The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Charles Olson's 101st

Charles Olson
Today is the 101st birthday of Charles Olson. Fans of experimental, tantalizing, abstruse, marvel-filled, American poetry might know him from his magnum opus, The Maximus Poems.

His first book, however, was Call Me Ishmael (1947). It is the culmination of his research on Melville, begun while working on his Master's degree (thesis: The Growth of Herman Melville, Prose Writer and Poetic Thinker), and continued at Harvard (where his paper Lear and Moby-Dick helped earn him his first of two Guggenheim fellowships).

Olson was one of the first scholars to consider the importance of Melville's reading and marginalia. Part of his work involved hunting down books from Melville's library that had since been passed to family members and collectors. When Olson located a book, he made detailed notes of his interviews with family members, and meticulous transcriptions of Melville's marginalia — all on 5x7 index cards. After the publication of Call Me Ishmael, Olson stored those cards in a trunk in a friend's cellar. Over the years, the cards were damaged by water and mildew.

Olson died in 1970 and is buried in Beechbrook Cemetery, Gloucester, Massachusetts. (His Colonial-style slate headstone is proving problematic.)

In 1973, the University of Connecticut purchased Olson's papers. In 2000, a project to conserve his note cards was initiated. The current state of the project (card images and transcriptions) is viewable at the site: Charles Olson's Melville Project.

But back to Call Me Ishmael. It's definitely worth a read, although you may find it "unusual" in its presentation. It is literary criticism as written by a nascent poet — freewheeling and condensed. For example:
To MAGNIFY is the mark of Moby-Dick. As with workers, castaways, so with the scope and space of the sea, the prose, the Whale, the Ship and, OVER ALL, the Captain. It is the technical act compelled by the American fact. Cubits of tragic stature. Put it this way. Three forces operated to bring about the dimensions of Moby-Dick: Melville, a man of MYTH, antemosaic; an experience of SPACE, its power and price, America; and ancient magnitudes of TRAGEDY, Shakespeare. 
A "Maximus-style" feature film about Olson's connection to Gloucester is viewable on the Web:

Parts 2 - 6 are viewable at

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Occupy Johnny Cake Hill

From Chasing the White Whale, David Dowling's examination of the MDM:
...the all-night feature of the Moby-Dick Marathon reading functions not as an eccentric solipsistic dare so much as a way to collectively expose the cultural anxiety about the death of literature, the death of reading great works unabridged, sans Cliff's Notes, summaries, digital or online shortcuts of any sort. In this light, the New Bedford reading functions almost like a sit-in protest [emphasis mine] against the technological threat posed to the love of long, difficult literature and the patience, endurance, and long attention span it demands.
The death of literature, the erosion of human potential by technology; and our collective struggle against these forces... Here's that clip again:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Extracts, yes!

Announced on the Whaling Museum's blog:
At 11:30 a.m. in the Bourne Building, Melville Society members will read many of the 80 brief "Extracts" related to whales and whaling, which Melville included before Chapter 1.
Is someone at the Museum reading this blog? Both Lemuel and I have argued that the MDM curiously omits two chapters of Moby-Dick: Etymology and Extracts. (And the Iron-Bound Bucket concurs!)

Now it appears that the MDM is, at least partially, addressing our pleas. (Why not read all of the Extracts? Why skip Etymology?)

Still, it's clear, the Marathon gets better every year!!

Note: The Bourne Building is that older part of the museum, which houses the Lagoda.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Get ready!

Here we are less than a month away from MDM16. If you cannot be in New Bedford the weekend of January 7 to read along, you can follow the event via the Museum's live video stream (details at above link), and monitor Twitter hashtag #MDM16.

If this is your first Moby-Dick Marathon, we hope that you will benefit from some of the posts on this blog. Lemuel has written on the physical and psychical aspects of the Marathon, and has a paean to the "Graveyard Shift". I culled from the Web recommendations on how to prepare for the all-night-on-your-blunt-end event. For your safety, see Lemuel's health warning.

If you have reserved a spot as a reader, or hope to be called as a standby reader, Lemuel's series can guide you (e.g., Rule 2: Speak the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text.).

Whether you make it to New Bedford this year or not, every mother's son and daughter needs a decent, printed copy of our treasured text. My search for the ideal edition of M-D should provide some grist for your mill.

Some info on parking, accommodations, and restaurants in New Bedford is here.

Finally, preparatory to casting off for the Whaling Museum, read our Marathoner's Checklist.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Today in History

One hundred ninety-one years ago (November 20, 1820) was the event that started it all, for us Marathoners: The whaleship Essex, out of Nantucket and hunting in the south Pacific, was struck and sunk by a large sperm whale. The crew of twenty set out in three whaleboats. Eight survived.

Owen Chase
Owen Chase (1798-1869) was the first mate on the Essex. He wrote about the incident in Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.

On July 23, 1841, the whaleship Acushnet gammed with the Lima about 2000 miles west of Ecuador. At this gam, Melville met Owen's son, William Henry Chase, and "first held a copy of Chase's Narrative."

Melville recalled years later, "The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck, had a surprising effect upon me." (Herman Melville, v.1; Hershel Parker, 1996)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Today in History

This date in 1851 was the official publication date of Moby-Dick in the U.S. (It had been published in England on October 18, as The Whale.)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Today in History

Published in The New York Times, November 5, 1851:
Thrilling Account of the Destruction of a Whale Ship by a Sperm Whale—Sinking the Ship—Loss of the Boats and Miraculous Escape of the Crew 
We have just received the following thrilling account of the destruction of the Whale Ship Anne Alexander, Capt. John S. Deblois, of New Bedford, by a large Sperm Whale, from the lips of the Captain himself, who arrived in this city from Paita on Sunday last, in the schooner Providence. ... A similar circumstance has never been known to occur, but once in the whole history of whale-fishing, and that was the destruction of the ship Essex, some twenty or twenty-five years ago... The ship Ann Alexander ... sailed from New Bedford, Ma., June 1st, 1850...  
The full article reads like a replay of the story of the Essex. On August 20, 1851, a hunted sperm whale smashed two whaleboats in his jaws, then later rammed the ship, "knocking a great hole entirely through her bottom." The crew escaped in the remaining whaleboats with twelve quarts of water, five gallons of vinegar, and twenty pounds of wet bread. On August 22, they had the luck to be rescued by the Nantucket (of Nantucket).

