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 One of the characters is secretly purchasing the original manuscript of “Isle of the Cross” which is thought to be an unpublished and lost work by Melville.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

Moby-Dick

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

Melville

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.

audiobook


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

Drawn Towards Water

waterfalls

I have always been drawn to water. I’m not alone in feeling this pull.

Perhaps there is something to that lunar pull that moves the tides.  The “lunar effect” is usually defined as a real or imaginary correlation between specific stages of the roughly 29.5-day lunar cycle and behavior and physiological changes in living beings on Earth, including humans. Examples of this belief have been found in ancient Assyrian/Babylonian writing.

There have been plenty of studies to consider any effects on humans. Some studies have found no correlation between the lunar cycle and human biology or on our behavior. One that I found seemed to indicate that there seems to be an effect on humans based on the amount of moonlight rather than tidal pull. An ancient belief that survived into modern times was that the monthly cycle of menstruation in women was lunar based, ut that is now considered a coincidence in timing without lunar influence.

I don’t feel any monthly pull to water, but like Ishmael in the opening of Moby-Dick, I do find myself drawn to the ocean several times a year.

“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. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Maybe Ishmael was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As someone who grew up with time at the Jersey Shore every summer of my life, I find that “high time to get to sea” more of a spring event than a November one.

My most regular pull to water is to local waters. There are brooks and creeks in the woods where I frequently walk that I am always drawn to visit.  There is something in the tumbling water that I find very appealing.

That is magnified when I visit waterfalls nearby, from the small Hemlock Falls that was childhood destination to the Great Falls of the Passaic River. (Take a look at the Great Falls.)

There is science to this attraction. The dispersion of water from waterfalls, waves, or even lightning and water evaporation from plants, create hydrogen ions by splitting water molecules. The negative electrons join up with other free positive electrons in the air neutralizing their electrical charge. That is why people buy air ionizers (negative ion generator) which uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules and generate negative ions. Negative, in this case, is a good thing. A trendy, new-age version is the Himalayan salt lamps that are sold.

Naturally-occurring negative ions are said to have health benefits including enhancing the immune system, increasing alertness, productivity, and concentration. There are claims that you can get relief from sinus, migraine headaches, allergies, and asthma attacks.  Some tests have shown that negative ions can stabilize alpha rhythms in the human brain. (Alpha waves usually occur when we are awake and relaxed.)

I would consider water therapy as effective as “forest bathing” and other get-into-nature therapies.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” is a common English proverb.  It’s an old one, going back to 1175 in Old English Homilies: “Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken” which is translated as “who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?”

You can lead people into nature or to the water, but they may not drink in its benefits. You have to be drawn towards it on your own.

As a child, Cub and Boy Scout and independent hiker and walker of the woods, I discovered early on that I was attracted, like other animals, to water. Animal paths made by deer and other creatures inevitably lead to a water source. Another quote from Moby-Dick, talks about this attraction to water and not only the sea.

“Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries–stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.” 

As I wander in the woods, naturally-made paths do lead downhill because they were first worn by rainwater and then by animals making their way to a pool, pond or stream.

We are drawn to water. And that is a good thing.

 

Walking in New York with Herman Melville

While in New York City last weekend and staying near The Battery end of Manhattan, I went out for my walk and decided to follow some of the path that Herman Melville would have traveled in his days there.

With an online walking tour as a guide, I set out. The place I wanted to really see was the Custom House where he worked as a customs inspector. I like to imagine him sneaking in some literary time between working on boring forms about tariffs.

Even with a guide, it can be confusing as there are several “Customs Houses” in the city.  One is the Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street that had been the U.S. capital until 1790 when that honor moved to Philadelphia and the building went back to housing the government of New York City. The building was razed with the opening of the current New York City Hall in 1812. You can see part of the original railing and balcony floor where Washington was inaugurated in the memorial there. The current classical building was built as the first purpose-built U.S. Custom House for the Port of New York and opened in 1842. A nice place to visit, but no connection to Melville.

In 1862, Customs moved to 55 Wall Street which is where Melville spent his time.  Now known as The First National City Bank Building, it rests upon the foundation and lower portion of The Merchants’ Exchange, built in 1842.

