The Sphynx; or, Ishmael's Scholarship in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale




Cataldo, Luis

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Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is, in some sense, a work of art composed of two distinct books—distinct, but the one means nothing with the other. Moby- Dick is a drama, and The Whale a monograph; the or does not distinguish alternative titles (synonyms), but rather a particular recourse to conjunction, to movement between alternative, though specific, forms of literary composition as a way to express experience. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “The American Scholar,” addressed fourteen years before the composition of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale these very sort of movements between experience, scholarship and poetry: Ishmael, who Melville authored as an author of the book, is as much a scholar as he is a poet. The Whale is his scholarly work (cetology, commercial histories, arcana, art criticism, among others), a part of the book that has not, moreover, attracted much attention in critical studies of Moby-Dick since the 1920s, when Melville studies really began to take form. Ishmael’s scholarship is usually typified as either useful contextualization (a “ballast” necessary for a reader’s understanding of Moby-Dick) or else Melvillean extravagance. Literary critics usually privilege story of Ahab and the Pequod, i.e. those parts that make up Moby-Dick in the understanding of Melville’s book as two, over its counterpart, The Whale. The argument here seeks to undo the rigidity of that critical approach in order to read any particular part of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale on its own terms. In so doing, I attempt to elaborate and develop Emerson’s notion of scholarship, as well as Melville’s adaptations of Emerson’s theory of scholarly expression, using both Melville’s writing at the time of Moby- Dick’s composition (his letters and “Hawthorne and His Mosses”) and Ishmael’s (performative) example in the book itself. Scholarship, on these terms, is highly creative poetic, intuitive, and above all personal; and, still, it is rigorous, self-critical, and conscious of an internal logic. Part of my argument is a performance of this notion of scholarship, namely, taking up a creative and personal style that motivates the evolution of this argument through interrogations of the figures of the Lamp-Light and the Tattoo in the book. I argue for, in other words, a renewal of Emerson’s demands for American scholarship—the need for creative reading (finding the links between literature and everyday life) and for creative writing about those experiences of creative reading.


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