There’s a stereotypical discussion that US literary scholars like to have about what book is the Great American Novel—the book that epitomizes this country’s literary achievements.
Many authors have a claim to the title—including the late Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, and more. But there’s one book that is so ingrained in American culture, it’s almost always near the top of the list: Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece Moby-Dick.
An article at Lit Hub quotes from Lawarence Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel to defend the choice, saying:
Among all Great American Novel candidates, perhaps Moby-Dick (1851) best meets Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s test. [“As long as the classic needs to be protected from attack, it can never prove itself classic.”] At least for now, the case for Moby-Dick seems to need least defense. … Moby-Dick‘s dissemination as text, and its fertility as object of imitation, as icon, as logo, as metaphor, have no more stopped at the nation’s borders than the Pequod did.
The book is a behemoth—almost as large as Moby-Dick, the titular sperm whale himself. It is almost 210,000 words, which puts it in the 96th percentile of book length or over three times as long as Lord of the Flies.
It’s also no easy feat to follow. The story centers on Ishmael, a crew member aboard a whaling ship called the Pequod, which is led by Captain Ahab, a grizzled sailor who becomes obsessed with revenge against the whale who bit off half of his leg. But there are also long digressions about the various other crew members, whale anatomy, seafaring life, and an almost uncountable number of other subjects.
The style makes Melville’s novel daunting. But it’s also what makes it worth the effort. As Philip Hoare wrote in the New Yorker in 2011:
Moby-Dick is not a novel. It’s barely a book at all. It’s more an act of transference, of ideas and evocations hung around the vast and unknowable shape of the whale, an extended musing on the strange meeting of human history and natural history. It is, above all, a sui-generis creation, one that came into the world as an unnatural, immaculate conception.
If that sounds kind of awful, don’t worry. You wouldn’t be the first to hate Moby-Dick on your first attempt, and you won’t be the last. But it’s a book that has stood the test of time because—whenever you have the energy to make it through—it stays with you. It can become an obsession for readers like its whale became an obsession for Ahab.
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