Sea smarts

Lessons learned from Moby-Dick.

By Charles P. Pierce
August 21, 2011

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Dear Herman Melville: My friends laugh at me when I tell them I reread your whole book (the most famous one, that is) every couple of years. OK, I reply, but one day we’re all going to be in an open boat in the Pacific and I’m going to be the only one who knows how to skin a whale, and then where will the rest of you be, huh? (Oh, and you should probably take a pass on the latest cable-TV production of your magnum opus, too. It appears to be mostly about Mr. and Mrs. Ahab. It also appears that the casting director believed that every deckhand on the Pequod looked like a Jonas Brother.) My expertise came in handy recently when a guy got convicted of smuggling sperm-whale teeth in order to ply his trade as a scrimshaw artist. Because I’ve read your book, I didn’t need to have “scrimshaw” explained to me. I’m happy this miscreant got what was coming to him. Smuggling sperm-whale teeth is a betrayal of history. The only honorable way to collect sperm-whale teeth is to go out and get them yourself, by jingo! You knew that, which is why you bedecked not only the fictional whaling ship but also its loop-de-loop of a captain with ivory. I always thought that, had Ahab survived, he’d have spent years carving a depiction of his battle with the whale on his ivory leg. And then Mrs. Ahab would’ve throw the want ads at him and stormed out of the house.

Charles P. Pierce can be reached at