Moby-Dick, Squeezed into a Can of Sardines

Well, call me . . . whatever you like, but I am prickly when it comes to the protection of endangered species; those of the literary kind, I mean. Take Moby-Dick, for instance. Go ahead, so many have taken it before you, ripped out its guts and turned it into some cautionary tale warning against blind ambition and nature-defying obsession. Moral lessons are like sardines: readily tinned and easily stored until dispensed; but they become offensive when examined closely and exposed for much longer than it takes to swallow them.

Not far from where I live now, in the Welsh town of Fishguard (pictured), Gregory Peck was once seen impersonating the mad Captain Ahab, who, in the eyes and minds of many non-readers, became the scene-chomping villain in control of Herman Melville’s tough-to-steer vessel of a book. On this day, 19 October, in 1946, Moby-Dick was being chopped to pieces for the airwaves. It had come under the knife of Ernest Kinoy. who did this sort of hack job on a weekly basis; the remains were tossed onto the soundstage of the Columbia Workshop, ready to be delivered to American homes like a quick if none too nutritious meal.

Radio was a regular cannery row back then. Now, the Workshop was a classier establishment than most of radio’s story factories. As I last mentioned here, it was billed as “radio’s foremost laboratory of writing and production technique.” Its producers knew better than to present the entire volume in a twenty-five minute synopsis. A little better, that is. Instead, as if inspired by the hyphen that harpoons the original title, they allotted two installments for its audio-dramatic rend(er)ing of the old mammal. They had done as much in their treatments of Hamlet and Alice in Wonderland (as well as its sequel). They were still a thousand nautical miles away from approaching what E. M. Forster referred to as “the song” of the book.

As Forster remarked, Moby-Dick is “an easy book, as long as we read it as a yarn or an account of whaling interspersed with snatches of poetry. But as soon as we catch the song in it, it grows difficult and immensely important.” The “prophetic song” of Moby-Dick “flows athwart the action and the surface morality like an undercurrent. It lies outside words.” It certainly “lies outside” the domain of sound effects and choric shanties—the readily reproduced impressions of the sea.

I wonder whether Hemingway was listening in or taking notes that day (and on 26 October, when the Workshop presumed to have done justice to—or simply be done with—the book ). On radio, at least, Moby-Dick sounded like an extended version of The Old Man and the Sea, written a century later. Aside from the famous opening line and the hunt for the titular creature (which takes up the three concluding chapters of Melville’s 135-chapters-spanning tome), little blubber and less bone remains of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, a book known to many and read by few.

To those picking it up for the first time, the humanity and gentle mankindliness of Moby-Dick—especially its tenth chapter—must come as a surprise. What has happened to popular culture in America that it balks at such pre-Wildean sentiment but gorges instead on the book’s supposed machismo appeal? Is it possible, perhaps, to take another look at this Brokeback Mountain of a whale?

“All my books are botches,” Melville declared to Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom the book is inscribed. They most certainly are, once they fall into the hands of adaptors like Mr. Kinoy.

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