On Melville’s Isle

bust of melville
A bust of Melville at the former location of 6 Pearl Street in the battery at the south end of New York City. The boarding house where Herman was born is long gone and only a plaque and the bust by William N. Beckwith remained hidden behind plexiglass at the base of the towering white office building at 17 State Street when I visited in 2001. I don’t know if even the bust is still there today. There is a Starbucks across the street. 

I noted elsewhere that it was January 1841 when Herman Melville set sail for the first time on a whaling ship.  He has slipped into my life several times this past month. I usually post something on Twitter for #FridayMelville, so that keeps the man and his writing in my mind. “All men live enveloped in whale-lines,” he wrote, and I sometimes get entangled.

Blum's new edition of the novelRecently, one of my former middle school students from long ago was a contestant on Jeopardy. I have had no contact with her since those middle school English class days and it was through that TV appearance that I learned that she is a Melville scholar. Hester (like that Hawthorne protagonist who is perhaps the first and most important female protagonist in American literature) is a professor at Penn State. Her bio shows she has had more adventures than her old teacher and certainly has gone many fathoms deeper into Mr. Melville’s work. Some of her writing includes serious scholarship (you can tell because the titles have a colon separating the interesting title from the scholarly one, such as The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives and The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration (There is also a free, open version of News…).

I am quite delighted to see that she has edited and written the introduction to a new edition of Moby-Dick that will be published in May 2022. I hadn’t planned to add any more copies of that novel to my shelf, but I read it every year in some form or other, so for 2022, that will be the copy I read.

The other Melville floating into my ken came inside another novel, The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay. One of the characters is secretly purchasing the original manuscript of “Isle of the Cross” which is thought to be an unpublished and lost work by Melville.

It would have been his eighth book, coming after Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852) both of which were commercial and critical failures in his time. Maybe it was a novel. Maybe it was a short story or novella. It would be an interesting manuscript to find because from the few mentions of it this “story of Agatha,” has a female protagonist which is not what we expect from Melville.

It is thought to have been inspired by a story told to Herman Melville by a family friend on a July 1852 visit to Nantucket. John H. Clifford told Melville the story of Agatha Hatch Robertson. This Nantucket woman cared for a shipwrecked sailor named Robertson who she married. They had a daughter but Robertson abandoned them. He returned seventeen years later, only to abandon them again and then be exposed as a bigamist.

There is a timeline of references to this story, so it is believed that a manuscript did exist. Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne about Agatha’s story and suggested that Hawthorne write the tale. Hawthorne did not take the suggestion, but Melville worked on the manuscript in 1852 and took it to his New York publisher, Harper & Brothers, in June 1853. They rejected it, probably because sales of his last two books had been poor. Perhaps they also feared that Melville’s use of a real person’s story might be something that could trigger legal action from the family.

There are mentions of the story in letters and that led Melville’s biographers to surmise what the book might have been. Melville completing another manuscript after two failures means that he had not given up on writing as early biographers had assumed.  Melville sent a letter to Harper’s Magazine in November 1853 and referred to “the work which I took to New York last Spring, but which I was prevented from printing at that time…”

Was it a novel he brought to his publisher? That makes sense. Was it a short story like the ones he had published around that time? He wrote the now well-known story “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the “Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” series of sketches in this period. The use of “isle” in the “isle of the Cross” perhaps seems to connect it to those enchanted isles.

Rediscovering a new Melville work would be a big deal for literary types. Rediscovering Hester as Dr. Blum is a bigger deal for me. She recalled that I wrote in her yearbook back then that “The world will get much more interesting when it catches up to you.” I won’t claim any prescience with that prediction but I know I did not write that in anyone else’s yearbook. I am charmed in ways most readers will not grasp by my own Melville discovery.

Call Me Ishmael


November 14, 1851: Moby-Dick is published in New York. It is 635 pages. The previous month, a censored version of the novel had been published in London. It was in three volumes and titled The Whale.

November is a good month to read the novel. It’s an anniversary and it is the month the story begins.

You don’t have to read the whole novel. How about one chapter?

  • Chapter 9: The Sermon. Father Mapple delivers a sermon to a congregation of sailors, sailors’ wives, and widows in the New Bedford Whalers’ Chapel. Ishmael and Queequeg are there. Mapple reads a hymn about Jonah – that Biblical character who was swallowed by a hat else?] a WHALE:
  • Chapter 28: Ahab. This is the Captain’s first appearance after 27 chapters. The crew hadn’t seen him yet either. He doesn’t speak here.
  • Chapter 30: The Pipe is only a page long.
  • Chapter 32- Cetology Some people suggest you skip the interchapter. I have read the book cover to cover and also read just the interchapters cover to cover. I like all the whale and whaling knowledge.
  • Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle. The mythology of the sailor through ones from different lands and cultures.
  • Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale
  • Chapter 54: The Town-Ho’s Story  Melville tells a different story and foreshadows the end of his novel.
  • Chapter 70 – The Sphinx
  • Chapter 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish
  • Chapter 114- The Glider
  • Chapter 125: The Log and the Line. Ahab and his cabin boy understand each other. Because they are both crazy.

