- Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
Ed. Hershel Parker. New York: Norton, 2018. xv + 706 pp.
The third Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick is a testament to love and scholarship. It expands the work of the second NCE by assembling materials—biographical insights, critical reactions, and histories of the novel’s cultural impact—that offer readers, as its preface announces, “the fullest storehouse of factual riches and, just as important, of incitements to the appreciative imagination” (xv). As editor, Parker presents the legacy of Melville’s most passionate readers and connects these reactions, expressed in both creative and critical work, to the still-growing realm of facts about Melville, which “frees the imagination to speculate reasonably about Melville’s own creative processes and achievements” (xv).
Parker intends the third edition’s “factual riches” and the ideas they (reasonably) generate to reach a broad audience of scholars, students, and nonacademic readers. These riches are presented in footnotes that aid both novice and expert readers, as well as in the revised “Contexts” and “Criticism” sections that follow the text of the novel. Parker introduces “Contexts” with a captivating set of accounts detailing Melville’s “formidable” (421) abilities as a public storyteller. In the subsections that follow—both “Whaling and Whalecraft” and “Before Moby-Dick: International Controversy over Melville” are carried over from the second NCE—Parker provides new authorial attributions and an 1846 obituary for Melville’s brother Gansevoort. In the obituary, Gansevoort’s traveling companion, Captain E. Knight, recounts Gansevoort’s justification of the United States’ claim on Oregon as a “birth-right” essential to transpacific and transatlantic trade (464). Pointing to a globe, Gansevoort remarked that on one side of the Atlantic was a “little speck called Europe” and on the other “a smaller speck . . . called New England” (464). Nevertheless, he doubted that “any American can carefully examine the map of our globe, and not feel a gratitude and just pride at seeing the geographical position our country holds” (464). The phrasing made me turn to “Nantucket,” where Melville seems to play off of Gansevoort’s image of New England as a speck in order to question US imperial ambitions. Ishmael describes Nantucketers as [End Page 133] “so many Alexanders” who “issu[e] from their ant-hill in the sea” (60) and then declares, “Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s” (60–61). For those teaching Moby-Dick, the opportunity to juxtapose these passages illustrates both a contrast in perspectives on American expansion and the impact of literary language. Ishmael’s elevation of the Nantucketer separates their oceanic expeditions from more mundane, land-bound pursuits, leading students to consider how Melville transforms ideas through the figures that represent them. When one of Gansevoort’s “specks” becomes an island “ant-hill” of “many Alexanders,” what becomes of the presumptions behind American imperial aspirations?
“Contexts” also features some small changes that refine the argument this section makes for the impact of both facts and “incitements to the appreciative imagination” (xv). While the second NCE’s “Analogues and Sources” section features work by twentieth-century critics as well as nineteenth-century writers, the third presents us with “Sources of and Influences on Moby-Dick” and hews closer to nineteenth-century voices that demonstrate a more direct influence on the novel. In addition to material from Owen Chase, J. N. Reynolds, and Melville himself (excerpts that appear in the second NCE), we get Melville’s annotated list of the Acushnet crew and a summary of Melville’s sources for the notes in his Shakespeare. This attention to Melville’s marginalia is not new; the second edition excerpts Geoffrey Sanborn’s 1992 essay presenting the discovery that Melville’s “most famous notes” (543) on Shakespeare are from “Superstition and Knowledge” (an article published in the London Quarterly Review in 1823). The third edition, however, provides readers with a list, not an essay: just quotations from “Superstition and Knowledge” followed by...