Was Captain Ahab Ahead of His Time? Captain Ahab, who led the ill-fated quest for Melville's great white whale, Moby-Dick, may have been misunderstood. Today, it appears he has much in common with modern American leaders.

Was Captain Ahab Ahead of His Time?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

It is a classic image - Captain Ahab from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick on a deck of a wooden ship searching for the white whale.

(Soundbite of the movie "Moby Dick")

Mr. GREGORY PECK (Actor): (As Captain Ahab) Mr. Starbuck, are you opposing me? If so, I'll have you know there is one God that is lord over the earth and one captain over the Pequod.

NORRIS: That's Gregory Peck as Ahab from the film version of Moby Dick. Ahab is famously monomaniacal, dedicated only to killing the white whale. But he may be a more modern character than of vintage would suggest. As part of our series, In Character, NPR's Larry Abramson explores a character he's learned to admire.

LARRY ABRAMSON: I'm standing on the deck of the Pequod surrounded by my multicultural band of shipmates. We've been sailing for over a hundred pages, hardly a word from our supreme lord and dictator. That's what Ishmael calls him. The whole time we've been talking about him - about Ahab - the mystery man with one name, christened after an evil biblical king.

His decision to stay in his cabin all this time is sheer PR brilliance. The suspense is killing us and the myth around Ahab grows more outrageous every day. Wait a minute. There he is standing on the quarter deck, his peg leg resting on the augerhole he uses to steady himself against the rolling of the ship.

(Soundbite of the movie "Moby Dick")

Mr. PECK: (As Captain Ahab) What do you do when you see a whale, men?

ABRAMSON: Ahab's face is split down the middle. As Melville puts it, the scar resembles that perpendicular seam(ph) sometimes made in a straight, lofty trunk of a great tree when the upper lightning tearingly dart down it, leaving the tree still grimly alive but (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of the movie "Moby Dick")

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

Mr. PECK: (As Captain Ahab) What do you do next?

ABRAMSON: Captain Ahab. Captain Ahab. He won't take questions from the crew but, man, he is a hell of a politician. Within minutes, he's enlisted nearly every single one of us in the haunt for not just any whale - a white whale named Moby Dick. I know it sounded ridiculous to me but after Ahab asked around the grog a few times, Ishmael and I and everyone else signed up. The reward offer with icing on the cake.

(Soundbite of the movie "Moby Dick")

Mr. PECK: (As Captain Ahab) Whosoever of ye finds me that white whale, he shall have this Spanish gold ounce, my boys.

ABRAMSON: That of course is not Melville they have. It's John Huston, the director of that film. For us members of the crew, that film - and the Ray Bradbury screenplay, forged the public image of Ahab as a mindless terminator, as a fanatic. In the film when first mate Starbuck asked…

(Soundbite of the movie "Moby Dick")

Mr. LEO GENN (Actor): (As Starbuck) Captain Ahab, was it not Moby Dick took off thy leg?

Mr. PECK: (As Captain Ahab) Aye, it was Moby Dick that tore my soul and body until they bled into each other.

ABRAMSON: Now my Ahab, Melville's Ahab, responds more like this, aye, it was Moby Dick that dismasted me. Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye, he shouted with a terrific, loud animal sob like that of a heart-stricken moose. Here is the human Ahab, the wounded Ahab bent on revenge, haunted by the memory of the wife and child he left at home.

Melville scholar, Professor Mary Bercaw Edwards says when she teaches this book to her college students at the University of Connecticut, they don't think of him as evil at all.

Professor MARY BERCAW EDWARDS (English, University of Connecticut): They don't say that about Ahab. They do kind of fall for him. They see him as not just being a tyrant. And I think it's because of the humanity they see in him.

ABRAMSON: Humanity? How can you find humanity in a mass murderer who drags dozens of sailors down to Davy Jones's Locker with him? That has been the reaction of many in the century-and-a-half since Melville's epic came out and the many characters with Ahab in their DNA haven't helped.

