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bildungsroman shirt

Wear your coming of age proudly

The word bildungsroman showed up in an article I was reading.  It is a German word that you are only likely to encounter in a literature class. It describes a novel of formation, education, or culture. In English, we are more likely to call a novel or film like this a “coming-of-age” story.

Generally, these are stories of youth, but reading it now much later in my life got me wondering about when coming-to-age ends. In some ways even with six decades passed, I still feel like one of those protagonists.

The typical young protagonist is a sensitive, perhaps a bit naïve, person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions. They believe that these experiences will result in the answers. Supposedly, this happens in your twenties, but I don’t know if I have finished this journey yet. I suspect I am not alone in having this unfinished feeling.

Young adult novels certainly deal with this, but so do literary novels whose authors would not want the YA label stamped on their book’s spine. These are good novels to teach. They often focus on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is very important.

Scanning my bookshelves I see lots of books that fall into this category, from The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey from back in 8th century BC, to the Harry Potter series. I would include that early novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by Aldous Huxley and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

When I taught middle school and high school, teaching The Outsiders, Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, To Kill a Mockingbird and other bildungsroman works just seemed like the right places to spend time with my students.

In our western society, legal conventions have made certain points in late adolescence or early adulthood (most commonly 18-21) when a person is “officially” given certain rights and responsibilities of an adult. But driving a car, voting, getting married, signing contracts and buying alcohol are not the big themes of bildungsroman novels. Society and religion have even created ceremonies to confirm the coming of age.

I’ve passed all of those milestones, but I still feel like I haven’t arrived.

Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We are all the protagonists of our own lives. But hero…  I’m not so sure.

Since I am still coming of age, I am a sucker for films and television live in that world of transition.  If I was teaching a course on Bildungsroman Cinema, I might include Bambi, American Graffiti,  The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me,  The Motorcycle Diaries, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Boyhood, and Moonlight. I could include many other “teen” films of lesser quality.

On television, series like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Goldbergs are all ones that deal with coming of age. They are also all family sitcoms. Coming-of-age has a lot to do with family. And it can be funny as well as tragic. It’s good materials for books and media because it has all that plus relationships, sex and love. On the visual side, it means physical changes that you can actually see, while the internal growth is often hidden and slow to catch up with physical growth.

I have read plenty of things that contend that adolescence is being prolonged and therefore adulthood and coming-of-age is being delayed. The new Generation Z cohort is supposedly an example of this. I have also read about the Boomerang Generation. This is a very Western and middle class phenomenon and the term is applied to young adults who choose to share a home with their parents after previously living on their own. They boomeranging back to their parents’ residence.

I remember reading about the “Peter Pan syndrome” which was a pop-psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. It is not a condition you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific mental disorder.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, a character refers to men who are “Peter Pans” as “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” He uses Adolf Hitler as an archetype of this phenomenon.

Do some people never come of age? How old were you the last time someone told to “grow up” in some way or another?

Huxley’s Peter Pans are a problem, but what about people who are quite mature and adult but still are in search of answers to life’s questions and the experiences that might result in the answers? What’s the name for that syndrome?


Browsing the poetry shelves you will come across numerous editions of the prose and poetry of Walt Whitman. His Leaves of Grass is probably the best-selling title today. Thanks to technology, you can buy his complete works with that book, patriotic poems, prose, The Wound Dresser and even his letters in a Kindle Edition for a mere 99 cents.

One piece of his writing you won’t get in that digital archive is a curious collection he wrote in 1858 under the pseudonym Mose Velsor. Walt wrote an advice column in the New York Atlas newspaper for “manly men.” The topics included diet, exercise, and grooming.

I suppose it was a Men’s Journal or Esquire column for the time, though it seems out of character for the man I have mentally archived as “the good gray poet.”

That is until someone uncovered the 13-part newspaper series from 150 years ago.

It has been published in at least two versions I could find. Manly Health and Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body is the series.

Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Training is 75 manly chunks of advice.

