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Most important American novel of its time

Last night I stayed up till midnight watching Ron Howard’s 2015 movie ‘In the Heart of the Sea.’ based on Nathaniel Philbrick‘s non-fiction book of the same name, about the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820.  The movie starts with Herman Melville, author of the novel Moby Dick, considered one of the most […]

Last night I stayed up till midnight watching Ron Howard’s 2015 movie ‘In the Heart of the Sea.’ based on Nathaniel Philbrick‘s non-fiction book of the same name, about the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820. 

The movie starts with Herman Melville, author of the novel Moby Dick, considered one of the most important American novels of its time, meeting the sole survivor of the whaling ship to find out what truly happened. He then creates a masterpiece fiction work of 600 pages.

Contrary to Herman’s expectations, the book was not well received during his lifetime, having sold little over 3000 copies.

It was only when the book was reprinted, on his death, that it got rave reviews from Carl Van Doren and D. H. Lawrence.

I have a copy sitting on my bookshelf, which I didn’t have the courage to pick up and start reading. It’s sheer size intimidated me. But after the movie, I couldn’t wait to start it. I have already read two chapters. There are 133 more to go! 

It is not an easy read for lazy readers. Herman has used many literary devices including Shakespearean language. But it is the first-person narrative of the fictional character Ishmael that gives the book the legendary status. Who can forget the all-time most famous first line, “Call me Ishmael.” and equally compelling first paragraph to follow.

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”

I am thoroughly enjoying it.