Moby-Dick was published (in the U.S.) just nine days after this article appeared. (Think what a modern-day publicist would make of that coincidence!) As Hershel Parker relates in Herman Melville, A Biography, "around 5 November Evert Duyckinck sent Melville a clipping about this Ann Alexander catastrophe." Melville's reply, dated November 7, is rather restrained, but contains an odd reference to the year of the Pequod's sinking:
It is really and truly a surprising coincidence—to say the least. I make no doubt it is Moby Dick himself, for there is no account of his capture after the sad fate of the Pequod about fourteen years ago [emphasis added]. —Ye Gods! What a Commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.
According to Melville then, the Pequod sank "about" 14 years before 1851, i.e. about 1837. If he states or implies this date in the novel, I've missed it for years. Any help out there?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ahab's "attaboy"

Here's something I've wanted to check since reading Lemuel's post about the the current purchasing power of the $1.25 he spent on M-D in 1977.

In Chapter XXXVI Ahab memorably takes a page out of the corporate manager's Big Book of Manipulation to offer a gold "sixteen dollar piece" to the first crewman to spot Moby Dick. Using the tool that Lemuel cited to gauge the purchasing power of $16 in 2010 dollars (2011 figures are not yet available), we get the following values. In the novel, Ishmael tells us that the Pequod sailed "some years ago," so I present numbers for the ten years preceding M-D's 1851 publication date.

$16 in 1841 is worth$412 in 2010 dollars

So we're talking about an "incentive" worth something like $450 today (although the coin might be worth somewhat less with a big nail-hole through it).

Not what you'd call a killer bonus for three years' work, but certainly a respectable "attaboy"—particularly since it was coming out of Ahab's pocket, not some productivity-enhancement budget.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Today in History

160 years ago today, Moby-Dick was first publicly available.

Richard Bentley
On October 18, 1851 The Whale (as it was then titled) was published in London by Richard Bentley—500 sets of three octavo volumes.

According to A Note on the Text in my venerable Penguin paperback, Melville's agreement with Bentley was that "the English edition was to appear at least a fortnight before the American." Melville would receive £150 on delivery of the manuscript as an advance of 50% share of the profits. (Using the "pounds" version of Lemuel's "purchasing power calculator," that's equivalent to a wage today of £116,000, or $183,103.)

The text was heavily edited to remove "dubious sexual, or political, or religious overtones" (Penguin). Chapter 25 was entirely missing. Most confusing to critical readers was the absence of the Epilogue—if everyone perished at the end, then who's telling the story?

Contrary to prevailing myth, the initial reviews were not uniformly scathing. They ranged from "...a most extraordinary work..." to "...wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic..." This collection of contemporaneous reviews is worth reading.

The American edition was published by Harper & Brothers, New York, "probably on November 14, 1851" (Hershel Parker). The title on this edition was changed to Moby-Dick. It was published as a single volume in a run of 2,915 copies.

Thus the novel was typeset twice, which resulted in two versions of the text (the English version unsympathetically edited to boot). The dedicated sleuthing of Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker, later with G. Thomas Tanselle, rationalized the differences in the two versions to determine "as nearly as possible the author's intentions." The result was the Norton Critical Edition (1967), followed by the Northwestern-Newberry edition (1988).

The logic whereby Hayford and Parker untangled the M-D knot is for another post. Of course, not everyone agrees with their editorial choices, so the search for Melville's "intentions" continues (see the Longman Critical Edition). Some publishers skirt the issue entirely by simply selling (error-ridden) public-domain versions.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sign up now to read at MDM16

Quietly added to the Whaling Museum's MDM page was the call for Marathon readers:
Reservations to read are limited. Call (508) 997-0046, ext. 151.
Slots fill up well before January, so if you want to read (and be listed in the handout everyone gets), don't procrastinate.

If you're planning on staying for the entire reading, you can sign up as a standby reader when you arrive for the Marathon.  No guarantees that you'll be called to the podium, but there always seems to be a need for readers in the small hours of Sunday morning.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Well, I uh started it, but um...

That's OK.  I'm told that no human can read the whole thing.
Amusing video over at Iron-bound Bucket.  Nice music, too.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Mentally ill"

Searching the online catalog of my local library for a PlayAway (something like a pre-loaded MP3 player) to accompany my geezer-walks, a listing for Moby-Dick jumped out. Scanning the entry, I was struck by the phrase "mentally ill" as one of ten keywords (keyphrases?) for our beloved text.

My metaphorical knickers began to twist themselves...

I can't blame the esteemed staff of the Minuteman Library System—clicking a link at the bottom of the webpage, it appears that these online entries are generated by Syndetic Solutions, a division of R.R. Bowker, LLC. This "service"... libraries more than 40 million unique, descriptive data elements relating to books, audio books, videos, CDs, and DVDs, which deliver richer, more informative results and create a significantly better catalog search experience.
A wise man once told me, "Everything that does something for you, does something to you." Syndetics spares libraries the task of summarizing M-D by distilling it for them to: an "epic saga," a "heroic conflict between man and his fate," that deals with the psychology of a whaling ship captain who is mentally ill.

You call that a "better catalog search experience"? Feh!

Was Ahab mentally ill, or merely "obsessed"? Was he manic-depressive (bipolar), as David Dowling outlines in Chasing the White Whale (p;146)? How about Starbuck, who comes close to murder? Or Ishmael, who ships out to avert suicide?

Wendy Stallard Flory writes (as quoted by Dowling), "No romance writer has dramatized the experience of manic-depressive mood swings more comprehensively than Melville in Moby-Dick." Flory sees the other characters in M-D embodying ways of dealing with manic-depression: Starbuck through conscious will, Stubb and Flask through "substance abuse," over-indulgence, and willful ignorance. The anti-Ahab, the "integrated personality," is Queequeg.

So, sure—M-D about mental illness. It's also about the tension between capital and labor, ambergris, and whale anatomy; but would you expect to see "Marxism," "perfume," or "cetology" among the top ten keyphrases?

A review of M-D on Amazon is emblazoned on my memory. Under the headline, Do NOT Read This Book, an aggrieved student's précis was: "Boringest book ever!"  Now there's a keyphrase for Syndetics, though none of us M-D devotees would concur.

Years ago, I fell into a discussion with a colleague about one of the Jasper Johns "target" paintings. At one point he looked at his watch and said, "We've just spent 45 minutes talking about it. We could do that because it's Art." I'd bet that most Marathon attendees share the feeling that the more you look into M-D, the more there is to discover. You think you have a good grasp on it until you hear someone like Wyn Kelley field audience questions during "Stump the Scholars."

To reduce a work as substantial and multifaceted as M-D to a list of search terms is not an easy matter. But "mentally ill" would not be in my top ten.

Would it be in yours?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Newspapers, a century ago

...stumbled on this post about turn-of-the-century newspaper production in NYC, containing some archival photos evocative of the city that Melville left in 1891.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Today in History

Our man, Herman Melville, died on this day in 1891, just over 72 years old.

