September 28, 1991|By CHARLES M. OLIVER

ADA, OHIO. — Ada, Ohio--One hundred years ago this day, Herman Melville died in poverty and obscurity and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City, far from his home in the mountainous Berkshires of Massachusetts. Unlike the lesser writers of today who fly like moths into the media sun (just watch Norman Mailer), Melville's celebrity was slow in coming; only decades after his death did his work begin to attract its deserved acclaim.

And so, inspired by some romantic respect for a man who toiled magnificently, without earthy reward, I have reread Melville's greatest and most feared novel, ''Moby-Dick.'' I challenge every reader to do the same.

As a graduate student I was forced to read it; as a teacher I have felt forced to teach it. But perhaps I'm more relaxed now after 30 years and so can read it, probably for the first time in my life, simply for pleasure. Or perhaps I've lived enough to match my emotions against Melville's and not be too embarrassed at the results. Whatever the reason, and in spite of its enormity, this time I could not put the book down.

The thought that kept coming back to me throughout the experience was that ''Moby-Dick'' is the artistic equal to any single work of Shakespeare's. Now I don't pretend that I'm going to convince most readers of this, neither the poor souls who remember the book as an excruciating assignment in English 101 nor the aesthetes who long ago decided that nothing in American literature can be as good as most works of English literature.

Unfortunately, readers have been force-fed so much highfalutin theory about the ''symbolic overtones'' in ''Moby-Dick'' that they are intimidated beyond any chance for pleasure. Ahab is not really pursing a great white whale at all, they are told, but is instead battling the forces of evil. Or Moby-Dick is God, harried by the mad atheist Ahab, who is not really mortal man but a servant of Satan. Or the novel is a ''hideous and intolerable allegory,'' according to one pooh-bah, on the destruction of the soul of man. Or the white whale represents an uncaring Nature that fools man into thinking he has free will. And so on.

Now I would not dare sail into the wind of 100 years of scholarly criticism by claiming that these readings are invalid. (Although I must say that teachers who protect their classroom territory by declaring such esoteric meanings for ''Moby-Dick'' ensure that only a handful of students will bother finishing it.) Rather I would suggest that the pleasure one gets from this work is not so much in the hidden region of the iceberg (though there is much pleasure there) but in its visible mountain of ice.

For one thing, it's a hell of a story.

And I don't mean as in a mere adventure story, though there is adventure enough to open the imagination of the most passive )) readers. No, I mean there is more genuine excitement, more curl-further-into-the-pillow seafaring derring-do than any Hollywood director has ever hoped to deliver. And the stories developed in the chapters often neglected as being irrelevant are just as exciting, especially when read not for information so much as for atmosphere.

The whaling industry of the 19th century was intoxicating, the dream of every coastal boy, and to sail a three-masted ship across three oceans on the trail of a herd of whales can be matched for heart-thumping adventure only by the sailing voyages our astronauts have taken into outer space. I can't help noting that the space program is in its square-rigged era, too, but NASA has yet to send up an Ishmael to narrate what it's really like.

But then Melville also has Ahab, that mad captain who knows ships and sailing well enough to keep his crew inspired in their search for the mysterious white whale. It's not so much that the leviathan is symbolic of anything (God, Satan, the Self, the holy grail), but that a great white whale was just so rarely seen by whalers that it became the natural progenitor of mystery and romance and fear. Imagine rowing a 28-foot dingy in 12-foot waves up to an 80-foot, 60-ton whale that could splinter your boat with a mere whack of its flukes, and then hurling your harpoon at it, all mostly for the sake of someone else's profit!

Admittedly, ''Moby-Dick'' is long, but with all the 700-page romance novels and techno-thrillers being sold and presumably read today, one would think the 521-page ''Moby-Dick'' no longer all that daunting. On this, the anniversary of Melville's unnoticed and grim passing, perhaps it is fitting that we take up his masterpiece again -- no longer worrying every object for its potential symbolism -- and allow ourselves to be swept up by the natural high that only the greatest literature can provide.

Charles M. Oliver teaches English at Ohio Northern University.

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