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November 11, 2008 8:29 AM   Subscribe

The Online Annotated Power Moby-Dick explains the more obscure seafaring and whaling terms, 19th Century slang and topical jokes in Melville's epic. Hey, didja know there's a fart joke right there in Chapter 1?

Created as something of a hobby project by Margaret Guroff, Features editor of AARP The Magazine and instructor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, the website holds forth hope to high school students across America and anyone else who wants to actually read this leviathan novel. Uh, as opposed to faking our way through it and writing a book report anyway.

Psst, look for "head winds" and the Pythagorean maxim.
posted by Quietgal (50 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite

 
lol the Pythagorean maxim is "eat beans" am i rite?
posted by grobstein at 8:40 AM on November 11, 2008


Well, if you're going to scour Moby-Dick for the dirty bits, jump straight to Chapter XCV ("The Cassock"), which is all about whale cock -- "longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg."

And someone gets to wear it.
posted by pracowity at 8:56 AM on November 11, 2008


Fantastic link! Thanks!
posted by Shepherd at 8:58 AM on November 11, 2008


Thanks Quietgal. Nice find.

Basically, you learn two kinds of things in college:

1. Things you will need to know in later life (two hours). These include how to make collect telephone calls and get beer and crepe-paper stains out of your pajamas.
2. Things you will not need to know in later life (1,998 hours). These are the things you learn in classes whose names end in -ology, -osophy, -istry, -ics, and so on.

So, you should major in subjects like English, philosophy, psychology, and sociology -- subjects in which nobody really understands what anybody else is talking about, and which involve virtually no actual facts. Take for example, English:

This involves writing papers about long books you have read little snippets of just before class. Here is a tip on how to get good grades on your English papers: Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. For example, suppose you are studying Moby Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say that Moby Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper, you say Moby Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland. Your professor, who is sick to death of reading papers and never liked Moby Dick anyway, will think you are enormously creative. If you can regularly come up with lunatic interpretations of simple stories, you should major in English.
posted by netbros at 8:58 AM on November 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


I'm actually halfway through the book right now, thanks, I'll use this.
posted by The Straightener at 8:58 AM on November 11, 2008


Marginally related, NSFW, and self-promotional.

This post will keep me occupied for hours today.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 9:04 AM on November 11, 2008


It's OK to "fake" your way through Moby-Dick, as if there was any other way for such a weird book.

I'm always fascinated how people annotate works online. In fact I wrote the Wikisource guide for annotations, some other online annotation examples are listed there that may be of interest.

Personally I find the Moby-Dick method interesting and admirable for such a long work, but difficult to read - there is too much distraction constantly pulling your eyes over to the right column for trivial stuff, and there is no room in the notes to expand on an idea. It would be good as a resource but hard to read as the primary text.
posted by stbalbach at 9:06 AM on November 11, 2008


> Your professor ... will think you are enormously creative.

Your professor will think you are one of those annoying students who are proud to have no life of the mind and will give you a minimal passing grade to ensure you're out of his life with the least friction possible.
posted by ardgedee at 9:15 AM on November 11, 2008 [14 favorites]


Moby Dick is one of the greatest works of art ever produced.

I was fortunate to have a professor as an undergrad who pointed out the fart joke.

As far as "The Cassock" chapter goes. It gets even better. The "mincer" skins the whale's johnson, then cuts a couple armholes in it and puts it on. He proceeds to work on processing blubber (at this point know as "bible leaves because it is flaps of blubber still connected to the skin on one end like a bound book). Melville then goes on to say:

Arrayed in decent black; occupying a conspicuous pulpit; intent on bible leaves; what a candidate for an archbishoprick, what a lad for a Pope were this mincer!

I remember reading that as an undergrad, realizing this guy was wearing a whale cock and Melville was comparing him to the Pope. I was satisfied it was cool to be an English major.

As far as the secret to be a good English major, I'll defer to a previous comment of mine here.
posted by marxchivist at 9:19 AM on November 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


netbros: Here is a tip on how to get good grades on your English papers: Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. For example, suppose you are studying Moby Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say that Moby Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper, you say Moby Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland. Your professor, who is sick to death of reading papers and never liked Moby Dick anyway, will think you are enormously creative.

This works in high school and in Quentin Tarantino scripts. College English professors, believe it or not, expect a little more.
posted by cobra libre at 9:24 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's a shame that most people read Moby Dick, or excerpts of it, in high school - for many people it's too early and goes by in a tedious blur. It's a hilarious book, as Melville intended, but you have to be able to get the humor.

