Subtraction from reality

At The Reading Experience, Daniel Green reviews David Winters’s Infinite Fictions. From the review:

Reckoning with literary qualities is something Winters does exceptionally well. Most of the books discussed in the first section of Infinite Fictions (“On Literature”) are complex, unconventional works of fiction, and Winters is painstaking in attempting to describe the strategies the author at hand seems to be using, to account for the effect of reading the work as registered in Winters’s own experience of it. As he says in the introduction to the book, “As a reviewer, all I can do is try to stay true to the texture of that experience. . . Strange as it sounds, each of these books briefly allowed me to subtract myself from reality. In this respect, when writing reviews, I’m less intent on making prescriptions than on exploring the space left by my subtraction.” Thus Winters attends to the specificity of the reading experience itself, something academic criticism generally abjures, while also avoiding the superficial approach of the most “trivial” kind of book reviews, the kind that aim merely to “make prescriptions.”

“Subtraction” from reality perhaps seems like a version of being “immersed” in a book, but I would presume Winters means something closer to what John Dewey called “pure experience,” which Dewey believed becomes most accessible to us as aesthetic experience.  According to Dewey, aesthetic experience is “experience freed from the forces that impede and confuse its development as experience; freed, that is, from factors that subordinate an experience as it is directly had to something beyond itself.” The reader truly receptive to the kind of experience art, in this case literary art, makes available is not in some kind of mystical trance but is fully engaged in an act of what Dewey calls “recreation,” perceiving the writer’s conceptual and expressive moves thoroughly enough that the reader in effect replays those moves. Literary criticism then becomes in part the attempt to communicate the tenor of this reading experience through the most felicitous description and analytical insight the critic can muster.

“James Joyce” — James Huneker

“James Joyce,” a chapter from James Huneker’s collection of criticism, Unicorns (1917).

Who is James Joyce? is a question that was answered by John Quinn, who told us that the new writer was from Dublin and at present residing in Switzerland; that he is not in good health—his eyes trouble him—and that he was once a student in theology, but soon gave up the idea of becoming a priest. He is evidently a member of the new group of young Irish writers who see their country and countrymen in anything but a flattering light. Ireland, surely the most beautiful and most melancholy island on the globe, is not the Isle of Saints for those iconoclasts. George Moore is a poet who happens to write English, though he often thinks in French; Bernard Shaw, notwithstanding his native wit, is of London and the Londoners; while Yeats and Synge are essentially Celtic, and both poets. Yes, and there is the delightful James Stephen, who mingles angels’ pin-feathers with rainbow gold; a magic decoction of which we never weary. But James Joyce, potentially a poet, and a realist of the De Maupassant breed, envisages Dublin and the Dubliners with a cruel scrutinising gaze. He is as truthful as Tchekov, and as grey—that Tchekov compared with whose the “realism” of De Maupassant is romantic bric-à-brac, gilded with a fine style. Joyce is as implacably naturalistic as the Russian in his vision of the sombre, mean, petty, dusty commonplaces of middle-class life, and he sometimes suggests the Frenchman in his clear, concise, technical methods. The man is indubitably a fresh talent.

Emerson, after his experiences in Europe, became an armchair traveller. He positively despised the idea of voyaging across the water to see what is just as good at home. He calls Europe a tapeworm in the brain of his countrymen. “The stuff of all countries is just the same.” So Ralph Waldo sat in his chair and enjoyed thinking about Europe, thus evading the worries of going there too often. It has its merit, this Emersonian way, particularly for souls easily disillusioned. To anticipate too much of a foreign city may result in disappointment. We have all had this experience. Paris resembles Chicago, or Vienna is a second Philadelphia at times; it depends on the colour of your mood. Few countries have been so persistently misrepresented as Ireland. It is lauded to the eleventh heaven of the Burmese or it is a place full of fighting devils in a hell of crazy politics. Of course, it is neither, nor is it the land of Lover and Lever; Handy Andy and Harry Lorrequer are there, but you never encounter them in Dublin. John Synge got nearer to the heart of the peasantry, and Yeats and Lady Gregory brought back from the hidden spaces fairies and heroes.