It was also published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Some of the columns headlines are pretty funny:  “The great american evil—indigestion” and “Could there be an entire nation of vigorous and beautiful men?”


So how well does 19th century Walt Whitman‘s advice hold up for 21st century men?

Let’s start the day like Walt…

The man rises at day-break, or soon after—if in winter, rather before. In most cases the best thing he can commence the day with is a rapid wash of the whole body in cold water, using a sponge, or the hands rubbing the water over the body—and then coarse towels to rub dry with; after which, the hair gloves, the flesh-brush, or any thing handy, may be used, for friction, and to put the skin in a red glow all over . . . as soon as the glow is attained, the window, unless the weather is very bad, should be opened, and the door also, so that the room may become filled with good fresh air—for the play of the respiratory organs will be increased by the performances just mentioned, and it is at such times that good air tells best.

How about some breakfast? Walt was much the carnivore.  “Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else.”

Usually the breakfast, for a hearty man, might consist in a plate of fresh rare lean meat, without fat or gravy, a slice or chunk of bread, and, if desired, a cup of tea, which must be left till the last. If there be boiled potatoes, and one of them is desired, it may be permitted.

Let’s get groomed and dressed for the day.

The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, etc., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.
Most of the usual fashionable boots and shoes, which neither favor comfort, nor health, nor the ease of walking, are to be discarded.”

Okay, we are ready to get on with the day!

Habituate yourself to the brisk walk in the fresh air—to the exercise of pulling the oar—and to the loud declamation upon the hills, or along the shore. Such are the means by which you can seize with treble grip upon all the puzzles and difficulties of your student life—whatever problems are presented to you in your books, or by your professors.

That walking gives me an appetite!

Lunch should consist of a good plate of fresh meat, (rare lean beef, broiled or roast, is best) with as few outside condiments as possible.

Maybe I should have saved that walk for after lunch. All this meat is making me a bit sleepy, but I must do some work!

A steady and agreeable occupation is one of the most potent adjuncts and favorers of health and long life. The idler, without object, without definite direction, is very apt to brood himself into some moral or physical fever—and one is about as bad as the other.

Well, I managed to work on a poem and a blog post and didn’t doze off (not completely anyway). The sun is low in the sky. It must be time for supper. I hope it is not meat again.

The supper, which must not be at a late hour, we would recommend always to be light—occasionally making this meal to consist of fruit, either fresh, during the middle and latter part of the summer—and of stewed fruit during the winter and spring.

It is easy for even the manly man to become a bit depressed after dinner. But don’t fear – Walt has advice for “the horrors” too.

If the victim of ‘the horrors’ could but pluck up energy enough to strip off all his clothes and gives his whole body a stinging rubdown with a flesh-brush till the skin becomes all red and aglow, he would be thoroughly cured of his depression, by this alone.

Is it 10 pm already?  Then it is time to go to sleep.

Ten o’clock at night ought to find a man in bed—for that will not afford him the time requisite for rest, if he rise betimes in the morning. The bedroom must not be small and close—that would go far toward spoiling all other observances and cares for health. It is important that the system should be clarified, through the inspiration and respiration, with a plentiful supply of good air, during the six, seven, or eight hours that are spent in sleep. During most of the year, the window must be kept partly open for this purpose.

Well, we quite a full day. Perhaps, we should do a bit of reading in bed to close out the day. We could read some poems.  But we also have another “new” Whitman book we might read. Zachary Turpin, a grad student at the University of Houston, is the person who rediscovered the columns on microfilm last year. He also discovered a long-lost novel of Whitman’s titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. It has one of those 19th century subtitles with a colon and a semi-colon. Wow.  “An Auto-Biography; A Story of New York at the Present Time in which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters”

Back in 1852, Walt Whitman was a sweet 33 years old and not doing very well as a housebuilder in Brooklyn. He was writing. He was working on a free-verse book-length poem that would be published as Leaves of Grass and clinch his place in American literature.