Melville’s wife’s family used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York in 1866. This was a humble position, but with a decent salary. He held the post for 19 years. He had a reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution.

Though he never knew it, his position and income “were protected throughout the periodic turmoil of political reappointments by a customs official who never spoke to Melville but admired his writings: future US president Chester A. Arthur” (Olsen-Smith).

The basement vaults below Melville held millions of dollars of gold and silver as this was one of six United States Sub-Treasury locations at that time. .

The Merchants’ Exchange replaced the previous exchange which burned down in the Great Fire of New York in 1835

“…it’s worth pointing out that [Herman Melville] worked in [the New York Custom House] as a deputy customs inspector between 1866 and 1885. Nineteen years, and he never got a raise – four dollars a day, six days a week. He was by then a washed-up writer, forgotten and poor. I used to find this subject heartbreaking, a waste: the greatest living American author was forced to spend his days writing tariff reports instead of novels. But now, knowing what I know about the sleaze of the New York Custom House, and the honorable if bitter decency with which Melville did his job, I have come to regard literature’s loss as the republic’s gain. Great writers are a dime a dozen in New York. But an honest customs inspector in the Gilded Age? Unheard of.”
― Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation

Just prior to his Custom House days, his writing career was not very successful. His greatest sales had come from his earliest books of adventure and travel. His first book was Typee (1846), a highly romanticized account of his life among Polynesians. That best-seller allowed him to write a “sequel” Omoo (1847). These books gave him enough money to marry Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of a prominent Boston family,

Next, he got to write a novel not based on his own travel experiences. That novel was Mardi (1849), also a sea narrative but a very philosophical one. It didn’t sell at all. It wasn’t what readers expected (or wanted) from Melville. He went back to something closer to the earlier books with Redburn (1849). This story about life on a merchant ship was better received by reviewers. So was the next book about the hard life aboard a man-of-war, White-Jacket (1850). But the books did not bring enough money to sustain the family.

In the summer of 1850, Melville moved his growing family to Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There he befriended fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. Melville started the novel in New York in 1850, but finished it in Pittsfield the following summer. But this great American novel was a commercial failure, and the reviews were mixed.

Just to give a sense of those literary times, along with Moby Dick was the publication of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and in 1855 Thoreau’s Walden and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Melville was no longer a popular or well-known author and Pierre (1852) was at least partially a satire on the literary culture of the time – and not a best-seller. Either was his Revolutionary War novel Israel Potter (1855) which was first serialized in Putnam’s magazine but not well received by critics or readers as a book.

Melville published some excellent short fiction in magazines during this slow period: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), “The Encantadas” (1854), and “Benito Cereno” (1855) which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales.

He wasn’t totally broke and in 1857 he traveled to England and did some lecture tours to earn money. He was reunited briefly with Hawthorne in England. He was also able to tour the Near East.

The last prose he would publish was the quite different and interesting novel, The Confidence-Man (1857).

“Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his.
The Confidence Man

With money running out, they left the farm and returned to New York so he could take a position as Customs Inspector. They moved to Allan Melville’s house at 104 East 26th Street, for which they traded their Pittsfield farm.

Melville turned to poetry. That first year at the Customs House he published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War which contains his poems on moral questions about the American Civil War.

Probably he had given up on the novels due to the poor sales and reviews. Publishers probably weren’t interested either. But I think the trips abroad had an influence on his thinking and I can see him sneaking in some poetry at lunch and breaks from Customs House work at his desk as he walked and maybe stopped coffee houses around Wall Street.

“… the New York guidebooks are now vaunting of the magnitude of a town, whose future inhabitants, multitudinous as the pebbles on the beach, and girdled in with high walls and towers, flanking endless avenues of opulence and taste, will regard all our Broadways and Bowerys as but the paltry nucleus to their Nineveh. From far up the Hudson, beyond Harlem River where the young saplings are now growing, that will overarch their lordly mansions with broad boughs, centuries old; they may send forth explorers to penetrate into the then obscure and smoky alleys of the Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street; and going still farther south, may exhume the present Doric Custom-house, and quote it as a proof that their high and mighty metropolis enjoyed a Hellenic antiquity.”
― Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage

I made a stop at 54 Pearl Street, which would have been Fraunces Tavern in Melville’s time. It’s not here anymore, so I had to imagine him at what was described as “a slightly rundown tavern and meeting place.” At numbers 58 and 62, you get a glimpse of what he would describe as “grimlooking warehouses.”

