Herman Melville, Moby Dick


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1944


While these days Manesse publishes around 6 to 12 books each year in its Bibliothek der Weltliteratur series, it was only three books in the first year. In 1944 the series opened with texts by Goethe, Tolstoy, and Melville. To Ursula Kampmann the decision to choose a German, Russian, and American author respectively is an expressly political statement, a literary symbol against all nationalist tendencies. This understanding would point to one specific level of meaning of the great American novel: A reading of the catastrophic failure of Captain’s Ahab hunt for the white whale as an allegory which shows the destruction that follows in the wake of anyone who fanatically holds on to an idea or ideal. At the same time, choosing Melville along with Goethe and Tolstoy also puts him on the very top of the list of world literature and in a way characterizes him as an American national poet.


In 1851, when “Moby-Dick” is first published, the public doesn’t share this opinion yet. Under the title “The Whale” the novel is published in three volumes, first in London, then in New York. The English reviews range from unenthusiastic to positive, which, however, may be due to the censoring of certain passages, which could be understood as a critique of monarchy or religion, in the English edition. In America people are not sure what to think of this 900-page weighty tome, the style is too innovative, too strange. “Moby Dick” first garners acclaim in the 1890s; since the 1920s it is an integral part of the canon of American classics. The present edition is the first complete edition in German, translated by Fritz Güttinger. The well-known Swiss literary critic, who has worked on countless books in the Manesse series as editor or translator, seems to have a penchant for adventure stories on the high seas, among them Joseph Conrad’s “Meistererzählungen” (“Collected Tales”) and Robert L. Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”.


There are many reasons to read “Moby Dick”. The novel offers an action packed plot with an obsessive captain who follows a detested whale around the world and eventually faces the gargantuan sea monster in a life-and-death fight. The coast of New England, known for its long whaling tradition, a warlike ship adorned with whale teeth, a one-legged captain and awe-inspiring seamen like the exotic Queequeg, covered in tattoos from head to toe, create the right setting.


But “Moby Dick” is also a thoroughly researched book about whaling in the 19th century, as well as a large-scale study of the whale, which begins with a collection of encyclopaedic entries that precedes the main story.  In more than 80 entries, Melville’s fictional school master has put together everything about the whale he could find in religious or secular writings, from the Bible to Shakespeare, to Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Cook, and Thomas Jefferson. Thereby the whale encyclopaedia opens up the whole spectrum of intertextual references, in form and content, which the novel contains. The incredible density of metaphors and symbols as well as references to literary, biblical, mythological, political, and philosophical texts allows for the novel to be read allegorically in many different ways. “Moby Dick” is at once about man against nature, individual against state, about God and religious fanaticism, America’s Puritan roots, and underlying homoerotic tendencies. And that probably doesn’t even cover half of the possible readings...


by Teresa Teklić


Signet Sunflower Foundation