He was also working on a novel. It would be published under a pseudonym and it did get serialized in a newspaper. And then it was forgotten, until Turpin rediscovered it after some clues led him to the Library of Congress. It seems that the LoC had the only surviving copy of Jack Engle. has lain waiting for generations.

The novel was also published in the WW Quarterly Review. Here’s how chapter one opens.

Punctually at half past 12, the noon-day sun shining flat on the pavement of Wall street, a youth with the pious name of Nathaniel, clapt upon his closely cropt head, a straw hat, for which he had that very morning given the sum of twenty-five cents, and announced his intention of going to his dinner.

Attorney at Law”

stared into the room (it was a down-town law-office) from the door which was opened wide and fastened back, for coolness; and the real Covert, at that moment, looked up from his cloth-covered table, in an inner apartment, whose carpet, book-cases, musty smell, big chair, with leather cushions, and the panels of only one window out of three being opened, and they but partially so, announced it as the sanctum of the sovereign master there. That gentleman’s garb marked him as one of the sect of Friends, or Quakers. He was a tallish man, considerably round-shouldered, with a pale, square, closely shaven face; and one who possessed any expertness as a physiognomist, could not mistake a certain sanctimonious satanic look out of the eyes. From some suspicion that he didn’t appear well in that part of his countenance, Mr. Covert had a practice of casting down his visual organs. On this occasion, however, they lighted on his errand-boy.
“Yes, go to thy dinner; both can go,” said he, “for I want to be alone.”
And Wigglesworth, the clerk, a tobacco-scented old man—he smoked and chewed incessantly—left his high stool in the corner where he had been slowly copying some document.

Ah, nothing like a 19th century novel to lull you to sleep. And I really need a good 8 hours in order to wake up early, take another cold shower, eat some breakfast meat and start another manly day!

The future often looks dystopian to writers of fiction. Since the election, the future seems dystopian in the real world to some people. In dystopian literature, the world of the future is the opposite of utopian. Everything is terrible and unpleasant. Sometimes it is a totalitarian society. Sometimes the world has been destroyed by war or is environmentally degraded.

That doesn’t seem like a world you would want to read about, but we have been reading about these places for a long time. Wikipedia’s list of dystopian novels spans from Gulliver’s Travels, through The Time Machine, Brave New World, 1984, Player Piano, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale and Infinite Jest.

You can say that reading this literature is not something we do only out of pessimism, but we view them as cautionary tales. They are the Ghost of Christmas Future come to warn us of what might be if we continue on our current path.

These thoughts came to me as I read Children of the New World, a collection of stories by Alexander Weinstein. The stories use many of our current fears about technology gone mad. It exists not too far in the future but in a time when social media implants and memory manufacturing are possible. There are frighteningly immersive virtual reality games that aren’t so much games as they become reality. Robots are alarmingly intuitive. Many futures seem utopian at the beginning. These stories cover both ends. We have a utopian future of instant connection and gratification, at the cost of human distance, a price some of us are already willing to pay. There is also the world after the collapse landscape where we are once again primitive and rebuilding.

How about taking a vacation for $99? You can, by having a memory of a perfect vacation placed in your brain. It will be as real as any vacation you have actually take, but this one is perfect. (see false memories) The character who works for a company that creates and sells virtual memories in “The Cartographers” is so charmed by his creations that he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a real-world relationship, or separate the virtual from the real.

“In this haunting and prescient debut collection, Weinstein evokes a vaguely dystopian, domestic existence where virtual reality, cybernetics, and social media are second nature. Like today we are disconnected despite being connected. We feel the insidious reach of technology, corporate forces, and climate change tightening into a chokehold. Over 13 tales, he steeps us in a realm of alternate realities close to our own, but each with a thought-provoking twist.”   – The Boston Globe

Two of the stories that got me thinking were the title story and “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” What these stories share are children. In the latter story, the robot brother of an adopted Chinese girl malfunctions and needs to be taken away, and finally buried. But he has become a real brother and son. This theme was explored in the Steven Spielberg film AI from the point of view of the robot child, and in the recent TV series Humans.

