Reading Moby-Dick with Marilynne Robinson

The second semester of my first year of graduate school at the University of Iowa, I took a class on the novel Moby-Dick. I had made it through college and the years hence, several of which were spent reviewing American novels for magazines, without ever finishing Herman Melville’s masterpiece, a book often called the greatest American novel. I had read enough of Moby-Dick to know I didn’t know how to read it. I had done enough writing to know I wanted what it had. I needed context, needed accountability. I hoped the Moby-Dick seminar would force my hand.

More than the text, though, it was the professor who intrigued me. The class was taught by Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead. Like millions of others readers, from John Piper to Barack Obama, I had been edified and instructed by Robinson’s prose, which is plaintive and lyrical, tough-minded and large-hearted, earthbound yet open to eternal life.

Her books are elegant and strange. They eschew chapter divisions and much in the way of plot for a prayer-like meandering toward revelation. The work is less like fiction than wisdom literature, less like literature than thought itself.

Robinson cuts such a stubborn figure in American letters. What other 21st-century author would write—as she’d done in Gilead, a novel set in Iowa in the 1950s—about a dying pastor with an affinity for baseball, abolitionism, and the poems of George Herbert? What other writer could make goodness and virtue so interesting? Where had Robinson come from? What, I wondered, did Moby-Dick mean to her?

I had my suspicions. The first sentence of Housekeeping (“My name is Ruth”) channeled the first sentence of Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”). Both books, I gathered, filter reality through the discrete consciousness of a highly ruminative character who is simultaneously singular and a stand-in for any cognizant human being. Both books deploy metaphors to explore the nature of existence. Both interrogate the relationship between perception and language.

Suffice it to say I was excited, and slightly nervous, when I registered for the course in the fall of 2013. But by the time I entered the classroom on the frigid first day of the following semester, my anticipation had been co-opted by a sense of dread. Over the winter break, the editing job I had transferred from Washington to Iowa City had ended without warning. My wife’s freelance writing commissions and the stipend I received in exchange for teaching undergraduate writing classes weren’t sufficient compensation for a family of four. Nor did it help that we were about to become a family of five.

“Write your way out of it” had long been my mantra, but now I was having trouble getting sentences on the page. I had begun to wonder whether the decision to leave D.C.—where I’d worked in journalism for the better part of a decade and where we had planned to return after completing my MFA—had been foolhardy, the stubborn pursuit of a literary fantasy I’d mischaracterized as a respectable pivot.

Suddenly the prospect of reading Moby-Dick with Robinson felt like a frivolous privilege I had no business indulging. It’s hard to get lost in great books, let alone write with the necessary abandon, when you’re not sure how you’re going to buy groceries.

It’s hard to get lost in great books, let alone write with the necessary abandon, when you’re not sure how you’re going to buy groceries.

Such angst, however reasonable-sounding, evinced deeper recalcitrance. At heart, I was questioning providence—and by “questioning,” I mean accusing. My Christian faith, present since a preacher shared the gospel with me at the age of 14, was freighted with presumption. I had let circumstance cloud my vision of reality. The diamond absolutes needed a good dusting. It was the Moby-Dick seminar, of all things, that helped set me right.   

The class took place on Wednesday afternoons in the Frank Conroy Reading Room, an august addition to the creaky old Victorian that houses the Writers’ Workshop. On one side, tall windows overlooked the frozen Iowa River. On another, glass bookcases displayed titles by alumni: Flannery O’Connor, Wallace Stegner, Denis Johnson, Anthony Marra, Yiyun Li. In attendance were poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights, and translators from across Iowa’s graduate writing programs, along with visiting professors and not a few walk-ins from town. As Robinson assumed the lectern a staid hush enveloped the space.

Robinson’s fictional characters have about them a kind of sophisticated folksiness. Their profundity, never in question, along with their inherent capacity for surprise, is nevertheless relayed in plain speech. There’s an implied divide between the mind and the mouth, a tacit acknowledgement that the tongue is but the wellhead of the bottomless stream of human consciousness. In this regard, Faulkner would seem to be an influence.

