The World Spins On: “The Value of Herman Melville” (Daniel Ross Goodman, November 13th, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)

The quest to write the Great American Novel has long been the American literary equivalent of the mythical and historical quest for the Holy Grail. Writers ranging from Mark Twain to John Updike to many in between (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Roth, Morrison) have all staked their claim to this elusive prize. Among the perennial roster of contenders for this legendary status, there is a strong case to be made for Moby-Dick. No other novel captures the massive scale of monomaniacal ambition—and the all-too-frequent futility and frustration with which our ambitions ultimately meet—than Melville’s masterpiece about futility and frustration. The hunt for the elusive, uncatchable great White Whale is as American as the pursuit of fame, wealth, and happiness—goals which we will probably never achieve, but which something about our indomitable American idealism never allows us to desist from pursuing. But if the never-ending pursuit of the great white whales of fame, wealth, and happiness is particularly American, so is the multiethnic, multiracial, and multinational nature of the cosmopolitan crew of the Pequod. And so is the camaraderie and close male friendship of Queequeg and Ishmael. And so too is the perennial hopefulness symbolized by Ishmael’s having survived the wreckage of the Pequod and being rescued by the providential arrival of the Rachel. Melville’s great fictional anti-hero Ahab may fail in his pursuit of his Holy Grail, but Melville himself may have ultimately—albeit twenty-five years after his death—succeeded in the pursuit of his: the writing of, if not the Great American novel, at the very least the creation of the King Lear of American literature: our existentially bleak, yet preternaturally hopeful, grand American masterwork. As Dr. Sanborn, regarding the meaning of Moby-Dick, so powerfully puts it, even though “the ongoingness of the world can seem terrifying in its stolidity, its unresponsiveness to human concerns,” Ishmael survives. “The whale swims away. The world—which is, as it turns out, capable of bearing our psychic investments in it—spins on.”