Friday, December 27, 2019

Richard J. King's "Ahab's Rolling Sea"

Richard J. King is an author and illustrator. He wrote Lobster, which was acclaimed by the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History, which was short-listed for the ASLE Creative Book Award and rated as one of the top five science books of 2013 by Library Journal.

King applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Ahab's Rolling Sea: A Natural History of "Moby-Dick", and reported the following:
On page 99 of Ahab’s Rolling Sea, I’ve just begun a chapter titled “Gulls, Sea-Ravens, and Albatrosses.” My book moves chronologically through Moby-Dick as it examines what Melville had experienced and could have known about the biology, oceanography, and meteorology of the ocean—and how he might have tweaked this to serve his epic yarn. Seabirds are the most regularly visible marine life to sailors, then and today, and Melville—who had spent over four years of his life at sea before writing Moby-Dick—knew this well. Melville liked to write about birds and give them significance in his fiction.

So in this way, “The 99 Test” does provide some sense of what my book is about. I write a range of chapters about the ecology and human connection to whales, course, but Moby-Dick is filled with all sorts of other marine organisms, which he often layers with metaphor in an era before it was common for writers to give any meaning to sea life at all. At different points throughout his story, Ishmael describes, for example, zooplankton, squid, barnacles, swordfish, pilot fish, and sharks. My page 99 mostly summarizes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ballad “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) for readers who might not be familiar with the poem so that I can set up all the parallels and influences on Moby-Dick. This summary perhaps renders this page one of the less original in Ahab’s Rolling Sea, but I do write the following sentence in the first paragraph of page 99, which is indeed one of my essential points for the whole: “In many ways, Melville seized the tiller of sea writing from the British Romantics and infused it with marine biology and period nautical realism in order to create a unique style of sea story.”

This chapter continues on to explain how Melville wrote of gulls, cormorants (“sea-ravens”), and albatrosses in Moby-Dick. Later in the book I explain Ishmael’s use of storm petrels, and then at the end of Ahab’s Rolling Sea I focus on one more seabird, the frigatebird. This frigatebird was Melville’s “sky-hawk” and “sea-hawk,” a black “bird of heaven,” who goes down with Tashtego and leaves in peace the floating castaway Ishmael. Thus frigatebirds have enormous symbolic significance at the end of the novel. Melville places his frigatebird in direct contrast to Coleridge’s albatross. This is also relevant to how we read Moby-Dick today in a time of climate crisis. In the Pacific Islands, among those low-level atolls most vulnerable to sea level rise, the frigatebird is a national symbol. What happens when we read Ishmael as a climate refugee: a single, floating, ancient survivor who is compelled to tell you his story of drowning and disaster wrought by human hands against Nature?
Visit Richard J. King's website.

--Marshal Zeringue