(Soundbite of theme from "Jaws")

It's hard not to love the movie "Jaws." But as the ultimate Moby Dick knockoff, this movie's Ahab drinks a little too deep from the Ahabian spring for me. Like Ahab, Robert Shaw as Quint, the crusty shark-hating captain of the Orca, has an obsessive primal hatred that drives him on. In his case, Quint watched his fellow sailors get chewed up after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II.

{Soundbite of the movie "Jaws")

Mr. ROBERT SHAW (Actor): (As Quint) You know a thing about a shark - he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then - ah, then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'.

ABRAMSON: But unlike our Ahab, poor Quint never wins the support of his colleagues. He ends up as shark chum while his crew survives. These Ahab wannabes do get more lines than the real captain who's surprisingly absent for much of Moby Dick. But our Captain Ahab is bigger than the (unintelligible) he chases.

Now, there have been men of vision who recognize this. The largest perhaps was Orson Welles who turned Moby Dick into theater and grabbed the part of Ahab for himself. Welles' "Moby Dick Rehearsed" is probably not the best known play and the performance Welles played in is largely lost. But we Ahabophiles give Welles a nod for being faithful to the master.

(Soundbite of the movie "Moby Dick")

Mr. PECK (Actor): (As Captain Ahab) Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. Do you see me strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale? But ere I break, ye'll hear me crack; till ye hear that, know Ahab's hawser tows his purpose yet.

ABRAMSON: Did you get that? Ahab's hawser tows his purpose yet. Okay, he's not the easiest guy to understand. But if that then-Shakespearian language that distinguishes him from the mere mortals he has the ship with. Actor Seth Duerr says it took him a while to be seduced by Ahab.

Mr. SETH DUERR (Actor): I though he was a complete psychopath when I first started looking at this.

ABRAMSON: Seth Duerr plays Ahab in the current touring production of "Moby Dick Rehearsed" by a New York based troupe called The Acting Company.

(Soundbite of play "Moby Dick Rehearsed")

Mr. DUERR: (As Captain Ahab) …pondering all this, the palsied universe lies white before us like a leper; and the whiteness, all of whiteness. The Albino whale has been my symbol. Do you wonder at my fiery hunt?

ABRAMSON: Duerr says that like the rest of us, he got passed Ahab's veneer of craziness and he found a man of surprising talent - a man destined for greatness.

Mr. DUERR: Very good at his job and what he does. And people have a very high opinion of him and his ability in his profession. And then this one event defines who he is, this one tragic thing that occurs right before the play starts.

ABRAMSON: Ahab is successful but he's tortured. He thinks bigger than those around him. He wants to get beyond what we calls the mask and find reality or something.

If you ask Professor Mary Bercaw Edwards who also works as Connecticut's Mystic Seaport Museum, she says Ahab's deeper tragedy is that even he struggles to understand just why he's doing what he's doing.

Prof. EDWARDS: Is Ahab Ahab? Is it Igar or who that was disarmed? I mean, he's really questioning who is the one who is pushing him on? What is it? What nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is that? What cozening hidden lord and master and cruel remorseless empire commands me? You know, he looks at himself and tries to figure out about himself that's driving him. And, yeah, and Ahab is his own worst enemy.

ABRAMSON: Maybe Ahab was just ahead of his time. Corporate groups have come to Mystic Seaport and they've asked for leadership seminars based on Captain Ahab. And is it any wonder? Ahab succeeds in getting a bunch of boozy seamen like us behind him in his suicidal mission. There is no mutiny on the Pequod. Ahab is no Captain Bligh. Ahab is every leader of every country who asks the population to trust him, follow him, where ever. And that's why I think his time has finally come around again. There he is again on the quarter deck. Ahab for president.

(Soundbite of applause)

NORRIS: When he is on solid ground, Larry Abramson covers education for NPR.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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