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GATEWAY TO GEEKERY: HERMAN MELVILLE

A picture of Herman Melville and his wife, Elizabeth, at their home (CC SirRonWong)

Why It’s Daunting:

Whoa, Herman Melville. Arguably the most important American writers of all time, Melville wrote what many think is the greatest novel ever written (certainly the greatest written by an American).

But without a road map, the amount of work that Melville produced can be intimidating: nine novels (though Melville claimed Typee and Omoo were memoirs, they are generally considered to contain heaping piles of fictionalized material), dozens of stories and poem and one epic poem. The Library of America edition of Melville’s work is three volumes long, each one as thick as a bible and printed on the same onionskin pages. The page count alone can seem daunting.

But Melville’s work is powerful, and many of the themes—America as an ethnically, philosophically and sexually diverse country; melancholy as a metaphysical state; the inevitability of retribution for injustice—are incredibly relevant to contemporary readers. And the prose is scintillating, lyrical and funny and smarter than anything else you’ll read this year.

So let’s breach, and dive.

 

Possible Gateways:

 

Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener” is famous for its recalcitrant titular character and his propensity to prefer not to do things.

But “Bartleby” is one of the most approachable of Melville’s works, and it still shows off many of his greatest strengths: his haunting, lyrical language; his ability to draw character portraits through their relationships with each other; his ability to contextualize moments in terms of larger, societal forces.

Another good starting point is “Billy Budd, Sailor.” Here Melville writes about sailors and the sea, which he wrote about for most of his life, and this novella, written near the end of his life and well past the end of his actual writing career, shows a free and fully mature Melville, in complete control of his abilities and using them to paint a heartbreaking story about a sailor unjustly accused of a crime. Published thirty years after Melville’s death, “Billy Budd” is now justly considered a masterpiece of world literature.

 

Next Steps:

 

There’s only so many things you can read of Melville’s before you have to read Moby Dick. A sprawling, brilliant, endlessly ambitious novel of whaling and revenge, Moby Dick takes the reader from the docks of Nantucket around the world in search of the white whale.

The most common style point articulated by readers is the biblical language, but not as much is made in my opinion about how groundbreaking a work Moby Dick was at the time, how it anticipated many of the tenets of the Modernists by sixty years, that it married mimetic realism–the whaling details, between the heft of the harpoon and the emotions which accompany a man into the crow’s nest and the dangerous bucket-extraction method of removing spermaceti from a whale’s head, place the reader in the boat next to Ishmael and Queequeg—with a more playful, experimental style which cycles through playwriting tropes, quickly rotating perspectives and faux-scholarly tracts on whale anatomy in an effort to give a sense of the vastness of life, of the ocean, of a sailor’s life.

Beyond the book’s magniloquent style, lies the plot, Ahab in search of the whale and revenge, a search so destructive and well-told that, at the end, the reader feels again as if she or he is floating in the jetsam of the annihilated Pequod.

 

 

After Moby Dick, pick up Andrew Delbanco’s excellent biography, Melville: His World and Work. Relatively few of Melville’s letters survive, and Delbanco does an incredible job of piecing Melville’s life together through hints gleaned from his work and from the world around Melville. A first-rate biography, and one that paints clearly the picture of the tragedies of Melville’s life—including a destitute childhood, a career which collapsed as he was producing his best work, and the suicide of his son—while also clearly delineating his particular genius and massive scale of his accomplishment.

 

Where Not to Start:

“Benito Cereno,” another of Melville’s shorter masterpieces, is probably best tackled after getting some context on the story (Delbanco’s biography provides excellent information). Read on its own, this story of a dim captain who doesn’t realize the ship he is boarding is one ruled over by revolting slaves can be a little confusing, both in terms of the actual action taking place and also the point of such a story.

But read as a prelude to the civil war, as a warning about the violence that must erupt in the face of brutal and institutionalized injustice, “Benito Cereno” is a powerful, jarring reminder of what a dark time that was in American history, and what blind ignorance afflicted those who thought American could persist in that divided state.

In direct contrast to that description, here’s a silly video with legos.

 

Typee, Melville’s fist book, is purportedly a memoir of Melville’s time stranded among savages in the South Pacific, but scholars believe at least some of it is fabricated. Either way, the prose is a bit stiff, some scenes are silly, and the book displays little of the gravity, ambition or poetry of his later work.

Here’s the trailer for “Enchanted Island,” based sort of but entirely not at all on Typee.

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