It's the, um, late edition! My plan is to look at a chapter a week. Maybe two in some weeks as there are 135 chapters. None of them are especially long. This book is in the public domain, by the way and can be read at google or downloaded from many websites or purchased from a bookstore, etc.
Chapter 1 - Loomings
"Call me Ishmael." It starts with what it probably the shortest sentence in the entire book. It's an introduction, in every sense of the word. The book is really conversational. Bloggy almost, with it's wild digressions and occasional bizarrely misinformed informational treatises.
As for the first chapter, Wikipedia summarizes, "In Chapter 1, 'Loomings', Ishmael introduces himself. With a mixture of chattiness, seriousness, and humor, he speaks of his temperament, the call of the sea, and contends that every man wants at least once in his life to leave the land behind for the ocean." This summary touches on something of a theme in the book. The book is supposed to be allegorical, and employ symbolism and whatnot, which would seem to imply a universally applicable message of some kind. There's a continual striving for universality that becomes apparent from the start. It's not enough that Ishmael wants to set sail. This desire must be universal. Every man must want to set sail. That is 'man' as in masculine, not 'man' as in some sort of generic term for human. He's only willing to extend his universality so far.
He starts by saying he wants to sail and then goes on, "If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me." He comes up with more and more spectacular and dubious examples of a desire for ocean voyages: people go to the beach, therefore, they yearn for the sea. Until the presence of water in landscape paintings must also mean that men want to head out on a boat.
But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within ; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle ; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine- tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd's head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd's eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him.
In other words, landscape paintings are crap without water scenes. Therefore, I want to take a boat. Melville needed a blog.
This highly suspect reasoning starts to seem like a straining for justification. It's not just a flight of fancy for me to want to do this. Everybody wants to do it. Therefore, it's reasonable that I should do it.
He carries on in his chatty tone to overly explain why he wants to go as a crew member and not a passenger - want of cash, largely. And finally just ascribes his desire to go whaling in particular as fate, "Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage," I can say why whales are cool. Which he does, and then the plot-part starts in chapter two.
So chapter one mostly functions to introduce the narrator as a highly literate schoolmaster/sailor who likes to go on at length. And it sets up the tone of the novel. Funny, poetic, sometimes silly, but seeking of universal truths. Looking, almost, a bit too hard for them.