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Moby Dick: Why is this considered the great american novel?

 
 
Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 09:33 am
I just finished it. I thought it was a mess, to tell the truth. Was it a piece of fiction, a long-winded essay on whaling, or just a self-indulgent waste of time?

And why is this considered the great AMERICAN novel? I didn't find it to be especially inherently American. Maybe it was in the motivations of the characters, or the fighting spirit of the whaling men? Is that spirit considered an American quality? I don't know. I guess I need some help from some smart people.

And what's the deal with this Pip character?
 
Bi-Polar Bear
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 09:33 am
heh heh.... you said dick....
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kickycan
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 09:35 am
Very insightful. Thanks.
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littlek
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 09:35 am
Can't help you, here, Kicky. I've never read it.
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kickycan
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 09:37 am
's okay, littlek. Thanks anyway.
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Setanta
 
  2  
Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 10:16 am
I was unaware that it is thought to be the "Great American Novel." I suggest that like "the American Dream," no "Great American Novel" actually exists. As for Moby Dick, Melville was writing about an incident which actually occurred. A whaling ship, Essex, was attacked and so badly damaged that it sank. The survivors were 2000 miles from the coast of South America, and not all of them made it there--additionally, there were charges that some of them practiced cannibalism to survive. Melville stopped the Moby Dick story before it really got interesting. Also, in the 1830's, there was a large albino whale off the coast of South America called "Mocha Dick," who constantly attacked the longboats of whalers, but for many years, escaped death himself. He escaped so often, that he lived many years with several harpoons lodged in his hide. Whalers put boats out to harpoon whales, and it was not at all uncommon that whales would either sound (dive very deeply), which could lead to a "Nantucket sleigh ride," which was what happened when the rope attached to the harpoon ran out, and the boat was pulled under, usually drowning the boat crew. They might also attack the boats themselves--which is how Mocha Dick became notorious. But the incident with Essex is the only case which i know of when a whale actually successfully attacked a whaling ship. So, it is very likely that Melville combined the story of the famous Mocha Dick with the story of Essex to create his novel.

Novels are rather recent literary creation. There is a famous Chinese novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which was written almost 800 years ago, and which remains popular among Chinese speakers to this day. It's an historical novel which combines real historical figures with fictional characters. But that is uncommon, and it was especially not common for Europeans to write fictional stories until quite recently, because of religion. The Christians were hell-bent on stamping out "heathanism," and that included all the wonderful stories the "pagans" used to tell. You could only peddle a story if it had a moral and religious lesson. Plays were forbidden to good Christians, and the most common form of popular public entertainment were "morality plays" which were acceptable because they taught moral lessons, and the bad guys always got it in the end.

In 1485, William Caxton edited a long manuscript and printed Le Morte d'Arthur, by Thomas Mallory. It is based on the very popular stories of King Arthur, which have fascinated Europeans for almost 1500 years. In Mallory's version of the tale, which places it out of context in the age of "knights in shining armor," all the bad guys and gals come to a bad end, except for Morgan le Fay, who gets away with all her evil sorcery, Lancelot, who becomes a monk, and Guinevere, who becomes a nun. Arthur is killed at the end of the story by Mordred, who is actually his bastard son, born of an incestuous sexual congress between Arthur and his half-sister. The church didn't think much of it, but it did seem to have moral lessons, and it was published at the end of the Wars of the Roses, when England had been in a state of nearly constant upheaval for thirty years, so censorship was not operating as it usually did.

Almost 200 years later, John Bunyan published The Pilgrims Progress, which is an allegory about a man, Christian, and his companion, Faithful, who are seeking the "heavenly city." Bunyan was a Puritan, and that was in a time when it was not a good thing to be a Puritan in England. The Puritans won the three English civil wars between 1640 and 1651, and executed King Charles I in 1649. From 1651 onward, England was ruled by Oliver Cromwell, who eventually became Lord Protector. He died in 1658, and in 1660, Charles Stuart, son of the executed King Charles, returned to England and became King Charles II. It was, technically at least, illegal to be a Puritan. But worse still, the few Puritans who were left were looking over each other shoulders to see who was religiously moral and who was not. At the beginning of his book, Bunyan subtitles the book "Delivered in the similitude of a dream," and then he quotes the biblical book Hosea, a verse which reads: "I have used similitudes."--he was justifying writing the story on religious grounds.

Even though the moral climate of England declined significantly after the restoration of the Stuart monarchy under Charles II (he was a noted cocksman with many bastard children, and reputed to have had a huge pecker), most "decent" people looked down on fictional stories and plays. After Charles died, his brother James became King, but was driven out three years later (he was a Catholic, a big no-no in England in those days), and was replaced by his (James') daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William (who was also her first cousin, being the son of her Aunt Mary--them royals were a fun-lovin' bunch). They were a pretty grim couple, and all the fun of the Restoration theater and Restoration literature were quickly buried.

