Herman Melville is not only, arguably, our most American author; he is America.
Author of the most successful second act in literary history (posthumous, alas), Melville is sui generis as cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic phenomenon. Misunderstood, and worse, ignored, as he diligently, impossibly, churned out masterpiece after masterpiece, he had no reason to believe the world would ever read, much less understand (much less lionize) him. Nevertheless, he persisted. With the same almost religious intensity and obsession, he left it all on the pages, because he could, because he had to, because what else is a genius to do?
For those not inclined to console themselves believing Herman has ascended to that big crow’s nest in the sky, looking down with bemusement at a human race who finally got around to getting him, it’s incredibly sad to think he truly died, unappreciated and alone with the one thing he knew in the marrow of his soul: he was a brilliant, important writer. (And, as a recovering grad student with Cultural Studies sluicing through my gray matter, I’d love to see less time spent speculating whether Mr. Melville was, in fact, a homosexual, and that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s aloofness, post Moby Dick, had less to do with lack of reciprocal feelings and more to do with snobbery and literary jealousy. If Hawthorne genuinely failed to appreciate Melville’s achievement, regardless of the fact that the book was dedicated to him, his heart is even darker and colder than we can imagine.)
Those who complain about the occasional (and occasionally endless) digressions about whales and/or the whaling industry are–aside from confessing that they most likely have never read the book–guilty of applying modern sensibilities to a 19th Century product. Melville was conveying authority in a Google-less world, and also bragging a bit; he did it, he knew it, he researched it, he lived it. Readers didn’t mind the extra detail; for people who’d never been to see and didn’t have the luxury of movies, TV, or even local libraries, this was truly the stuff of life. Plus, anyone whining about having to skip past a chapter like Cetology comes off like a sports enthusiast unsatisfied because the epic 2008 Wimbledon Final had commercials in between the action.
(Here’s a commercial for you: if you’re remotely inclined to know more about the man and his work, I can’t more emphatically recommend the wonderful Jill Lepore’s mini-masterwork, “Herman Melville at Home” in the recent New Yorker.)
It being the bicentennial of Melville’s birth, and people are headed to the beach or seeking a suitable summer read, it’s an especially opportune time to celebrate the great American novel. Well let me tell you: Moby Dick is the ultimate summer book. And it’s also the great American novel (so, for that matter, is The Great Gatsby, as well as Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This country is big and awesome enough to have more than one epic novel to claim the number one title, at least the way I look at things). Finally, not only is this book approachable and edifying, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Seriously.
I’ve written very little about the novel I return to most often and with the most unmitigated pleasure, in part because my energy usually revolves around encouraging people to just read it. But I suspect I’ll continue to share opinions, because I’ll continue to return to Moby Dick.
The piece, below, was first written nineteen summers ago (and re-reading it, it shows its age in all the wrong ways), and was one of the first essays I published for PopMatters, the beginning of a long, wonderful run.
If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave around them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!
— Moby Dick, Chapter 26
When it comes to the state of the American novel, there is nothing — or at least, not very much — new under the sun. And this is not entirely a bad thing. Not when most avid lovers of literature reluctantly acknowledge that the prospect of reading all, or most of the great works of fiction in one lifetime is an unattainable ambition. Sad, but true, and because of this actuality, a well-intentioned or would-be aficionado must aim to separate the proverbial goats from the sheep, and ensure that the books that really matter stand at the top of the list.
For instance, when’s the last time you fell in love with an author and went out and spent a month, or a summer, or a decade devoting your attention to their oeuvre? Even when, like in love, you are lucky enough to find that soul mate of an author, how often do you get the chance to indulge yourself? And then there are the authors you should want to absorb. Have you read all of Dostoyevsky? (Shame on you). All of Shakespeare? (No? Then get thee to Netflix). All of Faulkner? (Don’t worry, no one else has either).
The point is, as Longfellow proclaimed, art is long and time is fleeting. And it would seem that because of unexceptional high school and college teachers, the prospect of actually reading a novel is accorded roughly the same anticipatory anxiety as a root canal. This is unfortunate, and the authors of these great books should not be punished simply because most professors are unable to convey the joy that can, and should, accompany the act of reading for pleasure.
