Reading Moby-Dick

Call me obsessive. Some time ago – never mind how long precisely – I thought I would read Moby-Dick and see the watery part of the world through Herman Melville’s eyes. I wanted to discover another author from this period, of which I am very fond. The early part of the 19th century, also called “the American renaissance”, saw the likes of many of America’s greatest authors: Thoreau, Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, and others, who are among my favorite writers. While I have read many of these writers, I had not yet explored Melville. Moby-Dick, being one of the summits of 19th century fiction, therefore stood before me as a monolithic work, one that, I felt, would take some preparation.

But something about 19th century authors can make their works difficult to penetrate, at least without a solid understanding of the times and the context of their writings. My reading experience, both of fiction and history, had armed me well to fit the text into the times, but I wanted to know more, to get the most out of this book that is said to be so great.

Several people I know have read Moby-Dick, and they told me how boring they found it; their experiences generally dated back to high school, a time of less patience. It’s clear that as a teenager it could be hard to understand not only the style of the writing, but the overall structure of the book. So, my obsession led me to read not just Moby-Dick, but also Melville.

To do this, I bought the three Library of America editions of Melville’s works: the first volume contains three “South Seas” works, Typee, Omoo and Mardi (Typee and Omoo are “true stories”, says Melville; it is more likely that they are based in truth and embellished substantially). The second volume contains Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick, all novels. And the final volume contains, in addition to some “uncollected prose”, Melville’s post-sea novels, Pierre, Israel Potter, and The Confidence Man, some short stories, including Bartelby the Scrivener, and the posthumous Billy Budd.

At the same time, I wanted to learn more about Melville’s life, and purchased the interesting yet not over-long Melville: A Biography by Laurie Robertson-Lorant. (The two-volume biography by Hershel Parker seemed a bit much at this stage.)

So, armed with all this, I set out to read Moby-Dick; along the way, I discovered much more than I bargained for.

Melville was a strange man, prone to depression and bouts of incredible literary production. He wrote his first seven novels – or about 3,000 pages in the Library of America editions – in about six years, an astounding rate of production. This writing seems to have been an explosion of pent-up creative energy, which, in fact, more or less dried up after 1857 (or about a dozen years after he started writing). The first six books came from his experiences sailing around the world: from 1841-1844, Melville sailed on a merchant ship, a man-of-war, and a whaler, and all three of these ships are settings he uses in his novels (Typee, Omoo and Mardi feature ships, but mostly take place on islands in the Pacific; Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick are centered, respectively, around a merchant ship, man-of-war, and whaler).

But all this is actually moot, when considering reading an author’s works, especially in a spurt of élan, similar to that which Melville experienced while writing them. I read the first six books in about a month, which, for some 2,800 pages of text, is fast, even for me. I was drawn into Melville’s world, and his style, so much so that I almost could not stop reading. These books are not beach reading material, but once I became familiar with the rhythms and tones of Melville’s writing, I wanted more, and kept on reading through his personal narrative of his life.

When I finally got to Moby-Dick, which was the “great white whale” of my personal quest, as well as Captain Ahab’s, I felt I understood not only Melville’s writing, but also his need for using writing as a cathartic process. For many aspects of Melville’s life were dark and disturbing, from his relationship with his father to that with his mother; from his family’s descent from the bourgeoisie to that of small-town ennui. Herman Melville was not a man who could be pinned down in one place, and, after his experience before the mast, he needed to express himself but break through all limits. The great white whale was, for him, more than just a metaphor of life and death; it seems to have been an expression of his own desire to write, to create, to go beyond the simple life he was living at the time.

Yes, parts of Moby-Dick can be seen as boring, but readers generally don’t understand the literary context of the times. This was the period when novels were being born in the United States, where fiction often contained fact; the long chapters on cetology in Moby-Dick, which serve as counterpoint and punctuation to the action in the book are structurally similar to the moralistic and expository sections of other novels of the period. Some people suggest that you skip these chapters, but this would do great wrong in taking out what could be seen as the spermaceti of the book. Melville does not merely wax intellectual in these sections, but provides the subtle background for the great climax of the book. As Ahab struggles with his quest, so Melville fights to construct an edifice of Leviathan proportions, and his foundations need to be solid.

Naturally, no one could write a book like this today. Exposition of the sort that Melville used to explain about whales is considered a great heresy in modern literature; combining this sort of fiction and fact would, today, be the sign of an uncultured scrivener. But exceptions prove rules, and Melville’s great achievement was providing a totally-encompasing whole, in which readers who knew nothing of whales, whalers and whaling, could become immersed in a story that acts on many levels. The beauty of Moby-Dick is this intense plunge into not only the narrative of Ahab hunting the whale, but also the tiny details of shipboard life, the oft excessive discussions of different types of whales, and the portrayals of the different personages who peopled the Pequod.

Now that I have read Moby-Dick, I still have a third volume of Melville’s works to read. While I know that Moby-Dick was the zenith of Melville’s writing, and closed (though not entirely) his writings about life at sea, I look forward to the later works with the same pleasure that I moved ahead through these first six books. Herman Melville was certainly one of the great writers of America’s 19th century, and deserves to be known for more than just a story about a whale; he deserves greater recognition for the universe he created through his books, and the intensity that he transferred from his life to his writings.

Henry David Thoreau and the Walden Mailing List


The Walden mailing list is dedicated to Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 to May 6, 1862). It is named after his best known work, Walden, a recounting of a period of time he spent living “deliberately” next to Walden Pond, outside of Concord, Massachusetts.