In the classroom, however, Robinson’s intellectual powers were on full display. She spoke in long, coruscating sentences whose turns and trajectories were polished and unpredictable. She quoted Tyndale and the day’s Times. She read from Jonah, referenced Augustine, Dickinson, Heisenberg, Locke. She was up on cosmology, phenomenology, history, and linguistics. A reporter by training, I shorthanded as much as possible in a black 8 ½ x 11 inch Moleskine my 2-year-old daughter had attacked with an orange crayon. I hoped to revisit the lectures later. Robinson, on the other hand, seldom consulted notes.

How to describe her voice? Dulcet, untroubled. Not trying to sell you anything. She wore a clip-on microphone, the projection of which was interrupted each time her argent hair fell across her shoulder. Even after the hair was pushed back, the pitch of her voice was such that you felt yourself leaning in. Indeed this is one of my abiding impressions of the class, of a kind of gravitational pull toward the lectern and by way of the lectern into the cosmos of Robinson’s ideas.

Moby-Dick is an unruly novel, democratic and digressive, deep and wide. It is at turns a collection of essays, a catalog, a biblical parable, a Shakespearean soliloquy, a rollicking sea narrative, a prose poem. What holds the book together is Melville’s voluble narrator, Ishmael, a wandering sailor from Manhattan who in a Massachusetts port joins the crew of the Pequod, a whaling vessel piloted by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab.

For Ahab, the White Whale is the manifestation of an angry, erratic god. The book of Job figures prominently. “Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears?” God says of the leviathan in the closing chapters of that book. “If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!”

“Oh yeah?” Ahab replies. He has already lost one leg to the whale. “Want to bet?”

The captain’s Promethean impulses, his refusals to accept mankind’s probationary state, foredoom the ship’s voyage. Still, the Pequod’s transgressive campaign, as recounted by Ishmael, the lone survivor, begets episodes of real transcendence as crew members—African and Native American, Quaker and pagan—find an urgent fraternity out on the high, shark- and squall-haunted seas.

On each of these themes, Robinson held forth. Like Whitman and Lincoln, Melville cultivated an aesthetic of inclusion at odds with the nationalist ideas that took root in Europe in the 19th century and tore it apart in the 20th, she said. Consciousness—not genetics, mother-tongue, or history—unified individuals and gave them worth in this New World. “The fact that Moby-Dick stands outside of European philosophical tradition,” she said, “is not necessarily a criticism.”

Basic to Robinson’s understanding of Melville was the 19th-century New England religious culture, a culture she said, in a moment of candor, she had been fond of ever since a college professor assigned her to write a paper on the Puritans. “I do like to read things from before the modern world set in,” she explained. “People back then were more aware of mortality. They had simply seen too much illness and death and suffering to puzzle over the question of fairness. It must have been obvious to them, as it was to the writer of Job, that the world was governed by a different, far more mysterious, law.”

We read excerpts from Edwards and Calvin, two theologians whose ideas about human dignity and depravity, as well as the interplay between divine providence and human responsibility underpinned Melville’s metaphysical inquiry. “Terror and joy,” she said, “Sweetness and awfulness. Tribulation and glory. In the Christian tradition, these things are presented together, and not ironically or as competing forces, but rather in relationship, convivially, somehow as two sides of the same experience.”

Robinson adored Moby-Dick. Her paperback copy looked like an overstuffed drawer. It was bent beyond repairing. Every other page was flagged. She had read the novel countless times, she had taught it repeatedly, but she had yet to shed her astonishment. To hear her read long passages, sometimes laughing to herself, sometimes hovering over certain turns of phrase, was to be given access to a private enthusiasm. In response to a line from a chapter called “The Sphinx”—“An intense copper calm, like a universal yellow lotus, was more and more unfolding its noiseless measureless leaves upon the sea”—she sighed and said, “What can we say? He had a gift.” This was how to read Moby-Dick: slowly, expectantly, with amusement, with gratitude.