In our desire to make robots and AI more human, we encounter the fear that they will gain sentience and become human – or close enough that we can’t tell the difference. In that story and in the film and television series, the families do not recognize the attachment they have to the robot until it is gone.

This speculative fiction of Alexander Weinstein is dark, sad and sometimes funny. It is not set that far into the future, and the technology is not so much sci-fi as it is extensions of what already exists. That makes it more frightening and perhaps more prescient.

In the story, “Children of the New World,” we find a couple who enter the Dark City and a virtual world. Here they can have everything they need, including things they never had in their real life, such as children. But a virtual world can be infected by viruses.

Mary took the children into our bedroom and I logged off to call online support. The man on the other end of the line spoke broken English, the line buzzing from an overseas connection. He tried a couple options with me, and finally said, “Sir, your account is corrupted. You will have to reset all files to the initial settings.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You must delete all data from your account—your preferences, photos and music. You will need to recreate your bodies again. I see you have children.”
“You will need to delete them.”

These 13 rather short stories are an easy and fast read. Hopefully, they leave a reader thinking. As with any great film, I want to talk to people after I watch or read something “thought-provoking.” I want human connections.

“Rocket Night” reminds me immediately of Shirley Jackson’s shocker “The Lottery.” The story is told by a parent in a calm, polite, logical way. It is about an event not unlike many held at elementary schools now, but for a twist that is revealed in the opening line.

“It was Rocket Night at our daughter’s elementary school, the night when parents, students, and the administration gather to place the least liked child in a rocket and shoot him into the stars. Last year we placed Laura Jackson into the capsule, a short, squat girl known for her limp dresses which hung crookedly on her body. The previous year we’d sent off a boy from India whose name none of us could remember.”

The more connected we are through technology, the less connected we really are to people and our world. Sherry Turkle’s non-fiction, Alone Together, made that point quite clearly right in its title and subtitle – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”

I see that online many readers compare Weinstein’s stories to the current series Black Mirror and to the past Twilight Zone. I can see those connections, but there are many comparisons that can be made.

This book took me back to the short stories of Ray Bradbury that I loved in my youth, and have reread with new meanings lately. In those stories I found a child visiting a museum that had the last remaining tree on Earth. I discovered many years ago a smart home in “There Will Come Soft Rains.”  And in the disturbing story “The Veldt,” I could imagine the two children playing in their  “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they could imagine, and the horror a child’s imagination might create.

Weinstein dedicates the book to his son, and parenting is something that runs through many of the stories. It is something that exists in all dystopian tales, because even if it is a future we personally will never see, we wonder about our children and their children. And we are worried.


Scout and Atticus are not who they seemed to be.

Back in May, I wrote about the controversy  before Go Set a Watchman, the “new” novel by Harper Lee, was released. Like many others, I was apprehensive about the reasons for publishing it and sad that it might tarnish the reputation of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Those fears were realized in July when the book came out. The book was written before To Kill a Mockingbird.  Some see it as a sequel to Mockingbird because Scout is an adult, but in a way it is a a prequel, or at least a very rough draft of Mockingbird.

This manuscript of cvrGo Set a Watchman was written in the mid-1950s and submitted and rejected by publishers. That seems fully justified. It is not well written and in desperate need of editing and revision.

What an editor did see of worth in it were the few passages about the much younger Jean Louise “Scout” and the her father, Atticus. The editor’s advice was to start over and write that story from the perspective of the innocent and naïve girl writing about a father she idolized.

We know Mockingbird for the trial of Tom Robinson, but a good part of the pleasure in the book are the stories about Scout, her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill and the adventures of their summers. All of that pleasure is gone from Watchman.

About five years after submitting the first manuscript,the rewrite in the form of To Kill a Mockingbird was published (1960).

