Capturing the Leviathan: Alex Katz’s Moby Dick

In 1948, when Alex Katz rendered in pen and ink the characters and scenes of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Herman Melville was widely considered one of the most important writers in American literature. His work was the focus of numerous scholarly studies, and Moby-Dick was a classic, often cited as a (even the) Great American Novel. But this consensus about Melville’s literary significance was in fact a recent phenomenon, the product of a revival of interest in his work during the 1920s. Melville’s reputation had declined dramatically during his lifetime. His first two novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), were popular successes, earning Melville a reputation as a colorful storyteller who would  entertain readers while satisfying their curiosity about the exotic scenes and peoples he had encountered in the South Pacific as a sailor. But as Melville continued to write, he consistently failed to meet readers’ expectations; instead, he revealed himself to be a highly unorthodox artist, impatient with convention. For the rest of his career, he formulated dark allegories, offering metaphysical speculations and sharp social commentaries—and expanding the boundaries of nineteenth-century literary form and content.

Moby-Dick (1851) was met with a mixed reception among critics in Britain and the United States when it was first published. Today it is understood not just as an epic tale of human versus nature—although the plot does concern Captain Ahab’s obsessive efforts to hunt down and kill the white whale which destroyed his leg, “dismasted” him—but also as an experimental text, heterogeneous in form. Interlaced with chapters tracing Ahab’s monomaniacal quest for the whale are long sections in which Melville provides the elements of an encyclopedic study of whales and the whaling industry. He draws on his own experiences on whaling ships and incorporates a range of scientific, historical, and literary sources into these chapters (a strategy anticipated in the novel’s preface, an extensive collection of statements about whales from the Bible, newspapers, ship logs, popular songs, and other texts). Moby-Dick moves across genres, shifting from prose narrative to drama (several chapters feature stage directions); scenes of fast-paced action are interspersed with poetic reveries and philosophical musings. The tone is unstable, alternating between playful and grim, the parodic and the tragic. The narrator, Ishmael, is unreliable; despite his efforts to report what happens on board the whale ship the Pequod, he finds much of what he witnesses to be mysterious. Like the white whale itself, the world around him remains undecipherable, inscrutable, ultimately unknowable.

Figure 1. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/8 in. (20.3 x 13 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.489.
Figure 2. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.490.

At the beginning of Moby-Dick, Ishmael confesses that he longs for the sea “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” Landlocked men, trapped within the deadening rhythms of work, look to the sea to escape “week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” Readers gradually learn that for Ishmael, joining a whaling ship as a “simple sailor” promises more than just adventure and glimpses of “things remote.” The ship’s crew is also a community that presents an alternative to conventional society, offering possibilities for contact with a “barbaric, heathenish, and motley set” of men of different races and nations—“renegades, and castaways, and cannibals.” In Fig. 1, Katz portrays Ishmael’s arrival in the coastal town of New Bedford, where he will await passage to Nantucket in hopes of joining a whaling crew there. The weather is cold and dismal; carpet-bag under his arm, he searches for cheap lodgings. Here Ishmael is presented as a solitary figure, but in the novel Melville soon places him in close relation to another man. Spending the night at the Spouter-Inn, Ishmael reluctantly shares a bed with Queequeg, a heavily tattooed South Sea Islander rumored to be a cannibal. Ishmael’s fear of Queequeg quickly yields to intense affection, as the two men become “a cosy, loving pair.” Indeed, much of Melville’s work is concerned with bonds between men, a theme that Katz depicts in a scene of camaraderie in Fig. 2. Melville describes “a wild set of mariners” who, after a three-year voyage, arrive in New Bedford and make “a straight wake” for the bar at the Spouter-Inn: “Enveloped in their shaggy watch coats, and with their heads muffled in woollen comforters, all bedarned and ragged, and their beards stiff with icicles, they seemed an eruption of bears from Labrador.” Melville writes that the “liquor soon mounted into their heads” and “they began capering about most obstreperously.”

Figure 3. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.491.

