Summer with Herman Melville

The author, when he lived in Pittsfield.  Photo: Berkshire Historical Society

The author, when he lived in Pittsfield. Photo: Berkshire Historical Society

Melville in New Bedford

Chasing Herman Melville has not been as hard as chasing the white whale.  Trying to get to know him, in his environment, may be as elusive.

He does seem to crop up everywhere.  I heard this week that he made an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show.  Colbert pondered:  “Is Moby Dick a metaphor for the struggle of trying to read Moby Dick?”

So, I wonder if Moby Dick is a metaphor my obsession with trying to understand Melville and his times.  This past week, I caught a sighting of Melville in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  A plaque with his name on it marked the pew where he must have sat at the Seaman’s Bethel, a small church which sea-going men attended before departure.  Melville, at the age of 22, was there before he signed on as a lowly crew member on the Acushnet, a whaling vessel which left Fairhaven, across the bay from New Bedford in 1841.

Melville reappeared in the Whaling Museum across the street, in multiple references to Moby Dick and the business of whaling.  There was an artistic rendition of – spoiler alert – Queequeg’s coffin installed in the atrium of the museum.  The coffin upon which Ishmael saved himself when the boat was wrecked.  The whaling business, the seaman’s operations, the physiognomy of the whale, the different kinds of whales, the geographic locations of whales  — all of which Melville tackled in Moby Dick and which contribute to the density of the language and the book’s overall genius – are explained in the museum as well.

The scope of the business and New Bedford’s importance to it comes alive walking around the museum.  Which fact was most important?  That the New Bedford fleet climbed from 15 ships in 1815 to 329 ships in 1857, employing over ten thousand people?  That a whaling ship could be at sea 4 years, and bring in 40 whales during that time?  That slabs of blubber weighed hundreds of pounds and were cut by men balancing on the dead whale floating in the water next to the ship, with sharks snatching away pieces of the whale and waiting for a false slip by the crew member slicing up the whale?  That a ship could pull into port after 4 years with 80,000 gallons of oil, to light homes and businesses and lubricate machinery?

The museum also bears testimony to another feature of Melville’s writing – the internationalization of the crew.  Melville’s characters are Polynesian, African and African-American; Portuguese and Spanish; 14-year olds and crusty old businessmen.  The museum has extensive space dedicated to the Azorian Portuguese and to Native Americans from Hawaii and Alaska in this business of whaling.

For writing so much about whaling, about being at sea, Melville actually was in New Bedford a fairly short time, and at sea on whaling ships for a brief, but intense period at the impressionable age of early adulthood.  He could certainly write from experience of climbing the rigging in a storm, or of cutting open the whale for both whale oil and spermaceti. Melville makes clear the hierarchy on board ships, and how first time sailors were exploited financially.  He makes clear that few of us in this day would stand up to the dangers of the work, the deprivations, the physical exertions and skills which he could not have avoided in his brief career at sea.

New Bedford is not a town re-created like Williamsburg, though there is a sense of time travel with the cobblestone streets in the historic section of town.  Being there fills in and reminds what we read in great detail in Melville’s sea adventures.  Still, we’re no closer to the genius of Melville, how he goes from a young man in search of adventure and a little cash to a writer and student of humankind and our place on this earth.  Is Moby Dick a metaphor for the struggle of not just reading Moby Dick, but the struggle in each of our lives?

August 14

When Herman Met Nathaniel

Not exactly Harry and Sally, but a milestone in American literary history.  And, it might make an even more compelling film; not a comedy, but quite possibly a romance.

August 5, 1850.  In the Berkshires, on his summer retreat, Herman Melville accepted the invitation from a New York lawyer by the name of David Dudley Field to join a group of writers for a hike up Monument Mountain.   Melville was just 31 and had 4 popularly acclaimed books published, each recounting different adventures at sea, in the Polynesian Islands, in the North Atlantic, on a naval vessel.   He had a draft of a fifth book with him, about a whale.

Field had invited another recent arrival in the Berkshires, Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Fifteen years older than Melville, Hawthorne had moved to a cottage in Lenox, to escape the fallout in his hometown of his new book, The Scarlet Letter.   As happens on hikes like this, people who don’t know each other end up talking with the hikers on either side of them.   Hikers re-group after breaks and find themselves next to different people, and strike up a new conversation, perhaps even a new friendship.

This is what we did when a group of 25 of us walked in the footsteps up Monument Mountain on the anniversary of the hike, and as part of an annual commemoration of Melville’s August 1 birthplace organized each year by the Berkshire Historical Society.  It is also, undoubtedly, how Herman met Nathaniel.