Neat link. I like it!
posted by Miko at 9:25 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: Headwinds are prevalent.
posted by RussHy at 9:28 AM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Excellent link!
posted by humannaire at 9:35 AM on November 11, 2008


The interface is well-done: You can turn the annotations off to read it through as well as you can, and then turn them back on to see what you might've missed. If only the ads could be switched off as easily.
posted by ardgedee at 9:44 AM on November 11, 2008


A great friend of mine, an English major, persuaded me to read Moby Dick when I was old enough to get the jokes. I'm glad she did. But I found the ending oddly abrupt -- so oddly that I consulted her to find out what Melville was up to. Turned out that the edition I had checked out of the library (a small run from an academic press) was misprinted; the one-page epilogue was missing.

We decided that this would not do, and pasted in this insert for the benefit of future readers (text mine, illustrations hers).
posted by aws17576 at 9:49 AM on November 11, 2008 [11 favorites]


Remember when Moby Dick rammed the dinghy, and the seamen flew everywhere?

Sorry...couldn't help it, but the book is the biggest "dick joke" ever made.
posted by jonp72 at 9:56 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I just read Moby Dick about a month ago and was pretty happy with it. Now I'm skimming this, and wishing there was a way to turn off the notes for things I already got. I know who Pliny and Cato were, thanks. I did get a liberal arts degree.

(But yeah, can't wait to see if the bits I thought were super-gay were actually super-gay or if the milieu was simply super-gay then.)
posted by klangklangston at 10:08 AM on November 11, 2008


I'll be the speksnyder.
posted by jouke at 10:29 AM on November 11, 2008


My favorite line from the book is still:
Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

Thanks for the resource.

I had some amusement as I've been recently rereading the book and my ipod jumped to a song off Mastodon's Leviathan. The two don't quite flow in sync. (Which in turn reminds me of this comic that made ma laugh.)
posted by slimepuppy at 10:32 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's a hilarious book...

Not to mention: s-e-x-y! I mean, that night in the hotel where Ishmael and Queequeg share a bed? HAWT!

But yeah, can't wait to see if the bits I thought were super-gay were actually super-gay or if the milieu was simply super-gay then.


Well, it is Melville we're talking about here. I'm pretty sure even the typeface is super-gay.
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:33 AM on November 11, 2008


I "read" Moby-Dick first when I was making a very long road trip. When these things happened, I went and bought an audio book for the trip so I could feel productive and keep awake. My professor at the Academy at the time, the legendary Doc White, had said that when the United States was long gone, they would remember us for two things: being the first nation to make it to the moon and step on a celestial object, and a book about a whale. So much of what the United States is is bound in those two concepts and no other nation could have produced both. We are an obsessive people, which makes us powerful enough to try the insurmountable when cooler heads would leave well enough alone, but every so often it ends either in tragedy or triumph, though ends greatly. I always remember when Starbuck is thinking about killing Ahab in his sleep to release the crew from the impending doom but he can't; whatever idea is forcing Ahab forward, no matter how flawed and wrong, is "greater" than Starbuck and he knows this.

Anyway, I listened to each chapter, each digression into whale use and the like and loved it. I felt a grandness even if I was struggling to stay awake for some of the dryer passages. But here's the thing: that's what being out to sea is like. It's day after day of thinking, or waiting, of singing, of contemplating the oceans, of making the time pass. And then suddenly quick, furious action! And then back to the day-in-day-out. This is EVERYTHING about whaling and even the tempo is that of a whaling voyage.

Thank you so much Quietgal for this. It will certainly be used as I ponder through trips familiar on my own sea voyage.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 10:46 AM on November 11, 2008 [6 favorites]


> Turned out that the edition I had checked out of the library (a small run from an academic press) was misprinted; the one-page epilogue was missing.

That's interesting because the first edition, printed in London, also omitted the epilogue. This contributed to the mediocre reviews the book received at the time.
posted by Sculthorpe at 10:57 AM on November 11, 2008


Son of Abraham indeed!
posted by Burhanistan at 10:59 AM on November 11, 2008


fwiw, it is reported that Moby Dick is one of our new president-elect's favorite books.
posted by edgeways at 11:01 AM on November 11, 2008


This is EVERYTHING about whaling and even the tempo is that of a whaling voyage.