Is Father Ralph by Gerald O’Donovan a veracious picture of Irish priesthood and college life? Is the fiction of Mr. Joyce representative of the middle class and of the Jesuits? A cloud of contradictory witnesses passes across the sky. What is the Celtic character? Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun? Or isn’t the pessimistic dreamer with the soul of a “wild goose,” depicted in George Moore’s story, the real man? Celtic magic, cried Matthew Arnold. He should have said, Irish magic, for while the Irishman is a Celt, he is unlike his brethren across the Channel. Perhaps he is nearer to the Sarmatian than the continental Celt. Ireland and Poland! The Irish and the Polish! Dissatisfied no matter under which king! Not Playboys of the Western World, but martyrs to their unhappy temperaments. Continue reading ““James Joyce” — James Huneker”

“Pathos” — Alice Meynell

“Pathos”

by

Alice Meynell

A fugitive writer wrote not long ago on the fugitive page of a magazine: “For our part, the drunken tinker [Christopher Sly] is the most real personage of the piece, and not without some hints of the pathos that is worked out more fully, though by different ways, in Bottom and Malvolio.”  Has it indeed come to this?  Have the Zeitgeist and the Weltschmerz or their yet later equivalents, compared with which “le spleen” of the French Byronic age was gay, done so much for us?  Is there to be no laughter left in literature free from the preoccupation of a sham real-life?  So it would seem.  Even what the great master has not shown us in his work, that your critic convinced of pathos is resolved to see in it.  By the penetration of his intrusive sympathy he will come at it.  It is of little use now to explain Snug the joiner to the audience: why, it is precisely Snug who stirs their emotions so painfully.  Not the lion; they can make shift to see through that: but the Snug within, the human Snug.  And Master Shallow has the Weltschmerz in that latent form which is the more appealing; and discouraging questions arise as to the end of old Double; and Harpagon is the tragic figure of Monomania; and as to Argan, ah, what havoc in “les entrailles de Monsieur” must have been wrought by those prescriptions!  Et patatietpatata. Continue reading ““Pathos” — Alice Meynell”

“Literary Criticism” — Flann O’Brien

lit crit

Harold Bloom on “The School of Resentment”

Harold Bloom on his agon with “The School of Resentment.” From his 1991 interview with The Paris Review.

INTERVIEWER

How do you account historically for the school of resentment?

BLOOM

In the universities, the most surprising and reprehensible development came some twenty years ago, around 1968, and has had a very long-range effect, one that is still percolating. Suddenly all sorts of people, faculty members at the universities, graduate and undergraduate students, began to blame the universities not just for their own palpable ills and malfeasances, but for all the ills of history and society. They were blamed, and to some extent still are, by the budding school of resentment and its precursors, as though they were not only representative of these ills but, weirdly enough, as though they had somehow helped cause these ills and, even more weirdly, quite surrealistically, as though they were somehow capable of ameliorating these ills. It’s still going on—this attempt to ascribe both culpability and apocalyptic potential to the universities. It’s really asking the universities to take the place that was once occupied by religion, philosophy, and science. These are our conceptual modes. They have all failed us. The entire history of Western culture, from Alexandrian days until now, shows that when a society’s conceptual modes fail it, then willy-nilly it becomes a literary culture. This is probably neither good nor bad, but just the way things become. And we can’t really ask literature or the representatives of a literary culture, in or out of the university, to save society. Literature is not an instrument of social change or an instrument of social reform. It is more a mode of human sensations and impressions, which do not reduce very well to societal rules or forms.

INTERVIEWER

How does one react to the school of resentment? By declaring oneself an aesthete?