According to his wife, he died "after two years of failing health, induced partly by severe attacks of erysipelas terminating finally in enlargement of the heart." [Parker, vol. 2, p.920]  A Dr. Warner signed the death certificate stating that Herman died on the 28th at 12:30 A.M. at his home at 104 East 26th St. in New York City. His funeral was held at the family home on September 30.

His obituary appeared on September 29 in the New York Times—a single paragraph, stating that "He was the author of 'Typee,' 'Omoo,' 'Mobie Dick,' [sic] and other sea-faring tales written in earlier years." (View the original obit here; Melville's notice is about four paragraphs from the end.)

Notices in other newspapers mentioned that he had "fallen into literary decline ... if the truth were known, even his own generation has long thought him dead..."; called Typee his best book; and described him as a "formerly well-known author." [Parker]

The Times famously printed an article memorializing "Hiram Melville" or "Harry Melville" (Oct. 6, 1891), the headline obliterated from the printing plate in an effort to correct it.

Aside from such faint praise, the Springfield Republican declared that " is probable that no work of imagination more powerful and often poetic has been written by an American than Melville's 'Moby Dick; or the Whale'..."

Herman Melville was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, final resting place of such notables as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and F.W. Woolworth. (Road trip, Lemuel!)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ishmael's Rights, Part II

In my previous post, I talked about the legal recourse that 19th-century whalemen had against mistreatment by their captains.  As it happens, the law did not require seamen (outside the Navy, at least) to suffer every sort of indignity imposed by a superior.  If a seaman felt that he had been punished unjustly, he could sue his captain or the ship once they returned to port.

We have a number of fascinating, reported decisions by U.S. courts from the early 1800s dealing with these issues.  One common theme was whether a seaman's misconduct was sufficiently egregious to justify imprisonment on board or ejection from the ship in port, such that he lost some or all of his wages.  A captain was entitled to eject a seaman if his conduct warranted it, but the captain was supposed to reinstate the seaman if he demonstrated a good-faith willingness to return and behave himself.*

Take the case of Relf v. The Maria, decided in 1805 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Pennsylvania.  (There was only one federal judicial district in Pennsylvania then, as opposed to the three it has now.) The seaman Relf claimed that his captain had (1) wrongfully discharged him from his ship, The Maria, and (2) wrongfully refused "to receive him on board again."  We aren't told exactly what Relf did, but he seems to have been bad news: "Relf showed every sign of a continued, refractory, dangerous and mutinous temper[.]"  He also evidently impeded the administering of discipline by the ship's officers, since the court observes that "[s]eamen ought to know that it does not lay [sic] with them, to interfere between the officers of a ship and any mariner they (the officers or any of them in command) choose to confine, or punish for disorderly conduct."

The court ultimately ruled against Relf, finding that his bad behavior justified his being ejected and not received back (although he still received his wages earned up to that point).  Yet along the way, the court explains that there were limits on what captains could do to their crews.  If conditions passed a certain threshold, a seaman could desert the ship and still be entitled to all his wages: 
When any charge of a criminal nature is alleged, I am, and always have been, ready to examine into it, and pursue the proper measures.  The officers of ships are amenable for improper conduct .... I have been too frequently called on to protect seamen against their oppression.... [A] seaman is justifiable in leaving a ship, if obliged to do so, by continued cruelty and oppression.  I have, under the clear and direct injunctions of the maritime laws, ... often compelled the payment of wages for the voyage, when such circumstances were in proof.  But it does not apply in this case.

*Another interesting background rule, noted in Justice Story's annotations to Abbott on Merchant Ships and Seamen (discussed in my previous post), was that if a seaman absented himself from his ship for more than 48 hours, he forfeited his entire wages "and all his goods and chattels on board the ship[.]"  This law actually serves as a plot point in Melville's Redburn

Friday, September 16, 2011

Spotted in a cemetery

Strait is the gate and narrow the way...
Spotted in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia — what I assume to be a visual reference to the "wicket gate" mentioned by Lemuel in his post of 5/30/11.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

It's official, MDM16 is Jan. 7

The Whaling Museum has made its official announcement: MDM16 will begin Jan. 7, 2012.

Get hold of a Northwestern-Newberry text and book a room for the night of Jan. 8 (so as not to imperil your health).

If you can make the 10 AM "Stump the Scholars" talk (Jan. 7), you won't be disappointed (if it's  like last year's, inaugural STS).  The Friday night buffet/lecture also will be worthwhile.

See you there.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ishmael's Rights

One of the challenges Melville faced in writing Moby-Dick was making the reader believe that Captain Ahab had the ability to enlist the crew in his "vengeful errand."  Whalemen, as Melville shows us, were a bunch of rowdy roughnecks.  They could be suddenly violent -- as in the fight between Daggoo and the "Spanish sailor" in Chapter XL -- and they could be needlessly cruel -- as when Flask wants to "prick" a giant abscess in the dying whale in Chapter LXXXI. 

Yet Ahab managed to persuade them to join enthusiastically in his profitless hunt for the white whale and to keep at it for months. 

Modern readers, I think, tend to underappreciate Melville's artistry in this regard, because we project onto nineteenth-century whaleships the discipline we're familiar with from stories about the navy.  Books and movies such as The Caine Mutiny and Mutiny on the Bounty (not to mention Melville's own Billy Budd) have accustomed us to the navy's iron rules against resisting officers.  We just assume that the same rules governed merchantmen and whalers.  And thus Ahab's feat of leadership seems not so wonderful to us.

Captains in the merchant service and the fishery, however, were not entitled to the same kind of unquestioning obedience that naval commanders could expect.  A seaman aboard a merchant ship or whaler was not bound to take whatever the captain dished out, on pain of flogging and ultimately death.  On the contrary, seamen could lawfully resist unreasonable acts by their superiors, and they could, and sometimes did, successfully sue violent or crazed captains for damages.

I have beside me a copy of the "third American edition" of Charles Abbott's Treatise on the Law Relative to Merchant Ships and Seamen, published in 1822, "with the copious annotations of Joseph Story, One of the Judges of the Supreme Court of the United States."  Abbott's Chapter Four, "Of the Behaviour of the Master and Mariners," is particularly instructive as regards Moby-Dick.  As Justice Story explains in his copious annotations, for any substantial ship involved in the merchant service, the coasting trade, or the fisheries, U.S. law required that "a contract for service ... be made in writing or in print by the master with the mariners."  We see Ishmael and Queequeg sign such an agreement in Chapters XVI and XVIII.

More importantly for present purposes, Mr. Abbott informs us that "the master [i.e., captain] has authority over all the mariners on board the ship, and it is their duty to obey his commands in all lawful matters relating to the navigation of the ship, and the preservation of good order.... In case of disobedience or disorderly conduct, he may lawfully correct them in a reasonable manner; his authority in this respect being analogous to that of a parent over his child, or of a master over his apprentice or scholar." 