Good point. When teaching about whaling we used to say that your typical whaling voyage is "95% boredom and 5% sheer terror."
posted by Miko at 11:04 AM on November 11, 2008


Miko: That's funny...one of my stock answers whenever a fare asks me what it's like to drive a cab for a living is that it's "eight hours of crushing boredom punctuated occasionally by moments of utter terror."

(I wonder what the origin of this is...Google says that "boredom punctuated by terror" has been applied to A LOT of different professions other than whaling and taxi driving, most often flying and being an EMS. Anyone have any idea? Now that I think about it, it sounds like a pretty good description of war, so I wonder if it has a military origin. It certainly seems like military humor, anyway.)
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:56 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I read Moby Dick about 2 years ago. While the chapters on the history of whaling were tough to get through, it was still one of the best books I have ever read, but it took me a long time to read it.. a couple of months. I'm bookmarking this to go through it to see what I missed.. I'm sure there was plenty.

Ian, about the boredom and terror, I was reading a biography of a B17 pilot who flew in England. He also said that flying missions consisted of hours of sheer boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Interesting enough, he related a story about how he had been a part of a program where he hooked up with an infantry unit for a while while the infantry officer flew as an observer/gunner on a B17. While the B17 was described as the aforementioned boredom and terror, the infantry was described as a consistent level of tension, never knowing when things would get ugly. Each though the other was insane for doing what they did. To each their own.
posted by MattScully at 1:50 PM on November 11, 2008


Nice resource and an excellent post!

I hate to niggle, but don't treat the annotations as holy writ. Take this one, for example: "Tooke's Lucian: The True History, a fictional work by the Assyrian satirist Lucian of Samosata (c. 125-after 180 A.D.), translated in 1820 by William Tooke." It's just nuts to call Lucian "the Assyrian satirist"; yes, he sometimes referred to himself as Syrian or Assyrian, to emphasize his outsider status—he was from the border town of Samosata, far from the centers of Greek culture—but he wrote in Greek, participated fully in Greek culture, and it doesn't make sense to refer to him as anything but a Greek satirist. When we think of Assyrians, we think of these guys.
posted by languagehat at 1:55 PM on November 11, 2008


languagehat, I actually think of this. Appropriately enough.
posted by aws17576 at 2:07 PM on November 11, 2008


Excellent post and thread :)

(does anyone remember off the top of their head which chapter has the scene with the whale "nursery"? I was looking for it the other day and couldn't find it.)

Nantucket Sleighride
posted by vronsky at 2:20 PM on November 11, 2008


I read this book one summer, loved it to death. Not the greatest work of then English language, but probably my favorite of the "Classics." (Tied with The Sun Also Rises). This is a fantastic link. I'm going to have to re-read this now.
posted by Hactar at 3:45 PM on November 11, 2008


I just re-read Moby Dick after reading Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America by Eric Jay Dolin. A fascinating read about the American rise to power via the whaling supremacy of Nantucket, New Bedford et al. I highly recommend it as it is a prefect set up for Moby Dick.
posted by misterpatrick at 4:08 PM on November 11, 2008


grobstein: lol u r RONG the Pythagorean maxim is DONT eat beans u luser

jouke: what's a speksnyder? Google's Dutch translator tells me it's a "bacon snyder", which isn't very helpful (although probably delicious).

Lord Chancellor, it's always an honor to have you drop into a thread. If I recall correctly, you're posting from a ship somewhere in the Persian Gulf, which is awesome in and of itself. Nice to hear a professional sailor's view of a great seafaring novel! Thank you for your service and have you read the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian?

Everyone else: thanks for the comments and compliments. Now I'm gonna have to read that dang thing myself!
posted by Quietgal at 4:41 PM on November 11, 2008


But yeah, can't wait to see if the bits I thought were super-gay were actually super-gay or if the milieu was simply super-gay then.

Actually super-gay.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:51 PM on November 11, 2008


Yes! Maybe now I'll finally read it!

Thanks, Quietgal!
posted by rtha at 4:58 PM on November 11, 2008


klangklangston, you want some super gay? Try Billy Budd, or Benjamin Britten's opera of the book. I had to fan myself.

