The Two Moby-Dicks

In my preparation for this group read, I ran across a number of references to an article entitled “The Two Moby-Dicks.” I have myself mentioned a couple of times in comments that some have proposed multiple modes of composition for Moby-Dick. Only this weekend did I get a chance to sit down and read the whole article (written by George Stewart of UC Berkeley and published in American Literature, Vol. 25, No. 4, Jan. 1954). Stewart posits that there’s an unmissable contrast between the first fifteen or so chapters of Moby-Dick and the rest, and he seeks to investigate by internal evidence (ie, the text itself rather than evidence from what few revelatory letters and other documents exist external to the text) what this unmissable contrast may mean.

I won’t say that I had missed the contrast, but I had surely never articulated it. Looking back on what we’ve read so far, though, it is a pretty stark contrast. The first few chapters have Ishmael and his particular adventures at their heart. We hear his stupid chowder jokes, his weird memory of being punished as a child, a detailed account of his misadventure turned bosom friendship bedding with a cannibal, and so on. But as we make our way deeper into the text, Ishmael becomes more a mouthpiece than a central character. He becomes omniscient, telling us things that the Ishmael of the first few chapters wouldn’t have been able to know. In the first lowering, he seems to be in first one whale boat and then another, so detailed and intimate are the accounts he gives of what the mates are saying. Stewart provides 20 or 25 pages of internal evidence for multiple modes of composition, and many of his arguments are convincing. He suggests that the book be divided into three sections, delineated as follows:

  1. Chapters I – XV. These represent an original story, very slightly revised.
  2. Chapters XVI – XXII. These chapters represent the original story with a certain amount of highly important revision.
  3. Chapters. XXIII – Epilogue. These represent the story as it was written after Melville reconceived it, but may preserve certain passages of the original story, doubtless somewhat revised.

In considering a shift in style as an indicator of the composition shift, Stewart provides a partial answer to one of my questions about ornamentation seemingly for its own sake (“UMD” stands for Ur-Moby-Dick, or the first fifteen chapters; “MD” is section 3 described above):

In style of writing there are great differences between UMD and MD. UMD is plain, even prosy and colloquial. It contains such dialectal expressions as “says I,” “says he,” and “thinks I.” Moreover, these occur not in conversation, but in the narrative itself. These colloquialisms are not characteristic of MD, and are, in fact, wholly lacking, as far as I have observed. In addition, UMD differs from MD by lacking almost entirely the elements of the conventional poetic style of the nineteenth century, ie., the use of thou with the corresponding pronominal and verbal forms, and the use of such devices as apostrophe, personification, and figurative language in general, including the Homeric simile.

He goes on to suggest that though Melville sought in the beginning to provide an account of a shabby whaling voyage, he ultimately needed to amp things up a bit and transform the narrative from a shabby account to something epic. The formal devices Stewart lists above go some of the way toward doing that. So too do the chapters on cetology (Stewart notes that two of these occur near the opening of the third section he enumerates), which give the book more the feeling of a great inquiry than of a simple travelogue. The extracts (I posit) probably contribute to the epic tone as well.

Stewart and others have pointed to a number of details — among them various sudden disappearances and appearances and doublings — that seem to indicate that Melville may have intended to take the story in one direction and wound up taking it in another, with rather shoddy patchwork editing to bind the two stories together. This may also account for some of the problems of narration in the book. Perhaps Melville wasn’t a visionary willfully writing an unreliable narrator but was merely trying to salvage what he could of an original story while finishing his book in a grander mode than originally planned.

The ramifications of the shift with respect to who the hero of the book turns out to be are pretty interesting, and thinking about these ramifications takes me back to Matt Bucher’s post from week one, in which he wrote the following:

Who is the main character of Moby-Dick? Is it Ishmael, Ahab, or the whale? How is Melville playing upon traditional ideas of the hero or the hero’s quest (the odyssey) by having Ishmael appear to be a passive observer throughout much of the book?

Now that we’re well over halfway into the book, I wonder what people would answer to Matt’s question (and I hope I’m not running away here with something Matt had planned to follow up on). I also wonder what people might think (without spoilers) about who the hero of the book might have been, if it turns out (as Stewart suggests) not to have been one of the suspects Matt proposes.

2 thoughts on “The Two Moby-Dicks

  1. Paul June 14, 2010 / 1:30 pm

    Whatever the “reason” is behind this (and I’ll leave it to scholars) I can totally see the change in style and tone from the beginning to the on-boat action. I was aware of a difference, but I didn’t give it much thought. But thinking back, the tone is pretty different.

    I would suggest that maybe that’s why people don’t finish the book, but from what I understand most people don’t get past chapter 2, so never mind that.

    I enjoyed the more relaxed style of those earlier chapters, but I’m not so sure how they would translate to the later whaling sections.

    I do enjoy the idea that his narrator is “flawed” rather than “inspired.” But I’m bit sure if that makes any real difference in the book.

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