Thursday, July 11, 2013

Great American Novel or the Greatest American Novel?

ISBN-10: 0142437247
ISBN-13: 9780142437247
Published: Penguin Classics, 12/31/2002
Pages: 720
Language: English
Got to thank Sam Stephenson for throwing another great link my way, cause this one's a doozy. The Millions asked 9 English scholars to give their opinion on what book should be granted the distinction Greatest American Novel. There are some expected but worthy picks such as the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Invisible Man, and House of Mirth. Others are slightly more out-of-left-field: The Ambassadors, Corregidora, Lolita, and The Making of Americans, for example. One-- in my humble opinion-- is plain bonkers. The Godfather!? Come on, Tom Ferraro!

However, only one scholar, Hester Blum from Penn State, chose correctly: Moby Dick (I would have also accepted The Great Gatsby, for reasons specified earlier). Moby Dick may not have even been read by 1% of the population-- it was not a best-seller in its time, and, in fact, received poor reviews-- but its cultural and societal penetration is immeasurable. Ask a random American what comes to mind when they think of The Ambassadors. Unless it's a professor of literature, they're probably not going to have even heard of Henry James' famously difficult book. Just about every single American knows that Moby Dick is a book about a dude with a peg-leg who wants to kill a big whale. They may not know "Ishmael" but I'd be shocked if they didn't recognize "Ahab." Even Moby Dick's major themes of pride, obsession, and over-weening arrogance are common currency. The only other book listed that has that amount of socio-cultural weight is The Godfather, but that's mostly attributable to the vast, Brando-shaped shadow of the much, much better film.

So, why is Moby Dick largely unread or cursed in English classes but still quintessentially American? Because nothing is more American than setting impossible goals and failing at them so epically that the attempt becomes strangely beautiful. Nothing is more American than insisting that you aren't just an ant crawling across the face of the world, despite the evidence to the contrary. Nothing is more American than starting your novel with the unforgettably blunt line: "Call me Ishmael." Nothing is more American than a plain-spoken, almost brutish "outward show"-- to borrow a phrase from Thomas Wyatt-- thinly veiling poeticism and overwhelming ambition. Nothing is more American than horrific violence and mythic compassion existing side by side. Bluntness and subtlety, brutality and love, rationality and idealism-- Moby Dick is all contradictions, just like us.

I understand the objections to Moby Dick as an example of America's finest and most American work. For example, the novel lacks truly significant female characters and, if I may make a broad and therefore inevitably sexist claim, has traditionally been thought of as less appealing to women. Other than the simple necessities of plot-- not many women hanging around on whaling ships in the 1800s-- the only counterargument I can raise is that the book is so far-reaching in scale that it's really about human existence, a subject that is, of course, genderless. Consider the famous chapter "A Squeeze of the Hand," in which Melville demonstrates his ability to transform the quotidian into moral philosophy. The crewmen are tasked with squeezing lumps of sperm-- yes, ha ha-- into fluid: 

"I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness."

To my knowledge, there is nothing specifically masculine or Caucasian or-- though this may undermine my point-- even American about this passage or the sentiment it expresses. Plus, male readers were probably too busy laughing at the word "sperm" to pay attention anyway. I have to face facts; I can't sum up the greatness of this book in a blog post, and I probably did a poor job of explaining my reasoning. So, like Ishmael, let's be blunt: Moby Dick is beautiful, entertaining, meaningful, and kind. What else can you ask for in the Greatest American Novel, Play, Album, Film, or Anything?

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