Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2016 Evelyn C. Leeper.

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/09/2006]

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville (ISBN 0-812-54307-6) is a much misunderstood book. People talk about how long it is--but at 470 pages (in the Norton Critical Edition) is shorter than a high proportion of science fiction, fantasy, or thriller novels written today. (Tom Clancy and Robert Jordan write novels twice as long.) It has a reputation for seriousness, yet it is full of wit and humor. For example, in chapter one, Ishmael talks about how he goes to sea: "I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid,--what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!" (The two orchard thieves are, of course, Adam and Eve.)

And later, in chapter 55, when he is describing how whales are portrayed, he says, "As for the sign-painters' whales seen in the streets hanging over the shops of oil-dealers, what shall be said of them? They are generally Richard III whales, with dromedary humps, ...."

Or, "For as in landscape gardening, a spire, cupola, monument, or tower of some sort, is deemed almost indispensable to the completion of the scene; so no face can be physiognomically in keeping without the elevated open-work belfry of the nose."

But of course Melville has his serious moments, and much of what he says remains as true today as it was in 1851: "[However] baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make." It was true sixty years after Melville with Titanic, and it was true a hundred and fifty years after he wrote as it was with the fishing boat caught in the "perfect storm."

And in keeping with my noting of disparaging references to Jews in older literature, let me note that in chapter 89 Melville says, "What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets from poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a loan to keep Woebegone's family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish?" On the other hand, he does somewhat counterbalance this by saying in chapter 92, "[Nor] can whalemen be recognized, as the people of the middles ages affected to detect a Jew in the company, by the nose."

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/21/2011]

When I tell people that MOBY DICK by Herman Melville (ISBN 978-0-140-62062-7) is full of humor, they look at me like I'm crazy, so I will just have to give some examples. (All page references are to the "Penguin Popular Classics" edition.)

"Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick--grow quarrelsome--don't sleep of nights--do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;--no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honourable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not. And as for going as cook,--though I confess there is considerable glory in that, a cook being a sort of officer on ship-board--yet, somehow, I never fancied broiling fowls;--though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will. It is out of the idolatrous dotings of the old Egyptians upon broiled ibis and roasted river horse, that you see the mummies of those creatures in their huge bake-houses the pyramids." (page 23)

"He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington's head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed." (page 65)

(I have a dozen more, but that would make this column much longer than most people want, so if you're interested, go to

But people also say that Melville practically writes a textbook on whales, without mentioning what he gets wrong. Or, to be fair, what we know is wrong based on another 150 years of study.

For example, Melville writes: "Furthermore, as his windpipe solely opens into the tube of his spouting canal, and as that long canal--like the grand Erie Canal--is furnished with a sort of locks (that open and shut) for the downward retention of air or the upward exclusion of water, therefore the whale has no voice; unless you insult him by saying, that when he so strangely rumbles, he talks through his nose. But then again, what has the whale to say? Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!" (page 357)

But of course, whales do speak, or sing.

And later, Melville says: "Though so short a period ago--not a good lifetime--the census of the buffalo in Illinois exceeded the census of men now in London, and though at the present day not one horn or hoof of them remains in all that region; and though the cause of this wondrous extermination was the spear of man; yet the far different nature of the whale-hunt peremptorily forbids so inglorious an end to the Leviathan. Forty men in one ship hunting the Sperm Whales for forty-eight months think they have done extremely well, and thank God, if at last they carry home the oil of forty fish. Whereas, in the days of the old Canadian and Indian hunters and trappers of the West, when the far west (in whose sunset suns still rise) was a wilderness and a virgin, the same number of moccasined men, for the same number of months, mounted on horse instead of sailing in ships, would have slain not forty, but forty thousand and more buffaloes; a fact that, if need were, could be statistically stated." (page 437)

Here, Melville seems to believe that whaling would never get any more efficient than it was in 1851, or that more ships would go out each year.