As a publisher, I’m sure the Rupert Murdoch-owned house Harper Collins was very pleased with the book. Though the reviews were very harsh overall, it sold more than 1.1 million copies in a week’s time, making it the “fastest-selling book in company history.”  It went to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

I read it. As a teacher who taught Mockingbird for many times and loved it and loved the way students almost always took to it, I had to read it.

It was terrible.

Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post said the book was “not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good, or even a finished book… [T]he writing is laughably bad. … This should not have been published. It’s 280 pages in desperate need of an editor.”

It seemed that for many people who loved TKAM it was not Harper Lee’s reputation that took a pounding but the reputation of Atticus. Ironically, that is pretty much what the book is about. Scout realizes that the father she imagined with his high ideals and fairness was really a segregationist, a racist with many of the same out-of-date beliefs that she wanted to escape when she left the south and went to liberal New York City to live.

The calm, quiet Atticus we knew from the book (who is certainly embodied by the Gregory Peck film version that even more people know) is indeed someone viewed through young and naïve eyes.

If in the 1970s, Harper Lee had published a much revised and edited version of Watchman, I think it might have been a good thing. It actually makes sense that Scout would, after getting older and living in New York City, view her hometown, neighbors and father very differently. And the American reading public and country had also changed.

For me, it would have been better for readers and Harper Lee if the original manuscript had been burned. But maybe I am just being protective of the Atticus and Scout I first knew.

Two months after Harper’s lawyer/caregiver sister died, came the announcement of the new book. Harper Lee, 89, had a stroke 8 years ago and is blind and is in assisted living.

The book’s title – and this post’s title – are from the Bible (Isaiah 21:6) “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”  What I see should not have happened if Harper Lee had a watchman like her sister to protect her.

jane austen

What little I  know about game theory as it applies to economics mostly comes from having read the book and watched the film version of A Beautiful Mind.

I know a bit about Jane Austen because I had to read some of her books (like Pride and Prejudice) in my college literature classes. Don’t ask me any questions about the books though. It has been a long time since those assigned readings.

I vaguely recalled that P&P has a famous opening line (though I had to check that online) – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

When I read that novel, it was the mid-1970s in a class of mostly liberated women and the book felt very much like what would be called chick-lit today. I recall the novel being mostly about marriage and I definitely recall much of the class discussion was making fun of the mating rituals of the 19th-century Brits.

As with many novels I have read, the movie versions are clearer in my mind now having been seen more recently and the visuals being more vivid in memory. That means that in my head Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth and Elizabeth is Keira Knightley. And those two actors are not even in the same movie version!

I don’t feel too bad about it because when I mentioned this to a fellow English major, he said that he thought Jane Austen was “a character is some novel by one of those Brontes.”

austen cover

I did not read or watch Austen’s Emma,  Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, or Lady Susan. Apparently, either have most economists. Except for Michael Chwe, associate professor of political science at UCLA. His  research centers on game theory and its applications to social movements and literature.

I had listened to a Freakonomics podcast with economist Steve Levitt who admitted to being influenced by the movie Clueless (which you may not know is loosely based on Austen’s Emma). Levitt actually had a lot of trouble explaining game theory himself, so they turned to Chwe for help.

Professor Chwe believes that Austen’s novels are just full of strategic thinking, decision analysis and other things that would become the tools of game theorists many years later.

John Nash, the subject of A Beautiful Mind,  was one of those theorists at places like the “think tank” at the RAND Corporation after World War II.  I haven’t read Chwe’s book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist, but I cheated by listening to the Freakonomics episode “Jane Austen, Game Theorist.”

Maybe the real Austen fans (and there are a lot of them) wouldn’t agree with Chwe’s premise that there are “lots of little parables, or little asides, in the novels which don’t have anything really much to do with the plot or anything. You could just take them out and no one would care.”

But those fans might agree with his observations about the strategic thinking and manipulations involved in the plotting of Jane’s book dealing with the Bennet family. The Bennets have five unmarried daughters—from oldest to youngest, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia—and Mrs. Bennet is desperate to see them all married.

