Look, I’ve read Melville’s “Moby Dick” three times in my life—I’m not about to read it again. But that doesn’t mean I stop thinking about it.
Growing up all I could think about was Queequeg, his coffin, his ability to see what was coming, sort of.
Lately I can’t stop thinking about another character: Starbuck. Couldn’t he really have stopped all this mayhem?
He’s the first mate of the Pequod. We know he’s a Quaker, a family man, and we know he even entertains mutiny when Ahab’s obsession takes over.
But that isn’t enough for me. Why did Melville make Starbuck a Quaker? Why was whaling a viable profession for Quakers? (I would have thought it didn’t meet the non-violence test for “innocent professions.”)
What about stewardship? Starbuck makes the argument that the crew needs to stick on task and bring back oil, but did he really push this enough?
Is the fact that Starbuck is Quaker even important beyond the possibility of Melville having known Quakers? Or is it significant as an example of the inability of a man of morality and conscience to hold out against dangerous, insane obsession?
Some critics say that “Moby Dick” is an indictment of “self-reliance” and “Transcendentalism,” but isn’t it worse to standby, apart from your moral precepts?
Of all the characters of literature on whose behavior so much hinged, surely none cry out for a prequel as loudly as Starbuck does.
But some receipt books cannot be reconciled. Melville knew that well.
I think there was a demon in Melville’s memory; something he needed to exorcize. Something seen and lived. Something of conscience. Something impotent.
I don’t think it was a coincidence he died writing “Billy Budd.”
My History With Moby Dick
I first read “Moby Dick” as a child. I think I read it in part because I loved 19th century literature at an early age. But I think I read it more because it was an American book, and to some, “the” American book. Oceans away from my own country I sought books which told me something about that country throughout history.
I didn’t read “Moby Dick” again until I was an undergraduate at University. I read it quickly, a thing of great length, to be gotten through. A task. Life was moving very quickly and I didn’t feel I had time to even think about the book. There were 20 other books on the desk I needed to read for the first time, waiting for me.
In graduate school I read “Moby Dick” for the third time. I read it with great sadness. I thought more about loss of life. I thought more about a character’s motivations. I thought more about whether or not Melville was conscious of putting into his book all that scholars were quick to say he was putting in.
Where is the line between living life and scholarship and artistic intention? I wondered.
When I started dating Dick I encouraged him to read the book. He hadn’t read much literature at all. I thought it would give us something to talk about, no, I thought it would give me a way to profile him, based on his reactions. It did. He put the book down after about 70 pages and I had to profile the old fashion way, with observation.
I still wonder about Melville’s intentions in writing “Moby Dick.” But mostly I think about Starbuck.
Because Starbuck couldn’t stand up to Ahab Starbuck and the crew were lost. I put it on Starbuck’s shoulders.