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.

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.

In The Heart Of The Sea


As a fan of Moby Dick, I read Nathaniel Philbrick‘s books, Why Read Moby-Dick? and In the Heart of the Sea. with great interest.

There are many reasons that I have read and reread Moby Dick, but Philbrick gave me a few more. There are also a number of reasons I would not recommend Melville’s masterpiece to all readers. I especially would not require a high school student to read it for class, for example.

But In the Heart of the Sea, which is subtitled “The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” is the true story which served as one of the events which inspired Melville to write Moby Dick.  The whaleship Essex sank after being attacked by a sperm whale in 1820, which gave Melville the ending for his novel.

Philbrick’s book is about that event, and also what became of the survivors. Melville wrote a pretty dark tale in parts of his novel and the tale of the Essex has darker themes too. Think survival and cannibalism.

You’ll hear about the story at the end of this year as it is being made into a film directed by Ron Howard. Based on Philbrick’s award-winning 2000 book, it stars Chris Hemsworth stars as first-mate Owen Chase.

Chase was one of the survivors of the encounter with the “demon” sea monster, an 80 foot sperm whale, which  if leaves the survivors for 90 days at sea.

I like Ron Howard as a director. Lots of variety and genres, from Night Shift back in 1982 through Rush, Angels & Demons, Frost/Nixon,The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Apollo 13, Backdraft, Parenthood, Gung Ho, Cocoon and Splash. I grew up with him acting on The Andy Griffith Show and saw him take his role in George Lucas’ great American Graffiti and very successfully move back to television in Happy Days.

I think he will do the story justice and I am looking forward to the film. Maybe some people will read the Philbrick book and work their way back to Moby Dick too.



Setting Sail and Returning Home

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.

Rereading Moby Dick

the whale

When I read Moby-Dick for the first time, it was the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. It wasn’t required reading. I had read Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”  for tenth grade English and liked it, so I decided to find his other stories in the library.

I liked Bartleby because it was so odd. Bartleby is a kind of clerk, a copyist, “who obstinately refuses to go on doing the sort of writing demanded of him.”  It seems that in the spring of 1851, Melville felt the same way about his own work on Moby-Dick.

Maybe Melville’s writing frustrations came out in this story of a writer “who forsakes conventional modes because of an irresistible preoccupation with the most baffling philosophical questions.” (source)

Herman Melville, 1860

The novel I picked up next was  The Confidence-Man.  Honestly, I chose that novel because it was shorter than the other books. It is subtitled “His Masquerade” and it was the last major novel written by Herman Melville. It was published on April 1, 1857, presumably the exact day of the novel’s setting.

It is about a bunch of steamboat passengers who individual stories connect in that Canterbury Tales-style that is actually pretty popular today in novels, films and TV programs. They move their way down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans.

The con man of the book’s title sneaks aboard on April Fool’s Day and tests the confidence and trust of the passengers. It’s an odd book, but I enjoyed it. I recall it as actually being funny in parts.

After this novel, Melville stopped writing novels. He became a professional lecturer, mostly speaking about the sea travels of his younger life and books. Then he worked as a federal government employee in New York City. He continued to write poetry, but published no major prose work again.

coverAh, but Moby Dick

By the time he was writing it, he had already written books that had sold well. They were books that took people away from their lives to oceans and islands far away that they would never be able to visit in any other way.

But Moby-Dick wasn’t a critical or a commercial success.

Melville wrote a number of books after it, but would die a virtually unknown writer.

Now,  Moby-Dick is famous. There are jokes and allusions to it all over our culture. Non-readers have encountered the story somewhere, even if it was only a film or comic book version.

The resurgence happened after World War I. The “Melville Revival” in the early 20th century centered on Moby-Dick, which was hailed as one of the literary masterpieces of both American and world literature.

He was the first writer to have his works collected and published by the Library of America.  It was rediscovered by ex-pats in Paris and others who saw it as an explanation of what was happening in America (and the world?)  especially as it related to issues like authority and nature.

Do a search on Amazon.com for “Moby Dick” and it  gives you 4000 results. A Google search on “Moby Dick” results in more than 26,000 hits.

It was his first three books that brought Melville to the public’s attention. The first, Typee, was a bestseller. But his popularity declined precipitously in the mid-1850s and never recovered during his lifetime. When he died in 1891, he was almost completely forgotten.

I have always felt sad for Melville that he died in obscurity and didn’t witness Moby-Dick resurfacing in the 20th century as one of the great American novels. Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891)  is still best known for Moby-Dick and the posthumous novella Billy Budd.

I will admit that when I reread Moby-Dick, I skip around. I have read it and skipped the whale anatomy “inter-chapters” and it still works for me. But I read them before and they are still, at least partially, in my head, and one time I read only those whale chapters.

A few months ago, I heard a radio interview with Nathaniel Philbrick who lists it as his favorite book. He has written a book called Why Read Moby-Dick?   He says he refers back to it almost daily and finds it “full of great wisdom.”  He sees the whale inter-chapters as “wormholes of metaphysical poetry that are truly revelatory.”

Look at Philbrick’s other books and his life and you understand why.  After grad school, Philbrick worked for four years at Sailing World magazine; wrote/edited several sailing books; moved to Nantucket in 1986; wrote a history of the island and wrote  In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the Essex which, in 1819, left Nantucket for the South Pacific with twenty crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale.

