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White whale and wide wall: American obsessives Ahab and Donald Trump

Ahab, the obsessed captain in "Moby-Dick," as illustrated by Rockwell Kent. "In the mid-20th century, he's an argument against totalitarianism," said Will Hansen, curator of the Herman Melville exhibit at The Newberry. "And now he's this demagogue leading us over the cliff."

Even Ahab, the great figure of self-destructive obsession in American literature, gets pushback, immediately, while he’s still selling his quest to the doomed crew of the Pequod. He displays the ounce of Spanish gold belonging to whoever first sights the white whale and nails it to the mast. The crew cheers. But Starbuck, the young chief mate — and future eponym for a famous chain of coffee shops — isn’t huzzahing with the rest. He’s scowling.

“What’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck,” Ahab demands. “Wilt thou not chase the white whale? Art not game for Moby Dick?”

“I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow,” replies Starbuck. “But I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.”

OPINION

It might be a stretch to compare Ahab and Donald Trump. One man is sun-bronzed and lean, the other orange-dyed and stout. But the two men do share a leadership style — both issuing “orders so sudden and peremptory.”

And Ahab’s white whale does resonate with Trump’s wide wall. When Starbuck elaborates his objection, “To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous,” he is referring to the unreasoning whale.

Echoed by the dumb thing of Trump’s wall, which is stupid because it is racist, unnecessary and expensive. Most Americans, like Starbuck, are clear-eyed enough to oppose such vengeful folly.

Moby Dick is on my mind, having walked through the excellent “Melville: Finding America at Sea” with organizer Will Hansen, The Newberry Library’s director of reader services and curator of Americana.

“The great American secular Bible,” he said, pausing before, “the first editions of Moby Dick, first published in London.”

London?

“It was fairly common in the 19th century for American writers to first publish in England, probably because America had no copyright protections,” Hansen said.

Should you run to the show, open through April 6? I found it fascinating but walked through with Hansen, who knows of what he speaks. I also read the book, which I encourage you to do. Yes, it’s long. Yes, whales, whales, whales, alive and dead, spouting on the horizon and cut into blubber on the deck of the Pequod.

But bear with them, and you find a funny, frightening journey into the murky depths of the American soul, then and now.

“What does Melville mean to us today?” Hansen mused. “Melville really is the canonical author that Americans can read now to understand our very strange place in American history today. He’s a really good author for the Trump era. Because he was dealing with all kind of looseness of fact and fiction. He’s not rah-rah American literature. He was very interested in being distinctly American. But he really saw the dark side of American history and the American psyche.”

The copy I read — a 1930 edition with gorgeous illustrations by Rockwell Kent — was printed in Chicago by R.R. Donnelly’s Lakeside Press, to show off just how excellent printing can be. The Newberry show has a number of the book’s original proofs. The exhibit, including much about Moby-Dick’s role in culture, coincides with the bicentennial of Melville’s birth, this Aug. 1, jumping the gun slightly due to “exhibition logistics.”

Spoiler alert — in case you haven’t read the book and possibly might, you should set the column aside now and return when you’re done.

Ahab himself first spots Moby Dick, and reclaims his gold coin bounty, a very Trumpian touch. For all the good it does him. The enormous beast sinks the whaling boats and the Pequod. The entire crew is lost, save one. The last thing seen is the Pequod’s flagpole, a “sky-hawk” that, in Rockwell Kent’s rendering, looks very much like an American eagle, enfolded in the flag, pulled down to perdition along with the ship.

Not a very optimistic message for a young Republic. Then again, given Moby-Dick was published a decade before our nation would be split by a bloody and fratricidal Civil War, not an inappropriate one either.

And today? I like to think the Pequod is the Republican Party, led astray by its mad captain, stove in by its dumb quest. But it could also be the United States as a whole, all of us going down together. Too soon to tell.