"But," lawyer Abbott goes on to warn his readers, "it behoves the master to be very careful in the exercise of it [his authority], and not to make his parental power a pretext for cruelty and oppression."  In administering discipline, the captain is advised to consult with "the persons next below him in authority, as well to prevent the operation of passion in his own breast, as to secure witnesses to the propriety of his conduct." 

The law as outlined by Mr. Abbott had more than mere moral suasion behind it.  A captain's use of unlawful force could subject him to liability:  "For the master, on his return to this country may be called upon by action at law, to answer to a mariner, who has been beaten or imprisoned by him, or by his order, in the course of a voyage; and for the justification of his conduct, he should be able to shew not only that there was a sufficient cause for chastisement, but also that the chastisement itself was reasonable and moderate, otherwise the mariner may recover damages proportionate to the injury received."

Now, in referring to the master's "return to this country," Mr. Abbott was referring to England, he being a barrister at law and a member of the Inner Temple.  But Justice Story's learned annotations show us that the same law obtained in the United States, and was exemplified by cases decided in the U.S. courts, as I shall show in my next post.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Today in History

From The New York Times, on this day in 1924:
LAST OF THE WHALERS WRECKED IN STORM; The Wanderer, From New Bedford, Ends Her Career on Final Cruise -- 8 of Crew Missing.

The Wanderer was the last whaler to sail from New Bedford. On her last voyage (1924) from New Bedford, the vessel anchored off Martha's  Vineyard to wait out an approaching storm. During the night the anchor let go and the ship was ultimately destroyed on the rocks.

The Whaling Museum's photo archives has dozens of photos of the Wanderer, as well as "Mate Gomes" mentioned in the Times article--search their Photo Archives with Keyword: Wanderer.

Check out "bark Wanderer's try-works" and  "the Wanderer trying-out at night."

Today, the mizzen mast of the Wanderer stands as a flagpole in Mattapoisett's Shipyard Park, just feet from where she was built.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Other "Lit Marathons" in the Boston area

...Hawthorne, Homer, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Whittier, even Rowling. See this recent Boston Globe article.

[Hat tip to brother T.]

Friday, August 5, 2011

Road Trip - When Herman met Hawthorne

161 years ago today, Herman Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne. The influence that this meeting had on Moby-Dick is a subject for another time. For now, let's say that it wasn't for nothing that M-D was inscribed to Hawthorne.

If you can't make it to the "Hawthorne & Melville Annual Hike" up Monument Mountain this Sunday (Aug. 7), you can browse a commemorative road-trip here. I drove out to western Massachusetts two days ago for a quick snapshot safari, but found that every answer led to more questions.

View from Melville's "piazza"
First stop, Arrowhead. I got in on the lightly attended (three visitors, total) penultimate tour of the day. Our guide was well-practiced and very knowledgeable. (We were told that Hershel Parker bought Herman & Lizzie's bed at auction and donated it to Arrowhead. A national treasure is Mr. Parker. Most of the details here are taken from his biography of Melville.) The place is in great shape inside, thanks to the off-season work of skilled volunteers.

Pontoosuc Lake, Pittsfield
Thursday, August 1, 1850 was Melville's 31st birthday.  Two days later, a group from the Melvill farm (purchased by Herman in September, 1850 and named "Arrowhead"), including visitors Evert Duyckinck and Cornelius Matthews, took a fishing trip to Pontoosuc Lake, on the other side of Pittsfield. Duyckinck and Matthews had been invited out to the farm by Herman. The following day, August 4, was Herman and Elizabeth's third wedding anniversary.

Stockbridge station
Monday, August 5, 1850, Melville, Duyckinck, and Matthews took the train to Stockbridge, where Dudley Field (Jr.) had arranged for the two out-of-towners to meet "all the celebrities of Stockbridge" (Parker). There they met Field and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes's grandfather owned 24,000 acres in the Berkshires—a valuable holding as the coming of the railroad in 1850 led to the development of the area as a playground for the rich. Arrowhead is on Holmes Road; Oliver had a summer home down the road, on the river.

The four went to the Field "cottage" in Stockbridge, then set out for Sacrifice Mount as a "rehearsal, for the grand climb." I could find no location for Sacrifice Mount or the Field home. Parker mentions that the cottage is (was?) "on the village green ... [a] square, red-brick house later known as the Old Parsonage." Note that the well-to-do referred to their Berkshire homes as "cottages" in the same way that the Vanderbilts and the Astors referred to their palaces in Newport.

Returning to the Field cottage, the four were joined by James T. Fields (publisher of The Scarlet Letter) and his wife, Henry Sedgwick ("of the famous Stockbridge family" [Parker]), and Mister Nathaniel Hawthorne. (So, Melville and Hawthorne actually first met at Field's house in Stockbridge!)

From Monument Mountain
"Miss Jenny Field" (Dudley's sister?) came along as all ten rode out to Monument Mountain "in three conveyances." There is no record of the actual route they hiked. We know they abandoned the wagons partway up the mountain. They got caught in a rainstorm, drank some champagne, listened to Matthews recite poetry, and watched Herman climb out on a rock, pretending it was a bowsprit.

The mountain is now owned by The Trustees of Reservations. (Download a trail map here.) I hiked up the west side. The trail followed an old dirt road until it became steep, so I imagine this was their route. On a humid August day, this was a good workout — not a hike I'd enjoy in long woolen trousers, no matter how much champagne was on offer. Some photos from the trail are in this album.

In the Ice Glen
The group then returned to the Field cottage for a big, well-lubricated turkey dinner. Joel Tyler Headley dropped in and induced the men to hike the "Icy-Glen" (mentioned in Moby-Dick, Chapter 102). This is a short hike, just a few blocks from the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge center. See the album for all the photos and information. Bring bug dope and shoes with good traction. On a humid day the mossy rocks are slippery. I did get a few drafts of cool air, but there was no ice to be seen. The route is unobtrusively engineered to aid the visitor through the boulder field, with stone steps and bridges. An alternate fork on the trail toward the Glen makes a sweat-inducing, mosquito-infested climb to an observation tower ("Laura's Tower") with limited views.

The party returned again to the Field house, and at 10 P.M. the three from Pittsfield took the train home. The brakeman consented to pause the train near the Holmes Road crossing, saving them a two-mile walk back from the Pittsfield station. Duyckinck and Matthews stayed at the Melvill farm that night.

So ended the Big Day. It led to the birth of Moby-Dick as we know (and love) it. And it was all orchestrated by David Dudley Field. More about him in a subsequent post.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Anders Breivik's manifesto is like... what?!?