There's also an example of mixed metaphor, or at least confused anatomy: "... when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang." (page 463)

And what sort of compasses does the Pequod have?: "Standing behind him Starbuck looked, and lo! the two compasses pointed East, and the Pequod was as infallibly going West." (page 485)

And apropros of nothing, when I was re-reading MOBY DICK, it was in a somewhat beat-up "Penguin Popular Classics" edition that sold for £2 in 1994 and has a notation that it was made from 100% recycled newsprint and 50% recycled coverboard (which I take to mean the pages are 100% recycled materials, the cover 50%). It seems to be the equivalent of our "Dover Thrift Editions", though because it is mass-market size rather than trade paperback size one is not confronted with as intimidating a block of text as with the Dover editions. The combination of the recycled materials and the fact that it was already a bit dog-eared made it a very comfortable book to read. The covers could be flexed without having a crease cracked in them, the binding was loose enough that you could open the book sufficiently to deal with the narrow margins, and there is enough space between lines that the text doesn't look all crammed together. All in all, a very comfortable book.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/17/2012]

I re-read MOBY DICK for the University of California at Berkeley Philosophy 6 course. This course is taught by Professor Hubert Dreyfus and is variously titled "From Gods to God and Back" and "God, Man, and Society in Western Literature". (Two versions are available as podcasts, one from 2007 and one from 2010.) I have covered the entire course elsewhere (, but I will include some comments on MOBY DICK here. I was going to include all my comments here, but they got away from me, and so can be found at (This is still a work in progress; as of the publication of this column, I have written about 100Kb and gotten only as far as page 100.) Previous comments can be found at and I will include a couple of items here.

Recently, "The Forward" had an article ("Hunting the Whale: Harpooning a Hebrew 'Moby Dick'", in which the pseudonymous "Philologos" wrote about the beginning of MOBY DICK, where there is a list of words for "whale" in many different languages, including Hebrew. His Modern Library edition said that the Hebrew was) was "hakh" (or "hekh"), spelled heh-kaf. However, the Hebrew word for whale is "livyatan". Apparently the original 1851 edition of MOBY DICK had the word as "chan" (chet-nun), but that mutated into "heh-kaf" by printers who confused the similar-looking chet and heh, and nun and kaf. But "chan" means "grace" or "charm", so this does not get us any closer to "whale". The Northwestern-Newberry edition decided Melville meant "tan" [taf-nun]. This means "jackal", not "whale", but hey, at least it is an animal. Well, apparently the word for "crocodile" is "tanin", and several major translations have translated this as "whale". Then some major Biblical scholar mis-read "tanin" as "tanim" and decided that it must be a plural, of which "tan" would be the singular.

So the word "tanin" became "tanim", and then was truncated to "tan", which Melville misremembered as "chan", which the printers made "hakh".

What is most interesting about all this is that all these shifts occurred in the written language. We are often told that when language started to be widely written down, it became more frozen, and we would not have the massive changes we saw between (say) "Beowulf" and Shakespeare. But writing evidently carries its own dangers.

(For what it's worth, the free Kindle edition of MOBY DICK omits all the introductory material, and while Project Gutenberg includes most of it, it omits the line with the Hebrew translation. It cannot be simply because of the non-Roman alphabet, because it includes the Greek entry, transliterated.)

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/19/2012]

Kate Pott asked why I was annotating MOBY DICK when there were so many annotations out there already. Well, when I started, I was just re-reading it, but I decided I wanted to look up references and words that were not clear. What were hypos? Which Cato did Melville mean? Where are Corlears Hook, Coenties Slip, and Whitehall? Who are the Van Renssalaers, the Randolphs, and the Hardicanutes? What are spiles?

Of course, I had underestimated the scope of Melville's vocabulary, references, and allusions. Ishmael says, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." To some extent it is also Melville speaking of his own education, but I find it hard to believe that your average whaleship could have educated Melville as much as he clearly was, and much of his education--or at least learning--probably occurred on land.

