Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Starting Moby-Dick #3 & #4


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. 

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