But it is Moby-Dick’s premonitory brilliance that continues to make it relevant. Melville predicts mass extinction and climate breakdown, and foresees a drowned planet from which the whale would “spout his frothed defiance to the skies”. And in its worldwide pursuit of a finite resource, the whaling industry is an augury of our globalised state.
Moby-Dick may be the first work of western fiction to feature a same-sex marriage: Ishmael, the loner narrator (famous for the most ambiguous opening line in literature) gets hitched – in bed – to the omni-tattooed Pacific islander, Queequeg: “He pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married.” Other scenes are deeply homoerotic: sailors massage each others’ hands in a tub of sperm oil and there is an entire chapter devoted to foreskins (albeit of the whalish variety).
The alluring figure of Queequeg is one of the first persons of colour in western fiction, and the Pequod carries a multicultural crew of Native Americans, African Americans and Asians (evocatively reflected in the paintings of the contemporary black American artist Ellen Gallagher). It is a metaphor for a new republic already falling apart, with the pursuit of the white whale as a bitter analogy for the slave-owning states. It is why, in 1952, the Trinidadian writer CLR James called Moby-Dick “the greatest portrayal of despair in literature”, seeing an indictment of imperialism in Ahab’s desire for revenge on the whale.
acclaimed for his sensual books about the “exotic” inhabitants of the Marquesas islands. But by 1849, his output had become increasingly obscure, and that October, he arrived in London, seeking inspiration. Installed in lodgings overlooking the Thames at Charing Cross, he spent his time visiting publishers and getting drunk. Stumbling home, he saw whales swimming down Oxford Street. It was if they were haunting him.
A month later, after a diversion to Paris, he returned to New York with a new book he had been given: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Its tale of perverted nature and overweening ambition fed into Moby-Dick. The first version of the book was published in Britain in 1851, entitled The Whale. It came out in the US later that year as Moby-Dick – and failed, miserably. When Melville died 40 years later, he and his book were long forgotten.