BLOOM

Well, I do that now, of course, in furious reaction to their school and to so much other pernicious nonsense that goes on. I would certainly see myself as an aesthete in the sense advocated by Ruskin, indeed to a considerable degree by Emerson, and certainly by the divine Walter and the sublime Oscar. It is a very engaged kind of mode. Literary criticism in the United States increasingly is split between very low level literary journalism and what I increasingly regard as a disaster, which is literary criticism in the academies, particularly in the younger generations. Increasingly scores and scores of graduate students have read the absurd Lacan but have never read Edmund Spenser; or have read a great deal of Foucault or Derrida but scarcely read Shakespeare or Milton. That’s obviously an absurd defeat for literary study. When I was a young man back in the fifties starting out on what was to be my career, I used to proclaim that my chosen profession seemed to consist of secular clergy or clerisy. I was thinking, of course, of the highly Anglo-Catholic New Criticism under the sponsorship or demigodness of T. S. Eliot. But I realized in latish middle age that, no better or worse, I was surrounded by a pride of displaced social workers, a rabblement of lemmings, all rushing down to the sea carrying their subject down to destruction with them. The school of resentment is an extraordinary sort of mélange of latest-model feminists, Lacanians, that whole semiotic cackle, latest-model pseudo-Marxists, so-called New Historicists, who are neither new nor historicist, and third generation deconstructors, who I believe have no relationship whatever to literary values. It’s really a very paltry kind of a phenomenon. But it is pervasive, and it seems to be waxing rather than waning. It is a very rare thing indeed to encounter one critic, academic or otherwise, not just in the English-speaking world, but also in France or Italy, who has an authentic commitment to aesthetic values, who reads for the pleasure of reading, and who values poetry or story as such, above all else. Reading has become a very curious kind of activity. It has become tendentious in the extreme. A sheer deliquescence has taken place because of this obsession with the methods or supposed method. Criticism starts—it has to start—with a real passion for reading. It can come in adolescence, even in your twenties, but you must fall in love with poems. You must fall in love with what we used to call “imaginative literature.” And when you are in love that way, with or without provocation from good teachers, you will pass on to encounter what used to be called the sublime. And as soon as you do this, you pass into the agonistic mode, even if your own nature is anything but agonistic. In the end, the spirit that makes one a fan of a particular athlete or a particular team is different only in degree, not in kind, from the spirit that teaches one to prefer one poet to another, or one novelist to another. That is to say there is some element of competition at every point in one’s experience as a reader. How could there not be? Perhaps you learn this more fully as you get older, but in the end you choose between books, or you choose between poems, the way you choose between people. You can’t become friends with every acquaintance you make, and I would not think that it is any different with what you read.

INTERVIEWER

Do you foresee any change, or improvement, in the critical fashions?

BLOOM

I don’t believe in myths of decline or myths of progress, even as regards to the literary scene. The world does not get to be a better or a worse place; it just gets more senescent. The world gets older, without getting either better or worse and so does literature. But I do think that the drab current phenomenon that passes for literary studies in the university will finally provide its own corrective. That is to say, sooner or later, students and teachers are going to get terribly bored with all the technocratic social work going on now. There will be a return to aesthetic values and desires, or these people will simply do something else with their time. But I find a great deal of hypocrisy in what they’re doing now. It is tiresome to be encountering myths called “The Social Responsibility of the Critic” or “The Political Responsibility of the Critic.” I would rather walk into a bookstore and find a book called “The Aesthetic Responsibilities of the Statesman,” or “The Literary Responsibilities of the Engineer.” Criticism is not a program for social betterment, not an engine for social change. I don’t see how it possibly could be. If you look for the best instance of a socially radical critic, you find a very good one indeed in William Hazlitt. But you will not find that his social activism on the left in any way conditions his aesthetic judgments, or that he tries to make imaginative literature a machine for revolution. You would not find much difference in aesthetic response between Hazlitt and Dr. Samuel Johnson on Milton, though Dr. Johnson is very much on the right politically, and Hazlitt, of course, very much an enthusiast for the French Revolution and for English radicalism. But I can’t find much in the way of a Hazlittian or Johnsonian temperament in life and literature anywhere on the current scene. There are so many tiresomenesses going on. Everyone is so desperately afraid of being called a racist or a sexist that they connive—whether actively or passively—the almost total breakdown of standards that has taken place both in and out of the universities, where writings by blacks or Hispanics or in many cases simply women are concerned.