Various accounts of the hike corroborate that Melville captured everyone’s attention.   In a state of high exuberance, Melville ran to the edge of the cliffs in the middle of a storm, demonstrating with flinging arms how he would handle at sea the fierce winds atop the rigging of the masts.   The one word which repeatedly comes up in describing Hawthorne is reticent, so Melville’s antics must have registered.  Given the fast friendship which developed, they did not have the reverse effect of alienating Hawthorne.  He must have seen an intellect and a sense for drama which attracted him.

The speed with which a friendship developed was reflected in Melville’s spontaneous decision to move to the area.  By September he bought the house he called Arrowhead, which offered him inspiring views that reminded him of being at sea, and an inspiring proximity to Hawthorne.   Over the next few months, the two would spend much time together, huddled in deep, extended conversations about writing, about philosophy and life’s meaning, and what comes after life.

The discussions changed Melville’s approach to his book on the whale, which he re-wrote in his first year at Arrowhead.  Melville said he decided to write the way he wanted, instead of what he knew his audience and his editors wanted.  Hawthorne brought out the darkness, the conflict, the narrative of what would become perhaps most well-known (but not well or easily read) conflict in American literature, between Captain Ahab and Moby Dick.  Hawthorne’s influence on Moby Dick is acknowledged in Melville’s dedicating the epic novel to him.

The language of the letters Melville and Hawthorne exchanged has left some to conclude that this might have been more than just two writers discussing their work.  Melville expresses his attachment to his mentor in words of love, and probably not just by our current century’s sensibilities:

“your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s. . . . Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips—lo, they are yours and not mine.”

Our guide on the day of the hike this year noted that he had often thought of writing a screenplay about the meeting and the subsequent relationship, but added “that it might have to be X-rated.”

Our hike on August 3, 2013 inevitably was not a strict re-enactment.  We arrived in automobiles at the foot of Monument Mountain, and while we also carried champagne to the summit and read the poem by William Cullen Bryant about the monument to the Indian maiden who leapt from the mountain, we had a clear day to see across to New York and possibly past Mt. Greylock to Vermont.

Our companions whom we got to know included several Melville scholars and members of the 600-person strong Melville Society, but also historians and writers and even a young man about to leave to start his career as a Hollywood stunt artist.  We didn’t think of asking him to go out on a ledge and who how to haul in a sail in the middle of a storm.

August 8

This week I passed a milestone with Herman.  I re-read Moby Dick.   Well, maybe reading is not the right word.  I finished listening to the book on tape.

I have taken to listening to books on tape, on long drives.  The thought of tackling the text itself was haunted by the struggle I had reading it the first time, in Africa, waiting for my Peace Corps teaching assignment to start.  The long sections on cetology and whaling vessels or “whiteness” were the ones which remained etched in my memory as unbearable, excruciating, even unnecessary.  A paragraph was an accomplishment.

I am not sure if it was the tape or the additional years of literary and global experience, but this time through the book, and those chapters in particular were more manageable.  More than that, they were downright impressive, especially in trying to figure out how did Melville source the information he used.   No Google, nor Wikipedia.  I suspect he had access from a very early age to whatever passed for encyclopedias in those days and he even named a few books that Ishmael must have consulted.  Ultimately, the book becomes almost a primary source for understanding the whaling business on the 1800s, the routes and whale grounds from the Massachusetts coast to the Pacific Ocean, the various uses of the captured whale, sliced up and preserved into its economically valued components.

Hearing the book meant that every now and then I was jarred back into listening from my day-dreaming.  Most often this was when Melville made some reference to a faraway place that I assumed he would never have heard of.  It’s common to think globalization didn’t really begin until the 1990s, or even the 1890s with the explosion in global commerce.  However, Melville cites a geography far from his immediate surroundings of the Boston-Albany-New York triangle.  The geography of Brazilian Amazon, the Pacific Northwest or the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean; the customs of the Brahmins of India, the history of Alexander the Great, the coast of Peru.  We even had a Japanese scholar this summer come to Arrowhead who said that Moby Dick has seventeen different references to Japan in it.

The reading also lent a “theatrical” component to not just the narrative but to many of the descriptive chapters as well.  Ishmael’s self-introduction at the very start sounds like an actor on a stage, providing the needed background before any of the plot takes place.  The final chapters on the chase were gripping, convincing, as the whale’s attacks and the crew’s defenses were read loudly and urgently.   The audio version makes apparent how Melville drew on his reading of Shakespeare’s plays for his own prose.

