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Looking beyond its literary merits, a historian traces the natural history of Moby-Dick

Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick

Richard J. King
University of Chicago Press
464 pp.
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After a string of successes, Herman Melville published his sixth book, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, in 1851. Almost no one noticed. It was a slow burner. By the time Melville died in 1891, he had sold a few thousand copies and the book was out of print. In the almost two centuries since it was published, Moby-Dick—a primal blood-spattered tale of a revenge-obsessed sea captain’s quest to hunt down and kill an elusive white sperm whale—has slowly taken on a dark reverberative power.

With Ahab’s Rolling Sea, historian Richard J. King uses modern sources and historical texts to take a fresh look at Melville’s book—published in the same decade as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species—with the well-defined brief of assessing its natural history content. The result is a light-hearted and incredibly enjoyable read that manages somehow, at the right moments, to be both broad and narrow in scope. It should be required reading for anyone attempting Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick is a famously messy whale of a book—overstuffed, compendious, encyclopedic, informative, poetic, often funny, and occasionally sleep-inducing. It can be infuriating. At times, it is an endlessly digressive slog. For every reader who has finished it, another hundred or perhaps a thousand have floundered and quit. But there are bright pearls of wisdom among the endless paragraphs about knots, whale taxonomy, and ship politics.

Measured against his contemporary sources, Melville got much of the science right. Occasionally, inevitably, he was wrong, too. Among “a rabble of uncertain, fugitive half-fabulous whales,” he included such nonexistent species as the “junk whale,” the “elephant whale,” and the “coppered whale.” (For context, Melville wrote Moby-Dick at a time when scientists still had not resolved whether whales were fish or mammals.)

No captive of the library, King is an experienced seaman and an open-minded and intrepid guide. A visiting associate professor of maritime literature and history at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, he is willing to pull on his old Sou’wester and sail into the watery part of the world.

In Connecticut, he clambers up the rigging of the Charles W. Morgan, an old wooden whaleship docked in the estuary at Mystic Seaport, to talk with historian Mary K. Bercaw Edwards about the whaleships Melville went to sea in—ships he modeled the Pequod on. Later, he meets Jon Ablett at the Natural History Museum in London to discuss the main ingredient of the sperm whale’s diet. Here, he is mostly unimpressed by Archie, a preserved giant squid specimen, wrinkled, misshapen, and ghostly in its exhibit. Squid, we learn, compose the main food source of the sperm whale.

King meets with shark experts, too, and biologists such as Justin Richard, who collects whale blow and samples it in the laboratory for DNA and microorganisms. Here, King learns the array of information that can be gleaned about a whale’s life—from its reproductive status and hormone levels to its genetic lineage—from its blow. He climbs aboard the Grampus in New Zealand to track sperm whales with marine biologist Marta Guerra Bobo and speaks with scientists such as paleontologist Ewan Fordyce, who studies the anatomy of the sperm whale skeleton, an area in which Melville struggled to wrestle meaning from language.

Inevitably, a book about a book will begin to assume the shape of its source material. Even so, King writes ably and in scholarly detail about albatrosses, ambergris, baleen, barnacles, seals, sharks, sperm whale behavior and language, swordfish, typhoons, and all sorts of marine and cetological marginalia.

If there is a gentle criticism to make, it is that King writes so well about the places he visits and the people he meets that I found myself hoping for more of his reportage. He is too talented and clear-eyed a writer to confine himself to literary criticism.

In chapter 14, for example, King writes in Melvillean detail about the diet of whalemen aboard the challenging years-long hunting expeditions for sperm whale oil, describing why, for the most part, they did not eat whale meat. Like everything else, it is a worthy and erudite companion to Melville’s text. But then, at the very end of the chapter, King mentions traveling to Reykjavik, Iceland, to stand on a dock in midnight sunlight as whale-watching vessels bob in the harbor alongside whale-hunting vessels. Later, the tourists all went to dinner at restaurants with whale meat on the menu.

King includes the memory almost as an afterthought. I found myself wishing—as I did elsewhere—that it was not.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums (University of Chicago Press, 2017).