INTERVIEWER

This movement has helped focus attention on some great novels, though. You’re an admirer, for example, of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

BLOOM

Oh, but that is a very, very rare exception. What else is there like Invisible Man? Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has a kind of superior intensity and firm control. It’s a very fine book indeed. It surprised and delighted me when I first read it and it has sustained several rereadings since. But that and Invisible Man are the only full scale works of fiction I have read by American blacks in this century that have survival possibilities at all. Alice Walker is an extremely inadequate writer, and I think that is giving her the best of it. A book like The Color Purple is of no aesthetic interest or value whatsoever, yet it is exalted and taught in the academies. It clearly is a time in which social and cultural guilt has taken over.

INTERVIEWER

I know you find this to be true of feminist criticism.

BLOOM

I’m very fond of feminist critics, some of whom are my close friends, but it is widely known I’m not terribly fond of feminist criticism. The true test is to find work, whether in the past or present, by women writers that we had undervalued, and thus bring it to our attention and teach us to study it more closely or more usefully. By that test they have failed, because they have added not one to the canon. The women writers who mattered—Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and others who have always mattered on aesthetic grounds—still matter. I do not appreciate Elizabeth Bishop or May Swenson any more or less than I would have appreciated them if we had no feminist literary criticism at all. And I stare at what is presented to me as feminist literary criticism and I shake my head. I regard it at best as being well-intentioned. I do not regard it as being literary criticism.

INTERVIEWER

Can it be valued as a form of social or political literary criticism?

BLOOM

I’m not concerned with political or social criticism. If people wish to practice it, that is entirely their business. It is not mine, heavens! If it does not help me to read a work of aesthetic value then I’m not going to be interested in it at all. I do not for a moment yield to the notion that any social, racial, ethnic, or “male” interest could determine my aesthetic choices. I have a lifetime of experience, learning, and insight that tells me this.

 

A Rambling Riff on the Age of the Amateur, Book Review Ethics, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

1.There’s been a lot of hubbub (at least in my particular echo chamber) the past few weeks about book reviews and the ethics of book reviews:

Too nice?

Too mean?

Just fine?

What about straight-up buying a book review?

And what about when authors get involved, via social media, in calling out reviewers?

2. A sloppy synthesis of what I’ve linked to above might be:

The traditional position of the serious book critic is perhaps being undermined via social media in the hands of well-meaning amateurs.

3. I’m not sure that I exactly agree with the statement above.

4. Still, we live in the Age of the Amateur.

(Saturday Night Live parodied this phenomena in a sketch called “You Can Do Anything!” that hits nail on head).

5. (SNL also unintentionally documented what happens when an amateur is given a forum beyond her untested abilities).

6. I suppose I could spend a few paragraphs parsing the delicate distinctions between literary criticism and book reviews and awarding fucking stars on Amazon or Goodreads, but I think you, gentle reader, probably get all that already.

7. (I consider myself an amateur book reviewer with an interest in but no pretension to literary criticism. I don’t intend to write about myself, but I do feel like I should clarify this).

8. (I know I just said that I don’t intend to write about myself, but again, perhaps germane:

I don’t read a lot of book reviews, especially contemporary book reviews. I mean, I hardly ever read contemporary book reviews. If I’m planning to review the work, a contemporary review may poison any pretense of objectivity I have.

With the occasional new major release, it’s almost impossible not to get a fix on some critical consensus—and I always scan of course.

I usually read a handful of reviews of a book I’m reading after I’ve drafted a review.

And I read lots of old reviews. Lots.

Again, maybe germane to all of this).