Listening to my never-miss podcast of On the Media tonight as Brooke Gladstone interviewed Dartmouth professor of English, Jeff Sharlet... The professor is one of the few who went to the trouble to read the entire 1500-page "manifesto" of the accused mass murderer Anders Breivik.  He also frequently writes about religion.  Sharlet describes Breivik's screed as
...a 1500-page story of the development of the mind of a killer, and he's not the same person at the end of the story as he is at the beginning.
He compares it to a work of literature, specifically Moby-Dick in that it, too, draws from disparate sources and presents a multitude of "streams" of thought.
The whale for Brevik is Islam, which he sees as vast and menacing and dangerous and beyond comprehension, yet he must keep trying ... drawing in all these sources into this sort of whirlpool of this manifesto in which some of these voices get drowned and become part of his. Now he's talking about poetry, now he's talking about the Knights Templar, and now he's talking about investment strategies to finance your project.
Do we Melvillians need to defend our beloved book here?  If we're discussing only narrative structure, Sharlet might have a point.  However, while Captain Ahab may have been a murderous character, he was a fictional construct of an author who was not a murderer.  Sadly, the same can not be said about the author of the work that has as its central character Anders Breivik.

Listen to the entire interview here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries...

From MDM15 at 2:45 PM, Chapter XIII, Wheelbarrow, read by Larry Chalif in an exotic accent:

It is worth remembering that Sag Harbor on Long Island was a major whaling port in the early 1800's.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Today in History

From The New York Times, on this day in 1915:
LOST SHIP IN A FOG.; Whalers, After Four Days in Open Boats, Reach New Bedford.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Melville's birthday celebrations

if ((you have children) and  
    (you will be near New Bedford on July 31)) then {
you might be interested in "a fun-filled day celebrating Herman Melville's birthday"
} else {
celebrate our man's 192nd birthday, August 1, as you will

Sunday, July 10, 2011

...when Leviathan is the text - 15 (series end?)

(15th in the search for the ideal edition for an MDM)
Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs in his blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels.
Chapter CIV, "The Fossil Whale"

Now that we're homeward bound to the next MDM, and having examined the currently available haul of Moby-Dick editions, we can conclude our search for that one edition that is best suited to be your companion for the marathon's long voyage from "Call me ..." to "... another orphan."

I wear the chain I forged in February.
Faithful readers will recall the launch of this quest back in February, when I conflated my post-holiday zeal to conform to the dietary guidelines of the Department of Health & Human Services, with a practical need of all conscientious marathoners. Although the adult beverages ebbed and flowed (two-a-day is a devilishly meager ration!), the literary hunt was pleasantly self-motivating. I'm sure that many of us Melvillians are like William Pettit of The Moby-Dick Collection, and the omnivorous Stevereads—we're bibliomaniacs. We find books to be fascinating objects.

This hunt was also an excuse to explore some fine, old municipal libraries. It turned out to be a learning experience as well. I had unconsciously assumed, along with many marathoners, no doubt, that after being in circulation for over a century and a half, and for much of that time being a "Very Important Book," all editions presented the same text.  In the innocence of my heart!  It took me a month to realize that not until 1988 (thanks to the labors of Hayford, Parker, and Tanselle) was a researched, corrected, standard text published. Not to say that the process of revision has ceased, but at present, the Northwestern-Newberry Moby-Dick is generally accepted as accurate by folks whose business it is to know.

marathon world record holder Paula RadcliffeSo were our criteria refined.

Back in March I fantasized that an ideal marathon tome might be fashioned from the Library of America hardcover 3-pack of Redburn, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick (Northwestern-Newberry compliant, of course) by excising the  two unnecessary (for the marathon) works, and re-binding the remainder. Soon after, I discovered that Library of America had done just that!

This, for me, is the one.

The Library of America "Paperback Classics" edition (ISBN: 978-1-59853-085-8) was released about a year ago. It can be found new at Amazon for less than $10. As with all of the LOA Melville titles, it presents the Northwestern-Newberry text. At 696 pages, extranea are not excessive—a 17-page Introduction by Professor Edward Said of Columbia University, a 5-page Chronology, and 16 pages of Notes; no illustrations. It appears to be an exact clone of the hardcover edition (the text may be a split-hair larger, measured with calipers), but on different paper stock.

It's cut to nearly the same page size as the hardcover, measuring 5.125" x 8" x 1.25".  It weighs in as the lightest of the N-N compliant editions examined: 22.4 ounces.

The type is as the hardcover, a slightly zaftig, no-nonsense, "10 point Linotron Galliard." (See a sample in Typeface Tally.) The pages are bright white, giving a contrast that should be helpful in the marathon's Graveyard Shift. They are smooth, with less show-through, and feel thicker than the hardcover's. Measuring the 634 pages of Table of Contents plus text, in both the hardcover and this paperback (with my vernier calipers), I calculate the pages to be about 55% thicker. All this yields the key advantage of this edition: its readability.

Margins and gutters are acceptable. Chapters begin on a new page. There are chapter-title headings on the recto pages.

On the debit side of the ledger, there is no mention of acid-free paper. Nor is the glued binding the sturdiest-looking we've seen (time will tell), though it does lie open without a fight. As with the LOA hardcover, my aged eyes miss the plush leading of a beautiful (heavy and valuable) "home reader."

I can live with such shortcomings in a marathon M-D—if I spill coffee on it, if I'm moved to scribble an epiphany in the margin, if some pages come loose after a few years, no great loss. Did Melville shed tears when his pencil was reduced to a nub?  Does Paula Radcliffe fret when her shoes lose their bounce? These things are consumables; oil for the frying of bigger fish! Note to self: buy a backup copy or two before it goes out of print.

If you're heading to MDM16, leave your fancy, gilt-edged, trophy edition at home and bring a functional, working-tool of a book, like this one. Something that will get you from The Pageant all the way through The Final Push to the "FINIS" line.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Halfway to MDM16

Today we are midway between MDMs—halfway to the next Moby-Dick Marathon, MDM16. (That is, if we assume MDM16 will follow the museum's recent pattern of launching the Marathon on the first weekend after New Year's Day.)

Clear the decks and mark your calendar.

Heed the advice of this post—take Monday (1/9/12) off and book a room for the night of the close of the Marathon (1/8/12).  New Bedford and neighboring Fairhaven have a number of hotels and B&Bs. The fine Fairfield Inn & Suites is a three-block walk from the Whaling Museum.

Lemuel and I will keep an eye on the Whaling Museum's website for definitive schedule info.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Hawthorne's Birthday!

Hawthorne statue, Salem, MA
Crimminy! Almost missed this...

