The discovery of a barnacled shipwreck, guarding its secrets deep in the ocean for centuries, never fails to capture the imagination. We think of treasure chests laden with gold, or ancient cannons contorted by ocean decay. But when such finds are brought to the surface for all to see, it's not often as exciting as the legend would have us hope.
So the news last week that US marine archaeologists had found a 19th-century whaling vessel called the Two Brothers off the coast of Hawaii did not at first seem all that promising. There were harpoons, rusty hooks used to strip the caught whales of their blubber, and the deep cauldrons that turned that blubber into oil: all destined, perhaps, for a display case at a whaling museum, but nothing more. But then, the captain's name was revealed.
Even so, the moniker George Pollard might not have prompted many cries of recognition. But it was the exploits of this sea dog that inspired one of the greatest tales in literature. For Pollard had earlier been the skipper of the Essex, which famously sank after being rammed by a furious 85ft sperm whale in 1821.
Ring any bells yet? It should. The attack found fictional form in the climax of Herman Melville's celebrated book Moby-Dick, often described as the supreme American novel. "Moby-Dick swam swiftly round and round the wrecked crew," Melville wrote 30 years later, "sideways churning up water in his vengeful wake, as if lashing himself up to still another and more deadly assault."
Judging by a first-hand account of the fate of the Essex, Melville was scarcely taking any artistic licence. The first mate, Owen Chase, recalled the events in his Narrative Of The Most Extraordinary And Distressing Shipwreck Of The Whale-Ship Essex, and it is an incredible document. When the whale attacked, Chase remembers the wrecked ship trembling like a leaf, and describes Pollard as "so completely overpowered by the spectacle before him that he sat down in the boat pale and speechless... altered, awed and overcome with the oppression of his feelings and the dreadful reality that laid before him."
Melville annotated Chase's book heavily before he set about writing Moby-Dick, but Pollard - who died in 1870 - would have been relieved to find little of his character in the magnificently vengeful Ahab. The captain of the whaler Pequod, Ahab is driven by a manic desire to exact revenge for Moby-Dick's maiming of him on a previous whaling trip. As Melville vividly wrote: "All that most maddens and torments... all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick."
Yet to speak across the generations, Melville's book had to be more than a tall fishing tale about a stubborn whale pursued by a madman on a private crusade. Moby-Dick is a spiritual and philosophical story too, which can be read - as Andrew Delbanco posits in his 2005 biography of the author - as an allegorical tale of "the reciprocal love between a demagogue [Ahab] and his adoring followers". Leviathan, Philip Hoare's wonderful, award-winning non-fiction book about whales, constantly refers to Melville's white whale. He believes the classic tale not only shaped how we see the whale, but that we continue to evoke Ahab as a symbol for fruitless vengeful quests.
"Moby-Dick has been responsible for our whole relationship as humans to whales," Hoare told The National after he won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Leviathan in 2009. "It's still the kind of shorthand for whales and the sea. It's amazing how many people think Captain Ahab kills the whale in the end, but in Melville's book, the whale wins. And that's the point. Melville is saying that it's completely foolhardy of humanity to think it can conquer nature. For him, the notion of investing an animal with a sense of evil is completely ludicrous, because animals aren't evil."
And yet, incredibly, Moby-Dick wasn't a success when it was first published in 1851. It is a difficult book to get to grips with. Melville constantly interrupts the narrative with diversions about whales and the odd musical interlude, but its author deserved better than to spend the rest of his years in obscurity. He died, almost entirely forgotten, in 1891, and it wasn't until the 1920s that Melville was rediscovered. In his Studies in Classic American Literature, DH Lawrence said that Moby-Dick "commands a stillness in the soul, an awe". In the same decade, the celebrated critic Carl van Doren argued that it belonged "with the greatest sea adventures in the whole literature of the world".
Perhaps that's because it was so far ahead of its time. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf might have popularised a modernist, stream-of-consciousness style in the early 20th century with books such as Ulysses and To the Lighthouse, but Melville had been doing exactly that five decades earlier. It is no surprise, either, that it took the fallout from a world war, in which more than nine million men died, for people to uncover and appreciate Melville's clear exploration of man's capacity for senseless violence in Ahab's insane savagery.
Since then, it has been filmed several times, most successfully, perhaps, in 1956 starring Gregory Peck as Ahab, and there have been television series with Patrick Stewart and William Hurt in the same role, and even stage plays. There are graphic novels, parodies and the odd heavy metal concept album inspired by Melville's tale. Moby-Dick is found in the "classics" section of bookshops, and, of course, every time a latté is sipped in a particular chain of coffee shops, we're doffing our caps to the coffee-drinking first mate of the Pequod, Starbuck.
Melville remained, like the great whale of his novel, elusive to the last. It's said that he came from an esteemed American family, lived in New York and went on a whaling voyage that ended in cannibalism, before having to make ends meet as a customs inspector in Manhattan after Moby-Dick failed. But most of this cannot be substantiated, which is why a new book by Jay Parini, The Passages of Herman Melville, attempts to tell his story via a novel. It may be the closest we ever get to understanding his motivations.
And modern fiction is still fascinated by the sense of adventure, of man's battle with the natural world, that Melville so expertly evoked. Carol Birch's excellent novel, Jamrach's Menagerie, is in part inspired by what happened after the sinking of the Essex. Drifting at sea for months, the survivors were forced to eat and kill each other in desperation after their provisions ran out. All this is in Chase's original account, but it's the emotional power of Birch's fictionalisation, asking the question - "could you do the same?" - that resonates.
But it is Melville, in the end, who captures our fascination with the endless mysteries of the sea. As the final line in his opus says: "All collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."