Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick

  • By Richard J. King
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 464 pp.
  • Reviewed by John P. Loonam
  • November 1, 2019

A fascinating, timely exploration of Melville's (and our) watery world.

In 1929, Lewis Mumford predicted that “Each age…will find its own symbols in Moby-Dick.” As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth, Richard J. King’s Ahab’s Rolling Sea gives us a reading for our Anthropocenic era, a chance to find symbols appropriate for our current environmental crisis in this 1851 masterpiece.

King is uniquely qualified to offer such a reading. As a visiting associate professor at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and the author of several previous works on oceanic history, he combines his love of Melville’s novel with a technical background that is rare among literary scholars.

King organizes his narrative around a chronological reading of Moby-Dick — examining the sailing, oceanography, and marine life we encounter in the voyage of the Pequod. He explores these details first in light of the science available to Melville in the mid-19th century and then through the lens of contemporary marine science.

He repeatedly asks the question, “What of this is true to what we know today?” and repeatedly gets this answer from a wide variety of experts: “Melville gets [it] mostly right.” If there is a criticism to be made of this study, it’s that this process is too comprehensive. Some of the sea creatures Melville describes (the argonaut and the frigate-bird come to mind) are less interesting than others.

King centers his examination on an important 19th-century debate that still resonates. On one side, we find Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louis Agassiz. Emerson was deeply engaged in natural science, and his 1836 essay “Nature” was, for generations, a touchstone for American thinking about the natural world. Agassiz, a father of natural history who made important contributions to the fields of geology and evolution, was founder of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Geology.

King highlights how much their work involved incorporating the explosion of scientific knowledge into their religious understanding that the world was designed by a loving god. As he puts it, for them, the science “was a way to celebrate the Creator’s genius and His benevolence.”

Melville was well read in the work of both men, and Moby-Dick is saturated with romantic naturalism. However, Melville had also read Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and was aware that the other side of the debate would dethrone God’s benevolence and knock man from his place atop creation. Melville does not share Captain Ahab’s certainty that the sea they sail on was the same as Noah’s. King makes clear that assessing that similarity involves both science and poetry.

The science in Ahab’s Rolling Sea includes a lively review of Melville’s research. One wonderful aspect of the book is its illustrations, both 19th-century engravings familiar to Melville and contemporary graphics that bring the information up to date (including a chart of whale species that features both the mammals’ 19th- and 21st-century names).

King reinforces his review of this literature with contemporary science, calling in expert testimony from Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, the Mystic Seaport Museum, and the University of Otago in New Zealand, among many other institutions, and sailing on the whale-watching vessel the Charles W. Morgan, a 19th-century whaler almost identical to the Acushnet, which Melville sailed from New Bedford in 1841 and used as the model for the Pequod.

This focus on scientific accuracy must ultimately be aimed at the White Whale itself. When King turns to the final three days of the fictional chase and the whale’s destruction of the Pequod, he focuses on three questions central to Melville’s novel: Can humans track an individual sperm whale over multiple days? Are such tracked whales aware of being hunted? And could a sperm whale react in a consciously aggressive manner?

The scientific answers are relatively straightforward, if limited. Contemporary researchers can certainly identify individual whales and track pods throughout their migrations. However, Marta Guerra Bobo of the University of Otago remains tentative about the ability to track an individual whale over three days, saying nothing more definitive than, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they got it right every once in a while.”

Similarly, scientists have long established that members of the whale family can recognize individual humans, though King hedges here by pointing out that Melville never claimed the whale “sees or chooses Ahab.”

And we know Ishmael’s account of the White Whale involves actions that “are all actual known sperm whale behaviors.” For instance, the whale could attack the Pequod. King recounts several whaling expeditions that ended badly — including that of the Coral, which had one of its whaleboats eaten by a sperm whale (a story Melville might have heard while aboard the Acushnet), and the infamous Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 and which Melville references in Moby-Dick.

King also assesses the sperm whale’s impressive physicality to establish that its tail is fully capable of warding off harpooning whaleboats, that its jaws can indeed break apart and eat those boats, and that its head is well adapted for use as a battering ram.

However, while these actions are “accurate, documented and possible for an individual male sperm whale,” writes the author, we cannot be certain whales can be intentionally aggressive toward individual ships, crews, or captains.

Ultimately, answering these questions involves poetry more than science. Melville has combined the rational, objective, Darwinian perspective with the emotional, poetic, Emersonian perspective, pushing the reader to see nature as both dangerous and damaged. Here is King’s main point: that Melville’s novel can now be read as an introduction to environmental issues of the 21st century.

He ends Ahab’s Rolling Sea with his own reporting on the health of our oceans, where fish populations have declined 40 percent since the 1970s, sea levels have risen eight inches, and plastics are found in poisonous concentrations in the bellies of dead whales.

As in Melville’s novel, the science here is accurate. Now we must absorb the idea that “messing with the forces of the natural ocean world will end poorly for humans.”

John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American Literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various anthologies, most recently Lock & Load, a collection of gun-related stories by Annie Proulx, John Edgar Wideman, and others. His stories have appeared in journals such as the Madison Review and the Santa Fe Writer’s Project. His work has been listed in storysouth's "Best of the Web" and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn since long before it was cool.

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