It’s easy to see why the initial publication of the book, without the epilogue caused Melville such concern, and resulted in heavy criticism.  The epilogue explains how Ishmael the narrator, survived to tell the story.  Still, it doesn’t account for the general reception at the time of an overly ambitious work by an increasingly obsessive author.  But, this is a departure from his previous works, which were more travelogues than epic stories.

I would have a few questions for Herman about the book.  What exactly was Hawthorne’s influence?  How did the novel change from the book you brought to Pittsfield to the one you ended up with?  What was your writing and editing process in putting together the drafts to send off to publishers?

Then, there would be the ultimate ones about the dismal reception of the book, and Melville’s reaction to critics’ views of what was intended as Melville’s magnum opus.

I spent two months listening to Moby Dick.  And just a few hours writing my own reaction.  Surely Melville with his knack for drawing out description and detail could have done more.

July 22

It’s hard to escape Herman.  He has made an appearance in each of the last two Sunday New York Times.

On July 13, in an op-ed marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War draft riots in New York City, the historian Jon Grinspan quoted from Melville’s poem about the same event which had appeared in his collection of Civil War poetry, Battle Pieces.  Then yesterday, on the last page of the Sunday Book Review was a literary cartoon, by R.O. Blechman called Save the Whale.   Both pieces use Melville as a credible source, to make a broader point, 150 years after he was writing.  The irony is that at the time, Melville had little credibility or influence.

Grinspan lays out a case of the worst riots in U.S. history, over the course of a week in July in 1863, caused by reaction to the start of conscription and the racial interplay between Irish immigrants, upper class adult males who could buy their way out of service and African Americans, who were being blamed for the conscription to fight a war against slavery.   Melville’s poem with its reference to the crashing sounds of the riots adds a first-hand authority to the barbarism of the riots which Grinspan is trying to describe.  The verse he cites refers to the descent of civilization: “all civil charms … like a dream dissolve / And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.”

It was only ten days prior that Melville, moved by events at Gettysburg, began writing his Civil War poems.  That collection was not published until 1866, and it received a poor critical and popular response.  And, yet, here, 150 years later, Melville’s poetry moves.

The cartoon, Save the Whale, consisted of a series of frames of Herman Melville trying to get a book about a whale published in 2013.  The book is too long to publish, Melville is told; the subject is not of “general interest.”  The irony of this cartoon is that Melville had a hard time publishing the book in 1850, successfully finding an English publisher before an American one whose warehouse with most of the copies of Moby Dick burned.  The U.S. publisher decided against publishing again.

We are so used to the significance of that book and of Herman Melville in the last 60 years, that it’s hard to imagine that he never achieved the recognition as a literary master in his own era.  He stopped writing, and seeking to get any writing published by his late 40s, and he went to work as a customs agent to earn the money he could not earn as a writer.

He would be surprised that there is a society dedicated to the study of his works; he would be surprised that the house where he completed Moby Dick is a National Historic Landmark.  He probably would not be surprised that his work is important, since he and his wife were aware of its genius.  It was only others who could not see it.

July 16, 2013

Herman Melville followed me to Scotland.  And Liverpool.

In the middle of my summer with Herman, I took a 3-week hiatus.  But, he followed me.  Even on the busride in from the airport in Edinburgh, I spied a “Melville Street” and then a whole square with a center statue.  Could it be the same American author?  I doubted, but determined to return and find out if it was my Herman.  No, it was a Scottish admiral, David Leslie-Melville, the 7th Earl of Melville.  How un-Herman, an Earl, no less.

Also on the itinerary was Liverpool, where Melville traveled in 1839 on his first sea voyage on a merchant ship sailing out of New York.  What vestiges of this important port remained?  Finally, my reading companions through my three weeks were two books:  one on the Scottish enlightenment and the other Redburn, His First Voyage, Melville’s fictionalized account of his first sea trip.  The latter, it turns out, was only barely fictionalized, as it seemed to pre-date Dragnet, by changing the names to protect the innocent, in this case Melville’s name himself.  The protagonist is a young teenager by the name of Wellingborough Redburn, whose father had died, bankrupt, and who had decided the sea was to be his escape out of poverty and misery.

Actually, the two books intersected when young Redburn describes his own encounter with Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher who wrote The Wealth of Nations, one of the most enduring legacies of the Scottish enlightenment.  The poor young sailor grabs on to this book as the answer to his troubles with money, assured that it will teach him how to become wealthy.  Melville sneaks his subtle humor into the narrative unexpectedly.  Redburn calls the book “dry as crackers and cheese,” but still he “read on and on, about ‘wages and profits of labor,’ without getting profits myself for my pains in perusing it.”  Redburn ended up finding a good use for the book by one of the world’s great influences: “I used to wrap my jacket around it, and use it for a pillow; for which purpose it answered very well; only I sometimes waked up feeling dull and stupid, but of course the book could not have been the cause of that.”   How very American, to ridicule the intellect, from the platform of an intellect himself.