Even before that time, people who wrote books felt they had to justify what they wrote with a high moral or intellectual tone. Izaak Walton wrote The Compleat Angler in the 1650s, but you have to wade through nearly 200 pages of poetry (which he steals from other authors) and philosophical bullshit before you actually get to the part where he talks about fishing. After that, it becomes about the best book on fly fishing that was ever written--you just have to wade through so much horseshit to get to that part.

The Vicar of Wakefield, written in 1761 by Oliver Goldsmith is often claimed to have been the first modern novel. It's not a particularly moral tale, and it gets tedious reading about how the poor Vicar and his family get screwed year in and year out. But it was popular--it is mentioned by George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte and Goethe in their novels. You would have thought that people would have gotten away from the moral and intellectual horsie poop by then, but no such luck. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the classic example of a novel which tells a moral tale--Victor Frankenstein meddles in the realm of God's creation, and his "monster" destroys his life as a result.

So, Melville was actually following a popular trend when he lards the book with all the philosophical bullshit which makes it a torture to read. I hated it, it bored me to tears. He had a great story there, and he ruined it.

Oh well . . .
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kickycan
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 11:15 am
Thanks for the background info, Set. Interesting reading. I had no idea Charles II had such a big pecker.

And yes, I guess there really is no official "great american novel," but I've always heard and read that if there ever was, it would be either this book or Twain's "Huck Finn." Or maybe Grapes of Wrath, although I was not happy with the ending of that one.

I actually liked the ending of Moby Dick though. And yes, like you said, there was a great story in there, it's just that there was a lot of crap to be waded through to get to it.
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Roberta
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 11:33 am
Melville was a good writer. Moby Dick was not (IMO) a great novel.

I was assigned that book in one of my American lit classes. I confess after all this time that it was the only assignment I couldn't complete. Bought the Monarch notes. Not because of the length of the novel. Because it didn't hold my attention.

I don't know why it's considered one of the great American novels. Highly overrated.
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Setanta
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 11:35 am
Yeah, Charles was over six foot tall (there was a wax effigy made at his death, and dressed in his clothing, and the effigy is six foot three inches), and it was common gossip at court that he had a huge johnson. He was quite a cocksman, too--he had a bastard son, James, by Lucy Walter, while he was still an exile on the continent. James was created Duke of Monmouth, and landed in England in 1685 when Charles died, attempting to raise an army to take the throne away from James--he failed and was executed. Sarah Ferguson (Fergie) who was Duchess of York, is descended from the Duke of Monmouth. Lucy Walter claimed that her daughter Mary was the child of Charles, but he never acknowledged her. He had a daughter, Charlotte, by Elizabeth Killigrew--she was later repudiated by the Stuarts after Charles died, but he created her Countess of Yarmouth, and that kind of thing is a pretty good indicator that the King fessed up on the paternity. He had a son and a daughter by Catherine Pegge: Charles, known as "Don Carlos," who was created Earl of Plymouth, and a Catherine who died an infant. He had six children by Barbara Villiers Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, but i won't go into the details of who they all were and what titles they were given.

He also had a famous affair with an "orange girl," which was a euphemism for a whore--young women who wanted to break into the theater business would sell oranges to the patrons, and turn tricks, while they waited to be discovered. That was Nell Gwyn (who went by several different names). She gave him two sons, one acknowledged and the other not. The older boy was raised in Whitehall Palace, and Nell became irked that he wasn't given a title and an income like Charles' other bastards. So, she began loudly and publicly addressing her son as "you little Bastard." Charles got angry and asked her why she was doing that--and she said, more or less: "Well, you won't give him a name, what else should i call him?" Shortly thereafter, Charles created him Duke of St. Albans.

He also had three other children, but only one of them is worth mentioning: by Louise Keroualle, a French Catholic, he fathered Charles, Duke of Richmond. Both Lady Diana Spencer ("Princess Di") and Sarah Ferguson ("Fergie") are descended from the Duke of Richmond.

He also had about ten or twelve other known mistresses. His wife never managed to have any children.

He's far more interesting that Herman Melville and Moby Dick
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Noddy24
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 12:51 pm
Quote:
Whalers put boats out to harpoon whales, and it was not at all uncommon that whales would either sound (dive very deeply), which could lead to a "Nantucket sleigh ride," which was what happened when the rope attached to the harpoon ran out, and the boat was pulled under, usually drowning the boat crew.



I think just being towed by the whale qualified as a Nantucket Sleigh Ride. I think the whale diving was optional.

http://www.salariya.com/web_books/whaling/sleigh/sleigh.html
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roger
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 05:43 pm
I read it too, kicky, and came away with the same impression. I might vote for "Grapes of Wrath" or maybe "East of Eden", also by Steinbeck.
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kickycan
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 05:47 pm
Hey, Roger. I was actually going to mention Grapes of Wrath as another novel worthy of consideration.
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roger
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 06:04 pm
You did.
kickycan wrote:
Thanks for the background info, Set. Interesting reading. I had no idea Charles II had such a big pecker.