An example of that game theory manipulation is when Mrs. B. tells her daughter to go to a dinner by horseback rather than by carriage. The girls ask why and she says, “Well, it’s going to rain and if she goes on horseback it is very likely that they will invite her to stay the night, and hence she’ll get to spend more time.”

The plan works out because while paying a visit to Mr. Bingley’s sister, Caroline, Jane is caught in a heavy downpour, catches cold, and is forced to stay over for several days. Elizabeth arrives to nurse her sister and gets to be in the frequent company of Mr. Darcy, who opens up to her.

With Valentine’s Day upon us, perhaps Pride and Prejudice would be a good weekend watch or read as the love story of the courtship between Darcy and Elizabeth is considered by many to be a great one.

Game theory probably wasn’t on Austen’s radar, but her six novels written about 200  years ago might be a good pairing with John nash and others who theorized that jointly strategizing with a partner is the surest foundation for intimacy. You might want to keep that in mind this Valentine’s Day weekend too.

John Nash discovers how all that equilibrium theory works in trying to get a date – in a great scene from A Beautiful Mind (2001)

wikiwhaling1“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.”

I’m time traveling in my head and thinking about Herman Melville again.

I have imagined him at his interesting little writing desk. Today I am seeing this day 174 years ago as Melville, age 21, sets sail aboard the whaling vessel Acushnet from the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, bound for the Pacific Ocean.

He had no experience as a whaler, and not much experience at sea. He had sailed to and from Liverpool, England as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, but he loved it.

Whaling is now a rightfully despised business, but then it was still big business as whale oil from blubber was the most widely available fuel for artificial lights, powering household lamps, streetlights, and even lighthouses. It was also one of the most popular lubricants, used in factory machines, sewing machines, and clocks.

Melville’s seafaring career certainly provided him inspiration for a shelf of books, most being written before Moby-Dick and those earlier ones (fiction and non-fiction) being more successful in his lifetime than his masterwork.

By June 1841, the Acushnet‘s boatsteerer jumped ship and was replaced by Melville. They arrived in Nuka Hiva, Marquesas and he was quite dissatisfied with French imperialism there.  We don’t often think about economics in reading a book like Moby-Dick, but the economic recession caused tension on the Acushnet and on July 9th, 1842, Melville and shipmate Richard Greene (who is the character Toby in Typee) decided to desert the Acushnet. They were soon captured by cannibals (the Taipis) but escaped in August.

Melville quickly signed on to the Australian ship, Lucy Ann. Further adding good experiences for his firts books, Melville aligns himself with the rest of the mutinous crew. They mutiny fails and he spends a month jailed in Tahiti.  for mutiny

In November 1842, he sets sail for a 4-month voyage on the Nantucket whaler, Charles and Henry, and again became boatsteerer. The following February, he sails to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and finds the islands colonized by British. In Honolulu, Melville joins frigate USS United States as a seaman and then finally returns to Massachusetts on board the USS United States.

Melville learned the ins and outs of whaling during his years at sea. In his role, he was not directly involved (though he writes that he helped) with harpooning the whales, harvesting them, and the processing their oil aboard the ship.

One thing we know is that he heard many tales from his fellow whalers. The story that gets the most attention in Melville study is of a legendary white sperm whale called Mocha Dick.

Knickerbocker Magazine described the whale in 1939: as a”renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, … he was white as wool … Numerous boats are known to have been shattered by his immense flukes, or ground to pieces in the crush of his powerful jaws.”

Melville also met the son of Owen Chase, who had survived a whale attack on the Essex 21 years earlier, and he read Chase’s account which was source material for Moby-Dick.

There are many ways to read Moby-Dick, which is why I have been able to reread it more than a few times. It’s not my favorite novel, but it is a touchstone novel. Some readers get frustrated with the inter-chapters about whales and whaling. You could skip them and read the main story. It’s a different book, of course, but another experience. You could read just the inter-chapters.

