This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

October 21, 2001 — There's been a lot of talk in the book industry, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, about the future of the novel. The esteemed James Wood, for example, remarked recently in the London Guardian that the attacks were a "reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the 'culture' can always get up to something bigger." There is a general noting of solipsistic tendencies amongst new writers; of entertainment replacing deeper meaning; of fewer people reading in the first place. In short, the form seems to have decreased in relevance and has either ceased moving forward or has nowhere to go — either way, a bleak future, indeed.

Well, there's nothing for it, then. We must look back.

And, conveniently, I am struck by the coincidence that this conversation about the sorry state of the novel is taking place around the time of the 150th anniversary of what is widely regarded as the greatest American novel ever written: Herman Melville's "Moby–Dick," which was first published in England (as, simply, "The Whale") on October 18, 1851, then in America on the following November 14.

But surprisingly, perhaps, "Moby–Dick" hasn't come up in the discussion about whether the novel is dead or not. Well, maybe it's not surprising. As someone who writes a literary column named after the book, I am regularly asked questions as if I was a "Moby–Dick" expert — piercing, probing questions, such as, "What's up with the hyphen in the title?"

Well, I'm not an expert, I'm just a fan. (All I can tell you is they used a lot of hyphens in Melville's time. It was eventually revised out of the text, though — the whale's "Moby Dick" inside the covers.) And based on those questions, and other pithy comments such as, "Whoa, you read that?", I have a sneaking suspicion that not a lot of people, even amongst book lovers, have read "Moby–Dick."

Some of the celebrations going on around the country to celebrate the occasion — there aren't many — resonate with my suspicion.

In New Bedford, Massachusetts, the town from which a 22–year–old Melville once set sail on a whaler (ten years before writing "Moby–Dick" ), the Mayor held a press conference to announce the town was "indelibly linked" to Melville, and to introduce a new comic book version of "Moby–Dick" being published by the city. The New Bedford Standard-Times reported that it was the idea of City Solicitor George Leontire, who wanted to "'brand' the city with Mr. Melville." The "new" "Moby Dick," whose title the city forgot to hyphenate, contains 66 references to New Bedford, Mr. Leontire told the Standard-Times.

They also forgot the hyphen in San Francisco, where, a press release says, "The Moby Dick Festival" will feature "celebrity readers" such as Sena Jeter Naslund, who wrote a "sequel" to Moby, "Ahab's Wife," based on the premise that Melville didn't include enough women in his novel about a 19th century whaling expedition.

Not that there aren't some more attuned celebrations. "Arrowhead" — Melville's home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he wrote the book, but eventually had to leave due to poverty — is holding an exhibit of paintings by Frank Stella that were inspired by the novel. A donation to the non-profit site is a nice way to celebrate, too (visit

But of course, the best way to celebrate is to read Melville — say, one of three recent publications timed to coincide with the anniversary. One is a new edition of "Moby–Dick" itself, just out from the Modern Library, featuring an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick — a much more readable and informative essay than her recent turgid bio of Melville in the Penguin Lives series — and Rockwell Kent's dramatic illustrations.

Another is "Tales, Poems, and Other Writings" (Modern Library, $24.95), which collects all Melville's short fiction, as well as some of his poetry, criticism, lectures and correspondence, much of which is seeing publication for the first time.

Then there's "Mariners, Renegades & Castaways," by C.L.R. James (New England, $17.95), a beautifully written and fascinating book of criticism that's particularly keen to the moment — it sees the novel as a battle between democracy and capitalism.

Any one of these books will contribute to an underrstanding of what's wrong with discussions of the novel that only consider its forward motion — it doesn't work that way. The novel is a thing that exists on a continuum, where those that have come before have a bearing on what will come next. As with any effort to improve the self in the now, there will be no success without a thorough study of — and reference to — our forebears.

Melville would have also given the nod to the greater world around us — as he says in "Moby–Dick":

"Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own."

Last Week’s Column: THE CONTINUING DISSENT OF RENATA ADLER The New York Times reviews Renata Adler's new book but leaves a few things out. What are they afraid of? An exclusive interview with Adler.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.