Today is the 207th birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom Melville inscribed Moby-Dick.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts (at 27 Union Street, where there is no historical marker!). He grew up, went to college, married the girl next door (around the corner, really, at 105 Essex Street, where there is a marker), became a big-time writer, was appointed U.S. consul in Liverpool, and was buried in Concord.

Along the way, Melville latched onto him as a mentor. Hershel Parker, in his biography of Melville, 2nd volume, wrote, "By understanding Moby-Dick as a great truth-telling allegory, Hawthorne had proved himself the ideal audience of one."

Thanks and happy birthday, Mr. Hawthorne.

PS - If you're walking around Salem, stroll down Mall Street and look at #16. Years ago when I lived nearby, it had a sign stating that Hawthorne lived there while he was writing The Scarlet Letter.

Whaling and the Revolution

Harpoon Tips
Clifford Ashley, in his indispensable book The Yankee Whaler, describes the effect the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) had on the whaling fleets of Nantucket and New Bedford.

Prior to the start of the war, Britain had no sperm whalers. This changed after the outbreak, when captured American vessels were sent to sea under the British flag. (p. xi)
In 1782 England's Greenland fleet consisted of thirty-eight ships; in 1784, eighty-nine; in 1785 there were one hundred and forty; and in 1790 over two hundred. [...] practically every whaleship in the Nantucket fleet—one hundred and thirty-four out of one hundred and fifty—was captured by the British early in the Revolutionary War, and that every whaleman captured was given the privilege of deciding whether he would continue whaling under the British flag or go to prison. (p.25)
An easy choice, that.
When the Revolutionary War began, New Bedford's fleet numbered between forty and fifty  whalers. During the war, they did not attempt to fish [...] American privateersmen brought many prizes into the harbor during the earlier stages of the war. New Bedford was the only port north of the Chesapeake not in the hands of the British, and there was a rich accumulation of colonial stores of one sort and another.
In September, 1778, Sir Henry Clinton attacked New Bedford by sea, landing 4,500 troops south of the town. Thirty-four of the town's fleet of fifty whalers were burned.

After the war, not all captured whalemen returned to the former colonies. In 1788, the British ship Amelia, crewed by Nantucketers, was the first whaleship to enter the Pacific. In 1791, the Beaver of Nantucket was the first American whaler to round the Horn.

The Rebecca of New Bedford was the first American whaler to "fill ship" in the Pacific. It sailed in 1791 and arrived home February 23, 1793. (p. 38) According to History of Bristol County, Massachusetts (D. Hamilton Hurd, 1883), the Rebecca was the first ship built in New Bedford (!?!), launched in 1785. It was considered "immensely large" at the time. Her master builder was George Claghorn, who afterwards built the Constitution, launched in 1797.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hershel remembers

À propos of nothing, a touching post by Hershel "dean of Melville studies" Parker.  To have been his student back in my university days...

He's working on another book, Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative. Something forward to which we can look!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

...when Leviathan is the text - 14

... pissed on out of hand ... (14th in the search for the ideal edition for an MDM)

I was anticipating the June 7 release of this new edition of Moby-Dick since I got wind of it several months ago. Thanks to Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature, there's no need to wait for it to arrive in my bookstore or library—it can be assessed, and disqualified, virtually!

This is the Harper Perennial Classics paperback edition; scarlet cover with white lettering and white whale in profile (ISBN 0062085646). Let's "Look Inside!"

A quick glance at the copyright page. No mention of Northwestern-Newberry. No mention of acid-free paper. Antennae twitching.

On to Contents. No Etymology, no Extracts! At least Chapter 25 is there as is "Postscript," but what's the deal with Chapter 40? Each character's bit in the "stage play" is listed, with page number.

We can use "Search Inside This Book" to scout out telltale passages that were corrected in the Northwestern-Newberry text. Enter "one hundred pounds of clay" and hit Return. One result. Amazon wants you to log in to view search results, but if you hover over the greyed-out text, the passage will pop up:  
One hundred pounds of clay reward for Pip ...
Sorry, Harpers, that ain't N-N. Let's check another one. Search for "his partner"—the second result is also an error that was fixed by N-N:
"Quick, Bildad," said Peleg, his partner ... 
Again, I have to ask: are the licensing fees on the Northwestern-Newberry text so onerous that publishers would rather proffer a flawed product? Get thee behind me, Harpers.

By the way, a quick search on the 2007 Random House UK "Vintage Classics" edition shows a similar failing. This Amazon tool really is useful (for deciding what not to buy).

At this point, you may be thinking, "Crikey, Gans! Will you never be satisfied?" Well, hang in there dear readers (both of you), I believe the object of this quest is on the horizon...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Melville's Travel Desk auctioned

Recently noted at The Moby-Dick Collection: the auction and sale of Melville's travel desk.  Follow the links to the original post to see the details on this object.  The stuff that dreams are made on.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Today in History

From The New York Times, on this day in 1854:
... United States consul at the Sandwich Islands ... confirms the report of [whaling brig Inga] having been cut off at Pleasant Island, by the natives, in the Fall of 1852; ... all the crew on board were murdered or drowned, except one white man, J. T. Blair, and two natives from Byron's Island ...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bookseller's Blog

For a peek into the life of an antiquarian bookseller, check out Bookman's Log. It is a blog by the author, and owner of Ten Pound Island Book Co., Gregory Gibson.

Gibson is based in Gloucester, Massachusetts. His focus is on "old, rare and out of print books, manuscripts and charts pertaining to the sea." Lots of interesting stuff here about the finding of valuable old books, the inner workings of the bookseller business, the place of books in contemporary culture, and the lovely/odd/informative/fascinating objects themselves (with photos!).

His post from March about whaling logs might be of interest to the Marathoner.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan...
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
Those words are as evocative to fans of James Joyce's Ulysses as "Call me Ishmael" is to us Marathoners. This day, June 16, is celebrated the world over as "Bloomsday," commemorating the Dublin day described in in Ulysses.

I can find no reference to Joyce having read Moby-Dick, or any Melville. Neither is mentioned in Richard Ellmann's definitive biography of Joyce. But that doesn't prohibit some disjointed blather...

It's no secret that most folks regard both Moby-Dick and Ulysses as over-praised, over-long, incomprehensible, boring, obsolete, and irrelevant. (I forgot "phallocentric.") (Years ago, when I mentioned to my boss that I was in a Ulysses study group, he, unbelieving, asked, "Why?") Public admission of reading either book marks you as someone who doesn't own a jumbo, flat-screen TV; maybe someone who doesn't have a TV, period!

We're told that Ishmael began his journey "some years ago—never mind how long precisely..."  reaching New Bedford "on a Saturday night in December," but Joyce is specific. Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and company roam their city on Thursday, June 16, 1904, between 8:00 AM and sometime after 2:00 AM the following morning.

