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Although Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is beloved as one of the most profound and enduring works of American fiction, we rarely consider it a work of nature writing – or even a novel of the sea. Yet Pulitzer Prize–winning author Annie Dillard avers Moby-Dick is the "best book ever written about nature", and nearly the entirety of the story is set on the waves, with scarcely a whiff of land. In fact, Ishmael's sea yarn is in conversation with the nature writing of Emerson and Thoreau, and Melville himself did much more than live for a year in a cabin beside a pond. He set sail: to the far remote Pacific Ocean, spending more than three years at sea before writing his masterpiece in 1851.
A revelation for Moby-Dick devotees and neophytes alike, Ahab's Rolling Sea is a chronological journey through the natural history of Melville's novel. From white whales to whale intelligence, giant squids, barnacles, albatross, and sharks, Richard J. King examines what Melville knew from his own experiences and the sources available to a reader in the mid-1800s, exploring how and why Melville might have twisted what was known to serve his fiction. King then climbs to the crow's nest, setting Melville in the context of the American perception of the ocean in 1851 – at the very start of the Industrial Revolution and just before the publication of On the Origin of Species. King compares Ahab's and Ishmael's worldviews to how we see the ocean today: an expanse still immortal and sublime, but also in crisis. And although the concept of stewardship of the sea would have been entirely foreign, if not absurd, to Melville, King argues that Melville's narrator Ishmael reveals his own tendencies toward what we would now call environmentalism.
Featuring a coffer of illustrations and an array of interviews with contemporary scientists, fishers, and whale watch operators, Ahab's Rolling Sea offers new insight not only into a cherished masterwork and its author but also into our evolving relationship with the briny deep – from whale hunters to climate refugees.
1. Herman Melville: Whaleman, Author, Natural Philosopher
2. Numerous Fish Documents
3. Cetology and Evolution
4. White Whales and Natural Theology
5. Whale Migration
7. Gulls, Sea-Ravens, and Albatrosses
8. Small Harmless Fish
10. Sword-Fish and Lively Grounds
11. Brit and Baleen
12. Giant Squid
14. Fresh Fare
15. Barnacles and Sea Candies
16. Practical Cetology: Spout, Senses, and the Dissection of Heads
17. Whale and Human Intelligence
19. Coral Insects
21. Whale Skeletons and Fossils
22. Does the Whale Diminish?
23. Mother Carey’s Chickens
24. Typhoons and Corpusants
27. The Feminine Air
28. Noiseless Nautilus
29. Sperm Whale Behavior
31. Ishmael: Blue Environmentalist and Climate Refugee
Figure Credits and Notes
Richard J. King is visiting associate professor of maritime literature and history at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. For more than twenty years he has been sailing and teaching aboard tall ships in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He writes and illustrates a column on marine animals for Sea History magazine, edits the "Searchable Sea Literature" website, and was the founding series editor of Seafaring America. He is the author of Lobster and The Devil's Cormorant: A Natural History.
"Moby-Dick is seen as one of the great pieces of American fiction, but it is rarely thought of as a great work of nature writing, argues Richard J. King in Ahab's Rolling Sea. King, a sailor and expert in the literature of the sea, believes that should change. [...] It's an enjoyable hotch-potch of biography, biology, natural history, social history and literary review, of course aimed at Moby-Dick super-fans, but offering lots for anyone with an interest in marine biology, seafaring or the history of science. [...] Ahab's Rolling Sea is, without doubt, a book primarily aimed at those who have read and loved Moby-Dick, but it may also be the tasty morsel that tempts those who have never got round to reading (or, in my case, finishing) this leviathan novel to finally dive in."
– Tom Ireland, The Biologist 67(1), Feb/Mar 2020
"I'm an easy mark for books like Ahab's Rolling Sea: A Natural History of 'Moby-Dick', which I've read a perhaps unhealthy number of times, in light of Annie Dillard's opinion that Melville's baggy masterpiece is the 'best book ever written about nature'. Focusing on nineteenth century oceanography, natural history, and, of course, the whalers' understanding of his prey's remarkable intelligence, King's book is a fascinating and rare thing: a vital addition to Melville studies."