9.  But I’m riffing out all over the place. Let me get to the point. Let’s return to the second part of Point 2:

The traditional position of the serious book critic is perhaps being undermined via social media in the hands of well-meaning amateurs.

Is this true? I don’t know, exactly. A few points to consider:

Literary criticism has existed via two more-or-less stable forms for about a century now: Academic scholarship and popular media.

Academic scholarship tends to be highly-specialized and literally inaccessible for most people. I think academic scholarship and research about literature is important and I don’t want to knock it all—but most of it simply isn’t exposed to, let alone absorbed by, a reading public.

Popular media—magazines and newspapers—is clearly in a transitional phase. A lot of this boils down to the dissemination of new technologies, the advent of the so-called “citizen journalist,” and the oligarchization of mass media. Journalism, as taught in journalism school, prescribed a set of methods and ethics that seem frankly quaint when set against the internet and 24hr cable networks. How book reviews fit—if they fit at all—into the emerging paradigm of popular media is hard to say.

10. Obviously, one model for how book reviews/lit crit fits into the emerging paradigm of popular media  is Goodreads, which I really don’t know much about to be honest. Another is Amazon, which has so many problems I don’t even begin to know how to start. Both of these sites use star ratings though, which has always struck me as probably the worst critical model available.

11. (I got an email recently about Riffle, a new service “powered by the Facebook social graph and loaded with expert curated recommendations.” I mean, how’s that for a shudder down the metaphorical spine?)

12. (Re: Point 11—What is it with this term “curator”? Is it synonymous with: “I produce no original content”?)

13. So, to return to the pretense that I have a point:

I’ve written about 300 reviews on this site. Most for books, some movie reviews, and a few other things as well (uh, malt liquor). I didn’t really know what I was doing in the beginning—I mean, I wasn’t even intending to review books. I was just writing about books I’d pilfered, pinched. Stolen. (The name of the site was its mission statement).  At some point I started making critical judgments, trying to, you know, recommend books that I loved to people who I hoped would love them also.

And at some point I came across John Updike’s rules for reviewing books.

I’m not an Updike fan—wasn’t then, amn’t now—but his rules resonated with me, and I made a point of reading his criticism, which is generally excellent.

In short, I’ve tried to follow his rules.

14. (To clarify: A simple thesis for this whole riff: I think book reviewers need to follow some kind of aesthetic, ethical rubric, one that accounts for subjectivity in an objective way—and I think Updike’s list is great).

15. Updike’s first rule is his best:

Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

This one seems fairly straightforward, but is abused all the time, whether it’s Kakutani at the NYT pretending YA is not YA, or a reviewer at Book Kvetch lamenting that a metaphor-laced experimental novel isn’t a science textbook.

(I might have abused Updike’s first rule myself, but I’m not going to ransack the archives for self-incrimination).

16. Updike’s first rule is so graceful because it allows for a sliding scale of sorts, a range of possibilities beyond the critic’s own highly-subjective taste.

Put another way, it’s very easy to say, “I loved it” or “I hated it,” but Updike’s first rule places the onus of critical imagination on the reviewer. The responsible reviewer has to understand his or her audience (or at least has to try to understand his or her audience).

17. The subjective can’t be removed from reviews of course—nor should it be. I think the balancing act here might be described as taste.

18. I’ve occasionally broken some of Updike’s rules, especially when I super hated a book (usually #s 2 &3–didn’t bother to cite text—actually, I’ve done this repeatedly),

19. Sometimes a book confuses my approach to criticism.

20. Hence, Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, which I reviewed in hardback a few months ago, and which is now available in trade paperback, and which I will use now as some sort of loose illustration for whatever point there is in this ramble:

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21. (Okay. So, normally I photograph reader copies (and other books I obtain) and run a little blurb—usually the publisher’s copy or another review—and I was gonna do this with The Orphan Master’s trade paperback (citing my own review in this case), but the post lingered, thoughts accrued around it as I glommed onto all the ideas reverberating around my little echo chamber re: this whole riff. I bring this up in the recognition that a post purporting to address in some way the ethics of book reviewing should point out that the publisher in question (e.g. this blog, e.g. me) regularly posts what amounts to a kind of advertisement for forthcoming books).

