Herman Melville, technical writer

As I write this, the anniversary of the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (as it was originally titled) is noted on Google. The novel is getting a celebrity Web reading. What timing! I recently finished listening to a complete audio recording. (Thanks, LibriVox.org!) The work is on the short list of consensus nominees for The Great American Novel, and I recommend giving this challenging masterpiece a listen (or a read).

There are many fine analyses of the novel, to which I cannot add. Melville’s first two books were actually memoirs of his travels in the Pacific, but the settings and events were so fantastical that readers and critics alike took them for fiction. Moby-Dick was also inspired by true-life events: the 1820 sinking of the whaler Essex by a sperm whale, and a legendary white whale called Mocha-Dick that allegedly survived over 100 encounters with whalers. Melville did extensive research on the subject, and this time, even though he was writing fiction, he wanted to establish verisimilitude. He intermixed fact and fiction in 135 often confusing chapters, plus etymology and epilogue, throwing together first-person narration, omniscience, stage directions and labeled dialogue, free-standing short stories on various subjects, and long technical treatises complete with footnotes. In the non-fiction, technical chapters, he presents detailed information with precision and clarity. In those chapters I think I recognize the kindred spirit of a technical writer.

First, Melville was a masterful writer who constructed vivid, impeccable sentences. He had actually served on a whaler, so he had experience on which he could draw. (It always helps to understand your subject matter!) To supplement his personal experience, he plainly made extensive study of the techniques, science, history, and literature of whaling, and in various chapters he passed on what he had learned. (Learning and then teaching are subconscious joys of technical writers.) In the book he goes into great technical detail about the construction of whaling vessels and chase boats, the anthropology of the characters, the biology and comparative anatomy of whales, the psychopathology of monomania, the sociology of religion, and even what he understands of the whale’s relationship with other species (anticipating Darwin by eight years). In these chapters Melville writes with authority and clarity. Chapters 74 (“The Sperm Whale’s Head—Contrasted View”) and 75 (“The Right Whale’s Head—Contrasted View”) are intermezzos after these two whales were taken in the fictional narrative, but might as well be part of a text on comparative marine anatomy, where they would serve as vividly written walkthroughs.

Indeed, part of the difficulty of Moby-Dick is its digressions, which interrupt the narrative flow and annoy the reader who just wants to get on with the chase. (In his screenplay for the 1956 movie, Ray Bradbury, who confessed he could never get through the book himself, ignored all those chapters.) But it’s all right to skip them. In technical-writing parlance, those chapters are modular, and can be read in any order or skipped at your convenience. The fictional narrative was the organizing structure through which the technical chapters were interspersed.

Not everything Melville wrote was accurate, of course. He, or at least Ishmael, rejected prevailing theory and incorrectly regarded the whale as a fish, not a mammal. He also listed the blue whale as apocryphal. But most of what he wrote is correct and accurate, and serves as a record of the lost practices and technology of whaling.

By the way, Melville was like a technical writer in one other respect: the first edition of his book was incomplete and needed updating. The version that appeared in England was rushed to press and lacked the epilogue, which explained (spoiler alert!) that Ishmael, the narrator, survived the encounter with Moby Dick. (The initial critical reviews harshly questioned who could be telling the tale if all hands perished.) As any technical writer will tell you, always inspect the golden master!

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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