While Moby-Dick inundates the reader with details of whaling and whales, Ulysses does a similar thing with details of Dublin and its inhabitants. (This kind of "aggression against the reader" can be seen as the modern author's intentional destruction of the novel as a literary form; death by over-feeding. That's a post for another time.)

It's odd that Moby-Dick has an established marathon reading in a city through which its author-to-be simply passed on his way to somewhere else, while Ulysses rarely receives a public cover-to-cover reading in the city it describes in loving detail.

In Dublin, Bloomsday is celebrated with walking tours, re-enactments, concerts, and a mass "Irish breakfast," but is publicly read only in parts. Perhaps, as Lemuel suggests, it is the culturally ingrained "Calvinist mind-habits" of New England that make the MDM possible.

If the Pequod is the Moby-Dick equivalent of Ulysses's Dublin, the ideal MDM would be the annual read-through aboard the retired whaleship Charles Morgan.  Not that I'm arguing for fleeing New Bedford—an old whaleship lacks the space and comfort of the Whaling Museum, not to mention New Bedford's Bethel and the warm-hearted museum volunteers.

He rests. He has travelled.
Sinbad the Sailer and Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailer and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer and Finbad the Failer and Binbad the Bailer and ...

...when Leviathan is the text - 13

...perfection is not of this world... (13th in the search for the ideal edition for an MDM)

Ok, it's high time we go right to the source of the generally accepted text of our beloved book—the Northwestern University Press, which, in collaboration with the Newberry Library of Chicago, published "...the definitive critical edition of Herman Melville’s writings." (If you think one M-D is as good as another, read this post. Many editions out there contain errors and omissions that render passages unintelligible.)

This is the 2001 "150th Anniversary Edition," with a Foreword by Hershel Parker himself. (It was the research of Mr. Parker, together with Harrison Hayford and G. Thomas Tanselle, that produced the corrected text in 1988.) Parker's Foreword is reproduced on his blog. He calls this edition "sleek," and it is that. The only adjunct is his four-page contribution. It is not common in bookstores or libraries, but can be had from Amazon for about $15.

This edition fits nicely in the hand. It is the same width and height as the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition previously examined, but 1/2" thinner, and 0.3 ounces heavier at 25.1 oz. It has 100 fewer pages than the Penguin. So we can infer that the paper stock is heavier (the plastic-laminated cover might be a bit heavier). The paper is light cream-colored; smooth, a bit stiff, with slight show-through. There's no colophon, but a note on the copyright page indicates acid-free stock: "The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials." The glued binding seems unlikely to crack. (Paperback bindings certainly have improved in recent decades.)
Gutters and side margins are adequate; top and bottom margins are roomy. Each chapter begins on a new page. Chapter-title headings are on recto pages, chapter-number headings on verso pages.

It's evident where the 100 pages were saved when you examine the type. It's on the small side. (See a sample in Typeface Tally.) Still, a keen-eyed youth might have no problem reading it for the Marathon's twenty-five hours.

So, you say, if the text is "perfect" (...beyond all other doubt than that which clings to the labors of men...), where is this imperfection to which you allude? Alas, it is in the printing itself. Flipping through this edition for a final scan, some words seemed to be set in bold type. I didn't remember Melville indulging in typographic variation beyond the rare word in italics (and "devices" like the memorial tablets in The Chapel).

Closer examination showed the cause was poor printing! The density of the ink on the page varied from light (to the point of broken "o"s, and "e"s that look like "c"s) to heavy, appearing bold. An example is shown below, from Chapter 74, page 331. The letterforms of "ear of" are broken, while "organ" is eerily over-inked.
This is not the only instance of uneven printing in this edition, though it is one of the more extreme. The quality of the printing fluctuates throughout. (FYI: The copyright page states, "Printed in the United States of America.")

Could this poor printing be isolated to a limited number of copies, or even to the single copy at hand? That's a question for someone with actual experience in mass publishing.  All I can say is caveat emptor. Even if I were able to read this edition's small type, I'd want a refund.

Better edition (editions?) ahead...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries...

From MDM15 at 10:56 PM, Chapter LIII, The Gam, read in Japanese by Ayako Rooney:

Friday, June 10, 2011

...when Leviathan is the text - 12

Pretty good, not bad, I can't complain... (12th in the search for the ideal edition for an MDM)

Here's a decent edition that's easily found from online booksellers for ten or twelve bucks—the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, with a Foreword by National Book Award winner, Nathaniel Philbrick.

[Spoiler: If I didn't have something better waiting to be reviewed, I might end my search here.]

It's fairly stripped for marathoning, with the Northwestern-Newberry text, the aforementioned eight-page Foreword, and eight pages of maps and instructive diagrams; 673 pages in total. Fans of cartoonist, and native New Englander, Tony Millionaire will recognize his hand in the front and back cover illustrations.

It measures 5.5" x 8.375" x 1.75", and weighs 24.8 ounces. The cover is soft card stock (which, on the copy I borrowed, was in pretty sad shape after 18 months in the public library). The binding is glued, but seems flexible enough not to crack. The paper is light cream-colored; smooth, thick-ish, and flexible, with a cotton-like feel and very little show-through.  The pages are "trimmed," that is, not cut to have a clean outside edge. (See the bottom photo here.) Trimmed pages give the volume a sort of ridged outside edge. This has the annoying effect of making the book impossible to flip through smoothly.

There is no colophon or mention of acid-free paper. A note on the copyright page says simply, "Set in Janson." The type is slightly condensed with short-ish ascenders and descenders. The trimmed pages, paper stock, and type gave me a whiff of Grandfather's 50s-vintage budget edition. (See a sample in the Typeface Tally.)

Margins and gutters are acceptable. Chapters begin on a new page. There are chapter-title headings on the recto pages and chaper-number headings on the verso pages.

You can't go far wrong with this one, but for me, a reader who likes to riffle through a tome to search out a favorite passage, the trimmed edges are a deal-breaker.

Especially since I know what's coming...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Making America Corporate

Making America Corporate is the catchy title of a book by Olivier Zunz (a prof. of history at U.Va.) that examines the transformation of the American workplace during the half-century between 1870 and 1920.  The book itself -- fairly dry and academic -- is not something I would recommend that most people rush out to buy.  But the changes it traces have probably had a greater impact on our everyday lives than the more exciting topics of better-known historiographers.

Today, most adults in the West are employees: they support themselves and their families by working for somebody else (usually a business entity).  But back before America was "made corporate," being an employee was not much of a life.  Mature American men typically worked for themselves, in most cases on farms.  Working for someone else was what you did as a young man, before you had gained the cash and skills to strike out on your own.  A man who spent his whole life as someone else's employee was seen as a bit of a failure, a nobody.  The office clerks in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" give an idea of the type.  The only significant exceptions were upper-level civil servants and men in managerial positions with the country's few large-scale industries (mainly railroads).

