In a visit to Princeton University Library, William Giraldi recently discovered Herman Melville’s copy of Paradise Lost. Checkmarks, underscores, annotations and Xs reveal something of an obsession with Milton’s greatest work, an obsession that came to define the writing – and rewriting – of Moby Dick.
In 1849 the manuscript for Moby Dick, which would be published less than two years later, was already longer than any of Melville's previous writings, but those familiar with the end product would have found themselves all at sea with this early draft. Captain Ahab, one of the great tragic heroes of American literature and Melville's best known creation, had yet to appear in the encyclopedic account of a whaler’s life, centered around the young sailor Ishmael.
It wasn’t until Melville had immersed himself in Paradise Lost that his work began to deviate from detailed descriptions of whaling to incorporate the story of an obsessive, vengeful captain, driven to hunt down the whale that had sunk his ship and bitten off his leg. Melville’s story drew on several contemporary accounts of aggressive sperm whales – along with the alleged killing of a real whale known as Mocha Dick – but any reader of Paradise Lost will also recognise Milton’s Satan in the forceful character traits of Captain Ahab. Both Satan and Ahab, defined by their pride and their obsession, their manic grandiloquence and epic resentment, retain the reader’s sympathy in spite of their madness.
Captain Ahab himself points out his parallels to the devil, telling his shipmates that that he is as “proud as Lucifer” and “damned in the midst of Paradise”. And in the pitches of his crazed speechmaking one can also detect the lyrical influence of Milton’s poetics: “I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.”
It was on the image of Satan that Melville modeled Ahab’s tragic heroism – his solipsism, resentment and crazed determination to succeed. Without Milton’s Satan, Ahab would have had no leg to stand on.
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