Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Connecting With Moby Dick

By Levi Asher on Monday, October 15, 2012 09:24 pm

I don't always love Moby Dick tie-ins, and it was only with some amount of weary skepticism that I opened Dive Deeper, a book of essays about Herman Melville's great novel, composed by a history professor from California named George Cotkin. I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Cotkin has a big taste for fresh angles, and his freewheeling book delivers one suprising connection after another. After all that has been said about Melville's novel, it's amazing how much in this book has not been said before. One of Moby Dick's early land-bound scenes takes Ishmael wandering into an African-American church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he spies a hell-breathing preacher holding an entire parish spellbound. Is it possible, George Cotkin wonders, that this preacher would have been Frederick Douglass, who had in fact had orated to enthusiastic crowds in New Bedford during the years that Herman Melville had passed through this town on his own whaling journey?

Cotkin does not try to prove the Herman Melville/Frederick Douglass connection, but the connection is worth imagining whether it can be proven or not. Later, Cotkin considers the literary significance of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham's 25-minute song "Moby Dick", and also throws in references to Moby and Leviathan by Mastodon. Dive Deeper is the kind of literary criticism I like best: lively, casual, naturalistic in structure, bursting with original ideas.

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