Ongoing changes at work have taken up quite a bit of my time in the past couple of weeks, and will probably do so in the next few weeks as well. Thankfully, I’ve got a number of almost completed posts waiting in draft to tide me over this hectic and tiring time.
So far I’m staying up to date with my Moby-Dick reading schedule, but my twitter activity may be a little quieter, or sporadic, for a while. Visiting your blogs and leaving comments may also lag behind. But I’m here, plugging away, slow reading, thinking of you all, trying to use my time wisely and staying optimistic and focused on what’s next.
Sadly, Melville, by all accounts did not reach the end of his days in such a positive frame of mind.
He was lonely, most likely depressed, maybe even slowly losing his mind, and all but forgotten by the world.
On this day in 1891, he died at his home in New York City from a heart attack, aged 72. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.
In the 128 years since his death Melville’s literary career has been revived and revised numerous times. One of the articles I read earlier, claimed that his fall from public favour during his lifetime, came about thanks to his outspoken views about Christian missionaries as well as his oft-voiced doubts about other religious practices of the time.
Various church groups and leaders were outraged by his comments and used their influence to publicly criticise him and belittle him at every turn. Their influence, and Melville’s genius, could not be denied forever though.
By 1919, the centenary of his birth, his oeuvre was being reassessed and reconsidered.
He is now revered as one of the greatest American writers, and Moby-Dick as one of the great American novels of all time.
NEW YORK TIMES, SEPTEMBER 29 1891
Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East Twenty-sixth Street, this city, of heart failure, aged seventy-two. He was the author of Typee, Omoo, Mobie Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville.
There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines. Yet forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event, not only throughout his own country, but so far as the English-speaking race extended….he has died an absolutely forgotten man…
In its kind this speedy oblivion by which a once famous man so long survived his fame is almost unique, and it is not easily explicable. Of course, there are writings that attain a great vogue and then fall entirely out of regard or notice. But this is almost always because either the interest of the subject matter is temporary, and the writings are in the nature of journalism, or else the workmanship to which they owe their temporary success is itself the produce or the product of a passing fashion. This was not the case with Herman Melville. Whoever, arrested for a moment by the tidings of the author’s death, turns back now to the books that were so much read and so much talked about forty years ago has no difficulty in determining why they were then read and talked about. His difficulty will be rather to discover why they are read and talked about no longer. The total eclipse now of what was then a literary luminary seems like a wanton caprice of fame. At all events, it conveys a moral that is both bitter and wholesome to the popular novelists of our own day…
Melville’s pictorial power was very great, and it came, as such power always comes, from his feeling more intensely than others the charm that he is able to present more vividly than others. It is this power which gave these romances the hold upon readers which it is surprising that they have so completely lost.
Richard B. Sewall’s Vision of Tragedy comes to us this week with thanks to Rick for a copy of the chapter relating to Moby-Dick.
- This book discusses various literary greats via the lens of tragedy.
- tragic truth
- in Ishmael’s experience whatever had been grave had not been constant, and what had been constant had not been grave.
- somewhat before this first startling encounter [Ahab & Ishmael], Melville had begun to shift his method from the narrative mode to the dramatic.
- Ahab is more than man, and more than tragic man; he is a self-appointed God.
- tragedy is witness to the moral ambiguity of every action.
- we see the nature of each, how far towards good-and-evil each can go.
- the ending seems too dire for tragedy.
- there is no further comment, no fifth-act compensations to let in a little hope.
I’m fascinated by all the lenses through which one can view Moby-Dick – American archetypes, Marxist, religion, anti-religion, feminist, post-colonialism, good vs evil (morality) and LGBTQIA just to name a few.
But enough of the theory, lets jump into the story.
Chapter 31: Queen Mab
- Queen Mab is a Shakespearean bringer of dreams (from Romeo and Juliet).
- Stubb tells Flask about his queer dream.
- what’s real and what’s false?
- Stubb’s lesson learnt:
- the best you can do, Flask, is to let that old man alone; never speak quick to him, whatever he says.
- First sighting of whales
- if ye see a white one, split your lungs for him!
- Stubb’s premonition:
- A white whale – did ye mark that, man? Look ye – there’s something special in the wind.
Chapter 32: Cetology
- The chapter I’ve been warned about; the chapter that has put people off this book for good. Do I dare go on? Will I become another lost reader left floundering in all these whale facts?
- No. I survived. I even (almost) enjoyed Melville’s lists and definitions and categorising.
- I can see what people call this chapter, the first Post-modern chapter.
- Whales are fish? Hmmm. I know that scientific thinking wasn’t back then what it is today, but even Melville knew that he was flying in the face of science by stating that whales were fish. I now wonder if Melville would have been a climate change denier as well.
- It shows how hard it is to change people’s mind about something that they think they know because it’s their life, their job, their experience. Scientific research that challenges these preconceived ideas has a hard battle to fight.
- God keep me from every completing anything. This whole book is a draft – nay, but the draft of a draft.
- The mystery remains. Not everything can be explained or understood.
Chapter 33: The Specksnyder
- more sailing terms and social class distinctions explained.
- However they all, high or low, depend for their profits, not upon fixed wages, but upon their common luck, together with their common vigilance, intrepidity, and hard work.
- And some stuff about the Divine Inert (a Gnostic idea), Emperors and Kings, sultans and Ahab = Ahab having supreme (even divine) rule over the crew whilst on board the Pequod.
Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table
- Ahab’s dinner ritual – more division of life on board a whaler & some scenes of domestic life.
- Dough-Boy, the steward.
- Ahab’s power – even though he doesn’t forbid chatting at the table, no-one does.
That’s it for now shipmates.
Until next week, I hope this finds you in calm seas with plain sailing ahead.