A Few Thoughts On Melville and “Moby Dick”

I was reading Melville’s Moby Dick and wondering at how Clifton Fadiman, in his introduction, could say Melville had no sense of humor.

“A pessimism as profound as Melville’s, if it is not pathological- and his is not- can exist only in a man who, whatever his gifts, does not possess a sense of humor” (Fadiman, xii) .

He goes on to describe by contrast Shakespeare as a humorous sort, and then contradicts himself by saying “Perhaps I should qualify these strictures, for there is a kind of vast, grinning, unjolly, sardonic humor in him at times-Ishmael’s first encounter with Queequeg is an example”(xii).

Then he goes back to his somber take on Melville.

“But this humor is bilious, not sanguine, and has no power to uplift the heart” (xii).

Not exactly an appetizing come on to read the book, but then perhaps the expectation is that the reader has already made a purchase and the reader is a captive subject to Fadiman’s willful darkening of the portrait Melville paints. I found the book at least up to chapter seventeen, to be somewhat hilarious. The scene whence Ishmael meets Queequeg, with the landlord’s description of a head hunting cannibal, for this recent school teacher, the idea of sharing a bed with some creature selling shrunken heads to the locals, is quite comic. Melville’s description of Ishmael’s scruffy shoes, the indecipherable painting he finds in the down and out inn; and then look at his philosophical ramblings, “Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged into his deepest reveries-stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going , and he will inevitably lead you to water, if water is to be had in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor” (Melville, 4), this is the stuff of wry comedy.

I don’t find the comments to be bile filled. I don’t get Fadiman’s take at all. I see a Candide or young Christian from The Pilgrims Progress, in the first part of the novel, certainly not a dark foreboding except perhaps in the wintery setting. Perhaps there is a certain acerbic parodying of Dickens whom he equated with the soft sentimental tales the public seemed to desire and the pandering of New York editors to that degraded taste that Melville in Moby Dick attempts to rise above, see Suchoff (95-96). He went so far as to try to dissuade his neighbor and friend Hawthorne away from that model, while at the same time praising him for being so high brow. Perhaps that is what Fadiman is talking about as Melville wrote to Hawthorne speaking of Moby Dick, “I have written a wicked book and feel spotless as a lamb.” (xi). Melville was striving to write not to palpitate the public demand for sentiment but to dig a bit deeper into the human condition. If that means his humor is dark, well so be it, he is certainly in good company.

But that is not the only point I wish to make, although I must admit, it got in my craw, to think Melville had no humor. I purchased an Easton Press leather covered hardbound edition of Moby Dick that I picked up for a mere $20 from a used book store across the street from where I live. Whilst on my break between semesters I am determined to read it. I have saddled myself with Byron’s Don Juan at the same time, thus perhaps dooming my endeavor to failure or at the very least some long nights. I took it upon myself to write this bit, not quite a review, not really a critique but simply because my interest was piqued as to how certain words and phrases had been defined in Melville’s time.

For instance, the term “Monkey jacket.” What is this jacket Ishmael describes? “I sat down on the side of the bed, and commenced thinking about this head-peddling harpooneer, and his door mat. After thinking some time on the bed-side,I got up and took off my monkey jacket, and then stood in the middle of the room thinking. I then took off my coat, and though a little more in my shirt sleeves” (Melville 22).

I assumed it an overcoat or rain coat. But looking it up on line I found it to be a tight fitting jacket worn most commonly by sailors. Then what was a coat? I found a posting about eighteenth and nineteenth century jackets and there was an advertisement for pre-made clothing from 1813. It mentions monkey jackets and waistcoats. OK, a waistcoat is probably what Melville is referring to. The link is below if you want to read the reference.


For more information than you probably ever wanted to know about coats of the time see the link below. Lot of tips on making the costumes in this. I think it is for theatre or re-enactment.


Or a bit about sailors costumes in the civil war. This has pictures also.


There was a pull over shirt that perhaps Melville is calling his coat. But then what was his shirt sleeves

“A man might be an artisan working in the back of his shop in his shirt sleeves, but if a customer came in, or if he was going out, he would put his vest and coat on. The shirt was regarded as underwear and was covered up by the waistcoat or vest. If any part of the shirt was actually shown through the vest, it was fancied up with lace or frills. Towards the middle of the 19th century the vest was cut to expose the shirt front and the shirt was then pleated. And if a fancy shirt front was not worn, then a cravat or tie was used to cover it up - but a plain shirt was never worn with ladies present!”

