I usually have a guest post on Fridays. Today isn’t going to be an exception. Only instead of bringing you one of the new writers I’ve met, I thought I’d bring you a dead author. He’s surely dead, but I didn’t think that should prevent me from having him as a guest. After all zombies and vampires are all the rage these days and they’re dead too so…
I’ve been corresponding with a friend and fellow author, Mary Meddlemore and talking about reading and classics. And as I love Melville, I thought, why not? There’s also the advantage that many of his works can be downloaded for free, so it’s a win-win situation.
I have a BA in American Literature and I must say that although I knew of Melville I became more familiar with him when I was studying for my degree. I read Moby Dick several times. I must admit it’s a bit of a peculiar read (and fairly long), but I fell truly in love with it. It is ambitious, wandering, deep, funny, moving, dramatic, elegiac, philosophical, adventurous, scholarly, and bigger than life. Good candidate to the ever sought after title of The Great American Novel. Its opening lines: ‘Call me Ishmael.’ are well known and as good first lines as I’ve ever read. Simple but…
I post you links to detailed biographies of Melville.
Link to Virginia Education biography on Herman Melville. Great page.
Another fabulous page on Herman Melville and his later recognition
A brief summary: He was born in New York in August 1, 1819 and died in September 28, 1891, forgotten by most, to the point where his obituary listed him as ‘Henry’ Melville. He travelled the South Seas, he became known for his adventure/exotic novels (Typee, Omoo) but later deviated onto more serious writing and never quite recovered the popularity of his youth. Moby Dick (or The Whale as it was initially published) is his best known work and masterpiece, although he carried on writing, with less and less success, to the point that he stopped publishing, worked as a customs inspector in New York, and some of his works, like Billy Budd were published posthumously.
Why do I like him so much? I feel he was ahead of his time. He reminds me of the modernists (if somebody can remind you of people who came after him) and works like ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ (that I can’t recommend enough) and ‘The Confidence Man’ are truly unique and out of keeping with the writing of his era. He didn’t shy away of asking the big questions, even when that meant loss of popularity. He pursued his poetry and his fiction beyond market and readers. Like his greatest character, Captain Ahab, he never gave up despite the hopelessness of his pursuit.
I thought I’d share one of the many passages I love in Moby Dick. This is from chapter 132 ‘The Symphony’ where Ahab is talking to his first mate, Starbuck (if you wondered about the name of the coffee chain…) about his life to that point. It’s a rare moment of self-disclosure that shows that indeed Ahab has his ‘humanities’.
“Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day- very much such a sweetness as this- I struck my first whale- a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty- forty- forty years ago!- ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without- oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!- when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before- and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare- fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!- when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts- away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow- wife? wife?- rather a widow with her husband alive? Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey- more a demon than a man!- aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool- fool- old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now? Behold. Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did never grow but from out some ashes! But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!- crack my heart!- stave my brain!- mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old? Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearthstone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye. No, no; stay on board, on board!- lower not when I do; when branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick. That hazard shall not be thine. No, no! not with the far away home I see in that eye!”
I hope you’ve enjoyed it and if you want to read more, here is the link to one of the free digital versions of the novel. There are more:
Check ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ on line. You won’t regret it:
And a link to Melville organisation, for all things Melville:
Thanks for reading and don’t forget to CLICK! (They’re all free!) And SHARE
- BBC Produces Film on Seafarer that Inspired Moby Dick (booksnreview.com)
- BBC start work on Moby Dick film The Whale, but there’s no Ahab in sight (telegraph.co.uk)