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‘Capturing a Sperm Whale’ by the American artist John William Hill, after William Page (1835)

As well as being a mythic tale, Moby-Dick is a superb a guide to oceanography

Melville’s experience as a whaler equipped him with a deep knowledge of cetology and marine biology, making Moby-Dick a true novel of the sea

Anyone who has read Moby-Dick will recognise the moment, 32 chapters in, when their line of attention, hitherto slackly paying out, snags. Having spirited us briskly through Manhattan, New Bedford and Nantucket, and having flushed Ahab from his lair on to the deck of the Pequod, Herman Melville divagates into a disquisition on whale taxonomies. In Ahab’s Rolling Sea, Richard J. King asks: ‘What happens to the story if Melville had an editor who convinced him to just cut cetology?

Melville might have died rich and the rest of us would be all the poorer. ‘Cetology,’ writes King, lodges ‘a bone in the reader’s throat’. But, here, Ishmael is transmogrified from ‘goofy greenhand’ to ‘scholar and survivor, who has lived this world of whaling, studied ships and now has something of his own to say about it’. Thus, Moby-Dick begins its bell-bottom-like flare to the ‘digressive girth’ that would doom it commercially and condemn it to this day to be more talked about than read, yet make it talked about in the first place.

Interpreting Moby-Dick is an industry that renews itself with each generation; but the lived experience and erudition Melville poured into his masterpiece has been largely overlooked — something King aims to redress in this account of the real-life and literary inspirations behind what is sometimes scarcely recognised as ‘a novel of the sea’ amid the fixation on its higher symbolism.

Nineteenth-century whalers (and for more than two years Melville was one) were on intimate terms with their quarry, drawing up close for the kill, flensing them and ransacking their oleaginous innards. By contrast, today’s marine biologists study a now mostly protected mammal. Moby-Dick metabolises this practical knowledge, as well as Melville’s intensive scientific reading. The result, says King, is a mythic tale that marshals poetry and science, is steeped in mariners’ lore and is also a tour-de-force of marine biology and oceanography.

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