Along Pearl Street was Coenties Slip, a man-made inlet, now filled in and making up parts of Water, Front and South Street. Melville knew the area as a boy, and wrote in Redburn:  “…somewhere near ranges of grim-looking warehouses, with rusty iron doors and shutters, and tiled roofs; and old anchors and chain-cables piled on the walk. Old-fashioned coffee-houses, also, much abound in that neighborhood, with sun-burnt sea-captains going in and out, smoking cigars, and talking about Havana, London, and Calcutta.”

This could not have been a happy time for Melville and his family. In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot, which may have been an accident or may have been suicide.

He publishes Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land in 1876, a long and difficult metaphysical piece. In 1886, his son Stanwix died. That year Melville would retire.

Melville
Last known portrait of Herman Melville, 1885

Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891, but he had continued to write in his retirement years. Two more volumes of poetry were privately published and one was left unpublished. He was working on another sea novel but the unfinished Billy Budd was not published until 1924.

The 1919 centennial of his birth seems to have started a “Melville Revival”and critics and scholars explored his life, novels, stories and poetry. Certainly, Moby Dick makes every list of the great American works of fiction.

On my walk, I visited (as we know Melville did) Trinity Church to climb up into the belfry. I’m not sure how religious Melville was, but I know that we seem to share similar spiritual concerns, so  a prayer for him seemed appropriate.

I walked by what would have been the Post Office a block away from the church on Nassau Street between Liberty and Cedar Streets. It was demolished in 1882.  I thought about Melville possibly mailing off his writing to publishers there in the hopes of reviving his career.

If he got to go out for lunch during a work day, he would have seen clerks heading up and down the this busy street. Maybe he dropped in on his brother, Allan, whose law office was at No. 10 on the second floor. It certainly figures into his wonderful short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” with “the numerous stalls nigh the Custom House and Post Office.”

This section from Nassau to Broadway is sometimes called “Bartleby’s Wall Street.” I found no one selling ginger cakes or any apple sellers that would allow me “to moisten [their] mouths very often with Spitzenbergs.”

If Herman’s daily work was boring, being a scrivener like Allan, (they were the all-male secretarial pool of that day) and copying legal documents in “quadruplicates of a week’s testimony” sounds even more boring.

I didn’t get to the intersection of Park Avenue south and 26th Street which was dedicated in 1985 as  Herman Melville Square. This is where Melville lived from 1863 to 1891.

A giant species of sperm whale was named in honor of Melville. Livyatan melvillei was discovered by paleontologists who were fans of Moby-Dick. I suppose it is a kind of sad irony that this species is extinct.

A Damp November in My Soul

It has been hot and dry for the past month, but I am still feeling a damp November in my soul. Like any despondent Ishmael with nothing particular to interest me on shore, I am sitting here looking at a pond, paging through this book again, and wishing I could be in a watery part of the world.

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.

Last night, looking up at the night sky, I saw indefiniteness, voids, and the immensities of the universe. The white depths of the Milky Way made me think of the albino whale. “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

ahabOn the way here this morning, I passed a Starbucks store which only made me think about Starbuck watching the old man at the edge of the ship heavily leaned over the side. “He seemed to hear in his own true heart the measureless sobbing that stole out of the centre of the serenity around. Careful not to touch him, or be noticed by him, he yet drew near to him, and stood there.”

Staring over the railing of the bridge at this pond, I see “that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without…”

There is a storm brewing to the south that may move this way over the Labor Day weekend. I don’t want to be knocking people’s hats off. I fear the pistol and ball and falling on my sword. Maybe rain will wash away some of the dust, and the leaves and grass will green again and slip into a better September of the soul.