But I figure when I am done I will have a better understanding of MOBY DICK, and a great reference when I go back to re-read it in the future.

My annotations are at

MOBY-DICK AS DOUBLOON edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/09/2016]

MOBY-DICK AS DOUBLOON edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford (ISBN 978-0-393-9553-7) is a collection of criticism (i.e., analysis) about MOBY-DICK. It has all the contemporary reviews of the novel, as well as well over a hundred articles published over the years since then.

The contemporary reviews seem to be mostly positive, though many are mixed, and I did not keep an accurate score. One thing that struck me was that several reviewers felt that Melville's disrespect towards organized religion was a serious flaw in the book. For example, the magazine JOHN BULL wrote, "[Readers] must be prepared, however, to hear much on board that singularly- tenanted ship which grates upon civilized ears; some heathenish, and worse than heathenish talk is calculated to give even more serious offense. This feature of Herman Melville's new work we cannot but deeply regret. It is due to him to say that he has steered clear of much that was objectionable in some of his former tales; and it is all the greater pity, that he should have defaced his pages by occasional thrusts against revealed religion which add nothing to the interest of his story, and cannot but shock readers accustomed to be a reverent treatment of whatever is associated with sacred subjects."

THE COMMERCIAL ADVERTISER said, "We regret to see that Mr. Melville is guilty of sneering at the truths of revealed religion. On page 58, he makes his hero, 'a good Christian--born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian church,' unite with a Polynesian in worshipping and offering incense to an idol, and in this connection virtually questions the authenticity of the first commandment."

The METHODIST QUARTERLY REVIEW also objected to Melville's attitude: "We are bound to say, however, that the book contains a number of flings at religion, and even of vulgar immoralities that make it unfit for general circulation." And TO-DAY complains, "Yet the humor of those parts where sacred things are made light of revolting to good taste, and may still, we fear, be dangerous to many of those persons who will be likely to read the book."

Several reviewers seem to have misunderstood the end (i.e., that Ishmael survives by clinging to Queequeg's coffin, and is the "orphan" found by the Rachel). The LITERARY GAZETTE wrote, "How the imaginary writer, who appears to have been drowned with the rest, communicated his notes for publication to Mr. Bentley is not explained." Clearly, the reviewer did not bother to read the "Epilogue", assuming it was just some unimportant statements by Melville, rather than the final narration of the Ishmael.

There are other sloppy mistakes. The MORNING CHRONICLE called Queequeg's idol "GoGo" instead of "Yojo", and the Third Mate "Flash" instead of "Flask".

The NEW QUARTERLY REVIEW seems to think that MOBY-DICK was inspired by the destruction of the ship "Ann Alexander" by a whale in August 1851. Melville was actually inspired by the similar destruction of the ship "Essex" thirty years earlier. To have written all of MOBY-DICK and have it published in only two months (from the date of the wreck of the "Ann Alexander" to the date of the first review) is simply not possible.

(The NEW QUARTERLY REVIEW also makes the "no-survivors" error: "As there was no survivor of the catastrophe, how became the author or Mr. Bentley possessed of these minute and painful details?" And the DUBLIN UNIVERSITY MAGAZINE does as well.)

As one moves towards the present, the comments are less quirky-- people have figured out that the Epilogue describes Ishmael's survival, the jibes at religion are not so shocking, and so on. This could be selection bias--while the first part strives to include all known contemporary American and British reviews, the second and third parts must be more selective, and probably leans toward the more important and influential commentary rather than the most off-beat.

I should note that most of the long passages quoted in the articles are cited with elisions; for the full text the page references are given to the Norton Critical Edition of MOBY-DICK. This is not too surprising, as MOBY-DICK AS DOUBLOON is also published by Norton, but may cause difficulty to people using another edition. And speaking of various editions, one professor at Berkeley, who wanted everyone to use the same edition so that citations could be by page number, understood the financial plight of the student and chose the Dover Thrift Edition as the class standard, being both cheap and lightweight compared to other editions.

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