As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the old Signet Classics edition of Moby-Dick included an "Afterword" by Denham Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe was a Rhodes Scholar and, between 1946 and his death in 1964, a professor of English at Kenyon College.
His Moby-Dick Afterword, a blessedly straightforward piece of literary criticism, begins with a useful caveat: don't etherealize the book. "This is a sternly factual story of the men who fill leviathan with fish spears and pull him from the sea with hooks," he writes (alluding gently to the Book of Job). Yes, Moby-Dick quivers and quakes with meanings below the surface. But it's not an exercise in pure myth-making. The work's greatness derives largely from the tensions and reflections between the deeper significances and the solid, prosaic subject matter: "It is not that things 'stand for' something else; they are inexorably themselves, but they begin to accrete meanings and associations."
Sutcliffe then provides examples of the multiple, often contradictory meanings that Melville saw in his world. There's "Queequeg himself, undeniably a tattooed cannibal who peddles human heads, but who teaches Ishmael love and acceptance, and redeems him from his misanthropy." There are the two sides of the ocean: "As we behold 'the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin,' we must not forget 'the tiger heart that pants beneath it.'" And there is the whale: "The whale does not 'stand for' the beauty and terror and mystery of the Creation, but he strongly suggests them all, becomes their symbol. The mystery, and above all, it must be said, the terror, predominate."
Focusing finally on Ahab, Sutcliffe points out his rejection of "mortal interindebtedness" and his chosen aloneness, so different from Ishmael and from Captain Boomer, of the Samuel Enderby, who was also maimed by Moby Dick yet retained his sociability. "Yet Ahab is a grand figure. He dwarfs the reconciled Boomer and all other characters in the book. ... If Ahab piles upon the hump of Moby Dick all evil, he takes upon himself all human sorrow; he propounds again Job's question whether this is a moral universe."
Sutcliffe acknowledges that his discussion "mark[s] out only one main line in this rich book," and he glances quickly at other lines of appreciation. "Conclude from all this," he writes, "that we have here an American masterpiece, a book that rewards constant rereading[.]"