Discoveries: Nathaniel Philbrick

By Susan Salter ReynoldsDecember 10, 2011

Discoveries: Nathaniel Philbrick

Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK FINDS HIS own mysterious truth in the pages of Moby Dick, a novel that "contains the genetic code of America." Why Read Moby Dick? begins in a moment in 1850 when Melville, then 31, was still in the middle of his greatest work. He had just moved to the Berkshires, in part to be closer to his literary hero, Nathaniel Hawthorne. He had a wife, one son, and another on the way. America was preoccupied with gold and railroads; the greed that reached full bloom here in our lifetimes was still a glimmer in Daddy's eye. "A lie festered at the ideological core" of the American dream, writes Philbrick, of slavery. Poe, Emerson, Cooper, Longfellow, Irving, and other writers were making a living at their craft. Philbrick illuminates Ishmael, Ahab, and other characters from within-Ishmael a "vulnerable wise-ass," Ahab a blighted, tragic soul whose greatness seduces those around him. In the end, it is the skepticism and relentless search for truth that Philbrick admires and wants us all to experience by reading and rereading the novel. "Doubts of all things earthly," he quotes Ishmael, "and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye."


LARB Contributor

Susan Salter Reynolds is a book critic and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Vermont. She has three children: Sam, Ellie, and Mia.


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