And yes, I guess there really is no official "great american novel," but I've always heard and read that if there ever was, it would be either this book or Twain's "Huck Finn." Or maybe Grapes of Wrath, although I was not happy with the ending of that one.

I actually liked the ending of Moby Dick though. And yes, like you said, there was a great story in there, it's just that there was a lot of crap to be waded through to get to it.


And I just tossed in "East of Eden" to sound literary.
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kickycan
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 06:50 pm
Oh yeah, I DID! Hehe...I'm a bozo. I thought I deleted that part of that post for some reason.

And yes, East of Eden does sound literary. And literate. And alliterate, for that matter. If alliterate can be used as an adjective, that is.
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djjd62
 
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Reply Mon 16 Apr, 2007 07:08 pm
this song by the pogues is more fun, and you can get drunk and sing along in a fake irish accent as well


Greenland Whale Fisheries
Pogues

In eighteen hundred and forty-six
And of march the eighteenth day,
We hoisted our colors to the top of the mast
And for greenland sailed away, brave boys,
And for greenland sailed away.

The lookout in the crosstrees stood
With spyglass in his hand;
Theres a whale, theres a whale,
And a whalefish he cried
And she blows at every span, brave boys
She blows at every span.

The captain stood on the quarter deck,
The ice was in his eye;
Overhaul, overhaul! let your gibsheets fall,
And youll put your boats to sea, brave boys
And youll put your boats to sea.

Our harpoon struck and the line played out,
With a single flourish of his tail,
He capsized the boat and we lost five men,
And we did not catch the whale, brave boys,
And we did not catch the whale.

The losing of those five jolly men,
It grieved the captain sore,
But the losing of that fine whalefish
Now it grieved him ten times more, brave boys
Now it grieved him ten times more.

Oh greenland is a barren land
A land that bares no green
Where theres ice and snow, and the whalefishes blow
And the daylights seldom seen, brave boys
And the daylights seldom seen.
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Roberta
 
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Reply Tue 17 Apr, 2007 03:38 am
Now that I've admitted that I didn't much like Moby Dick and that I used monarch notes in college to get through it, I suppose I could try to answer your original question.

I think Moby Dick is considered by many to be a great novel because of the gigantic themes. Good v. evil. Man v. nature. I think these themes were represented well in the book (I did go back and finish reading it on my own. Still didn't like it.) My dislike of the book came from the phenomenal attention to detail paid to things that weren't interesting to me. And the endless side stories and diversions. I think Melville would have done himself and his readers a service if he had done some serious cutting.

I confess to not being a great fan of some of Melville's other works. But one stands out and stands above all the rest--Bartleby the Scrivener. A short work, I thought it was brilliant.

As for Steinbeck, I thought his lesser known works were superior to his more well-known works. I'm thinking in particular of Cannery Row. I liked that one.

Huckleberry Finn was on its way to becoming the great American novel until Tom Sawyer hooked up with Huck and Jim and messed the whole thing up. Rumor had it that Mrs. Twain influenced Mark into taking the story in that direction. She should have kept her big mouth shut. (If this rumor isn't true, my apologies to Mrs. Twain.)

Sorry for rambling. Every now and then I like to feel connected to my formal education. These instances are rare, so no need to worry.
sozobe
 
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Reply Tue 17 Apr, 2007 08:21 am
"I prefer not to."

One of my all-time favorite short stories.
Setanta
 
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Reply Tue 17 Apr, 2007 09:53 am
Roberta wrote:
Rumor had it that Mrs. Twain influenced Mark into taking the story in that direction. She should have kept her big mouth shut. (If this rumor isn't true, my apologies to Mrs. Twain.)


The subject of Mr. Clemen's wife leads to an interesting aspect of his life which is not well-known, and with good reason.

His wife and his daughter both became devotees of Mary Baker Eddy and the Christian Science movement. Both of them died in great and needless agony. Sam was irate, he was incensed. He wrote a book, a collection of essays, Christian Science, in which he turned all of his not inconsiderable skills for sarcasm and invective against Miss Eddy and her crackpot religious movement. It was published, and raised such a howl (mainline religious groups took the "thin end of the wedge" attitude, and rushed to the defense of the crackpots), that it was almost immediately withdrawn again. Most copies which were purchased were purchased in order to be burned.

The book was out of print for more than 75 years. About 12 or 15 years ago, i saw it in paperback in a book store, and was mildly surprised. I did a little checking around, and found out that this paperback edition was the first appearance of his book since it had been withdrawn in 1907.
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Setanta
 
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Reply Tue 17 Apr, 2007 09:55 am
Oh, and i agree with you, Miss Roboida, Bartleby, the Scrivener was his best work. I believe i am correct in saying that the wonderful online book resource, Bartleby-dot-com, is named in honor of this work.
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Roberta
 
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Reply Tue 17 Apr, 2007 01:18 pm
Twain's later works reveal a very angry man. (Letters from the Earth) I don't know whether the missus influenced him in that direction. I think it was just life.

The early Letters are hilarious and witty. The later letters are filled with invective. I couldn't get through them.
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