Abraham Lincoln as the Catskill Eagle

“Embedded in the narrative of Moby-Dick is a metaphysical blueprint of the United States. Melville fills the book with telling similes and metaphors that allow a story set almost entirely at sea to evoke the look and feel of America in 1850,” points out Nathaniel Philbrick in his fascinating book Why Read Moby-Dick? Thus, the oarsmen in a whale boat row with the power of a “burst boiler out of a Mississippi steamer” and the ship’s crew cutting up a whale use ropes to “drag out [the] teeth, as Michigan oxen drag stumps of old oaks out of wild woods-lands.”

Here’s the reference that caught my eye. The national crisis over slavery had an enormous effect on Melville as he worked on his novel. Philbrick writes:

“What is needed more than anything else in the midst of a crisis is a calm, steadying dose of clarity, the kind of omniscient, all-seeing perspective symbolized by an eagle on the wing: ‘And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.’ Here Melville provides a description of the ideal leader, the anti-Ahab who instead of anger and pain relies on equanimity and judgment, who does his best to remain above the fray, and who even in the darkest of possible moments resists the ‘woe that is madness.’

“As I have said before, Moby-Dick is a book that was written for the future. In this portrait of a person who resists the fiery, disorienting passions of the moment, who has the soul of a high-flying Catskill eagle, Melville, in his preternatural way, has hit upon a description of the political figure America desperately needed in 1851 but who would not appear on the national stage until almost a decade later, when Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States.”

A noble sentiment, indeed. It would be picky to point out that Catskill eagles fish in the reservoirs. It’s the turkey vultures that soar in the gorges. But that would be a different novel.

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