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Dive Deeper: Journeys with “Moby-Dick.” by Cotkin, George (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 182-184 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0015

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Herman Melville’s magnum opus—arguably the greatest American novel ever written and certainly the most ambitious—has had a colossal influence on Western culture since its publication in 1851. In his accessible and entertaining companion to Moby-Dick, George Cotkin charts the astonishing reach of Melville’s novel from its critical reception to its lively life in such areas as politics, religion, art, psychology, marine biology, cinema, and popular culture. Cotkin, whose academic field is twentieth-century intellectual history with an emphasis in existentialism, arranges his study according to the chapters of Moby-Dick itself. Dive Deeper thus begins with “Etymology” and “Extracts,” followed by 135 chapters (each with the focus and finish of a complete, stand-alone essay) and a concluding “Epilogue.” This arrangement both effectively traces the arc of Ishmael’s narrative and uses each chapter as a point of departure into the novel’s legacy within the broader culture, from popular representations to profiles of prominent individuals influenced by Moby-Dick.

Cotkin begins each chapter by briefly touching base with a thematic keynote sounded in Melville’s original to signal the direction and subject of his own sightings of the novel in intellectual and popular culture. Chapter 84, for example, bears the heading “On the Subtleties of Harpooning Technique,” referring to the content of the novel’s corresponding chapter while also signaling the larger issues of the discussion that follows. Cotkin describes Melville’s intentions in this chapter, detailing the artful method of tossing a harpoon in a high arc, a more effective alternative to thrusting the iron like a giant dart at the whale (160). The finesse of this hunting technique raises the issue of the chapter’s self-reflexivity for Cotkin, who then takes the occasion to ruminate on Melville’s “stylistic brilliance,” linking his manic method of composition to that of Gustave Flaubert, who began composing Madame Bovary in 1851, the year Moby-Dick appeared (161). Such a connection is illustrative of Cotkin’s overall method, which is to make a connection to a Melville contemporary engaging with similar questions of authorial convention. Cotkin ends the mediation with the line, uttered by a Flaubert character, “exuberance is better than taste”; the sentiment matches Ishmael’s demand for Mount Vesuvius as an inkstand and a “condor’s quill” to expand on his grand theme. Cotkin explains how Flaubert’s line resonates with Melville’s manic process of production, which effectively places a seemingly technical description of harpooning technique into new, revealing light about the audacity and artistry of authorship (161).

In other chapters, Dive Deeper functions as a clearinghouse of critical and historical data on Moby-Dick, providing provocative connections to modern and contemporary culture that might serve as points of departure for further exploration. In the hands of Cotkin, Moby-Dick is of equal importance both to those interested in its influence on modern/postmodern culture and those seeking fresh insight on its place in antebellum history. For the latter, Father Mapple’s sermon is historically contextualized to offer its striking deviation from the biblical story of Jonah. In another chapter, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass appear in useful discussions of Melville’s positions on transcendentalism and race in antebellum America. The true strength of the volume, however, lies in the handling of events and controversies dating from Moby-Dick’s 1920s modernist revival to the present. Readers will delight in learning of the fraught and harrowing writing process Ray Bradbury endured to produce the screenplay of the 1956 adaptation of Moby-Dick starring Gregory Peck. Bradbury’s screenplay began, as most writing does, in a sheer panic, with a dangerously close deadline. Perhaps of most value in Cotkin’s analysis of Moby-Dick in the twentieth century is his discussion of the closeted history of gay critics Newton Arvin and F. O. Matthiessen navigating Melville’s radical gender politics during the heyday of the repressive, socially intolerant McCarthy era. The profile of critic Louis Mumford is particularly provocative and moving.

The organization of Dive Deeper, like that of Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary (2008), throws off the shackles of academic convention in the tradition of Melville criticism established...

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