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Chasing the Whale, Part 2

--This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.
--To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
Herman Melville in “Moby Dick”

I have finished “Moby Dick”, but not yet read the biography of Melville by Andrew Delbanco, as I promised myself. I am spent, but also pleased that I finished the book, much of which I enjoyed. The most evocative passages are hyper-real—the ship languishing at sea, sailors swaying on the masts, whales making love. The most endearing characters are from shithole countries—a life at sea has no borders—and Captain Ahab is a self-destructive, compelling, vigilant narcissist who surfaces from his cabin as obsesssion calls. The voyage of the Pequod is a death march from beginning to end.

Dear reader, what possessed this author, under the influence of the elder Nathaniel Hawthorne, to write this epic, encyclopedic tome? And how did he finish it in one year? If I had been a woman editor of this male author’s Great American Novel, I might have suggsted one or two cuts :). Would the Great American Male Author have resisted my suggestions? Or would he have exercised his prerogative? Indeed, I might have told him, the work itself is a Great Leviathan and must be slain in two—leaving the first and last sections slung together—as a novel. This is where the most evocative alliterative prose resides. But, no, it will be a stet, published as written, a draft of a draft of a novel with a “mighty” theme.

Was it Melville’s intention to outdo every English-language novel ever written? To become the Most Famous American Novelist of the 19th century? In an 1868 essay in The Nation, John William DeForest searched for the Great American Novel, thus coining the phrase, and did not mention Melville. Novelists, he suggested, stagger under a heavy load if they attempt greatness.

In the 21st century, we disdain hubris and admire humility among—and within—our writers. Reviewers and Oprah may puff up successful writers and create celebrities of them, but sensible writers know the limits of five minutes of fame as inspiration. They have to get back to work; celebrity addles the mind. No writers I know, even great ones, would ever admit publicly that s/he deserves fame or that their work is a masterpiece. Many even shun readings and interviews.

In his inimical, modest way, 20th century writer, Norman Mailer, asserted that he would write The Great American Novel. Instead, he wrote “The Executioner’s Song,” which is an excellent nonfiction book that reads like a novel.  Read More 
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Chasing the Whale, Part 1

“Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and confounded about the stranger, I confess I was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night.”

So sayeth Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s “Moby Dick,” as he reflects on his dark-skinned, tattooed, Polynesian bunk mate, Queegqueg, before they shared a friendly pipe and a whaling journey on The Pequod with Captain Ahab. The book, which is a tome, was published in 1851 at a time when men and and women with amputated moral consciences took pleasure in justifying slavery, one of America’s fault lines, the other being the genocide of the Native tribes. The evolution of our democracy was stunted then, as it is stunted again today, cut off at the knee like Ahab’s stump by an innocent whale fighting for its life.

It’s no surprise to me that I am reading “Moby Dick.” Iconic stories often arrive in our consciousness at the right historical and/or personal moment. We pick them up and suddenly they make sense. Had I been forced to read it in high school? If so, the language alone—Shakespearean, biblical, hyperbolic, often polemical—would have shut down my curiosity, if I had been curious, which is doubtful. And where are the women? I have encountered only one in 300 pages: she brings supplies onto the moored boat in Nantucket. This is a story about men at sea, literally and figuratively. They kill whales, which they barely notice are mammals. And they are unapologetic about the blood letting of these intelligent creatures. They need the oil and the meat, but mostly the oil. Another present-day resonance.

Hubris. Entitlement. Amputated moral conscience. We’ve seen plenty of this in recent months in Washington.

This flawed book, which I am not certain is even a novel, is encyclopedic, epic, occasionally self-important. But there are so many jewels embedded in the text that I am staying with it. I’ll report again when I have finished and read a biography of Melville by Andrew Delbanco. After that, “Billy Budd.” Immersion reading.  Read More 
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