I was amazed to see in the Obama article linked below that he said Moby Dick was one of his favorite books. The cliche is that everyone is assigned it, and no one reads it, because they start it and they hate it because OMG WHALES BORING AMIRITE. I was enchanted by it, and I have it alongside Ulysses on the bookshelf of my mind. Only I reread Moby Dick far more often than Ulysses.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:02 PM on November 11, 2008


What? No mention of the sperm-squeezing scene? Fart jokes are nice to find in classics, sure, but my god, if Chapter 94's not the most homoerotic scene in literature (one of the others is pretty much the entirety of Billy Budd), it's damn sure in the top three:

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,--Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!


Oh my.
posted by mediareport at 5:12 PM on November 11, 2008


I was enchanted by it

Yeah, me too. I started it with the standard "I should fucking read this thing" trepidation but was completely won over by the comedy of the opening chapters. Then Melville ramps up the strangeness and excitement until he pretty much goes bonkers and starts throwing everything he can think of into the book - theatrical scenes with stage directions, scientific lectures, philosophical meditations, detailed descriptions of how the ropes work on the whale boats - and somehow makes it work. I was in a coffeeshop last year about halfway through it and remember putting it down and just starting to laugh about 1) what a sprawling insane mess of a book it was, and 2) how much I was loving the hell out of it.
posted by mediareport at 5:19 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


w/r/t sperm squeezing: I had some insight once into why you'd want this job. A few years back I was on a work-related with a bunch of other maritime history geeks - we went to Nantucket. At the time they were still drying out the sperm whale skeleton that is now in their whaling museum. It had beached a few years back, and they received permission to use dermestid beetles to clean the skeleton and display it in the museum.

When we visited, the bones had been dug up after a year or so underground and were resting on cardboard in a warehouse location, just drying. After all that time, they were still leaking oil onto the cardboard. The preparators had also saved the spermaceti ("sperm") and they put some on our hands to let us touch it. It was amazing. The silkiest, softest, most frictionless liquid you can imagine, instantly soothing and smoothing your skin. Lanolin x10. We had always been told that whalemen used to love to process the sperm (or "case oil") because it was such a treat on skin that had been chafing in salt-saturated wool and cotton clothing for months. Where I worked, we had some film footage of one of the last American whaling voyages, in about 1922. One of the men is standing in a bucket full of the spermaceti as he dips it out of the whale's case.
posted by Miko at 5:45 PM on November 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


Moby Dick is a fantastic book. I just finished reading it for the third time this summer when I finally made it to Nantucket to see the whaling museum there. In many ways it reminds me of Infinite Jest - it's the same sprawling mess of a story.

It's definitely a book that rewards repeat readings. Every time I've read it I've appreciated it more. It feels very theatrical in parts; I would love to see a proper film made of it.
posted by pombe at 5:58 PM on November 11, 2008


Great link, thanks. Is there one out there like this, sort of hyper-annotated, for Ulysses?
posted by zardoz at 6:04 PM on November 11, 2008


here it is - Chapter LXXXVII-The Grand Armada

page 386

Mortal: physical
Gulf-weed: sargassum, a free-floating seaweed
Tokens: characteristics
Reticule: a drawstring purse, but in this case a womb

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;--even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight. Floating on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us. One of these little infants, that from certain queer tokens seemed hardly a day old, might have measured some fourteen feet in length, and some six feet in girth. He was a little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarce yet recovered from that irksome position it had so lately occupied in the maternal reticule; where, tail to head, and all ready for the final spring, the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar's bow. The delicate side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby's ears newly arrived from foreign parts.

"Line! line!" cried Queequeg, looking over the gunwale; "him fast! him fast!--Who line him! Who struck? Two whale; one big, one little!"

"What ails ye, man?" cried Starbuck.

"Look-e here," said Queequeg pointing down.

Dam: mother
As when the stricken whale, that from the tub has reeled out hundreds of fathoms of rope; as, after deep sounding, he floats up again, and shows the slackened curling line buoyantly rising and spiralling towards the air; so now, Starbuck saw long coils of the umbilical cord of Madame Leviathan, by which the young cub seemed still tethered to its dam. Not seldom in the rapid vicissitudes of the chase, this natural line, with the maternal end loose, becomes entangled with the hempen one, so that the cub is thereby trapped. Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas

page 387

seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep.*
posted by vronsky at 7:02 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Slimepuppy: Mastodon's Leviathan.

Got turned on to that album the same year I read the book. I'm not big on death-metal/math-rock/whatever-you-call-that stuff, but I happened to really like that album. They Played Hearts Alive as their set-closer at SXSW 2 years ago.