Maybe you should just open the book at random and read that chapter.

Moby-Dick continues to be a novel that everyone has heard of and can give you a 25-word book report even if they never read it.

If you’re not going to pick up the novel, at least read the opening passage.

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”

I took to the sea this month. I visited a friend who lives a very short walk from the Atlantic Ocean because it was “a damp, drizzly November in my soul” and I didn’t want to start “knocking people’s hats off.” I didn’t take to the ship. I was still a landlubber but I was there.


Sailing Again on the Pequod


Readers return to Moby-Dick year after year. I return to it in some form of reading every year. Often at the end of the year. This December, I have turned to it again, but in 2020 I think I can only handle selected chapters. (Feel free to guess at which chapters I will revisit.) The full voyage is too much for me this year.

When Melville’s father died in 1832, he lost his financial security. He tried being a teacher (school-master) and clerking (“I prefer not to.”), but it wasn’t for him and they didn’t pay very well.

In 1840 he signed up on the whaler, Acushnet, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He was just 21. He lasted two years before the mast and then he deserted the ship he was on. He got several novels from his days at sea and on the exotic islands after he jumped ship.

Published in 1851, Captain Ahab and his monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale is mythic grandeur, poetic, and very symbolic.

The novel’s narrator, Ishmael, is our guide and the filtered lens that we view Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck and the others.

One year, I only reread the “inter-chapters” of the natural history of whales. That reading is far less existential.

Melville knew he was taking on very big themes in the novel. His first publisher in England of Moby-Dick, or, The Whale hoped that good readers would find in it not only an adventure story but also “a pregnant allegory to illustrate nothing less than the mystery of human life.”

An episode of the program Open Source with Christopher Lydon this year reminds us that “For a century now, Moby-Dick has been read as something like American Scripture, surely our greatest novel. It gets read as a complex mirror of the age before the Civil War but also of a nation’s fate for all time.”

Why read Moby-Dick? Like the tales of King Arthur, different ages find different things in the story and characters.  What can a story from the mid-1800s tell us about our own reality?

A book is a mirror. If a fool looks into it, you can’t expect a genius to look back. The mirror and the book don’t change, but the person gazing into it does and that changes what you see in yourself and the background where you stand.

The novel has been studied and analyzed as a psychological study, philosophical treatise, a story of whaling, a romance, a sea adventure full of eccentric characters, a symbolic allegory, and a drama of heroic conflict.

On the program, they look at the novel as a “textbook on tyranny, as eco-warning, as queer fiction, as a meditation on race, as American magic and American tragedy.”

They walk the novel through American history:

“Before the Civil War, when Melville wrote Moby-Dick, you saw shadows of slavery on a free society.

In World War One, it was about merchant empires crashing.

In the Cold War reading, it was free Ishmael against Ahab’s dictatorship.

In Eco Time, it’s about a war on nature, at sea.

In Obama time, it was about Queequeg, the noble stranger.

Moby-Dick attacks

In Trump time, it’s about Ahab’s rage and his grip on the crew, his base.”

And in this pandemic and politics year that may well be the strangest of our lifetime, what will I find when I set sail once again on the Pequod?

This time, I am setting sail with an audiobook version of the novel. There are so many editions of Moby-Dick (print and audio) that I could pick a new one every year and not run out in this lifetime.

Is Moby-Dick my favorite novel? In Elizabeth Hardwick’s words, it is“the greatest novel in American literature.” Is Citizen Kane my favorite film? It is often called “the best American film ever.” I answer No to the favorite question, but they are both great works that I have gone to multiple times as a reader and viewer.


Go Deeper
The Moby-Dick Big Read

Was There a Real Moby Dick? from the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Best Book of 1947: Call Me Ishmael by Charles Olson

Picnicking With Herman and Nathaniel

champagne picnic

I heard on TWA that on August 5, 1850, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne met at a picnic hike with friends at Monument Mountain near Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

It was four days after Herman’s 31st birthday. Nathaniel was 46 years old and was an established literary figure.  Melville had two non-fiction memoir books to his credit, both of which had sold well. Typee and Omoo were based on his time at sea and on Polynesian islands when he had jumped ship. Melville was just starting his career as a novelist.

The picnic seems to have been organized by a Stockbridge attorney, David Dudley, Jr. a mutual acquaintance. Besides HM and NH, Oliver Wendell Holmes was also along for their hike up Monument Mountain.

