Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael is one of the best books of literary criticism I’ve ever read. It’s definitely the weirdest. It might be too much to say that one of the greatest things about reading Moby-Dick is that you get to read Call Me Ishmael afterwards, but it’s a significant perk, no question.

First published in 1947, Call Me Ishmael concentrates on the influences that fed into Herman Melville’s writing of Moby-Dick. Melville’s novel was largely forgotten after its publication in 1851, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that it came to be regarded as a major work. In his book-length essay, Olson, who is primarily known as a poet, became one of the first Melvilleans to claim that there were two Moby-Dicks: one written before its author’s close, intensive reading of Shakespeare (in particular Macbeth and King Lear), and one after. ‘Moby-Dick was two books written between February, 1850 and August, 1851,’ he writes. ‘The first book did not contain Ahab. It may not, except incidentally, have contained Moby-Dick.’

The catalyst for this transformation, which made the difference between another thrilling yarn in the mould of Omoo or Redburn, and one of the greatest – if not the greatest – novels ever written, was font size. In 1849 Melville purchased an edition of Shakespeare’s plays that differed from any he had seen before. It was set, as he described it, ‘in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every ‘t’ like a musket barrel’. For Melville, whose eyes were permanently damaged after a childhood bout of scarlet fever, this simple fact allowed him to engage with Shakespeare’s work in a way he never had before.

Olson unearthed Melville’s copy of the plays, in which he found the author’s pencil-written notes. His close reading of them occupies the central section of the essay, as he traces the passage of Melville’s thought from flyleaf scribbles into the manuscript of his novel.

He makes a fascinating argument, but this isn’t what pulls me back to Call Me Ishmael; it’s Olson’s incisive, incantatory, sometimes way-over-the-top prose that does that. On practically every page he communicates something striking about Melville’s achievement. ‘I am interested,’ he writes, ‘in a Melville who was long-eyed enough to understand the Pacific as part of our geography, another West, prefigured in the Plains, antithetical.’ Despite his regard for Moby-Dick, however, his vision of its author is tragic:

‘The man made a mess of things. He got all balled up with Christ. He made a white marriage. He had one son die of tuberculosis, the other shoot himself. He only rode his own space once – Moby-Dick.’

Olson’s hard-boiled style is at its most pronounced in an introductory chapter, ‘First Fact’, and the interstitial ‘Fact #2’. Both are transfixing accounts of terrible violence. The first describes the ramming of the whaler the Essex, 15 months out of Nantucket, by an 85-foot bull whale, and the subsequent desperate journey of its crew across the Pacific in three open whaleboats. They ate bread, then Galapagos turtles, then each other. ‘Fact #2’ describes a mutiny on the Globe that began on 26 January when, around midnight, one of the vessel’s two harpooners went down to the captain’s cabin and split his head open with an axe. He killed the Chief Mate the same way, shot the Third Mate with a musket and stabbed the Second Mate to death. ‘I am the bloody man,’ Olson reports the harpooner shouting. ‘I have the bloody hand and I will have revenge.’

These acts of destruction are also ones of creation: they blended with Melville’s own experience aboard a whaler and gave him, in part, his story. Moby-Dick is a very bloody and disturbing book, as well as a beautiful, generous and constantly surprising one. Its enormous scope is what makes tackling it one of the great challenges of literary criticism, in the same way that the north face of the Eiger is one of the great challenges of mountaineering.

To tell the truth, though, when I read Call Me Ishmael I’m not really concerned with whether the arguments Olson makes are right or not. I’m not looking for the whale to be killed, lashed and rendered into neat parcels of meaning. It’s more a matter of witnessing the way he grapples with Moby-Dick, sinking his harpoons of deduction, insight and interpretation into the vast, inexhaustible body of Melville’s text. Olson blends Ishmael’s inquisitiveness with the obsessiveness of Ahab, and in this book he is, gloriously, riding his own space.

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