That cartoon is pretty damn good, too.

Quietgal, thanks for the link. I've read it twice now, and intend to dip in a third time with a highlighter, once I pick up a cheap paperback. (It wouldn't do to mar my leatherbound hard-back. Treasured possesion, that.)
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:14 PM on November 11, 2008


I know it's been brought up here before, but ANY fan of Moby Dick, or of sailing in general, absolutely must read (don't you love me telling you what to do?) The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. It's the account of the real-life whaling ship which was stove by an angry Sperm whale which was the inspiration for Melville's novel. Awesome stuff.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:24 PM on November 11, 2008


Great post Quietgal. Old bit of fun from Crooked Timber: Ask a Nineteenth-Century Whaling Expert
posted by Abiezer at 7:28 PM on November 11, 2008


It feels very theatrical in parts; I would love to see a proper film made of it.

oh, there is one - I caught it on PBS years after reading the book but it is quite wonderful.

I read the book late, one of those I always meant to get around to, and I found it leisurely and fascinating and random until the last 50 pages or so when it all seems to pull together. I don't particularly care if I missed a fart joke here or there, though, I have to say :).
posted by mdn at 8:27 PM on November 11, 2008


Abeizer's link leaves out one important point: whale oil's value derived only in part from use in lighting. It was used in lighting, and the best candles were made from the wax pressed out of the spermaceti. But the real reason it was so desired and so valued is that it's the best lubricant found in nature, and what machines were there that needed to be lubricated? The rapidly exploding mills of industrializing New England.

Sperm oil also was irreplaceable in fine machinery - watches, nautical instruments, gauges. It was almost completely pure.

I'm puzzled about why the expert says shore-whaling was 'discovered' after Melville's time. In fact, shore whaling predates Melville. Nantucketers and Long Islanders practiced it from the 1600s, having learned it from native populations. They built towers on the beach and hunted that way. Sperm whales were the big discovery - Nantucket lore has it that a Nantucket captain first ran across a sperm whale in 1712, but the story's details are suspect. Still, until sperm whales were discovered to have had much more and richer oil than right whales, most whaling was done from shore and on short voyages and the target was the Atlantic right whale. The chase for the sperm whale gave rise to the long voyages characteristic of the Yankee whaling industry - it was sperm whale migrations and rumors of large populations that drew Yankees into the Southern Ocean and the Pacific. After their numbers began to be exhausted, whalers also began to pursue bowheads (which are the ones who produced baleen - sperm whales have no baleen since they are toothed whales), and then even experimented with gray whales and other Pacific species before the infrastructure for processing petroleum really got under way.
posted by Miko at 9:00 PM on November 11, 2008


I'm supremely unqualified to comment on the actual economics and practicalities of whaling, Miko. I partly recalled the post because of enjoying some of the comments so heartily, particularly:
Dear Nineteenth-Century Whaling Expert: My boyfriend is always pressuring me to “go all the way,” but I’m not sure I’m ready. I don’t want to disappoint him, but this seems like a big step. What should I do? – Perplexed in Phoenix
Dear Perplexed, Call me Kenneth. Well I remember those terrible days of yore, when mighty seafaring men bestrode the waves on massive vessels of oak and iron. Lo, then did the fearsome whale-beast breach and carve asunder the frothing surf, straining in vain to escape the wrath of the harpoon. Mark my words – the harpoon-thrower is your boyfriend, and fear him you must. As those steel-eyed whale-hunters were after but a single prize, so does this young fellow want only one thing. Sound and dive, young lady, sound and dive.
posted by Abiezer at 9:18 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, that's a riot. I didn't even read the comments because I've learned through hard-won life experience that reading blog comments usually makes my stomach hurt. Thanks for directing my attention to them. I'll be sharing this!
posted by Miko at 6:35 AM on November 12, 2008


Devils Rancher: "I know it's been brought up here before, but ANY fan of Moby Dick, or of sailing in general, absolutely must read (don't you love me telling you what to do?) The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. It's the account of the real-life whaling ship which was stove by an angry Sperm whale which was the inspiration for Melville's novel. Awesome stuff."

Agreed. Heart of the Sea is probably one of the best popular non-fiction books of the last 10 years, it's had a huge impact on other non-fiction writers, it's sort of the high bar to aim for.
posted by stbalbach at 6:54 AM on November 12, 2008


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