Good music and good literature have always seemed to intimidate, or bewilder otherwise open-minded individuals. This is doubtless at least in part due to teachers and critics seeking to justify their own intellectual enterprise by conferring upon art an ivory halo that renders it unreachable by ostensibly average, simple-minded citizens. Rather than regarding, say, jazz music or a 19th Century novel as sacred relics conceived by sullen saints, perhaps it would be beneficial to acknowledge–even endorse–the actuality that most of these works were produced by individuals whose lives were conventional as their creative minds were exceptional. Or, reduced to more practical terms, if jazz music, that greatest of American inventions, is gumbo, the archetypal American novel, with Moby Dick as its progenitor and arguably its apotheosis, is a chowder.
Listen: so many novels are meat, or potatoes, or broth, or milk (often watery milk that becomes increasingly rank and repellent as it stands on the counter, or in the bookshelf as the case may be), or a smattering of vegetables. It is the rare and precious novel that is able to (indeed, one that even seeks to) satisfy on multiple levels, aesthetic as well as technical, a work that amuses as well as inspires, a book that informs as well invigorates — a novel that augments or reaffirms one’s belief in what the novel, that most indefatigable form of artistic expression, can do.
Can novels do this? Yes.
What type of novel? Moby Dick.
It’s exceedingly ironic that in an age where cantankerous crusaders of classic literature are defending that increasingly endangered species, the not-so-great white male author, there’s a text to actually satisfy both the hegemony-in-a-haystack-hunting Derrida disciples and the pugnacious proponents of tradition: Moby Dick.
The book’s author, despite getting the unfair (and unjustifiable) tag of boring old white guy, author of the quintessential boring old white guy book about a boring old white whale, not to mention a handful of equally impenetrable short stories (while most high school students are instructed to read Bartleby The Scrivener, most of them — at least partly due to the unfortunate baggage associated with its author — would prefer not to) — is, in fact, quite accessible. Really.
But accessibility is often the enemy of integrity. Why not then celebrate the all-too-infrequent instance that proves an exception to the very rules it rewrites? Like any truly lasting piece of expression, the writings of Melville not only have stood the intractable test of time, they incredibly — miraculously — are as viable and valuable to today’s dissolute and desperate, but not altogether dissimilar world. Perhaps resulting from the ever-mercurial moods of the left-leaning academic aristocracy, it has become (quite ironically, even as irony is dead) admissible to dismiss Moby Dick as it once was to venerate it.
This would be an unexceptionable development but for the fact that for all the right reasons, this classic American text is also pioneering in its puissant, often sardonic assaults on institutions ranging from the patriarchal status quo, to slavery, to the Puritanical thought-police who cast a long, lamentable shadow on early U.S. history. This book celebrates our itinerant American roots and the notion of positive, peaceful diversity not as an apologetic ideology, but as an empowering, imperative axiom. Melville empathized with the underdog and more important, he understood them — he was one — and his real life experiences help inform the poetic prose that allows these otherwise unrenowned heroes to sing the songs of themselves, proceeding Walt Whitman’s masterpiece by a half-decade.
So: a novel that fulfills on almost every conceivable level, a meditation on our individual essence as well as the push and pull of our similitude as human beings adrift in a turbulent universe that not a little resembles the untamed sea.
If the current, confessional model that begins and ends looking inward, is a bouillon cube: add water (or, the easily-invoked tears of an undiscerning reader) than we might recognize the depth and substance of the real novel. No short cuts, all ingredients carefully chosen, cleaned, cleaved, and combined, simmered slowly over the steady flame of inspiration, seasoned with erudition and integrity, stirred with the passion of purpose (a purpose opposite of navel gazing), and served with the unwavering arm of a confident and direct desire to communicate. It’s that simple, that impossible. And yet, even the richest, most savory bowl of chowder can sustain one for a limited time, one meal per person. This is why art is sustenance for the soul, a benevolent gift that keeps giving. Find a novel and you’ve found a friend for life, a companion that should lend support and inspiration for any earthly endeavors.