The lives of 19th-century employees in the United States did not get much attention from novelists, especially in the first three quarters of the century.  Moby-Dick is therefore unusual, if not unique, in this regard.  It depicts in authoritative detail the life and work of one type of employee of the 1850s, the whaling man.  This may partly account for Moby-Dick's extraordinary resonance with modern readers -- Melville's flamboyant and sympathetic rendering of the life of the industrial employee speaks to core concerns of the typical adult today.

Whalemen were as much industrial workers as they were sailors.  Whale ships were among the first factory ships in history.  Rather than merely catching whales and towing them into port for processing, the whalers caught them, butchered them, and rendered them into the final product, oil.  Hence the unseamanlike appearance of whalers, as noted by Richard Henry Dana.  They were mobile, floating industrial plants.

Melville shows us the laborer's life from two main viewpoints: that of the inexperienced hand at the bottom of the pecking order (Ishmael) and that of the senior employee with very valuable skills (Queequeg).  We see their search for work, their job interviews and job offers, and virtually everything their jobs entailed.  All we do not get to see is their payday and discharge, since the voyage was cut short.  Or, in a sense, their payday comes when Moby Dick kills the boss and wrecks the factory, and all except Ishmael are discharged permanently. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Many Books in One

According to Robert Finch in the introduction to The Norton Book of Nature Writing, "no less a nature writer than Annie Dillard has called [Moby-Dick] 'the best book ever written about nature.'"  It may seem odd at first to view a book about killing whales as nature writing, but in view of "Cetology," "The Grand Armada," etc., Dillard's claim makes sense.

Indeed, Moby-Dick can be considered "the best book ever written" about a lot of things.  Depending on which chapters you turn to, it's:

- A ripping sea story.

- A psychological drama.

- A philosophical novel.

- A meditation on religion.

- A book about ships and the days of sail.

- An in-depth study of an industry.

- An exploration of the life of the working man.

- A travelogue.

There are probably others I'm forgetting.

During the marathon, I sometimes amuse myself by wondering which aspect of Moby-Dick attracts the people around me.  There are the aging environmentalists and the emo youths; the culture vultures, subclass bohemian, and the culture vulture, subclass bourgeois.   There are haunted souls draped in black, doughy book nuts in sweatpants and untucked shirts, and autodidact laborers whose New England accents you could cut with a knife.  And maybe even a Marxist academic faux-laborer in a blue workshirt and steel-toed boots.  Nevertheless, we all get along and take pleasure in the mix.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Ahab and the Village of Morality

It's common to view Melville more as a proto-modern than as a writer of his time. The lack of interest his masterpiece attracted until the twentieth century, when it quickly became seen as one of the peaks of American literature, certainly suggests that Melville was specially attuned to what would be the concerns of a post-Great War, post-Darwin, post-Freud world. His antipathy toward Christian missionary work in the South Pacific, and his relative openness to the native island cultures, further marks him in our minds as one of us, not one of them, those stiff and repressed men of the nineteenth century.

But we oversimplify his art if we ignore the Christian, and largely Calvinist, worldview that still saturated the United States of his day.  There's no question, of course, that Melville knew his Bible.  He also appears to have had some familiarity with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which is included in the list of Melville's reading at the end of the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick (2d ed.).  Actually, it would be surprising if Melville were not familiar with Pilgrim's Progress, since every 19th-century Protestant who could read at all read Bunyan's allegory at least once (or it very often seems that way).

In any event, Moby-Dick maps with surprising ease to the Calvinist theology taught by Pilgrim's ProgressMoby-Dick invites the reader to consider why Ahab and all the crew except Ishmael die, while Ishmael lives.  In Christian imagery, death is damnation, while life is eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Further, under Calvinist theology, damnation is the ultimate fate of anyone who does not accept Jesus as Christ, the Savior and Redeemer.

The episode in Pilgrim's Progress involving the Village of Morality provides one explanation for Ahab's damnation. Pilgrim's Progress tells the story of Christian as he struggles to make his way from the City of Destruction (the state of unrepentant man) to the Celestial City (heaven). Christian must begin his pilgrimage by passing through the "wicket gate," representing the individual's acceptance of Jesus Christ. On his way to the wicket gate, however, Christian is led astray by Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who persuades Christian that the path beyond the gate is needlessly dangerous, and that he can more easily and safely put himself right with God by going to the Village of Morality. Christian then heads toward the Village. But as he approaches it, he sees that the road leading into the Village passes close under a mountain that is rumbling and spitting fire. While Christian stands in the road, looking at the mountain and wondering whether it's safe to pass, Evangelist comes upon him. Evangelist (representing the Gospel) explains to Christian that he has been duped, that the Village of Morality offers no hope, and that he must proceed through the wicket gate if he wishes to gain eternal life.

The object of all this, from Bunyan's standpoint, is that mere morality can never be sufficient for reaching heaven.  God's moral law (represented by the fiery mountain) demands more than man is capable of.  Those who, like Mr. Worldly Wiseman, think they can be virtuous enough to be saved without Christ do not understand the superhuman demands of God's law.  Hence the importance of Jesus Christ: he offers forgiveness that enables man to reach Heaven despite man's inevitable failings.

It's possible to view Ahab coherently in these terms.  He (along with the crew he misled) was damned because he put his trust in the Village of Morality.  Instead of accepting God's morality and the need for Christ's mediation, Ahab relied upon his own morality.  And in doing so, he carries the error of Mr. Worldly Wiseman to its logical conclusion -- Ahab takes his human conception of morality as the standard for judging not only himself but also God.  He refuses to accept God unless God conforms to his mortal ideas of right and wrong.

Any interpretation of Moby-Dick that purports to explain why Ahab was damned is not complete unless it can also explain why Ishmael was saved.  One Christian explanation for Ishmael's salvation is his humility.  Unlike Ahab, Ishmael accepts his fallen state, his inescapable human frailty and ignorance.  He does not condemn God because God fails to arrange things to suit man's limited sense of fairness.

Another explanation, more strictly Calvinist, is that Ishmael was saved for reasons we can't hope to understand; all we know is that God's grace was given to him and not the others.  His salvation seems random to us because there is no cause-and-effect relationship between our conduct and God's saving grace.

Of course, while Melville was fascinated by metaphysical questions, he was not a religious author.  Ishmael does not find Jesus the way he would if his story had been handled by Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example.  But intentionally or not, as a thesis to be advanced or rebutted, Moby-Dick has a strong Christian thread running through it.