And I squeak a blog in before the end of August—HOORAY!
Sorry for the long delay between posts. This summer was not the blogging bonanza I’d hoped for it to be, and I apologize. But as it is the end of summer, and school is going back into session, I think it a good moment to pause and consider what *was* accomplished this summer.
First, I have read a ton of Moby Dick. Not the whole book, certainly not the three Big Bad Books I set out to read, but I read quite a lot of Moby Dick, and hope to finish it within the next week. But more on that in a moment.
Second, I finished my Work-in-Progress! *cue trumpets, confetti* Writing this one was an emotional rollercoaster. It’s a book that came straight from the center of my being, and I love it. Which is great, but that’s just the first draft. Now, I let it sit. I have to put projects aside for a few weeks to allow me to gain the necessary distance required for a good revision. You can’t re-envision something when you’re still basking in the glow of its formation. Which leads me to…
Third, I’ve started a new thing! It’s actually a re-write of an old thing, but it feels new as I wrote the draft so long ago. The voice feels really urgent, too, so I’m excited to dive back into this story.
Fourth, I read some other books—books by friends (Shirley, Tin Star) mostly—how lucky I am to have such talented, awesome friends! I’m also looking forward to some books coming out soon—especially David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. I love David Mitchell’s work, and from everything I’ve read, this book is more amazingness sprouting forth from his brain.
And finally, I responded to fan mail! I am still behind on emails, and have more snail mail responses to get out, but some were replied to. I hope you got yours, and if not, you will soon! Thank you all so much for writing to me!
Okay, so back to Moby Dick. I am on page 344, Chapter 93, The Castaway. Only 126 pages in 43 chapters to go!
Continuing from the last blog, on the question of The Town-Ho’s Story, and the queer framing of it: I dunno. Maybe Melville wanted to establish more of Ishmael’s world-travels? Connect North and South America in the story? Just give a strange interlude? It’s a good story, and it’s fun to think of Ishmael in Lima, Peru at some point after the events on the Pequod holding forth on a tale of Moby Dick, but not his personal one. Alas, that’s all I got.
Though I have said it over and over in these blogs, I yet say it again: I have to give up any argument that Moby Dick is an awesome adventure story. There is adventure, and what adventure there is is awesome, but this book is not an adventure story. Melville was shooting the moon on this one. He covers every topic imaginable: America, history, biology, theology, philosophy, law…you name it, he touches on it.
Take, for example, the end of Chapter 89, Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish. This chapter begins as merely a way of explaining a general rule in “The Fishery” that if a whale is tied to a boat by any means, it’s that boat’s whale, and if not, it’s anyone’s whale for the taking. But Melville does not leave things there. He expands the idea of Fast- and Loose-Fish out to edge of the page and beyond:
“What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?”
God, this guy’s smart. And even when he’s just larking around in a scene, like the one in chapter 64 where Stubb commands the cook to give a sermon to the sharks attacking the whale carcass hanging from the side of the ship, he manages to sneak huge ideas in:
“Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can’t be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned.”
Man, there’s an idea worth mulling over…
Melville had to be operating from a certain arrogance, I think, to write so boldly beyond his plot. I mean, who the hell is he to hold forth on whaling, on America’s place in the world, on The Whiteness of the Whale or anything else? And beyond the exploration of multifarious ideas, Melville felt free to employ varying forms of narration: plays! framed narratives like the Town-Ho’s Story! soliloquies! How dare he?! Perhaps this boldness came from writing the book while isolated in Pittsfield, MA, away from the nay-sayers, alone with his subconscious. Maybe this stuff occurred to him while writing and he thought, well, why the hell *not* hold forth on the Whiteness of the Whale if I want to? Why *not* write this scene as a play?
Obviously, I don’t know what Melville was thinking exactly, but if his letters are any hint, he certainly felt very free and mischievous in his writing of the book. In one letter from 1850, while writing Moby Dick, he said: “About the “whaling voyage”–I am half way in the work, & am very glad that your suggestion so jumps with mine. It will be a strange sort of book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree;–& to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.” To me, these are the words of a writer in thrall with his work. I take this as a lesson–be bold, just write your ideas, even if they seem arrogant, even if you wonder why the hell should you be the one to say this. Don’t rein in the enthusiastic imagination.
Of course, after the excitement, comes the creeping shadow of doubt. In 1851, Melville wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,–it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.” And again, to Hawthorne, “Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould.” This feeling is not unknown to me, or any writer. But man, to have just gone for it the way Melville did, in spite of these creeping doubts. Thank god for that arrogance and the will to say screw you to the nay-sayers.
Then again, when you can write prose the way Melville can, it’s the nay-sayers who look like morons. Oh, passages like this:
“But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side [of the boat]. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight. Floating on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us. One of these little infants, that from certain queer tokens seemed hardly a day old, might have measured some fourteen feet in length, and some six feet in girth. He was a little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarce yet recovered from that irksome position it had so lately occupied in the maternal reticule; where, tail to head, and all ready for the final spring, the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar’s bow. The delicate side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby’s ears newly arrived from foreign parts.” (Chapter 87)
That description called up such a haunting and lovely picture in my mind. Melville not only can get you contemplating huge ideas, but can really render a scene.
Also, this description led me to wonder just how much of Moby Dick Melville made up whole cloth for the book and how much he stuck to facts known by him either through experience or research. Clearly, he did not set out to write a non-fiction account of whales and whaling—as mentioned a few blogs ago, in his chapter on cetology, he determines in the face of all scientific evidence to the contrary, and on the word of a drunken whaleman in a bar, that a whale is a fish. But passages like the above, and many of his descriptions of whale biology and behavior, seem detailed beyond what I thought even modern science had a grasp on. Not that I’m a whale biologist, but we know so little about most sea creatures, and yet here’s Melville writing about them like they’re pets he’s observed casually for years. And I guess he did, as he actually sailed on a whale boat, but still. Anyone who can point me toward a good book on the subject of fact and fiction in Moby Dick, please drop me a line.
So really, you all should read Moby Dick. I’m not the first to make this case—check out this great piece from the New Yorker, or even the book it references, which I’m going to have to find—but maybe I’m the first to make the case to you, dear reader. Take it in small doses—a chapter at a time! On audiobook even, while running!—or just gorge on the book as a whole; it doesn’t matter, it’s awesome any way you read it. This book is a grand vision. You get huge, thought provoking ideas, and a glimpse at an extinct industry at the foundation of American history (at least New England’s history), and awesome characters in a captivating story, all together with gorgeous, haunting scenes and glorious weavings of words.