When I was a junior in college, I decided that I had been born into the wrong century and country. I had by this time read the highlights of the Romantic and Victorian poets and had developed a fondness for the likes of Dickens and (especially) Hardy. I imagined that even in the current times, people in England were smarter than Americans and that they went about in their paperboy hats and tweeds speaking sentences that began “I should like to think that” and that ended with insightful pronouncements on literature and philosophy. These were things I was interested in that I figured there weren’t many people in America cultivated enough to be interested in. I’m a little surprised I didn’t begin to affect a British accent.
I had read precious little American literature. There were the standard Poe and Dickinson selections from high school along with some Hawthorne and good old vengeful Jack Edwards, and there were some of the modernist poets (the really major ones expatriates anyway), but that was about it. I don’t know what compelled me to take a course on the American novel. It was no doubt an odious requirement I had to knock off to get my degree. The American university I attended wanted me to have read something significant by an American before letting me out with an English degree, I suppose.
We read The Blithedale Romance, The Damnation of Thereon Ware (the title character of which in retrospect I sometimes feel as if I must then and more recently often have resembled in many ways), something whose title eludes me about a bilocutionist (an old-timey word for a ventriloquist), and I forget what else. Oh yeah — there was also this little book called Moby-Dick. I remember well the circumstances under which I first began to read the book, so surprisingly engaging and delightful was its beginning. It was a spring day, and I had some time to kill before a meeting with an advisor. I made my way to the outside of the building on the university’s main quad and settled myself among the roots of a 200-year-old tree. We had a bunch of these trees shooting their roots out like long knotted fingers of the arthritic, and I was in the habit — there was probably something of the Wordsworthian influence coming out here — of reading or scribbling beneath one or the other of them. I opened the book and read that iconic first sentence and then continued on to find that its speaker was somebody I sort of liked. As I continued to read, I was surprised to find that Melville wrote not in the stodgy, heavy prose that I expected of such a tome, but wrote instead with humor and tenderness and real human feeling. Here was a generous author.
I was hooked, and this was before I got to the high drama, the great beauty of the more poetic prose, the adventure on the merciless ocean and on the very back of the whale.
Stop and imagine that for a moment. Think about the audacity of striking out in a little boat to attach yourself by rope to a beast that might fling you fifty yards with a swipe of its tail, that might snap you up in its awful socketed jaws, that might drag your boat down as it sounds and leave you dog-paddling out in the great lonely deep. It boggles my mind, it’s so ballsy, and the dramatization of such audacity is a big part of the book’s appeal to me.
But it’s also an encyclopedia of sorts. The casual reader (or the reader uninterested in whales as fascinating creatures) may tend to find taxonomic and descriptive parts of the book — and there are many — tedious, but to me, reading the book has always been something like watching something on the Discovery Channel. Think about that for a moment too. I started watching a few weeks ago the latest set of documentaries by the group that brought us the dazzling series The Planet Earth. Oprah narrates the newer ones, and they’re inferior to the prior series in scope and majesty. They’re also badly written, every scene shifting to another with a tidy transition or counterpoint, somehow too simple and yet struggling to maintain a sort of coherence or unity of story across the various scenes of creatures in the wild. And they never have enough information; I find myself always always wanting more. However visually engaging the series is, it suffers a sort of poverty of information and style.
Moby-Dick treats us to the opposite dilemma, one in which we must furnish the images ourselves but are afforded detail after detail about whales and whaling by a man who saw it first-hand. As dilemmas go, it’s one I’m happy to deal with. (A person’s mud puddle is a pig’s delight.)
And on top of it all, Melville gives us philosophy and enlightenment and fellow-feeling and, most notably for the reader new to Melville, humor. Moby-Dick is surely not a book free of problems, but it really is a fantastic, ambitious book, one of my absolute favorites, and one I’m really excited to read and write about here.