Friday, February 10, 2006

Some Melville for your weekend

From Herman Melville: His World and Work, by Andrew Delbanco (2005)
When [the Reverend J. M.] Mathews came to the Melvill[e] house on Pearl street in August 1819 to baptize the new baby, he asked both parents to acknowledge the hard truth that "children are . . . born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea to condemnation itself," and to promise that they would instruct their child "to the utmost of your power" in the shame of its sinfulness.

From Moby-Dick (1851)

Now and then such unaccountable odds and ends of strange nations come up from the unknown nooks and ash-holes of the earth to man these floating outlaws of whalers; and the ships themselves often pick up such queer castaway creatures found tossing about the open sea on planks, bits of wreck, oars, whaleboats, canoes, blown-off Japanese junks, and what not; that Beelzebub himself might climb up the side and step down into the cabin to chat with the captain, and it would not create any unsubduable excitement in the forecastle.

From The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857)
With some minds, truth is, in effect, not so cruel a thing after all, seeing that, likea loaded pistol found by poor devils of savages, it raises more wonder than terror—its peculiar virtue being unguessed, unless, indeed, by indiscreet handling, it should happen to go off of itself.

From "The Lightning-Rod Man," collected in The Piazza Tales (1856)
"And now, since our being dumb will not help us," said I, resuming my place, "let me hear your precautions in traveling during thunder-storms."
"Wait till this one is passed."
"Nay, proceed with the precautions. You stand in the safest possible place according to your own account. Go on."
"Briefly then. I avoid pine-trees, high houses, lonely barns, upland pastures, running water, flocks of cattle and sheep, a crowd of men. If I travel on foot,—as to-day—I do not walk fast; if in my buggy, I touch not its back or sides; if on horseback, I dismount and lead the horse. But of all things, I avoid tall men."
"Do I dream? Man avoid man? And in danger-time too?"
"Tall men in a thunder-storm I avoid. Are you so grossly ignorant as not to know, that the height of a six-footer is sufficient to discharge an electric cloud upon him? Are not lonely Kentuckians, ploughing, smit in the unfinished furrow?"

From Moby-Dick (1851)
It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their last wills and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion. This was the fourth time in my nautical life that I had done the same thing. After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case may be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.
Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.

From, on Moby-Dick
Far from being either enjoyable or enlightening, Melville's novel was tolerated as just another unpleasant aspect of high school life, like being hassled by the upperclassmen or the macaroni and cheese in the lunchroom or acne.

I HATE this book. Why? It's BORING!

This book is HORRIBLE! Classic, my eye! I would love to know what's so great about this book. I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow! Keep Moby Dick away from my bed!

"Moby Dick" has such an iconic place in American literature that anyone with a serious interest in the subject will want to read it. Please do so unprejudiced by the conventional view that this is a masterpiece. Ask yourself honestly; is it really any good?

I won't pretend it's not an absolute mess of a book. And I'm unlikely to recommend it to someone without knowing their tastes pretty well. And it boggles my mind that it is sometimes assigned in high school. I won't even pretend that a lot of what these people say isn't true.

Regardless, it's a favorite, and I overlook its faults as if it's a weird friend, and I'll be reading it again and again my whole life.

1 comment:

  1. Reading excerpts from Moby Dick is way better than reading Moby Dick.

    I don't think Miss Wells even bothered to mention in 10th grade that Moby Dick was supposed to be occasionally screamingly funny. In conclusion, if I hated a 10th grader, I would make him read Moby Dick.