Sound familiar?

The crew drifted for more than ninety days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, disease, and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival. (Philbrick has also written a version of the story for younger readers called Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex.

Ahab in Huston’s film version played by Gregory Peck

Philbrick admits that Moby-Dick a difficult book to read.  I agree with him that it is not a book for students in high school and maybe not even for college. It should be read after you’ve had some “life experience.”  This may also be the case with Shakespeare, who Melville admired and certainly tried to imitate or outdo in some sections of the novel.

On the NPR radio program I heard, Philbrick said that the novel is  “as close to being our American Bible as we have.”

I also find many of the passages poetic.

from Chapter 51 “The Spirit Spout”

While gliding through these latter waves in that one serene and moonlit night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver and by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude. On such a silent night, a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea.

As a kid, I saw the movie, with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, first.  Later, I read the classic comic book version.  I came to the novel itself when I was fifteen.


The crew of the Pequod is mostly whites, but blacks, Indians, Filipinos, and a South Sea Islander are all there under the command of a monomaniacal, revenge-seeking captain.

Philbrick says that the book is also an allegory of mid-19th century America. After all, Melville was writing around 1850 (it was published in 1851) and the madness of the Civil War was sitting in front of him.  The fugitive slave law had just been passed and Melville’s father-in-law was the judge who upheld it. That law said that people in free states were complicit in slavery and had to return slaves to their owners.  Slavery was everybody’s business.

When do I take a copy of the novel off the shelf to reread?

It tends to be in winter. It has something to do with cabin fever – even though I haven’t gotten around to building my cabin yet.

My motivation for rereading it is not so different from the motivation of the novel’s narrator, Ishmael.

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.
(via Project Gutenberg)

Sometimes I can fight off that “November in my soul” with a trip to the Atlantic Ocean which is not too far away from Paradelle. But the wintery ocean and beaches (which can be Romantic and wonderful) don’t always do it for me.

So, I return to the novel for a few days.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s 16th annual Moby-Dick Marathon was last weekend and they celebrated the 160th anniversary of Melville’s masterpiece with a 25-hour nonstop reading of the book during a weekend of activities and events. There was a livestream of the reading and I dropped in and out and let some of the readers read aloud sections of the book for me. So, the rereading for 2012 begins…

Still Afraid To Go In The Water

Get out of the water!

It has been 36 years since the summer I read a novel by Peter Benchley that tells the  story of a great white shark that preys upon a tourist resort, and the voyage of three men who go out to to kill it.

Benchley was inspired by several real-life incidents. One was the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 (more on that tomorrow – also see Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence). Another was a 1964 news story he read about a fisherman who caught a great white shark weighing 4,550 pounds (2,060 kg) off the beaches of Long Island.

Benchley’s publisher, Doubleday, actually commissioned him to write the novel because they knew he had some background and they saw the potential for a good beach read.

The summer of 1975 saw the release of the film adaptation directed by newcomer Steven Spielberg and people are still afraid to go in the water.

I loved Benchley’s  novel Jaws and the Spielberg film Jaws.  I love the ocean and did some surfing in my youth, but I will freely admit to being a lousy swimmer and someone who has always had some fear of that deep ocean water.

The novel had echoes of Moby Dick for me.  Ishmael is in the grad student who knows sharks but in a naive textbook way. (“This was no boating accident!”  “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”) And Robert Shaw is the old Ahab who knows firsthand about sharks and captains the boat.

Roy Scheider plays police chief Martin Brody, Richard Dreyfuss is marine biologist Matt Hooper, and Robert Shaw as shark hunter Quint are all great.

You really need to be more attentive when chumming for great whites...

The movie is important if the film world both for its film aspect and the business aspects of its release.  Most insiders consider it to be the father of the summer blockbuster film and one of the first “high concept” films.

It did so well in advance screenings, that the studio decided to give it a much wider release than was ever done before.  The Omen for the summer of 1976 and Star Wars 1977 clinched the deal that summer was the time for big-release action and adventure pictures (AKA tentpole pictures).

The film is #48 on American Film Institute’s 100 Years/100 Movies list of the greatest American films of all time. (I won’t discuss the three sequels that Spielberg and Benchley stayed away from – and you should too.)

So, Jaws opened nationwide on hundreds of screens simultaneously and a blitz of advertising. (25 thirty-second ads per night on prime-time network TV in the June 1975 pre-release). And it was a box office smash hit.

It also spawned a lot of news coverage about any shark spottings near beaches. Any fin seen was a “near attack.”  It changed how all of us think about sharks – probably for the worse in many cases.

Benchley later felt responsible for the negative attitudes against sharks that followed the book and film (more blame goes to the film) and he became an ardent ocean conservationist.

In an article for the National Geographic published in 2000, Benchley writes

“considering the knowledge accumulated about sharks in the last 25 years, I couldn’t possibly write Jaws today … not in good conscience anyway. Back then, it was generally accepted that great whites were anthrophagous (they ate people) by choice. Now we know that almost every attack on a human is an accident: The shark mistakes the human for its normal prey.”

Now, don’t you feel better? Go ahead in the water…

Into Deeper Waters

Watch a good film appreciation of Jaws with clips done by A. O. Scott of the NY Times

The Book That Spawned A Monster – about the book’s impact 30 years later on sharks

Moby Dick and the whale that started it all and a dark November in my soul