Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Melville and the Fast-Fish of Literary Greatness

Because of its concluding challenge about the Pacific Rim and literary greatness, I revive this little essay from the 2001 Northwestern-Newberry Moby-Dick which was issued to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the publication of  The Whale (London: Richard Bentley) on 18 October 1851 and Moby-Dick (New York: Harper & Brothers]) around 14 November 1851.  Now as in 2001 no American book, except possibly Huckleberry Finn, is more famous by title, by action (the pursuit of the White Whale), and by iconic human character (Captain Ahab).  In 1851 and until his death in 1891 Melville’s most famous character was Fayaway, the South Sea maiden of his first and most famous book, Typee (1846).  Almost no one called Moby-Dick a great work of world literature until after Melville’s death, and that status was not acknowledged in literary circles until the early 1920s, and then more in England than the United States; in these decades its reputation was promoted by a Canadian, Archibald MacMechan, more than any other person.  Fascination with Ahab was an early 20th century phenomenon, and until around the centennial of the book, 1951, almost no one wrote about the narrator, Ishmael.  In the last half century Moby-Dick has entered popular culture in the United States, mainly through cartoons showing the White Whale trailing whalelines attached to harpoons and a one-legged obsessed captain who hails other whaleships with “’Hast seen the White Whale?’”  “Call me Ishmael” may be the most famous sentence in American literature, although often quoted by people who have not read into the book as far as “Loomings.”
Being absorbed into popular culture in the form of a few images and catchphrases is far from the worst fate a great book can have, and in fact Moby-Dick is not only known about but read--read more than ever, judging from the sales figures of classroom editions (perhaps twenty thousand copies annually).  In the Spouter-Inn Ishamel and Queequeg turn over some pages of a big book companionably, and Moby-Dick itself has a long history of being read aloud, shared by one enthusiast with a companion or with a group.  The first on record is the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who read it to his family on publication.  In the decades when no one praised the book in print, it was still being shared aloud.  Louis Becke in 1901 told of being aboard a schooner in Apia in the Samoan Islands around 1870 when a delicate little Englishwoman brought the gruff Scottish captain the three volumes of The Whale, “the strangest, wildest, and saddest story” she had ever read.  The captain then read the volumes aloud to the crew from beginning to end, stopping now and then to “enter into metaphysical matters.”  An essay revealing sometimes surprising literary associations could be written about extraordinary people who in the thirty or forty years after Melville’s death came to Moby-Dick  as a private delectation shared by a bosom friend.  In the 21st century more people than ever are hearing Moby-Dick  read aloud.  Early each January enthusiasts flock to Johnny Cake Hill in New Bedford to commemorate Melville’s sailing from Fairhaven in the Acushnet by reading all of Moby-Dick out loud, nonstop.  Other marathon readings occur on the Charles Morgan at Mystic Seaport and elsewhere.   For shut-ins, blind people, travelers, or others who simply prefer hearing great stories to reading them, Moby-Dick is available on audio-tape in competing readings.
        I wrote this Foreword while proofreading the book aloud, commas, semicolons, hyphens, capitals and all, for the sesquicentennial Norton Critical Edition, the first Norton revision since 1967, when Harrison Hayford-and I first printed full lists of variants and emendations, thereby opening up the study of the text.  In Melville’s terms, the Norton was “the Tyre of this Carthage,” the Hayford-Parker-Tanselle Northwestern-Newberry edition of 1988, reissued here.  The 2001 Parker-Hayford Norton Critical Edition sails without the full textual apparatus of the NN edition, as does this sleek Northwestern-Newberry commemorative issue. The visiting Brian Higgins was pressed into service for a few proofreading sessions, but my long-term companion in this confidential 2001 reading aloud was Heddy-Ann Richter, who brought to the work her fresh reading of the nearly thousand pages of my newly completed second volume (1851-1891) of Johns Hopkins’s Herman Melville: A Biography.  Both of us suffused with painful new knowledge of what writing Moby-Dick cost Melville and his family all their lives, we nevertheless surrendered, in reading the book aloud, to the exhilarating and exalting acquaintance with the young narrator (for Melville is insistent about his being young).  Ishmael, exuberant, brimful of bonhommie and animal spirits, talks a little pedantically for his present station (according to people he meets): he has made voyages in merchant ships, but most recently has been a country schoolmaster (as we now know Melville had himself been in the fall of 1840).  Ishmael is characterized by Harrison Hayford in his essay “Loomings” as a young man who never rests content with a merely adequate explanation, who regards every purpose, action, and object as a puzzle to be pondered over and researched by all possible tools--by systematic repeated examinations, by shedding whatever physical cross-lights he can, by inquiring of aged inhabitants, by swimming through libraries, always brooding and speculating until a provisionally acceptable conclusion occurs to him.  In telling the story of Moby Dick Ishmael shares the greatest puzzle he has yet encountered, the allure of the White Whale for Captain Ahab and its allure (and Ahab’s allure) for himself.  He tells one of the greatest chapters, “The Town-Ho’s Story,” as he told it to a lounging circle of young Spanish dons on the thick-gilt tiled piazza of the Golden Inn in Lima—an open invitation to his readers to ensconce themselves imaginatively in just such splendid comfort through the sometimes harrowing book.
My privilege of reading Moby-Dick out loud while proofreading it in 2001 was matched by the privilege of pausing to gaze at Melville’s beloved Pacific from a place where many automobile license plates were celebrating another sesquicentennial, the admission of California to statehood.  This is fitting, for Moby-Dick is a Pacific Rim book, the achievement of a young man who had witnessed colonialism first hand.  Melville had been on the spot in 1842 when the French seized the Marquesas Islands and, later, Tahiti, and in Honolulu in 1843 on the day the British formally relinquished the Sandwich Islands.  He was home in New York State for his brother Gansevoort’s campaign oratory advocating the election of James K. Polk and the immediate annexation of Texas.  Melville wrote Omoo and started Mardi (1849) during the war with Mexico, which gained the United States vast tracts of what he called the “great American desert.”  Late in 1848 Melville read accounts of the gold fever in California and wrote the start of the Gold Rush into Mardi.  In 1849 thousands were making the dangerous voyages around the Horn or chancing the terrifying passage over the Isthmus, several years before a railroad was built.  As Melville wrote Moby-Dick, emigrants were already crossing the continent to California in wagons, on horseback, and on foot. After California, what next?  In Chapter 89 Melville defined colonialism in whaling terms: “What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas but a Fast-Fish?”  What was Mexico to the United States?  A Loose-Fish, as yet, except for the territories already seized or purchased.  He foresaw (Ch. 14) the time when America would “add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada” in its piratical acquisitiveness.  Better than any other American writer of his generation, Melville knew geopolitics first hand, as a humble but reflective observer and as a pondering autodidact.  This man who saw the world in terms of “linked analogies,” knew, as early as 1848, and believed passionately in 1850 and 1851 that  literary greatness in America was there for the seizing as much as the Marquesas Islands and California had been just a few years earlier.  American literary greatness was a Loose-Fish which Melville in his whaling book would make a Fast-Fish forever.

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