Fig. 3 envisions an incident during Ishmael and Queequeg’s trip to Nantucket. A young man who has just mocked Queequeg’s unusual appearance falls overboard. The harpooner, shown here observing the young man’s fall, leaps into the water and saves him from drowning. This moment foreshadows one of Moby-Dick’s most famous scenes, when a young black boy, Pip, jumps out of a boat during a whale chase and, temporarily abandoned, goes mad while contemplating the “heartless immensity” of the sea.

Figure 4. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.501.

Fig. 4 pictures Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg, the principal owners and agents of the Pequod, who engage Ishmael and Queequeg for a whaling voyage. Peleg is dressed in a coat of “blue pilot-cloth, cut in the Quaker style.” Captain Bildad’s appearance is “the exact embodiment of his utilitarian character. On his long, gaunt body, he carried no spare flesh, no superfluous beard, his chin having a soft, economical nap to it, like the worn nap of his broad-brimmed hat.”

Figure 5. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.499.

Katz’s next sketches focus on episodes from the novel after the Pequod has set sail. The dinner scene in Fig. 5 shows the Pequod’s three harpooners eating by themselves at the captain’s table after Captain Ahab has finished his meal. The harpooners make up a society among themselves, in part because they are perceived to be racially and culturally different from the other crew members. Queequeg is joined here by Tashtego, a Native American from Martha’s Vineyard whose “tawny brawn” impresses Ishmael, and Daggoo, an African whose golden hoop earrings are “so large that the sailors called them ring bolts, and would talk of securing the top-sail halyards to them.” The steward, Dough-Boy, with his “pale loaf-of-bread face,” is “a very nervous, shuddering sort of little fellow” whose terror of the moody Captain Ahab and of the fierce harpooners has turned his life into “one continual lip-quiver.” Ishmael wryly comments, “Hard fares the white waiter who waits upon cannibals.”

Figure 6. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.487.

Fig. 6 depicts the “stricken, blasted” Captain Ahab. Ahab’s face is seamed: “down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck” is “a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish.” One sailor declares that Ahab had been scarred “in an elemental strife at sea,” while another speculates that this is “a birth-mark” that runs “from crown to sole.” Ahab’s leg was “devoured, chewed up, crunched” by Moby Dick, and he now walks with the aid of an ivory leg “fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm whale’s jaw.” Here Katz illustrates a crucial early scene in the novel: Ahab grips a gold doubloon from Ecuador, which he promises as a reward to the first sailor who “raises” (sees) Moby Dick. He goes on to nail the “broad bright coin” to the Pequod’s mast, exclaiming, “This is what you have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.” The sailors come to regard the doubloon as “set apart and sanctified,” for it is “the white whale’s talisman.”

Figure 7. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.483.
Figure 8. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.488.
Figure 9. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.500.
Figure 10. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 4 3/4 x 5 1/4 in. (12.1 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.482.
Figure 11. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.479.

Fig. 7 refers to chapter 48, “The First Lowering,” when the Pequod first sends boats out in pursuit of a group of sperm whales. The boats are caught in a squall and, as night descends, Ishmael’s boat is separated from the others. Starbuck, the first mate, lights a lantern and hands it to Queequeg, who sits “holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness.” In Fig. 8, we witness Ahab hailing a ship, using his trumpet to pose the question he invariably asks all passing vessels: “Hast seen the White Whale?” In Fig. 9 we see the Pequod and a whale yoked together, as sailors remove the first strip of blubber from the mammal’s carcass: “Now as the blubber envelopes the whale precisely as the rind does an orange, so it is stripped off from the body precisely as an orange is sometimes stripped by spiralizing it.” Fig. 10 perhaps registers the predatory creatures who swarmed near that slaughtered whale and who “viciously snapped” at one another, twisting “like flexible bows, bent round” to bite at their own tails. Fig. 11 depicts the “ticklish” moment just after a whale has been harpooned. To force the whale to the point of exhaustion, the harpooners’ boats must hold on tenaciously: “three ropes went straight down into the blue—the gunwhales of the bows were almost even with the water, while the three sterns tilted high in the air. […] As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony!”

Figure 12. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 7 3/8 x 5 1/4 in. (18.7 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.486.