Like all other great writers, Melville was concerned with the problem of knowledge, Robinson said. His guiding question: “How do you take from the overwhelming, from the opaque, something of meaning for human kind?” The author’s tedious, even obsessive, stock-taking of whalers, whaling lore, and the physical toil of the whaling trade had, she claimed, everything to do with a biblical conception of reality, a comprehensive worldview that insisted on both the elusiveness of the universe and the meaningfulness of every human life. “In Calvinism,” Robinson said, “the great demand placed upon you is attention—to God, to others, to yourself. Everything that happens is the subject of contemplation.”

This claim, in particular, struck a reorienting blow. What had I been paying attention to? Not to God so much as grievance. Not to others so much as fear. I had not been searching my experiences for instruction, had spent little time calling out to heaven in prayer. I doubted there was an intentionality at work in the world, let alone in my life. I had been coveting other experiences—clearer, less uncomfortable ones.

What had I been paying attention to? Not to God so much as grievance. Not to others so much as fear.

In office hours, Robinson told me that she had been reading letters by Wycliffe. She was moved by his emphasis on repentance for the things he had done and, more impressively, for the things he had not. Failure, like fear, had its uses. “The terrors of the world,” she said, “are where we find ourselves, because the terrors of the world are where we betray ourselves.”

In “The Fountain,” a terrifying chapter from Moby-Dick about cetacean blow holes, Ishmael turns the disconcerting sight of a spouting mist in the middle of the ocean into a metaphor for illumination. “And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind,” he says, “divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray.”

As I listened to Robinson week after week, I too glimpsed a light in the fog. Even now, scanning back through my crayon-splattered class notes, I can feel the thrill of old truth dawning. It wasn’t that I fully grasped the meaning of the loss of my job. It wasn’t that I had any assurances that things would work out according to my plans. It was that Robinson had affirmed for me just how right and meaningful it is to expect meaning, and just how central expectation is to the life of faith.

Teachers do more than teach and teach more than they know. Robinson’s glosses on Calvin sent me back to the Institutes, a two-volume set that a pastor-friend had gifted me before I left D.C. Her thoughts on Edwards availed me of the sermons I’d read when I was a sophomore in college and first beginning to get my mind around God’s glory, my obstinance, and Christ’s propitiating love. Both theologians propelled me back into the Scriptures, which I had been neglecting in all my griping about the present and worry about the future. Writing came slowly, but the need to write was returning, and the writing would come.

Both theologians propelled me back into the Scriptures, which I had been neglecting in all my griping about the present and worry about the future.

In the last few minutes of class, Robinson opened the floor to questions. Students asked all kinds. What, for instance, did she think of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author to whom Melville had dedicated Moby-Dick. “I wish I could be fair to Hawthorne,” Robinson said, “but something about his work gives me the creeps.” Once a student asked if Robinson believed in aliens. “I think we are most certainly the only ones,” she replied, “but even if there’s another population out there, that makes two—which isn’t exactly a crowd.”

During one of the final sessions, a student who might’ve been any one of us raised a question we had all been wondering about: Was it even possible to publish a book like Moby-Dick anymore? Robinson was emphatic. “Write one and see,” she said. “Literature bears witness again and again to the fact that you can do anything.” She stepped out from behind the lectern. She continued, “I’m not talking about self-delusion. What I’m talking about is the kind of confidence and self-discipline that does not require the approval of the culture.”

Teachers teach more than they know. In the coming semesters I would take classes with other brilliant writers. I would find generous mentors, tough readers, and encouraging peers. I would take two more courses with Robinson, one on the Old Testament, one on the New, but I remember thinking, after the Moby-Dick seminar, that if I had to leave Iowa without finishing the program it wouldn’t have been a waste. I had, in a sense, found what I needed, what I didn’t know I had been waiting for, which was a reproof that doubled as a kind of permission: give attention, be open to illumination, write.