Melville gives his narrator a terrifying backstory: he has watched his ship sink with all hands. He has floated on a piece of wreckage (a coffin) for two days with no water. Only by lucky chance is he rescued by the crew of another whaler, The Rachel. Imagine hauling such a survivor on deck. You’d immediately think to ask this unfortunate and lucky man two questions: "Who are you?" and "What happened?" The narrator of this book has internalized those questions. Neither is easy to answer: Moby-Dick is the effort to try.
So Moby-Dick tells two stories: one a story of action, the second a drama of telling. The lone survivor of the Pequod has no one to turn to for corroboration. What he did not personally see, he will have to surmise and invent. He will need to turn to every resource of language, every technique of story-telling. And he will need to summon the courage to confront issues that, at the book’s start, he does not fully grasp. His story feels to him as elusive as one whale in all the sea.
The action story is one thing, the problem of how to fully tell it another – these two concerns jostle each other almost to the end.
Herman Melville lives in 19th century American New England. Whale oil
lights its lanterns. If you're male and your family struggles
economically, whaling secures you room and board as well as the
possibility of monetary return. Melville had already worked four months
as a sailor on the St. Lawrence, a merchant and passenger ship that
took him from New York to Liverpool and back. He knew the nautical
ropes. Poor and with no other prospects, in he left New Bedford harbor
as a crewmember on the whaler Acushnet. He left in January, 1841, and
would not return until the fall of 1844.
By the time Melville starts Moby-Dick,
early in 1850, he has already written five works, all of them drawing
on shipboard experiences. He has seen merchant ship life, whaling life,
a good bit of England and Western Europe, the South Seas, the Hawaiian
Islands, and ports along the South American coast. Cruelty,
astonishment, confusion, violence, terror, the isolation of a becalmed
ship at sea – all his experience he tries to process in the
God-drenched, deeply ethical, profoundly ambitious Transcendentalist
climate of pre-Civil War New England. Thoreau has gone into the woods
in order to "front only the essential facts of life." Hawthorne has
written The Scarlet Letter; he and Melville correspond. In
Amherst, Emily Dickinson has started writing poems; in four years, Walt
Whitman will publish his first Leaves of Grass. Something stirs
in the New England air. Emerson says “Nature always wears the color of
the spirit.” Language seems made for the largest themes.
Does anyone these days read Moby-Dick outside the context of a college classroom? I don’t know. But if you’re thinking you might want to try, here’s the first of a series of notes that might help you get going – even if this first one does start as on a cautionary note.
Moby-Dickis a big book. Big books can scare us. Perhaps we're right to be a bit afraid of this one. Though this is only reading, you will be gone several months. Prepare to say goodbye to familiar landscapes, family, and friends – to all landmarks (there being none at sea).
You’ll sail from New England to the western Pacific. If you’re in a hurry, think patience – it will take 20 chapters before you even arrive at “Going Aboard.” If you don’t want the company of a troubled narrator, don’t start, for this one can’t speak until he invents that speaking voice. Likely he’s been silent about his story for a long time. After all, it’s not a story you’d want to negotiate in casual conversation: “Hello, I’m a lone survivor.” (In fact, he’s a narrator who we’d describe today as suffering from Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder.)
Will your reading be worth the trouble? Many have thought so. It’s your call. You can keep reading these entries awhile yet before you decide.
Making a new book of poems offers the same challenges as making a new poem -- only now they're multiplied. As with any single poem that's new (as with all new art), nobody can tell you about the final version -- it doesn't exist yet. You can't turn to an expert, because nobody's an expert on what you haven't yet made.
A book manuscript takes these individual poem challenges and extends them to a table of contents. Yes, eventually you can make some arrangement reflecting some sort of internal criteria as to what's worth including and what's not. And however tentative those judgments, you can then send this prototype to various readers whom you trust (presuming you're lucky enough to have such readers). Presuming they are willing and generous, you then become the happy recipient of a new set of challenges, namely trying to figure out how to hear and make use of those comments.
Sooner or later you must do what any artist making new art must do: you have to figure out what you're up to, satisfy as best you can your own internal criteria, and then take responsibility for the result.
So maybe this is how it works: you immerse yourself in
what you have, you carry it all around in your head, adding and subtracting, rearranging, rethinking. You scatter it all on a
big floor, and while time goes awry you experiment with various
orderings. Then you carry that around in your head. Then you do this again. Distractions intervene, you lose ground, regroup. Slowly the alignments announce themselves and get confirmed.
Repeating all of this to oneself helps a little. Repeating all of this to oneself can offer the illusion of comfort.