22. So why The Orphan Master’s Son?

I use it as example (barring info re: Point 21 for a moment) of a book that didn’t do what I wanted the book to do.

Here’s the end of my review:

 Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.

I think my review of The Orphan Master’s Son was/is fair, but it didn’t—couldn’t—exactly capture how I felt about the book: a mix of disappointment and admiration.

23. To be clear, I took pains to clarify that I thought highly of Johnson’s prose and that I thought most readers would really dig his book.

I gave it, I suppose, a mixed review, which is almost like giving it a negative review.

24. But I didn’t give it a mixed review to be nice—I tempered my criticisms with the knowledge that any attack I made on The Orphan Master’s Son was really a way of defining my own aesthetic tastes. Let me cite Updike’s fifth rule:

 If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

Ultimately, my problem with The Orphan Master’s Son boils down to me wanting Johnson to have written a different book. I feel like I have plenty of reasonable reasony reasons for wanting a different book—first and foremost Johnson’s prowess as proser and storyteller—but that’s no way to review a book. From my review:

I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill,  again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished.

25. Let me end here in repetition (and, perhaps, here in the safety of these parentheses point to how riffing in a rambling wine-soaked list somehow frees me from actually coherently writing about any of the things I promised to—or maybe it doesn’t—which is of course its own ethical ball of worms) by restating a basic answer to some of the basic problems of amateurism:

Book reviewers need to follow some kind of aesthetic, ethical rubric, one that accounts for subjectivity in an objective way.

“Half Horse Half Alligator” — I Review Charles Olson’s Inimitable Melville Study, Call Me Ishmael

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The classical Greeks understood that literature is a form of competition. The eminent literary critic Harold Bloom folded a bit of Freudian psychology into this insight, describing the “anxiety of influence” that lurks beneath the impetus to write, the motivation to enter into an agon with the history of letters, to Oedipally assassinate—or at least assimilate—one’s literary forebears. To put this another way: What does it take to write after, say, The Odyssey? How does one answer to The Book of Job? The gall to write after Don Quixote, after Shakespeare, after Dostoevsky, after George Eliot . . .

What about Moby-Dick? What are the possibilities of even writing about Moby-Dick? (One thinks here of Ishmael’s own futile attempts to measure whales). How could Melville write after Job? After Lear? After Moby-Dick? How did Melville assimilate the texts that presented the strongest anxieties of influence in his opus? Could Melville survive the wreckage of The Pequod? These are the questions that poet-critic Charles Olson tackles—sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, and always with brisk, sharp language—in Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville and Moby-Dick.

Here’s one answer to my list of questions. It comes early in Olson’s book:

The man made a mess of things. He got all balled up in Christ. He made a white marriage. He had one son die of tuberculosis, the other shoot himself. He only rode his own space once—Moby-Dick. He had to go fast, like an American, or he was all torpor. Half horse half alligator.

Melville took an awful licking. He was bound to. He was an original, aboriginal. A beginner. It happens that way to the dreaming men it takes to discover America . . . Melville had a way of reaching back through time until he got history pushed back so far he turned time into space. He was like a migrant backtrailing to Asia, some Inca trying to find a lost home.

We are the last “first” people. We forget that. We act big, misuse our land, ourselves. We lose our own primary.

Melville went back, to discover us, to come forward. He got as far as Moby-Dick.

This passage illustrates Olson’s forceful, often blunt prose, the kind of language that cracks directly at Melville’s own impossible prose in Moby-Dick. I think here of the critic James Wood’s notation in his essay “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” that

The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.

Olson may generalize as he shows a little plumage to master Melville, cutting through huge swaths of history and making poetic leaps into strange similes, but Call Me Ishmael is ultimately keenly attenuated to detail, to the processes of Melville’s constructions at the historical, economic, psychological, religious, and, yes, literary level. Although a slim 119 pages in my 1947 City Lights edition, Call Me Ishmael nevertheless vividly conveys the sources Melville synthesized to create Moby-Dick.