Liverpool itself was a gritty city, with blocks and blocks of residences and pubs and small businesses leading the way to the tourist center (Albert Dock) from the highway.  Only at Albert Dock does one begin to get a glimpse of the imposing buildings around the piers, designed for warehousing the goods over the centuries of shipping commerce.

Melville describes the docks from Redburn’s vantage point, different from the castles and cathedral and palaces of his imagination.  He sees drunks and poverty, rubbish-pickers and filth.  He narrates as dark an image of human nature as any in literature in Redburn’s discovery a famished mother and her three children, tucked away in a deep cellar along an alley.  Redburn could not himself reach them to help and was unsuccessful in arousing any interest at all from neighbors, or inn-keepers or policemen.  He anguishes in the disinterest and in his own inability to do anything about it.  He asks: “Surrounded as we are by the wants and woes of our fellowmen, and yet given to follow our own pleasures, regardless of their pains, are we not like people sitting up with a corpse, and making merry in the house of the dead?”

In Redburn, Melville also reminds us that Liverpool was the center of the slave trade, when he had the young Redburn pass a statue of Admiral Nelson, with four captive slaves at the base of the statue.    Today, the International Slavery Museum, right at the site of Albert Dock, reminds us of the horror of that trade, and Liverpool’s connection to it.

June 18

There’s always something new and different, even though I now have a tour routine.  Before leaving home, I re-read the tour script, to refresh my memory.  When I get to the home, I walk around the interior and open the curtains and look anew at each room, reading perhaps the inventory of items hanging in each room from the door knob.

Yesterday, I saw a little factoid in the script which I had obviously noted before, since it was highlighted.  It struck me though as new and important for me include.  Each evening before supper, Herman and his wife Lizzie would meet in the sitting area of their bedroom, and go over the day’s events.  He would read to her what he wrote during the day.   I had known his writing process included him turning over his drafts to his wife and sisters who would copy it, without punctuation, for him.  But, it also included his reading aloud to Lizzie his daily production.  Most certainly she gave him feedback, and perhaps he held on to his drafts and rewrote from them the following days, before turning over a more completed manuscript to his sisters or Lizzie for copying.

It hard to imagine her listening patiently through his chapters in Moby Dick on the color white, or the encyclopedic listing of the different kinds of whales.  Why wouldn’t she have told him to cut those, as they slow down the narrative?   Perhaps she had the same reaction to Billy Budd that I did, when I re-read paragraphs to find out what had just transpired.  In one case, Billy, it turned out, had spilled a bowl of soup.  In another case, Melville left an encounter Billy had with Claggart (his later accuser) deliberately obtuse.   Why didn’t Lizzie just say to her husband, “Make it clear!”

Melville wrote with a quill pen, even though they had passed by his time.  People were writing with ink and steel point pens by then.  Patents had been granted on typewriters in the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1874 that the first typewriter was commercially available through the Remington Company.  One of the first authors to purchase one of these typewriters was Mark Twain, who claimed later on that he  wrote Tom Sawyer on it, though many dispute that.  In any case, by 1874, Melville was a civil servant, working as a New York customs inspector, and his time for writing, if not his inclination, had diminished.

In this era of the computer, and multiple drafts and edits available with ease, it is hard to imagine a work as complex as Moby Dick being written, organized and edited by quill pen, read-alouds to his wife and copying by his sisters.  Further, in a world with Google and instant reference at our fingertips, it is hard to imagine where Melville, seated at his writing table in his second floor study, looking out at Mt. Greylock in the distance could have collected and stored the references as varied as Greek and Persian history or the geography and archaeology of Peru, the White Mountains, Roman and Indian history.  It is easy to toss off phrases like “voracious reader” or “genius,” but he ultimately must have stored these in the back of his mind through his youth, and then been able to call them up when reminded.

Imagine a conversation where the slightest phrase must have reminded him of a breadth of human experience, stored in the synapses of his own vast experiences, working on ships and farms, in schools and banks.  I know people who I

He was in his early 30s when he wrote this book, a departure from his previous travelogue adventures of the sea.

June 13

A visitor asked me on my first tour, “What was Melville’s religion?  Why was he called a mystic?”  In my usual fashion, I made something up, based on little pieces I knew.  Something like, he wrote about good and evil, and he wrote about fairies (in “The Piazza”) on Mt. Greylock whom he thought he could see from his porch.

