“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee”
If he were alive, today, August 1st 2009, would be Herman Melville’s 190th birthday and on this occasion I’d like to take the opportunity to pay a small, humble tribute to an author who has single-handedly taught me so much about writing and literature, patience and perseverance, and the staggering potential of language and prose. But first, a little history:
Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819, to a prominent New England family. His father, being a successful merchant and importer, offered Melville and his brothers and sisters a well-to-do lifestyle, however, when Melville was an adolescent his father’s business failed, leaving the family bankrupt. Shortly thereafter, in 1932, Melville’s father died and the family relocated to Albany, New York, on the banks of the Hudson River. There he attended a prep-school, on and off, before moving back to New York City and working odd jobs around the docks. In 1839, Melville secured a job as a cabin boy and set sail on his first sea voyage, bound for Liverpool, England—a tour that provided much fodder for Melville’s early novels. Just a few years later in 1841, Melville joined the crew of the whaling ship Acushnet in New Bedford, Massachusetts, but deserted on an island in the South Pacific after just 18 months at sea. He boarded another ship bound for Hawaii, and subsequently signed on as a seaman aboard the USS United States, which ultimately dropped him off in Boston in 1844. In the following years upon his return, Melville published several novels documenting his experiences at sea, before marrying and moving to Arrowhead, a residence in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he would live for thirteen years. There, he befriended neighbor Nathanael Hawthorne and wrote his most famous work—which is said to have been inspired by a pair of hills, visible from Melville’s piazza, that resemble the head and arched back of a Sperm Whale—which brings me to Moby-Dick.
Though Melville was able to make a living as a writer in his earlier years, Moby-Dick was met with great criticism and, after falling out of the literary limelight Melville sold his estate to his brother and moved back to New York City where he died, relatively unknown, working in a customs house.
It’s hard to believe that a work like Moby-Dick—now considered one of the quintessential great American novels—was completely glossed over upon publication. I read Moby-Dick for the first time three years ago, during my junior year of college, and am now in the middle of my second re-reading of it. Each time I pick it up I manage to glean more from it, absorb the language in a new way completely separate from the last.
Know right away that this is, by no means a review, or even an analysis; it is simply my experience. Moby-Dick is my favorite book. In fact, it is one of my most favorite things. I suppose it is commonplace with favorite books and favorite things to believe that you, and you alone, have a connection that is stronger, more intense, more real than anyone else could ever have with it. Moby-Dick demands attention and patience in a way I’ve never experienced with any other piece of literature, but also gives more in return. Because there is so little plot—a narrator, a crew, a doomed ship, a captain possessed—the novel relies on emotional pull, the prevalence of basic human desire, to keep it afloat.
And what’s more: by any traditional standards, Moby-Dick is a mess. The narrator is perhaps the most definitive of unreliable literary sources, while the climax occurs in no more than a handful of pages. But at the same time, it manages to encompass absolutely everything: madness and obsession and humanity at its best—the brotherly bond between Ishmael and Queequeg, and humanity at its worst—Ahab’s insatiable thirst for vengeance.
Moby-Dick, as a novel, is all-encompassing. It compels you forward: from the shores of Manhattan to the docks of New Bedford to the planks of the Pequod—as Ahab has no choice but to pursue “one grand hooded phantom, like a snowhill in the air”—the reader, like the crew, has no choice but to follow him to the very depths of madness.
“But no more of this blubbering now, we are going a-whaling, and there is plenty of that yet to come.”