An unexpected thunderstorm hit along the way and they took shelter in a cave. It seems that this was where the main conversation between Melville and Hawthorne took place. I imagine that it was literary, but I don’t know if these were literary “brothers” or if the older, more successful Hawthorne may have been in more of a superior role.

The group reached the summit when the storm passed and they celebrated with champagne and poetry, including William Cullen Bryant’s “Monument Mountain.” It is a long, sappy lyrical ode about a Mohican maiden who is so depressed about not being able to marry who she loves that she throws herself off a cliff. Her body was covered with stones as a “monument” and the summit is called Squaw Peak.

The friendship developed over the next few years and Melville and Hawthorne wrote regularly to each other. Melville had a habit of burning letters but what evidence remains of their correspondence shows that they did share ideas, and did some editing and commenting on the other’s work.

Melville was finishing what he was calling The Whale that August. Hawthorne was working on short stories based on his hometown of Salem.

Their friendship faded after Melville moved back to New York City and both of his novels had failed in popularity and sales. My sense has always been that Melville considered Hawthorne a closer friend than Hawthorne did.

But two days after the picnic, Melville visited Hawthorne at his little red farmhouse in Lenox. They took a walk to the lake. Nathaniel gave Herman two bottles of champagne. Later on that day, Hawthorne wrote to a friend, “I met Melville, the other day, and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me before leaving these parts.”

They lived six miles from each other for 18 months. These were very productive months for both of them.

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance were either being written or published during that time. The Blithedale Romance (1852) is Hawthorne’s third major romance and the setting is a utopian farming commune based on Brook Farm, of which Hawthorne was a founding member and where he lived in 1841. The commune’s ideals end up clashing with the members’ private desires and romantic rivalries. It is considered a “dark Romance” whose plot reminds me of Updike a century later.

Melville finished his epic “The Whale,” which we know as Moby-Dick, while staring out of his farmhouse window at hills like whales. He was writing his next novel, Pierre or the Ambiguities, at the same time Hawthorne was writing The Blithedale Romance and I would guess there was some sharing of ideas and maybe some reading of each other.

There may have also been some competition. The healthy kind would be wanting to please and even outdo the friend. The unhealthy kind would be in book sales and money. Hawthorne definitely won the latter competition.

In the fall of 1851, Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne: “To Nathaniel Hawthorne: In token of my admiration for his genius.”  I don’t think that Hawthorne ever dedicated anything to Melville.

Happy 200, Mr. Melville

MelvilleToday is Herman Melville’s birthday. He was born August 1, 1819, in New York City in a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants. But the family when he was born the Melvilles were in decline.

He left school at 15 to became a bank clerk. He also tried farming and teaching, but it was when in 1837 he took to the sea for the first time that the Herman Melville will know began. He was just a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with cotton, but he liked being at sea. Returning to New York and then in the West, he tried various jobs but found no “career.”

Returning to the East in1841, he signed up on the whaling shape the Acushnet, which spent several years in the Pacific. You would assume he loved this life since he wrote about it most famously later, but in fact, he did not. The Acushnet was a place of cruelties and he jumped ship in the Marquesas. There he was held in “friendly captivity” by the Polynesians. he escaped on an Australian whaler, which he also eventually abandoned and made his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

TypeeReturning to New York in1844, he was now 25 and he found there was an audience for his exotic sea stories in the islands. He wrote about his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner in his first novel, Typee. Publishers at first questioned the truthfulness of this non-fiction, but in print, it was an instant best-seller. He followed up quickly with a similar book, Omoo.

He married in 1847 and lived in New York with his younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters.

His next book was a novel was very different from the first two successful books. It was a rather fantastical, romantic work called Mardi. This book was not a best-seller, but the Melvilles moved to a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts (which I plan to visit this month).

At the farm, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne and a friendship began (though it seems that Melville considered Hawthorne more of a friend than Hawthorne did).

Melville explored transcendentalism and allegorical writing and wrote at the farm what would be his masterpiece, Moby-Dick.

Moby-DickThe novel is an ambitious, lyrical, unconventional and epic story. He dedicated it to Hawthorne in “admiration for his genius.” But Moby-Dick or The Whale got mixed reviews. Readers who had liked his two earliest books did not find the same thing in the new tale.

Considering its classic status today, Moby-Dick was the beginning of the end of his career as a novelist. His subsequent books were largely literary failures. He did some farming and wrote articles to pay the bills, but the family ended up returning to New York City in 1863,

Melville became a customs inspector and tried a second literary life as a poet, writing a lot about the then raging Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which received praise but he never returned to the prominence of those first two books.

He never saw Moby-Dick reach the stature it has today, and his remaining stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd. His literary revival began in the 1920s and Moby-Dick is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written. I didn’t see any celebration of his 200th birthday, so I want to send this remembrance out into the universe for an author who has meant a lot to me.