I later learned he went to a Unitarian church in Pittsfield, but also an Episcopal one.  He befriended a Unitarian minister from Sheffield, Orville Dewey who baptized his children.  Dewey had been a minister in New Bedford and New York City, where he also may have come across a young Melville.  If not, he certainly knew many of the paces of Melville’s life and, so had something in common about which to converse.

It was after Melville’s last meeting in 1856 with Nathaniel Hawthorne in Liverpool England, that Hawthorne also touched on his religious views.  Hawthorne wrote in his journal that “Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond the human ken, and informed that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’…..He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.  If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.”

Melville’s mysticism may come from his wrestling with the grand unknowns of humankind, unknowns that the rest of us bury and try not to think about because they are too hard to fathom.

This morning I finished Why Read Moby Dick?  Philbrick’s last chapter also grapples with Melville’s belief, or at least through the character Ishmael:  “Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.”

I am not sure still why Melville would be called a mystic, nor what organized church he belonged to.  But, those last two quotes, from Hawthorne and Ishmael, tell me he straddles and questions, maybe even obsesses a little about what lies after death.

June 11

This journal should have started a few weeks ago.  That’s when I ran into Herman Melville again.  I first met him in high school, where we read Bartleby the Scrivener.  With my then mature intellect, Bartleby became the butt of many jokes, partly because of his absurdity and partly because he was such a loser.  Like I said, mature.

I then ran into Melville in college.  In a course on 19th Century U.S. Literature, we read Billy Budd and Moby Dick.  That last sentence should probably have a “supposed to” inserted in there somewhere.  The former, a much more manageable 120 pages, actually did get read, and even before the semester ended.  The latter, an intimidating 600 plus pages, found its way into a duffle bag heading to Africa with the Peace Corps, along with a few too many other unread titles from university.  Still mature.

It must be a different experience reading Moby Dick in Africa, during the rainy season, waiting for school to start, with not much to do.  Were it not for the culture shock of Ishmael meeting QueeQueg it might be tempting to conclude that there is nothing more foreign to Gabon, Central Africa than 19th century New England whaling.  Yet, this is Melville, with his universal themes of good and evil, difference and tolerance and searching.

Fast forward to 2013.  Little prepared me to spend the summer with Melville, trying to get to know him as I hadn’t over thirty-five years ago.  I had been driving by his home for almost the same number of years, but never stopped in until last year, and then more out of obligation than interest.  Still, here I am, this summer, getting reacquainted.

In his home where he spent twelve years, where three of his four children were born, where he completed Moby Dick, is based the Berkshire Historical Society.  With the historical society, I signed on to do a summer internship, in connection with my university history program.  History, not literature.

My initial project was to help on a series of panels for an exhibit, on the Civil War and the town where Melville’s home is:  Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  As with many local museums, though, one of the perennial tasks is recruiting volunteer docents.  So it was that I was drawn in to the orbit of giving tours of the Melville home, telling his story of the 12 years that he lived here, how he came to this corner of the world, and why he ended up having to leave it.

My education began out of fear, fear of having to say something interesting and accurate and knowledgeable about this author.  A short biography later, the docent’s guidebook, initial descents into his prose and poetry, and even the project on the Civil War gave me the start of a background to conduct my first tours.

I would like to send a message to the couple who paid $13 each to hear my first tour; I suffered a brief anxiety attack, an organizational melt-down, and then a bout of make-it-all-up.  That couple deserves a refund.  They were either too polite to contradict me or correct me or walk out on the bumbling person in front of them.

Fortunately, I found my sea legs by the second round of tours, and now have a story about Melville which is coherent and mildly interesting.

But is it accurate?  I paint him as a man descending into, bordering on madness, or at least depression.  He is forced to leave his home, to stop writing as it brings in no income, to get a job as a customs inspector in New York, and to never know that his Moby Dick would become one of the most important literary feats in U.S. history.  Back to history.

I have had three Monday encounters with Melville at his home.  Each time, I learn something new, each time I am able to refine what I have to say, each time I notice a different object in a room which tells a different story, each time the visitors ask different questions and direct the narrative down different paths.

One recommended a recent book entitled Why Read Moby Dick?  At only 127 pages it is less intimidating than reading Moby Dick.  However, the first pages convinced me that if I am to know Melville better, or at least well enough to tell others about him, I should reacquaint myself with Ishamel and the whale, with Ahab and Queequeg as well.  This time though, not in the rain forest, but in the car, on audiotape.