A More Complete Ahab: Into the Darkness of Moby-Dick

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Over 100 years after its publication, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick occupies the rare position of true cultural icon, one of those important novels that people know about without ever having read it. References to the white whale and the captain who chases him surface in an almost endless stream of high art and pop culture artifacts and references. A list of just a few of the many Moby-Dick-inspired texts includes operatic, film, comic, and graphic novel adaptations; New Yorker and television cartoons (Tom and Jerry’s “Dicky Moe” is one of the more obvious); references in film (Zelig, Heathers, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Life Aquatic, Jaws) and television shows (The Simpsons, The X Files, Parks and Recreation); and musical tributes (Mastodon, Led Zeppelin, Moby Grape, Ahab). The names from the novel and images of the whale appear as marketing aids (seafood and kabob restaurants, a full-page Microsoft advertisement), while the text turns up in politics (prosecutor Kenneth Starr pursuing Bill Clinton), in football (Peyton Manning as Ahab seeking his White Whale—the New England Patriots), and on late-night comedy shows (Stephen Colbert’s recent rollercoaster interview with scholar Andrew Delbanco about what makes Moby-Dick the Great American Novel). Susan Weiner argues that “the white whale has become one of the few unifying symbols that Americans share. In a dazzling reversal of fortune, a complex artifact of high culture has transcended that category to become a popular icon. A classic text has crossed a border to forge a new frontier” (85). Despite this apparent cultural familiarity with the novel, however, most public and artistic references to Moby-Dick reduce it down to Ahab’s hunt for the white whale, reproducing instead a figure of the obsessed Captain Ahab stomping angrily on his peg leg and raving about the beast upon whom he desires revenge. Building on Richard Brodhead’s observation that American culture has “absorbed” Melville’s novel to the point that even those who have not read it are familiar with Ahab’s quest, Jeffrey Insko posits such understandings as cultural, not textual, knowledge. Insko terms the ubiquitous use of this metaphor “the Ahab trope,” claiming that “such references have been emptied of any and all associations with the text from which they are ostensibly drawn” (20). Perhaps this loss is inevitable when the source text is as complex as Melville’s novel, but the Ahab trope has achieved such familiar cultural status that it stands on its own as an original artifact, one that is adapted and reinscribed with little or no relationship to Melville.

Publication Title

Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture

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online publication

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Publicly Available