– Stephen Sparks, LitHub, "12 Books You Should Read This October"
"King uses modern sources and historical texts to take a fresh look at Melville's book – published in the same decade as Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species – with the well-defined brief of assessing its natural history content. The result is a lighthearted and incredibly enjoyable read that manages somehow, at the right moments, to be both broad and narrow in scope. It should be required reading for anyone attempting Moby-Dick [...] No captive of the library, King is an experienced seaman and an open-minded and intrepid guide. A visiting associate professor of maritime literature and history at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, he is willing to pull on his old Sou'wester and sail into the watery part of the world [...] King writes ably and in scholarly detail about albatrosses, ambergris, baleen, barnacles, seals, sharks, sperm whale behavior and language, swordfish, typhoons, and all sorts of marine and cetological marginalia [...] [A] talented and clear-eyed [...] writer."
– Christopher J. Kemp, Science
"A treasure trove. King situates Melville as a person of his time, writing amid a quickening pace of discoveries about the natural world but, pre-On the Origin of Species, inclined to couch them as further disclosures of God's design."
– Stephen Phillips, Spectator
"Ahab's Rolling Sea highlights our destructiveness as it teases fact from fiction in Moby-Dick, the obsessive hunt for a great white whale [...] Rigorous [...] Original."
– Chris Simms, New Scientist
"King gives us natural history done Melville-style, looking over a ship's rail, and this ingenious focus neatly weds field science and literary history, yielding a study that is fresh, provocative, and welcome."
– William Howarth, The American Scholar
"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 twenty-first century."
– John P. Loonam, Washington Independent Review of Books
"Anyone who loves Moby-Dick should read this book."
– Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the National Book Award–winning In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex and Why Read 'Moby-Dick'?
"It took me decades to appreciate that Melville's messy, uncontainable, surging Moby-Dick is perhaps the greatest book ever written about the sea, and about the human relationship with the living world, and perhaps the only book sufficiently un-jaded by mercantilism and modernity to be worthy of the actual ocean itself in all its raw, uncontrollable, surging majesty. But if you don't want to wait decades for Melville's magnificence to be revealed, you can cheat and read King's book. Ahab's Rolling Sea is a marvelous guide to the magic and mystery that was Melville's gift to us, for King reveals the deep, deep backstory of the making of Moby-Dick, the vast pots of experience and information that Melville simmered down, and even the missing ingredients of his age, that made Moby-Dick the richest bouillabaisse in all of literature. Oh, and about Melville's missing ingredients – they're here, in King's terrific book."
– Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World's Coasts and Beneath the Seas and Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace
"Ahab's Rolling Sea is a wide-ranging, highly personal, richly eclectic, and extremely well-researched book whose style and humor, combined with its rigor, suggest the potential for popularity even beyond the fascinations of this self-confessed whalehead. Who could not warm to a chapter titled 'Gulls, Sea-Ravens, and Albatrosses' or 'Sword-Fish and Lively Grounds,' or be intrigued by 'Phosphorescence'? There's a Melvillean romance here, and it sits especially well with King's love and empathy for human as well as natural history. A contemporary, witty, almost postmodern field guide."
– Philip Hoare, author of Risingtidefallingstar, The Sea Inside, The Whale, and Leviathan
"King decisively settles any lingering questions about Moby-Dick, nineteenth-century whales and whaling, and all lore and literature of the sea. More than establishing a factual basis for Ishmael's fiction-making, King writes passionately on climate change, economic pressures on sea creatures, and the future Melville confronts in his marvelous encounter with the 'wonder-world' of whaling. King's deep knowledge grounds lively storytelling, keen observations drawn from years of sailing, and an eye for details that will make Melville's book come alive. But even if you haven't read Moby-Dick, you will revel in this storehouse of fascinating tales and arcana, from Ambergris to Zeuglodon. A treasure for library, classroom, or bedside table."
– Wyn Kelley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of Melville's City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and Herman Melville: An Introduction
"This is a superb work of popular scholarship that rivals the best books of maritime nonfiction currently in print. For any teacher, reader, or aficionado of Melville's magnum opus the present work will be a joy to read; for anyone curious about the current state of the marine environment, this book will be eye-opening."
– Dan Brayton, Middlebury College, author of Shakespeare's Ocean: An Ecocritical Exploration
" [...] offers new insight not only into a cherished masterwork and its author but also into everyone's evolving relationship with the briny deep – from whale hunters to climate refugees."
– The Sandwich Enterprise