Reading the unabridged version of Moby Dick is the most American thing you can do

Moby Dick can be gotten in two version: abridged and unabridged.  I’ve never attempted to read the abridged version, but after getting back into Moby Dick, I think I know what probably gets cut out.  In the unabridged version, the full novel, there are many chapters where the narrator, Ishmael, jumps away from the main narrative into these digressions about whale classification (Cetology), whale depictions in “popular media” (Of Whales in Paint; In Teeth; In Wood;…), a whole side story about a mutiny on another ship (The Town Ho’s Story), a whole bunch of random whale encounter stories (The Affidavit), and a whole chapter where Ishmael exalts the whaling industry (The Advocate) and then throws shade on the British (Post-Script).  After having spent time in academia being an academic and now returning to the book, I finally understand what these chapters are about.  And I see now that, while they all could be cut from the story and the reader will never miss a beat about what happens with Captain Ahab.  With those chapters, the book is completely different.  But taken as a whole, all chapters, this book isn’t about Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a giant metaphorical penis in a giant metaphorical vagina.  This book is all about an American (upper class dilettante though he be) coming to understand his country’s place in the world and the rise of American exceptionalism.  Just look at chapter 34, The Cabin-Table.  That whole chapter, about the dining practices of the ship’s officers versus the ship’s harpooners, must be considered one of the most romantic metaphors for American democracy ever put to paper.

And let me quote the entire text of chapter 25, Post-Script, here.

IN behalf of the dignity of whaling, I would fain advance naught but substantiated facts. But after embattling his facts, an advocate who should wholly suppress a not unreasonable surmise, which might tell eloquently upon his cause—such an advocate, would he not be blameworthy?

It is well known that at the coronation of kings and queens, even modern ones, a certain curious process of seasoning them for their functions is gone through. There is a salt-cellar of state, so called, and there may be a castor of state. How they use the salt, precisely—who knows? Certain I am, however, that a king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad. Can it be, though, that they anoint it with a view of making its interior run well, as they anoint machinery? Much might be ruminated here, concerning the essential dignity of this regal process, because in common life we esteem but meanly and contemptibly a fellow who anoints his hair, and palpably smells of that anointing. In truth, a mature man who uses hair-oil, unless medicinally, that man has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere. As a general rule, he can’t amount to much in his totality.

But the only thing to be considered here, is this—what kind of oil is used at coronations? Certainly it cannot be olive oil, nor macassar oil, nor castor oil, nor bear’s oil, nor train oil, nor cod-liver oil. What then can it possibly be, but sperm oil in its unmanufactured, unpolluted state, the sweetest of all oils?

Think of that, ye loyal Britons! we whalemen supply your kings and queens with coronation stuff!

Ishmael has just spent the entire prior chapter crowing vigorously for whaling and whalers–specifically American whalers–so when he says “we whalemen” he really means “we American whalemen.”  And to top it all off, once you get used to the rhythms and queerness of Ishmael’s narration, you’ll come to understand how absolutely hilarious that second paragraph is.  And the whole book is like this!  Every chapter that I can see being excised in an abridged version of Moby Dick is yet another piece of comedic foreskin shorn from the giant metaphorical penis that is Moby Dick.  (The book or the whale?  Both!)  And to be an American who willingly reads the abridged version of Moby Dick is neuter oneself, to intentionally make one’s self a eunuch.

Don’t do that to yourself, people.


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