Ahab’s Rolling Sea

A Natural History of "Moby-Dick"

Richard J. King

Ahab’s Rolling Sea

Richard J. King

464 pages | 12 color plates, 71 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 9780226514963 Will Publish October 2019
E-book $18.00 ISBN: 9780226515014 Will Publish October 2019
Although Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is beloved as one of the most profound and enduring works of American fiction, we rarely consider it a work of nature writing—or even a novel of the sea. Yet Pulitzer Prize–winning author Annie Dillard avers Moby-Dick is the “best book ever written about nature,” and nearly the entirety of the story is set on the waves, with scarcely a whiff of land. In fact, Ishmael’s sea yarn is in conversation with the nature writing of Emerson and Thoreau, and Melville himself did much more than live for a year in a cabin beside a pond. He set sail: to the far remote Pacific Ocean, spending more than three years at sea before writing his masterpiece in 1851.

A revelation for Moby-Dick devotees and neophytes alike, Ahab’s Rolling Sea is a chronological journey through the natural history of Melville’s novel. From white whales to whale intelligence, giant squids, barnacles, albatross, and sharks, Richard J. King examines what Melville knew from his own experiences and the sources available to a reader in the mid-1800s, exploring how and why Melville might have twisted what was known to serve his fiction. King then climbs to the crow’s nest, setting Melville in the context of the American perception of the ocean in 1851—at the very start of the Industrial Revolution and just before the publication of On the Origin of Species. King compares Ahab’s and Ishmael’s worldviews to how we see the ocean today: an expanse still immortal and sublime, but also in crisis. And although the concept of stewardship of the sea would have been entirely foreign, if not absurd, to Melville, King argues that Melville’s narrator Ishmael reveals his own tendencies toward what we would now call environmentalism.

Featuring a coffer of illustrations and an array of interviews with contemporary scientists, fishers, and whale watch operators, Ahab’s Rolling Sea offers new insight not only into a cherished masterwork and its author but also into our evolving relationship with the briny deep—from whale hunters to climate refugees.
Contents
Introduction

1. Herman Melville: Whaleman, Author, Natural Philosopher
2. Numerous Fish Documents
3. Cetology and Evolution
4. White Whales and Natural Theology
5. Whale Migration
6. Wind
7. Gulls, Sea-Ravens, and Albatrosses
8. Small Harmless Fish
9. Phosphorescence
10. Sword-Fish and Lively Grounds
11. Brit and Baleen
12. Giant Squid
13. Sharks
14. Fresh Fare
15. Barnacles and Sea Candies
16. Practical Cetology: Spout, Senses, and the Dissection of Heads
17. Whale and Human Intelligence
18. Ambergris
19. Coral Insects
20. Grandissimus
21. Whale Skeletons and Fossils
22. Does the Whale Diminish?
23. Mother Carey’s Chickens
24. Typhoons and Corpusants
25. Navigation
26. Seals
27. The Feminine Air
28. Noiseless Nautilus
29. Sperm Whale Behavior
30. Sky-Hawk
31. Ishmael: Blue Environmentalist and Climate Refugee
Acknowledgments
Notes
Selected Bibliography
Figure Credits and Notes
Index
Review Quotes
Philip Hoare, author of "RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR," "The Sea Inside," "The Whale," and "Leviathan"
Ahab’s Rolling Sea is a wide-ranging, highly personal, richly eclectic, and extremely well-researched book whose style and humor, combined with its rigor, suggest the potential for popularity even beyond the fascinations of this self-confessed whalehead. Who could not warm to a chapter titled ‘Gulls, Sea-Ravens, and Albatrosses’ or ‘Sword-Fish and Lively Grounds,’ or be intrigued by ‘Phosphorescence’? There’s a Melvillean romance here, and it sits especially well with King’s love and empathy for human as well as natural history. A contemporary, witty, almost postmodern field guide.”
For more information, or to order this book, please visit https://www.press.uchicago.edu
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