The book begins with an unsourced account of the whaleship Essex, attacked and destroyed by a sperm whale in the Pacific in 1820, a year after Melville’s birth. Olson trusts his readers to connect The Essex to The Pequod. Unlike so much literary scholarship, Olson’s Ishmael doesn’t torture every element of the text into overwrought explications. He provides an overview of the importance of whaling-industry-as-world’s-fuel source in a chapter that reads more like a prose poem than a stuffy history book, and then, in a chapter appropriately titled “Usufruct,” offers up entries from Melville’s own journals as primary evidence of the material that led to Moby-Dick. Olson rarely sticks his nose in here, letting the reader synthesize the selections.

Olson then plumbs Moby-Dick’s literary roots, delving into Shakespeare, particularly Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. He attends to Melville’s own annotations to Shakespeare, and then points out Melville’s literary/political condensation:

As the strongest force Shakespeare caused Melville to approach tragedy in terms of the drama. As the strongest social force America caused him to approach tragedy in terms of democracy.

It was not difficult for Melville to reconcile the two. Because of his perception of America: Ahab . . .

Ahab is the FACT, the Crew the IDEA. The Crew is where what America stands for got into Moby-Dick. They’re what we imagine democracy to be. They’re Melville’s addition to tragedy as he took it from Shakespeare. He had to do more with the people than offstage shouts in a Julius Caesar. This was the difference a Declaration of Independence made.

The Shakespeare section of Call Me Ishmael marvels: Olson’s perceptive powers simultaneously enlighten and make seemingly-familiar territory dark, strange. He then moves into a discussion of post-Moby Melville, a man perhaps crushed by his own achievement—not by any financial success, no, definitely no, but the metaphysical success. Like a Moses, Melville had found the god he so desperately needed:

Melville wanted a god. Space was the First, before time, earth, man. Melville sought it: “Polar eternities” behind “Saturn’s gray chaos.” Christ, a Holy Ghost, Jehovah never satisfied him. When he knew peaces it was with a god of Prime. His dream was Daniel’s: the Ancient of Days, garment white as snow, hair like the pure wool. Space was the paradise Melville was exile of.

When made his whale he made his god. Ishmael once comes to the bones a Sperm whale pitched up on land. They are massive, and his struck with horror at the “antemosaic unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale.”

When Moby-Dick is first seen he swims a snow-hill on the sea. To Ishmael he is the white bull Jupiter swimming to Crete with ravished Europa on his horns: a prime, lovely, malignant white.

Olson agrees with an 1856 journal entry by Nathaniel Hawthorne that he cites at length: Melville “can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” In Olson’s analysis, after having found god-in-the-whale, Melville plummets into an existential crisis. He gives over to his inner-alligator, torpid, enervated, numb, but still fierce and potent and monstrous. “He denied himself in Christianity,” writes Olson, linking the downward spiral of Melville’s career and family life to this religion.

To this end, Olson is too dismissive of Melville’s later work; when he can find nothing of the “old Melville” to praise in Benito Cereno, Bartleby, or Billy Budd, it’s almost as if he’s willfully ignoring evidence that contradicts his thesis. These are marvelous books, and if they can’t win a contest against Moby-Dick, it’s worth pointing out that little of what’s been written after that book can.

And yet we can write after Melville; we can even write on Melville. The will and vitality of Olson’s forceful, intelligent prose opens a way, or at least exemplifies a way. At the same time, paradoxically, a reading of Call Me Ishmael seems to foreclose the need, if not the possibility, of reading another study of Moby-Dick. This statement is not meant to be a knock against Melville scholarship. Here’s the thing though: life is short, time is limited, and if one plans to read a book about Moby-Dick, it should be Olson’s Call Me Ishmael. It’s great, grand stuff.