A slim celebration of the elements of a literary masterpiece—and its moody, obsessive author.
In his 2000 book, In the Heart of the Sea, historian Philbrick (The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Bighorn, 2010, etc.) detailed the wreck of the Essex, a whaling ship that would become the model for the Pequod in Herman Melville’s 1851 classic, Moby-Dick. Having read the novel more than a dozen times, he’s inspired to undertake a brief study of what he feels makes the book so enduring. (However, it took a while to earn classic status, as he points out; a flop when it was first published, the book didn’t earn the esteem of critics until after World War I.) The diversity of the crew and Melville’s respect for each character anticipates decades of debates about racial tolerance, writes the author, and its interest in matters of religious truth, demagoguery and free enterprise ensure that American readers today can find resonances with contemporary social and political issues. But Philbrick isn’t simply hunting for proof of the novel’s ongoing “relevance.” He praises Melville’s acute understanding of “the microclimates of intimate human relations,” takes a close look at some of the novel’s more powerfully poetic passages and honors the Melville himself, who was plagued with self-doubt while writing the book. Melville’s letters to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne—which Philbrick argues are essential to understanding Moby-Dick—reveal the novelist to be struggling with the composition of the novel as well as the spiritual concerns he addressed in it. Philbrick constructs the narrative in brief chapters, often no more than a couple of pages, and his literary analysis is sometimes thin. However, he doesn’t want to dwell long on the book’s contents, but rather motivate readers to discover the book for themselves.
On that front, mission accomplished: Philbrick is an enthusiastic salesman for a sometimes daunting novel.