Melville stamp


Marginalia (or apostils) are marks made in the margins of a book or other document. They may be scribbles, comments, glosses (annotations), critiques, doodles, or illuminations.

Fermat’s last theorem is the most famous mathematical marginal note.

The first recorded use of the word marginalia is in 1819 in Blackwood’s Magazine.

Voltaire composed in book margins while in prison.

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a personal statement in margins just before his execution.

Beginning in the 1990s, attempts have been made to design and market e-book devices permitting a limited form of marginalia.

Billy Collins has poem titled “Marginalia” that begins:

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
‘Nonsense.’ ‘Please! ‘ ‘HA! ! ‘ –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote ‘Don’t be a ninny’
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Edgar Allan Poe titled some of his reflections and fragmentary material “Marginalia.”

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls ‘Metaphor’ next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of ‘Irony’
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
‘Absolutely,’ they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
‘Yes.’ ‘Bull’s-eye.’ ‘My man! ‘
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

I made plenty of notes in my college books. I tried not to mark up those expensive textbooks so that their value didn’t drop (though some of my friends liked the “annotated” books they bought used). But I heavily wrote in the margins of the novels and poetry collections I used in my English classes, and I still have most of them today.

Five volumes of Samuel T. Coleridge’s marginalia have been published.

Some famous marginalia were serious works, or drafts thereof, and were written in margins due to scarcity and expense of paper. Emily Dickinson wrote poems on scraps of paper, used envelopes and such.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written ‘Man vs. Nature’
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

Reading and analyzing marginalia can be a scholarly pursuit, especially the marginalia of famous authors. Herman Melville is one of my soulmates and there is a website, Melville’s Marginalia Online, devoted to the marginalia in books owned and borrowed by him from 1819-1891.

The old books are scanned and then filtered and sharpened in Adobe Photoshop in a digital literary archaeology. Scholars study his notes in copies of books about whales. That seems obvious. less obvious are notes on themes that emerge not only in Moby-Dick, but in his other books, stories and poems.

Melville writes in White Jacket:
The horn seemed the mark of a curse for some mysterious sin, conceived and committed before the spirit had entered the flesh. Yet that sin seemed something imposed, and not voluntarily sought; some sin growing out of the heartless necessities of the predestination of things; some sin under which the sinner sank in sinless woe.

Studying his marginalia, especially in a copy of Dante’s Inferno, we see him being interested in the way impulsive, unplanned, unpremeditated acts could be seen as sins. He marks up passages about damnation and free will.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Some marginalia is our way of saying that we didn’t just read the words, but we thought about them. We paused, considered a line, and made a note of our own.

Marginalia is an older practice than even printed books. The “scholia” on classical manuscripts are the earliest known form of marginalia. We have evidence of margin notes and even illustrations in beautiful old illuminated manuscripts.

A page from a 14th-century illuminated Armenian manuscript with painted marginalia – the first page of the Gospel of Mark

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

Some say that reading some authors along with the marginalia of another author is the best way to read.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

My favorite marginalia is not very scholarly. Egocentrically, I now quite enjoy reading my own marginalia in books I read in my student days.

I even wrote margin notes in my own journals. I made notes in the journals from my pre-teen and teen years many years later noting the “lies” I had written there. I think that I imagined it I wrote it down, it would be true.

And I love it when I look in someone else’s book and find their notes. This is especially true when I buy used books, which I often do. Some notes are like those Collins mocks – lightweight, silly, literary graffiti. But some are thoughtful, and I like reading them and trying to figure something about the previous owner.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.’

All this is an elaborate introduction to what inspired this post. I bought a used copy of the I Ching and found inside of it a series of Post-It notes. I consider them a modern day marginalia. Margin notes from someone who doesn’t feel comfortable writing in the margins of a book.

Post-It notes marginalia from a copy of the I Ching

I read them and thought about who she (yes, I imagined it is a woman) was when she was writing the notes.

She asks this  Book of Changes, this ancient Chinese divination text, “What is my true calling?” A very big question.

Something bad had happened to her. “I what ways can I go about healing myself in ways I have not covered. What is my missing link and how can I find it?”

She tosses the coins, heads and tails, and looks for the answers. I feel sorry for her. I want the book to give her answers, or at least make her believe there are answers.

“How can I reclaim my sparkle and presence,” she asked. I didn’t look up the answers she was given.

She sold the book. Either she got her answers, or gave up on finding them in a book. She left her marginalia, these bits of her life and searching, for me to find.

I did my own searching. I didn’t find the answers, or rather, I didn’t find the answers I wanted to find. I also sold the book. I removed her notes. I think each of us should start our search with a clean page.