Fig. 12 is Katz’s illustration of Melville’s humorous theory that the legend of St. George and the dragon was actually about a whale: “the animal ridden by St. George might have been only a large seal,” and “it will not appear altogether incompatible with the sacred legend . . . to hold this so-called dragon no other than the great Leviathan himself.” This fanciful sketch may also allude to Melville’s comparison of each boat’s mate or headsman to “a Gothic Knight of old,” whose harpooner supplies him with “a fresh lance” when one is needed.

Figure 13. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.502.

Fig. 13 depicts a moment when Ishmael and Queequeg’s boat is being pulled by the whale they have just harpooned and is “running away with us like light”: “the whale plunged forward, as if by sheer power of speed to rid himself of the iron leech that had fastened to him [. . .] we thus tore a white gash in the sea.”

Figure 14. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 2 7/8 x 5 1/4 in. (7.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.484.

Fig. 14 is likely Katz’s figurative rendition of the chapter when the Pequod meets the Bouton de Rose, a French ship whose bow is adorned with a wooden carving of its namesake rosebud. The vessel has “a peculiar and not very pleasant smell” because it is tethered to two rotting whales. The French sailors are unaware that the decaying whale contains valuable ambergris; after Stubb, the Pequod’s second mate, persuades the French captain to cut the whales loose, he is able to draw out handfuls of the “soft, waxy [. . .] highly fragrant” substance.

Figure 15. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 3 1/4 x 5 3/8 in. (8.3 x 13.6 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.485.

Fig. 15 details the bench of the ship’s carpenter: “a long rude ponderous table furnished with several vices, of different sizes, and both of iron and of wood.” The carpenter can expertly perform a surprising range of tasks that go beyond carpentry—pulling teeth, piercing ears, concocting soothing lotions, even fashioning a new ivory leg for Ahab. Here Katz sketches a “pagoda-looking cage” that the resourceful artisan has constructed from “clean shaved rods of right-whale bone, and cross-beams of sperm whale ivory.” Inside we find a “lost land-bird of strange plumage.”

Figure 16. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 1/4 in. (20.3 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.503.
Figure 17. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 3 1/8 x 5 1/4 in. (7.9 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.494.

In Fig. 16 we see that Ahab’s project to subdue the great leviathan is proving disastrous. Moby Dick has been harpooned by several irons, and the planted lines are now tangled; he lashes out with his tail. Then the whale, “diving down into the sea, disappeared in a boiling maelstrom, in which, for a space, the odorous cedar chips of the wrecks danced round and round, like the grated nutmeg in a swiftly stirred bowl of punch.” In the midst of this wreckage, as depicted in Fig. 17, Ahab’s boat “seemed drawn up towards Heaven by invisible wires,—as, arrow-like, shooting perpendicularly from the sea, the White Whale dashed his broad forehead against its bottom, and sent it, turning over and over, into the air.”

Figure 18. Alex Katz, Untitled, 1948–49. Pen and ink on paper, 3 3/8 x 5 1/4 in. (8.6 x 13.3 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.493.

Finally, in Fig. 18 we witness Ishmael in the novel’s Epilogue. After Moby Dick has “smote” the Pequod, and the ship sinks amidst a whirling vortex, Ishmael alone survives. Earlier in the narrative, when Queequeg believes he is dying, he asks the carpenter to build him a coffin that resembles the canoes in which dead warriors of his people are “stretched . . . out . . . floated away to the starry archipelagoes.” Queequeg recovers and the coffin is converted into a life-buoy. In this final scene, Ishmael describes himself as “buoyed up by that coffin,” floating “on a soft and dirge-like main.”

In writing the capacious Moby-Dick, Melville was acutely aware that his attempts at literary representation of the whale were inevitably partial and circumscribed. His narrator admits, “Dissect [the whale] how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will.” So, too, did Melville believe that visual artists had fallen short of accurately representing whales: “the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness.” If Melville’s novel is an act of defiance in the face of that difficulty, a sustained struggle to represent that which must ever elude representation, he might well have been charmed to see these sketches by Alex Katz—whimsical efforts to capture the strange and slippery novel that has become central to the American literary tradition.

Katherine Stubbs is an associate professor of English at Colby College.