Happy 195th birthday, Herman Melville!

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What he looked like.

Herman Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in November 1851: “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” The book, of course, was Moby Dick. Funny, he doesn’t look like a lamb. See right. He’s kind of a hunk, in a 19th-century sort of way.

Sheila O’Malley of Sheila Variations writes of the two authors: “They were dear friends and there were many dark years in Melville’s life, when his work was either not being published or being published and ignored when Hawthorne was one of Melville’s only champions. Melville opened his heart to Hawthorne, in letters – about what he was going through, what he was working on with Moby Dick – and, like a great artistic friend and mentor should, Hawthorne never said, ‘Don’t you think you need to scale it down a bit?’ or ‘Who will want to read 20 consecutive chapters about the etymology of blubber?’ No. Hawthorne basically just kept saying to his friend, ‘Keep going. It’s brilliant. Keep going.'” He did! So happy 195th birthday, Herman! From all of us!

She continues:

I read Moby Dick in high school and despised it. I thought it was one of the most boring pointless things I had ever read. It was on our summer reading list, and I clearly remember forcing myself to read the damn thing, during the dog days of August … nearly crying from the psychological boredom. Whatever, man … Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, endless discourses on blubber … I was 16. I DIDN’T GET IT.

Cut to many many years later. 2001, to be exact. I read it in the spring of 2001. Around that time I decided to systematically go back and re-read all of the books I had been forced to read in high school (which, obviously, made me despise them at the time). I read The Scarlet Letter (excerpt here) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (excerpt here) and many others. Moby Dick is such a massive book, and I had hated it so much when I first read it that I hesitated to put myself through it again.

And honestly – it blew the top of my head off. Every page. Every page.

I have rarely had such an exciting reading experience as that one. I didn’t want it to end. I underlined passages feverishly. I put exclamations points in the margins next to particularly amazing sentences. Honestly. It blew me away.

Here’s a couple notable quotes from Melville himself. The first was unburied by colleague Hilton Obenzinger for Facebook celebrations today:.

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

lamb

What he thought he looked like.

This one is from friend Frank Wilson over at Books Inq.:

“To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.”

A few lingering thoughts on yesterday’s post about the current production of Orson Welles‘s Moby Dick – Rehearsed at Stanford. I said Ahab’s face (portrayed by the face of Bay Area actor Rod Gnapp), was a “rictus of resentment,” or words to that effect. It got me to thinking … isn’t that always what revenge is about? To say someone is “obsessed with revenge” makes them sound big and grand and epic and Old Testament-y.  Resentment makes us sound so … so little, so peevish, so trivial. But isn’t resentment, really, what Ahab is about? He goes about jabbing creatures that never harmed him any with sharp spears and then takes it amiss that one of them strikes back. He has an inflated sense of himself  and his importance (“I’d strike the sun if it struck me!”) and takes Moby Dick’s behavior personally. Clearly, I’ve been reading too much René Girard lately; he’s always one to puncture big, grand, romantic emotions that turn out to be rather little, commonplace, self-centered delusions. Looks like I prefer lambs, after all. And not for eating.

birthday cake“Parmacetty” is used several times in the Orson Welles script – “the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!”  It sounded familiar. Where does the word come from? Where had I heard it before? I went to my OED. I squinted and squinted, since I’ve lost my lorgnette, and finally resorted to the internet OED, which calls the word “obscure,” a variant of spermaceti, “with simplification of the initial consonant cluster.” Here we go! First usage was 1545, but third is in William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Pt. 1, when Hotspur jeers at a perfumed soldier wannabe who was telling him that “the soveraignest thing on earth Was Parmacitie, for an inward bruise.”  I knew I’d heard it recently! Read about our Twelfth Night with Henry IV here. But Shakespeare’s parmacetty is another word for the herb “Shepherd’s Purse.”

Meanwhile, and once again, happy birthday, Herman!
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