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.Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Philbrick (In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex), a National Book Award winner and resident of Nantucket, has been an ardent lifelong fan of Moby-Dick. In this brief volume, he aims to diminish the twin threats of a work that is both very long and written in a daunting style by writing in an unacademic style himself to support his contention that "Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America." Philbrick conveys his own deep enthusiasm for the book and argues that "whenever a new crisis grips the country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important." In thematic chapters, Philbrick observes Moby-Dick through a variety of lenses--historical, philosophical, biographical, literary, and maritime--all demonstrating the book's ongoing fascinations and the ease with which today's readers can enter the novel's world. VERDICT While Philbrick may not persuade all readers who've been avoiding this tome to give it a try, he should succeed in swaying quite a few. There's nothing especially subtle or insightful here for those who've studied the book, but to entice new readers to Melville's work, it surely deserves consideration.--Charles C. Nash, formerly with Cottey Coll., Nevada, MO[Page 76]. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
So you liked Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, which re-created the wreck of the whaleship Essex, inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby-Dick? Then you'll love Philbrick's new book, which vivifies Melville's classic for modern readers. From a wonderful and knowing writer who's also founding director of the Egan Maritime Institute on Nantucket. I really want to read; with a four-city tour.[Page 66]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Answering the negative of Philbrick's titular question is easy: Moby-Dick is intimidatingly large, scientifically rigorous, esoteric, and to some, may seem outdated. While the size of The Whale cannot be debated, Philbrick's entreaty is as approachable as it is persuasive. In this cogent and passionate polemic for Melville's masterpiece, Philbrick (In the Heart of the Sea) combines a critical eye and a reader's adoration to make a case for Moby-Dick. The plights of the Pequod, Ishmael and Ahab may seem irrelevant (or worse, quaint) compared to today's troubles, but Philbrick opines that within the pages of this American classic lie timeless archetypes whose relevance stretches across human history. Upon the loom of Melville's narrative run numerous threads of insight and argument dealing with subjects as diverse as multiculturalism, homoeroticism, and transcendental experiences of the natural world. Less lit-crit and more readers' guide, this tome will remind fans why they loved the book in the first place, and whet the appetites of trepid potential readers. (Oct.)[Page ]. Copyright 2011 PWxyz LLC