- A Whaler’s Dictionary by Dan Beachy-Quick
In A Whaler’s Dictionary, poet Dan Beachy-Quick has with some courage attempted a fresh reading of Moby-Dick. And although this monograph is composed in prose that is not what one would call academic, it is written with a prevailing seriousness—as if its author, unsatisfied by his principal goal (“to write a loving response that includes every thought—coherent or ambiguous, true or frivolous” [xi] that Moby-Dick has engendered in him), has contrived a second, perhaps even more difficult task: to produce a book that makes “more possible the reading of a book outside itself” (xiii). A Whaler’s Dictionary is not just a meditation or a musing, then—not, or not simply, an appealing illustration of what admiring reviewer Lyn Hejinian calls “the charged relationship that can come into being between text and reader.” It is also undisguisedly a work of literary criticism, a book largely concerned with what kind of book Moby-Dick itself might be and how it might be read.
A Whaler’s Dictionary thus positions itself in the tradition begun by Ronald Mason’s The Spirit Above the Dust and reinvigorated by Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, critical books prompted by Melville’s text and undertaken by writers who would sooner address the lay reader than the professional critic, writers whose authorial drive has less to do with scholarly contribution than with sheer love of the subject. Such books tend to be detailed, enthusiastic, sympathetic and illuminating. They offer readers the layered pleasure of one writer’s bold confrontation with another, conveyed in a style that can be described only as an act of exchange, of belonging at once to the inspiring author and to his critic.
At its best, A Whaler’s Dictionary demonstrates a tenacious application of an imaginative and resourceful intelligence to Melville’s extraordinary text. The book is comprised of short, cross-referential, highly associative prose entries that concentrate on themes or issues that Beachy-Quick sees animating Moby-Dick. By bringing into proximity terms like “Adam,” “Plato,” “Babel” or “Vengeance,” Beachy-Quick literalizes his desire “to write so as to be within the conversation of another book,” as he reports in an interview for The Poetry Foundation. He chronicles the experience of a writer reading—or, following [End Page 104] Thoreau, turns “reading” into an encounter, a “form of experience” which occurs, as Beachy-Quick notes in his 2012 book Wonderful Investigations, “in some twofold world happening simultaneously in the author’s mind and the reader’s mind with only the thin printed page as conduit between” (111).
But what about Beachy-Quick’s expressed hope that his Dictionary makes more possible the reading of the book that inspired it? For though inconsistency is a formal feature of A Whaler’s Dictionary, as readers are instructed to cross reference entries that “build upon, expand, tangentially link, or contradict the entry just read” (xiii), Beachy-Quick’s highest expectation for his book is that it will “allow a reader to gain a greater sight of what this leviathan Moby-Dick itself might be, and in so doing encourage a closer reading” (xiii). In short, and despite warning his audience that his book “is not responsible,” that “it is not thoroughly researched,” or that it is not meant to be “an addition to the field of scholarship” (xi), Beachy-Quick is centrally concerned with the question of how Moby-Dick should be read. He thus exhibits the intentions of the literary critic and raises the expectation that his writing will attend to his subject as a whole: to what Moby-Dick is or might be.
A literary critic contrives a view of what we might call Melville’s object in Moby-Dick, what sets the work in motion, not to reduce Melville’s untidy spontaneity and dazzling wit to some tedious line of reasoning but because attending to the author’s object or his text in its entirety is what allows the critic to set aside her personal responses—her...