This quoted from a site that describes what a shirt was in that time.


Having solved that mystery to my satisfaction, I remember how I had been amused reading the line in bold type “Bloody Battle in Afghanistan” (Melville ,7) while Ishmael is musing over his assumed fame as a world traveler. This would have been referring to the British incursion into that country. Perhaps Melville is sardonically referring to the massacre of the entire British expeditionary force to Kabul in 1842. This might be a reason for Fadiman calling Melville’s humor bilious. One man was allowed to survive the massacre to tell the tale as a warning to the world. Seems that nobody has learned that lesson yet. Marry into the clans of the Pashtuns if long term dominance is an expected result. Look at Alexander. Obama had better find his Roxanne. The old adage comes to mind, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


So I am wandering around a bit. Yesterday I wrote about my poltergeist and Melville slipping his own experience into the novel with an uncannily similar description of the same otherworldly manifestation (Rumor, 17 May 2013). Today I want to write about this paragraph below.

“But as for Queequeg–why, Queequeg sat there among them–at the head of the table, too, it so chanced; as cool as an icicle. To be sure I cannot say much for his breeding. His greatest admirer could not have cordially justified his bringing his harpoon into breakfast with him, and using it there without ceremony; 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” (Melville, 33).

Mostly it is that last line, “to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.” that caught my sense of wonderment. Thinking about the word “coolly,” did it mean the same thing in the nineteenth century as it does now? I went to the internet and searched for a dictionary from the period. The best I could do was a 1913 edition of the Century Dictionary Online, with an entry about the word. It has five meanings, the first two having to do with the climate. The next three seemed closer to the mark. Number three “calmly, without haste, deliberately,” this seemed close. The fourth was “indifferently” implying a slight, this seemed a bit off the mark. The fifth though that was gold, “With quiet presumption or impudence; nonchalantly; impudently: as he coolly took the best for himself” (Century Dictionary Online, 1249).

The remark “genteelly” would seem to imply the third definition. I go back to my dictionary and find this:

“In a genteel manner; in the manner of well- bred people.

‘Most exactly, negligently, genteelly dress’d!’ Steele, Grief A-la-Mode, xx. 1.

‘I have long neglected him as being a profligate (or as Mr. Browne more genteelly calls him) a privileged writer, who takes the liberty to say any thing and whose reproach is no scandal.’ Waterland, Works, X. 414.” (2488).

Ah, perhaps I was right in picking definition five. The word “genteelly” seems to imply the ability to slide by some of the rules of society because one is assumed to be a proper civilized being, and thus above some of the conventions that rougher creatures, the unwashed masses would have to hew to as school children to the teaching to tests in modern so called education. This harkens back to some of Ishmael’s earlier observations earlier in the novel, after succeeding in awakening the sleeping savage Queequag from their sojourn together as bed partners (Melville, 30).

Also Melville was having fun with the whole Bea Brummell dandy phenomenon that was popular at the time. “No town bred dandy will compare with a country-bred one-I mean a downright bumpkin dandy-a fellow that, in the dog-days, will mow his two acres in buckskin gloves for fear of tanning his hands” (Mellville, 34-35). That is funny, and an acerbic commentary on mans foolishness, hearkening back to the biblical “all is vanity” (KJV, Ecclesiastes 1.2) and perhaps contrasting to Ishmael’s own shabby condition, but more we are given a parade of characters to establish the exotic world in which things, values and beliefs will be turned upside down. Already meeting Queequeg there is a taste and then out on the streets of New Bedford, more exotica taking the reader while even on shore, out to sea.

“he [Queequeg] turned round–when, good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish, yellow colour, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares. Yes, it’s just as I thought, he’s a terrible bedfellow; he’s been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face so towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man–a whaleman too–who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure. And what is it, thought I, after all! It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. But then, what to make of his unearthly complexion, that part of it, I mean, lying round about, and completely independent of the squares of tattooing” (23).

