors. There is no class struggle. There is no discrimination or lynching or Jim Crow, nor has there ever been. There is no injustice, nor is there justice. There are no utopias.

Roth does not say, "There is no America." Somehow, given the story Moby-Dick has already told, his cosmology of negation cannot negate that - because the ending of Moby-Dick trumps all other endings, and seems to have been written to do nothing less. Ahab killed by the whale, the Pequod smashed by it and sinking into its own vortex, pulling down every man and boat, and as the last mast is about to disappear below the surface there is "the red arm and hammer" of the harpooner Tashtego, the pure-blooded Gay Head American Indian from Martha's Vineyard: his arm "hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and faster to the subsiding spar. A sky hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that ethereal thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there" - a moment John Huston, filming Moby-Dick in 1956, did not even try to shoot.

The last chapters of the book are an action movie, a 19th-century version of Steve McQueen's car chase in Bullitt, and though, as befitting the 19th century, when everything was slower and simpler, this chase lasts three days, the sense of action is so furious that, for that final scene, as you read, the symbols don't even begin to work as such. This is actually happening. You can't believe it as you watch. You can't believe you are alive to tell the tale.

In every way, to read Moby-Dick is to reread it. Given the diffusion and the presence of the book and its metaphors, any time one sits down with the book, even if it is for the first time, the act carries with it a sense of return. One can forget so much of what is there, with hardly a phrase needed to bring a hundred pages back to mind in an instant.

There is the way the whole first section of the book, until the Pequod sets sail, is a non-stop comedy, Ishmael first as Bob Hope in Road to Utopia, then as Abbott running an outrageous who's-on-first routine with his New Bedford innkeeper Costello, then Ishmael's one-night stand with the tattooed Polynesian harpooner Queequeg turning into at least a two-night marriage - but not before proving, in a set of syllogisms so precise you don't even care where they're leading, that it is a Christian's duty to worship a pagan idol. There is the language, sometimes stopping the book cold in its own pages ("He looked like a man cut away from a stake," Ishmael says of Ahab when he first sees him, and what Appalachian murder ballad was that line from, or waiting for?), often so free-swinging its slang leaps more than a century without slipping a minute into obsolescence: "Give it up, sub-subs!", "Who ain't a slave? Tell me that", "Cool as an icicle". There is the thrill of keeping up with a writer who moves so fast that you pull up short to catch your breath and wonder: how does he get from a deckhand knocked around by an overlord to the "universal thump" of democratic comradeship ("all hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades") in a paragraph?

Even without rereading the book, even with only a TV Guide sense of the tale, one is rereading the book when one chances on John Wayne's Tom Dunson in Red River on late-night TV, a movie made in 1948; or recalls Elvis Presley two decades later, facing an audience for the first time in years and against the blankness of that unknown hoisting a mike stand like a harpoon, thrusting it over the crowd, and shouting "Moby Dick!"; or watches a black boy, one "Woody", an early incarnation of Bob Dylan, pitched out of a boxcar by hobo thugs and into a river, only to see a right whale gliding towards him, in the 2007 film I'm Not There; or channel-switches into the 2008 episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent where the tormented police detective Bobby Goren comes face to face with the unmistakable handiwork of the escaped serial killer Nicole Wallace, once a literature professor whose speciality was Melville. She lectures in a flashback: "The descent into madness is usually preceded by obsession. What characterises Ahab's obsession? I always fancied it was man's unrelenting pursuit of his own potency." "I'm told she's your white whale," Goren's boss says to him - just before Goren receives a card postmarked Pittsfield, Massachusetts. When, early on in the book, Captain Peleg asks Ishmael, "Want to see what whaling is, eh? Have ye yet clapped eye on Captain Ahab?" and Ishmael answers, "Who is Captain Ahab, sir?" we're surprised he hasn't heard of him; we have.

Did Melville somehow know, or hope, that his country would always seek out the mysteries that, in his big book - the book that would for the rest of his life erase his name from the memories of his fellow citizens - he took down as if they were the plainest, most obvious facts, himself the sub-sub-librarian he so confidently laughed off? That letter from Hawthorne, the letter in which he showed Melville that he "understood the book", the letter that, unlike Melville's response to Hawthorne, does not survive - it could have been one of Poe's hoaxes, were he still around to forge it, a trick to keep the characters alive, running their histories through history yet unmade, unmaking history as they left it behind and continued
on their way.

What did Hawthorne say? No, Melville may not have kept letters, as Hawthorne did, but one can imagine a ceremony a little more to the point than taking out the trash. "Cool as an icicle," as Ishmael says of Queequeg sitting among the other sailors in the Spouter-Inn, his harpoon at hand, "reaching over the table with it, to the imminent jeopardy of many heads, and grappling the beefsteaks towards him. But that was certainly very coolly done by him, and every one knows that in most people's estimation, to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly." So how cool, how genteel of you, Herman, sitting in your writing room late at night, with no one to glimpse a single word as you burned the pages!

There was no better way to keep us reading; with its author more than a century dead, the book is the sea we swim in.

Greil Marcus is co-editor of "A New Literary History of America" (Harvard University Press, £36.95), which will be published
on 28 October. To buy this book at a special discount price of £30, phone 01243 843 291 and quote "New Literary History - NS - Special Offer". Valid until 30 October

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter