How ‘Moby-Dick’ Illuminates American Tragedies

Revisiting Melville’s classic after the Hart family murder

In March, like millions of others, I was overcome by the news of a devastating car accident involving a family whose SUV had plunged off a cliff in northern California, tumbling into the brink of the Pacific a hundred feet below. Authorities recovered the bodies of five people from the overturned and partially submerged vehicle and its vicinity — Jennifer and Sarah Hart and their adopted children Markis, Abigail, and Jeremiah. Still missing were three more adopted children, Hannah, Ciera, and Devonte. The parents were white, all their adopted children black. One of them I recognized. In 2014, photographer Johnny Nguyen captured the iconic image of a tearful Devonte, then twelve years old, hugging a Portland police officer at a protest supporting justice for Michael Brown. The photograph went viral, and for those like me who remembered our reactions to it years later, the possibility of Devonte’s death added an especially cruel twist to the story.

Alarmingly, investigators judged the crash not to be an accident at all but intentional. According to the SUV’s onboard computer, the vehicle had been at rest in a flat pullout along the highway before accelerating steadily to the point it left the cliff. This grim recounting was difficult to reconcile with Nguyen’s photograph, which had evoked parents fearing for their black son’s future in America. But official documents told a different story. Child abuse accusations against the Harts began a decade ago, and in 2011, Sarah pleaded guilty to a domestic assault charge after striking Abigail, then six years old, with a closed fist and holding her head under water. More recently, a neighbor recalled Devonte asking for large quantities of food for his siblings, whom he said were being starved. A frantic Hannah escaped to the same house in the dead of night and begged not to be returned to her abusive home. The Department of Social and Health Services in Washington state launched an investigation, attempting to contact the Harts at their home. Three days later, a passerby spotted the family’s wrecked SUV along the rocky shoreline below California’s Highway 1.

Friends of the Harts defended Jennifer and Sarah, eulogizing them as model parents who sacrificed to give their adopted children a second chance in life in a loving family. Magazine-quality photographs of the smiling, active children curated that very impression of a hip, modern, interracial family. They are like promo stills for a network sitcom pilot: a group hug in matching Bernie t-shirts, a dapper Devonte stumping for charity, the bunch basking in the majesty of a Western mountain range. This family is from the future, they declare. “We can change the world with kindness” reads a colorful, crayoned sign held up by a grinning Devonte. In fact, Devonte owns so many of these shots that it’s easy to believe what a family friend had said about him, that he was the leader of his brothers and sisters despite his age. Whatever Jennifer and Sarah thought they needed to be, the key to achieving it was Devonte, the magical kid whose embrace promised dispensation for an original sin.

But the story of the Hart family didn’t strike me as futuristic so much as familiar, like a very old tale, recast. The more I read about the Harts, the more I thought about another old story, one that inevitably reappears in my life every few years. I’d first read Moby-Dick as a graduate student over twenty years ago, and I used to teach it to my own students before doing so began to seem like too big of a commitment for everyone involved. After spending some time away from the book, however, I realized that I loved discussing it with others not for its sake but for my own. For me, talking about the fate of the Pequod has always been to say something about the calamities of our present and our place among them. To read Moby-Dick after a crushing tragedy is to try to gain a measure of control over the seemingly incomprehensible — to name monsters, so to speak, and to not let that charge consume you.

To read Moby-Dick after a crushing tragedy is to try to gain a measure of control over the seemingly incomprehensible — to name monsters, so to speak.

The indebtedness of Moby-Dick to the language of Milton and Shakespeare can distract from its American origins. Moby-Dick is fashioned from its own era, one in which white men like Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun — and now, Herman Melville — brawled on paper over the prospect of slavery extending indefinitely. Melville began the book only months before the Compromise of 1850, which briefly defused threats of secession in part by enacting a stricter version of the Fugitive Slave Act. His own father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, became the first northern judge to enforce the law when he ordered Thomas Sims, who had escaped from slavery to Boston, returned to his Georgia owner. Bargain in hand, the Union gamely tried to outrun a reckoning with the issue of slavery — and did, for about ten years. When Nathaniel Philbrick said that Moby-Dick contained “nothing less than the genetic code of America,” he meant that it had been consecrated in the unresolved, foundational crisis of the nation. Since Moby-Dick, America has never stopped trying to outrun this history.

Like the book’s narrator Ishmael, Jennifer and Sarah Hart appeared to be souls unsure of their purpose but shored by the prospect of an odyssey manned by the right crew. They adopt three black children and then three more, including Devonte. They tell reporters that they are saving Devonte’s life from a mother who pumped drugs through his veins in the womb. They correct those who say that Devonte is one lucky kid: no, they are the lucky ones. “Yes indeed he is living proof that our past does not dictate our future,” they add. They are two white mothers and six black children and call themselves the “Hart tribe” because they are one people now. They elude racist teachers and neighbors in Minnesota. They turn up at New Age music festivals, Bernie rallies, and, memorably, a Ferguson protest. Their pictures say it all. They are outrunning history, they are doing it, and they will send us postcards along the way.

But how do you outrun a history that has always been a part of you? How do you outrun slavery and all that it has wrought in you, despite generations gone? That history is there once you bid for three children against a family still fighting to keep them. Or when you ink your family name over theirs. That history is yours, unbounded by century or border, each time you flog your children, ritualize their hunger, ban their lessons, and coach their smiles before strangers. It is present the second you think to bind them to you for good because you believe that none will ever work, marry, have kids of their own, or “grow up to have normal lives.” That history includes all of those who let you get away with it — until, too late, a few didn’t anymore, and men with guns arrived on your land to tell you to stop. Your quest to know black experience, to make it your own even if you must coerce it out of those in your care, is not a new story at all.

To read Moby-Dick after tragedy may be, above all, to promote Ahab in our imagination. Allegories abound of tyrants and their enablers. The late Alan Heimert, tracing the origins of Moby-Dick back to the political divisions of 1850, proffered a likeness between the captain and John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina slaveholder whose body failed him famously before the Senate and kept him from delivering a final screed against compromise with the North. In the chapter appropriately entitled “Moby-Dick,” Ishmael begins the long tradition of pondering Ahab, loosing his imagination upon the old man and the significance of his injury. From the time Moby-Dick took his leg, “Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale,” Ishmael relates, “all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.” I suspect that Jennifer Hart likewise saw her body through the eyes of others, its whiteness signaling a history she wouldn’t abide for herself. Returning to the book now, I wondered about the brutal compensations we make for our bodies, for their fitness for this world, doubts that push us onward to prove something, across oceans if necessary, farther than we’d ever thought we’d go.

Returning to the book now, I wondered about the brutal compensations we make for our bodies, for their fitness for this world.

Jennifer Hart wouldn’t be the first parent who needed black children to see herself as a good white person in this world. She too vented exasperations, decrying how racist classmates and strangers on the street had harassed the family, Devonte especially. Hate had chased them out of Minnesota, she said, then Oregon after the viral photo. The children rarely played outside, neighbors now recalled. Hart felt isolated, even from those close to her. “I’ve been struggling with the colorblindness I’m surrounded by in my circle(s) of friends. My children are black,” she wrote on Facebook. “There are so few people in my life that I feel really GET it. Love and light seem to be the only things in the tool box. That’s not being an ally for black lives.” The outburst is like an Ahab soliloquy, simultaneously impotent and entitled, a fist shaken at the sky and all below it except one. On paper, Jennifer Hart played the white savior, outwardly nothing at all like the terrible Calhoun. What the two shared, however, was an unwavering certainty of the nature of their place among black people and then the audacious confidence it gave them before their peers.

“Oh, ye frozen heavens!” Ahab rages, “look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines.” Pip, a young black sailor deserted by his mates, tossed amid the immensity of the sea, “saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.” Ahab succors the boy, convinced that Pip alone can penetrate worldly artifice. In the chapter entitled “The Cabin,” Ahab leaves Pip to fight Moby-Dick without him. “No, no, no! ye have not a whole body, sir,” cries Pip, “do ye but use poor me for your one lost leg; only tread upon me, sir; I ask no more, so I remain a part of ye.” Ahab is moved by the loving entreaties yet will not be swerved. It is one thing for Ahab to dispense pity, or to command it, but he will not suffer it himself. “Weep so, and I will murder thee!” he warns. Ahab errs in believing that the integrity of his cabin is an extension of his own, protecting his ward from white whales and men alike. “But here I’ll stay,” Pip concedes, “though this stern strikes rocks; and they bulge through; and oysters come to join me.”

Reading Moby-Dick isn’t necessary to understand the story of the Hart family. The facts are clear. Two white women adopted three black children because they felt they needed to and could do so. Despite accusations of abuse against them, the women were allowed to adopt three more, this time away from an aunt petitioning to stop them. They beat and starved their children, taking them off the grid once authorities asked too many questions. Their family, friends, and neighbors, for their part, asked too few questions until it was too late. Across state lines, systems and their agents enabled them, failing the innocents entrusted to them. Caseworkers closed investigations into the women because they “look normal.” At the end, intoxicated, Jennifer Hart shot her family off the edge of the continent, killing most and probably all of them, because they would be taken away from her, and she needed them to be herself. You don’t have to read Moby-Dick to know this.

I can say only that I did to help me to remember this catastrophe, especially as weeks of investigation passed, reporters moved on, and tweets dwindled. Perhaps reading Moby-Dick after tragedy enacts a desire to stay with a story, to not have it leave you just yet, to believe that there’s something else to say despite the other news of the world crowding into the frame. It is to insist that the book’s mighty theme belongs to the story at hand too, that there are bonds, even if you must grasp at them yourself. It is to say that its pages record every angle of this story too and to take your time dwelling upon them. Ishmael himself, after all, muses that his story pales in comparison to other historical events in the “programme of Providence” — the “whaling voyage by one Ishmael” sandwiched between “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States” and “Bloody Battle in Affghanistan” — but he tells it anyway, sensing a connection. Like so many others who sat down to read Moby-Dick for the first time, I believed I would never finish it, and here I am reading it again because other stories finish too soon.

To read ‘Moby-Dick’ after a tragedy is to insist that the book’s mighty theme belongs to the story at hand too.

Moby-Dick is all about keeping a story going. There’s always something else. This truth visits Ishmael’s boon companion, the harpooner king Queequeg, who, moments after deciding to die in his coffin, “recalled a little duty ashore, which he was leaving undone; and therefore had changed his mind about dying.” There is nothing else for the monomaniacal Ahab, who streaks toward the conclusion of his tormenting single story, the path “laid with iron rails” upon which his “soul is grooved to run.” Jennifer and Sarah Hart imagined they were chasing down a malignant evil too — the racism polluting every space around them except their own. I pray that in their last moments, looking out across the Pacific, and then at each other, they spied at last that ghastly monster they had sought, as Ahab did, embodied before their very eyes. Ishmael is the sole survivor of the doomed Pequod, saved by Queequeg’s coffin turned life-buoy, now tasked with telling the story of an illegal and immoral voyage, in all its minutiae. That story is ours now.

Two weeks after the crash of the Hart’s SUV, searchers recovered the body of a child brought back closer to shore by a storm, later positively identifying her as Ciera Hart, born Ciera Davis. As I write this, Hannah and Devonte Hart are still considered missing by the FBI, which has released posters with their photographs, essential details, and last known whereabouts. Their baby faces are sobering juxtaposed with their true ages, Hannah aged sixteen, Devonte fifteen. We’re asked to keep looking for them. For their sakes and our own, let us ransack all the known places we inhabit, in the world and on the page, in search of them forever. I hope we see them everywhere, forces impossible to outrun. To those like me who found their tragedy unfathomable at first, take care in what you make of them and what they need from you. As so many familiar with their story have said, they appear much younger than they really are.

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