He had wondered about this savage as he put on his clothes and after a long night together, admiration. Melville’s social commentary, a dark skinned native, with tattoos all over his body, a creature that had earlier, the night before struck fear in Ishmael’s heart.

“When, at last, his mind seemed made up touching the character of his bedfellow, and he became, as it were, reconciled to the fact; he jumped out upon the floor, and by certain signs and sounds gave me to understand that, if it pleased me, he would dress first and then leave me to dress afterwards, leaving the whole apartment to myself. Thinks I, Queequeg, under the circumstances, this is a very civilized overture; but, the truth is, these savages have an innate sense of delicacy, say what you will; it is marvellous how essentially polite they are. I pay this particular compliment to Queequeg, because he treated me with so much civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness; staring at him from the bed, and watching all his toilette motions; for the time my curiosity getting the better of my breeding. Nevertheless, a man like Queequeg you don’t see every day, he and his ways were well worth unusual regarding” (30).

Slavery still existed at the time MobyDick was written and Melville is showing some solidarity and compassionate understanding of the man, as a man. Someone he would share a bed with not even considering the homoerotic potential in the scene, especially the bit about Queequeg having his arm around him as if he were a woman (28). So Melville is showing some sympathy after all with a Dickensian view point as Suchoff quotes Weisbuch “Melville both acknowledges his agreement with aspects of Dickens’s social critique and asserts his own capacity to write in such a manner” (qtd. Suchoff, 95).

Melville is also living in New England and in the same social circles as noted abolitionists, Moby Dick is dedicated to Hawthorne. It would be strange for him not to show sympathy, but in this case he goes beyond polite middle class theoretical empathy, he rubs shoulders as an equal, much more radical for the times, demonstrating Melville’s “evil” and his feeling “as spotless as a lamb,” he knew he was in the moral right and ahead of his times. This was no hand wringing account like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a contemporary popular fiction of the type that he criticized for its sentimentality, but a bold step into acknowledging equality, even admiration, this was a man who would rub shoulders with the dark man, even a suspected cannibal, parodying white southerners views of black savagery. Melville stands like Whitman, speaking of the common humanity, and does so in a humorous manner. For example after they become fast friends and spend their second night together smoking and talking, Melville has Ishmael and Queequeg out in public together, ignoring the comments and looks of passers by and even showing up the bumpkins on their passage to Nantuket when Queequeg saves the live of the fool. “The poor bumpkin was restored. All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump; the captain begged his pardon” (Melville, 67).

To restate “every one knows that in most people’s estimation, to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly” (33). Or as Ishmael imagines Queequeg saying to himself “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians” (67). Society is enticed to admit the truth and Melville is leading his own bit of the charge, even if he is a bit of a cynic regarding the common run of humanity. He intends to lead, no mistake about it, in his own somewhat “bilious” manner to use Fadiman’s term. Even though it is not specifically slavery in the USA that he addresses, here, it is racial stereotyping that he is playing with and perhaps having a little fun with his own ‘noble savage’ mystique developed in novels like Typee and Omoo. Melville is after bigger fish in this novel, literally and figuratively, it is not the political issues of the day that he dwells upon but the human condition at large. Influenced by his new friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, after moving to Massachusetts, where they met and Melville started Moby Dick, He is attempting greatness, and at this writing I am barely into chapter seventeen (very short and sweet these chapters are) and already have found much food for thought. I won’t even go into his preacher’s over the top version of Jonah and the whale. Or the pagan ritual Ishmael then shares with Queequeg where in his rationalizing a conversion ritual, he himself seems to be converted to the pagan’s ways. Fun stuff, Fadiman, you are wrong.

(sort of a botched MLA citation job).

Century Dictionary Online. Global Language Resources, Inc.2013. Web. 18 June 2013.

Fadiman, Clifton. Moby Dick. Norwalk, CT. Easton Press, 1977. Print.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Norwalk, CT. Easton Press. 1977. Print.

Suchoff, David Bruce. Critical Theory and the Novel Mass Society and Cultural Criticism in Dickens, Melville, and Kafka. Madison. U. of Wisconsin, 1994. Google Books. Web. 18 June 2013.


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4 Responses to “A Few Thoughts On Melville and “Moby Dick””

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