Thoreau was a writer and philosopher, as well as an activist. As he wrote, in Walden,
“it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.”

We offer the list as a place to discuss:

  • The pleasure that Thoreau’s writing provides us and the relevance of his ideas to life in the 21st Century.
  • Books about Thoreau’s life and works
  • Other authors from the period called The American Renaissance, particularly ones whose lives or literature moved Thoreau. (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, etc.)
  • Living deliberately
  • Nature writing and environmental concerns
  • A place to meet others who share your interest in the world of Henry David Thoreau.

Note: this list was initially created in 1996, and was housed on a server which has since disappeared. For that reason, the first five years of archives were lost. The list was moved to Yahoo.com in late 2001, and it was then moved to Google Groups. Archives are available for the Yahoo mailing list from 2001 to 2014.

To subscribe to this mailing list, go to the https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/walden-list at Google Groups.

If you want a very good annotated version of Walden – arguably one of the finest books written in the English language – see this review.

Thoreau Links

The riverText café: Brian Thomas’ site, which notably houses If Monks had Macs
The Thoreau Society: Perhaps the best Thoreau site, with e-texts of almost all of his works, biographical info, scholarship, and lots more.
Henry David Thoreau online: a comprehensive site about Thoreau, with e-texts of many of his works
The Thoreau Reader: annotated works of Henry David Thoreau
The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: definitive editions of Thoreau’s works
Ken Pedersen’s Walden CD: music inspired by Thoreau
Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson: my website dedicated to Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leading mind behind Transcendentalism

Book Review: Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

Bridge of Sighs
Richard Russo
544 pages. Knopff, 2007. $27

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

Richard Russo is one of a half-dozen authors whose books I buy sight unseen. I have laughed and cried reading his novels, especially my favorite, Nobody’s Fool, but also the chilling Empire Falls and the burlesque Straight Man.

So I was delighted to get yet another novel from an author who doesn’t write as much as I’d like, and it’s a big meaty one. Russo himself once said, “When a favorite author of mine comes out with a new book, I always hope for two contradictory things: first, I hope it’s like all the other books of his or hers that I love, and second, I hope he’s not going to repeat himself. Sure, it’s a paradox, but I suspect I’m not alone in my desires.” And Bridge of Sighs is about as different as possible from Russo’s other books, yet at the same time his depth of character, humanism and touching details are ever-present.

The story tells the tale of Lou C. Lynch (nicknamed Lucy), and his relationship with his family, his only friend, and eventually his girlfriend who will later become his wife. It’s vintage Russo in his characterization and portrayal of small-town America, a tiny slice of life of a small town in upstate New York. This is what’s called a “character-driven novel”, where the plot itself is dependent on the characters and their actions, and that explains why some reviewers have found the book “slow” or “wordy”. Russo weaves a tapestry of the events in his characters’ lives, their feelings, and their thoughts, and all of it is believable.

I won’t deny that I was a bit thrown by this book for a while. But I trusted Russo to bring this story to a moving conclusion, and had tears in my eyes during the final chapter. If you don’t have patience to read a true stylist and, in my opinion, on of America’s finest character authors, you’d best avoid this book. But if you are willing to give yourself up to Russo’s world for more than 500 pages, you’ll be much the richer. As always, Russo gives a great story, with moving, real people in events that you can imagine occurring to you. A great read indeed.

Book Notes: Who’s Who in Proust

Buy from the author’s web site | Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

Yes, dear reader, it’s been Proust season lately here at Kirkville. You may have spotted my article about listening to a French audiobook of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, as well as a review of a biography of Proust. I’m a Proustian, and have read the novel several times, first in English, then in French, after I came to France. It is, for me, one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century, and deserves to be read by all. The former article has links to suggested books about Proust, both in French and in English, so if you’re a Proustian, or just curious, you should check it out.

But today I want to talk about a small book that Proustians will find invaluable: Who’s Who in Proust, a guide to 50 of the main characters that appear in Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past, the title of an earlier translation). When reading Proust, you almost need a program. Over some 3,000 pages, dozens of major characters, and hundreds of minor characters, enter and leave, some of them changing names as they move up in society, others remaining the same or descending the social ladder. Proust’s characters are complex people, their destinies are never linear, and their histories become more intricate as the novel continues and we learn more about them. Patrick Alexander, a serious Proustian, realized the need for such a program, and went through the entire novel to create this book which can be seen as the ultimate guide to the people of Proust’s world. He examines the 50 main characters, including some who may not seem so important at first glance, and gives an overview of who they are, who they become, and, in many cases, why they act the way they do.

However, if you’re a first-time reader of Proust, you might want to read this book carefully, since each character sketch gives you spoilers, telling you what the characters will become as the novel progresses. If you’re just at the beginning of this great work, you don’t want to know what becomes of, say, Gilberte or Albertine, or especially Madame Verdurin, since their roles evolve greatly throughout the novel. However, if you’ve already read Proust, this is the perfect book to have by your side in your next traversal of the novel, to remind you of the complex characters and their evolutions.

The book also contains some useful information about Paris during the Belle Époque, the Dreyfus affair, and an overview of Proust’s life to help better put the novel in context. But the heart of the book is the succinct “biographies” of the characters who come to life in this vast novel. Even after finishing the novel, you won’t have remembered all the details or the subtle links that exist among the characters; this book will fill out your understanding of Proust’s cast of characters and get you prepared to read La Recherche again. Not only for obsessives, Who’s Who in Proust will help you better understand the multitude of people who cross this stage of this astoundingly rich novel.