Tuesday, July 17, 2012


It's somewhat fitting that, just as I'm trying to finish up an article I started a while back on Melville's famous novel, Moby-Dick, I'm visiting the Berkshires.

So, I spent Sunday morning hiking Monument Mountain and hanging out on the Devil's Pulpit, and yesterday, I went to Arrowhead.

For those who don't know the story, in August of 1850, Herman Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne for the first time on a picnic arranged by friends.

One of those friends included Oliver Wendell Holmes, who used to tell visitors to the Berkshires, "You must carry mountains in your brain."

The group hiked Monument Mountain and read a (rather overwrought) poem of the same name by William Cullen Bryant. 

It's about an "Indian maiden" (of course) who fell in love with her cousin (of course), had sex with him (of course) and felt so guilty afterward that she flung herself off of the mountain (of course). 

For his part, her cousin does not appear to have been all that fazed by any of this.  But legend has it that her tribe built a monument to her death, hence, Monument Mountain.

At that point, Melville, Hawthorne and Holmes got caught in a thunderstorm, and did what any sensible group of American writers and thinkers would do: designed makeshift umbrellas and passed the champagne.  (For a full account of the picnic and its aftermath, see here.)

For the record, I would not want to be on the summit of Monument Mountain in a thunderstorm, but if I were, I'd probably say "yes" to the champagne, although normally, I would not advise staying hydrated with alcohol while on a hike.

Melville greatly admired Hawthorne and his work, and the two developed a brief but earnest friendship that summer.  Hawthorne was influential in redirecting the course of Melville's literary ambitions: Moby-Dick is in fact dedicated to him.

Hawthorne thought Melville could do better than the kind of sea-faring adventure stories he had written for his first few novels and, inspired by the older writer's encouragement, Melville attempted something very different in his epic tale of the white whale.

As they will point out to you if you visit Arrowhead, the home in Pittsfield that Melville purchased a year later (and the place where he resided while writing his (in)famous novel), the dual peaks of Mount Greylock, visible from the window of his study, look a bit like a breaching whale.

The tour group at Arrowhead was small, but it was a bit sad to me to find out that no one except myself and one other person had actually read Moby-Dick in its entirety, and the other person made it quite clear she hadn't enjoyed it and certainly wouldn't do it again.

I'm not a huge Melville fan.  I'll admit, I started Pierre, his next novel after Moby-Dick, and fell asleep on page 12.  I reawakened on page 15, read on and wondered, "What the $%^&*?! on page 18, and then fell asleep again on page 20.

I couldn't help but think that Melville might have been hitting the bottle a bit too hard by that point.

But I love Moby-Dick (and I actually love Melville's short story, "Bartleby the Scrivener," as well).

People always say, "Oh, my god, it's about a WHALE.  And WHALING.  How boring.   No one wants to hear about a WHALE.  Or WHALING.  It's boring."

But it's not about a whale--or rather, it is, and it isn't.

It's about what it means to live and to think.  It's about what it means to have convictions that you pursue regardless of all consequences, and about what it means to lack the courage of your convictions.

It's about how the individual can destroy the community, and how the community can nevertheless save the individual.

I always feel sad when students read Moby-Dick and roll their eyes, without--in my opinion--giving it a chance.  It's actually hysterically funny in spots.

Melville includes some of the raunchiest sexual puns you're ever going to see (hint: they're buried in those chapters about whaling--the ones most people skip).

He also does really interesting things with narrative form.  And although so few people "like" Melville's novel, everyone knows the names of Ahab and Ishmael--and not because they've read the Bible.  (Because yes, Moby-Dick uses biblical references extensively, and draws on myths and legends as well, in ways that resonate with Melville's own story.)

I cry at the end of Moby-Dick.  It's a terribly sad novel, and I often think of the final image of the Rachel, aimlessly wandering the seas while a father weeps and desperately searches for his lost child.

(Years later, Melville's own son will die of a gunshot wound to the head, which may or may not have been accidental, and Melville will be the one to find his son's body.)

I think of the fact that, in Moby-Dick, the first mate, Starbuck, is a good and principled man, and because of his goodness and his principles, he cannot bring himself to do something he believes to be wrong (namely, kill Ahab and seize control of the ship), even though he knows that Ahab is insane and will end up killing them all.

I think of the fact that the novel is essentially about how otherwise good and independent people will nevertheless follow someone they know is on a vindictive, personal quest that subverts the very meaning of their lives and puts their own survival in jeopardy.  They will repeatedly acquiesce in the insanity.

Why?  Why?!  That is the tragic question that resonates throughout Melville's thought-filled narrative.

It's a novel about judging people based on their appearance, and then learning to know better and love them for who and what they are--both the good and the bad.

It's about how death and madness are everywhere in life, shadowing life and joy and fertility with their own strange and intoxicating beauty.

It's about the fragility of American democracy.

And yes, it's also about whaling.

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