In a review written by John McCurria, he reads the novel as a geopolitical representation of British imperialism through the practice of whaling. He writes, “Aboard the ship named after an exterminated Native American tribe [also a river and city in Massachusetts] are 30 men of African, European, Native American, Pacific Island and Asian descent, equal to the number of states in the federal union. All were enslaved under Ahab’s proclaimed quest for freedom registered in his mad obsession with whiteness”

This view of Ahab as a slaveholder to all of the men on board the vessel, and symbolic of Native American genocide, transatlantic slave labor, and cultural imperialism is pretty radical. I’m not convinced that Melville intended that as the main point of the book, but he was quite troubled by the imperialism he found on the islands he visited, and unhappy enough with shipboard politics to join a mutiny.

I had a much more Romantic view of setting sail when I read Melville in high school and college. I now take a much more Realistic, old-man view of the journeys.

I discovered this past week that I could buy Melville’s complete works with analysis and historical background for the Kindle of $1.99. I still prefer books on paper to a screen, but I don’t own all of Melville’s books any more, so I made the purchase. (By the way, you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books. I use my iPad with the Kindle app and you can use other devices or even your computer.)

I plan to spend some winter hours reading the books I didn’t attempt or couldn’t handle in my youth. For example, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, a novel, his seventh book, published in 1852. It is not about the sea but rather Gothic. It was his follow-up to Moby-Dick, which was not well received,  and probably an attempt to go in another direction. it is described as a psychological, sexual, tale about family tensions between Pierre, his widowed mother, his cousin Lucy and his fiancée Isabel who (spoiler alert)  is revealed to be his half-sister. Talk about setting sail in a new direction.

Sadly, Pierre was a critical and financial disaster. It was condemned for its morals and its style. After this, Melville the only novels he would are Israel Potter (unread by me) and the experimental novel, The Confidence-Man, which I was assigned to read in college and really enjoyed. I wonder how it would fare on a rereading.

Luckily, he did continue to write poetry and stories, including the wonderful “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” But the end of Melville’s life seems so sad to me.

His writing didn’t pay bills and didn’t get a good reception. In 1866,  Melville’s wife and her relatives used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York. That must have been humbling, but it was a adequately-paying appointment. He held that post for 19 years and won the reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution.

In 1867 his oldest son Malcolm shot himself, perhaps accidentally, and died at home. Melville suffered from alcoholism and depression. His wife managed to wean him off alcohol and his depression improved, but recurred after the death of his second son.

Melville devoted years to “his autumnal masterpiece” an 18,000-line epic poem (among the longest single poems in American literature) entitled “Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage” which was inspired by his 1856 trip to the Holy Land. Like Melville, he travels to Jerusalem to renew his faith. One of the central characters, Rolfe, is similar to Melville in his younger days, a seeker and adventurer. Scholars also agree that the reclusive Vine is based on Hawthorne, a friend and fellow writer who had died twelve years before. It was only published because his uncle left a bequest to pay for the publication. It is about a student’s spiritual pilgrimage and was obscure in his own time and still today. The initial printing was only 350 copies, but unsold copies were burned because Melville was unable to afford to buy them at cost. The critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of the poem in the New York Public Library in 1925 “with its pages uncut”—in other words, it had sat there unread for 50 years.

I have visited the Custom House in NYC where Melville worked and seen his grave in the Bronx, NY on my own Melville pilgrimages.

Like Billy Pilgrim, I have come to believe that there is no such thing as time. What has happened and what will happen is part of an all-encompassing present. I can “time travel” (the simplest term for it) but not actually travel from one time to another. It is a matter of being aware at different points in the continuing motion of it. My awareness moves, especially to different points in my lifetime, as it is continuously happening. Quite Tralfamadorian.

So it goes.

“Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Me thinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.” Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

“I try all things, I achieve what I can.”  Moby-Dick; or, The Whale


New York Times obituary notice, 29 September 1891, which misspelled Melville’s then-unpopular masterpiece as Mobie Dick.

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