From David Wiesner’s marvelous wordless wonder book Flotsam.
From David Wiesner’s marvelous wordless wonder book Flotsam.
[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. To be very clear, I think Moby-Dick is fantastic—but I also enjoy seeing what people compelled to write negative reviews of the book on Amazon had to say. What follows are selections of one-star Amazon reviews; I’ve preserved the reviewers’ unique styles of punctuation and spelling. See also: on Joyce’s Ulysses and Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress].
I bought this book for a friend in jail. Alas, he was unable to read it because the font was too small.
First of all, classiflying it as fiction is a mistake. Probably a good 60% of the book is non-fiction – chapter after chapter dedicated to every imaginable detail of the biology of the whale and every imaginable nuance of whaling.
Ray Bradbury, who wrote the screenplay for this novel, (a la Gregory Peck) couldn’t even finish the damn thing!
Moby Dick, was a horrible waiste of time. Along with its wordy paragraphs, it also talked about uninteresting issues. It is also to long, and you don’t hear of them encountering the whale until the end of the book.
I am quite the fan of stories which involve man eating sea creatures, such as Jaws. Moby Dick is nothing compared to such classics, I fear.
Moby Ick’s more like it.
It made for a smashing movie.
Throughout the book, you may read one chapter with some action only to be followed by 5 or 6 chapters of tangents that are not necessary to understand the story.
Honestly, Over 400 pages devoted to killing a whale because it ate your hand? Come on.
Those chapters about Ishmael sleeping with whatever his name was and Ishamel had such a good time with the other guy’s arm over him and leg over him that he didn’t know if he was straight or gay any more.
What is the whales motivation? You dont know.
I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow! Keep Moby Dick away from my bed!
i personally didn’t enjoy the philosophical or deep side of the book, i have read much much better books in that regard.
It is 540somepages of boring whaling details.
I think if you made it into a short comic strip, you would have liked it.
There is no suspense, and I find the idea of people hunting whales offensive. Offensive with a capital O.
No wonder Melville flopped as a writter.
OMG, this is tedious and torture to read.
If you like a story with nonessential information and an author that is entirely to verbose, then this book is for you.
I love literatur just as much as the next guy but we must face it 100 years or so ago American literature was reall weak and lagging from the rest of the world, perhaps now they’re starting to catch up with writers like Ann Rice and them.
It is hard to read. like work. Doubt he could get published today.
I HATE this book. Why? It’s BORING!
The only people who like this book are english teachers who derive a feeling of moral superiority from forcing others to read this incredibly bad novel.
If you want to read lots of meaningless whale trivia read the book.
Boy gets whale. Boy loses whale. Boy gets whale. Spawns yawns.
1. Prompted by Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson’s marvelous study of Moby-Dick, I took a fifth trip through Melville’s massive opus this past month.
2. Every time I read Moby-Dick it seems funnier and sadder. Richer. Thicker.
3. I cobbled together my reading over different media and spaces: I listened to William Hootkins‘ outstanding unabridged audiobook version, and then reread on my Kindle key passages I’d mentally underlined; I then checked those passages against the copy of Moby-Dick I annotated the hell out of in grad school.
4. I posted some of my favorite excerpts of Moby-Dick here on Biblioklept because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to write about the book—not really—that I wouldn’t be able to handle all of its language. (My riff on Olson’s book obsesses over Olson’s ability to write after Melville and Melville’s ability to write after Shakespeare).
5. Really, in posting so many fragments of Moby-Dick, I suppose that I’ve attempted to abrogate any kind of critical duty to describe the book under discussion in terms of its own language.
6. Point 5 is really a way of saying: Moby-Dick, like any sublime work of literature, is a self-defining, self-describing, and even self-deconstructing text.
7. Or, another way of making such a claim:
Let me (mis)appropriate Samuel Beckett’s description of Finnegans Wake and contend that the description fits Moby-Dick just as aptly:
Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something, it is that something itself.
8. So here circumnavigate back to my own recent reading and auditing of the book:
Hootkins’ audio recording would make a great starting point for anyone (unnecessarily) daunted by Melville’s big book. He performs the book, commanding his audience’s attention. He unpacks the humor that might otherwise hide from untuned 21st century ears; he communicates the book’s deep, profound sorrow. His Ishmael is perceptive, clever, generous. His Stubb, hilarious. His Ahab a strange philosophical terror.
After listening to Hootkins on my commute, I’d return to key passages on my Kindle, and then finally review the notes I wrote in the cheap hardback Signet edition I read in grad school.
But why bring this up?
9. I don’t know.
Maybe: Unpacking Moby-Dick is too hard, too much—would require its own book, a book that would cite the entirety of Melville’s book.
But discussing the book this way seems a disservice to potential readers; it’s as if we would cloak the book in a mystic veil.
10. If I have a point to all of this: Moby-Dick is wonderful, funny, moving, engaging; a genre-bender that tackles philosophy, history, science; an adventure tale; a psychological novel brimming with ideas, allusions—but one delivered in sonorous, poetic language. It’s good, great, grand. Read it, if you haven’t. Reread it.
11. So I’ve failed to even try to begin to attempt to pretend to describe the plot.
Here: Ishmael, depressed, suicidal perhaps, decides to go to sea. To go whaling.
He tries to measure the whale, and by measuring the whale, maybe measure the world. But this is not really possible, certainly not in language. Certainly not in first-person perspective.
In Chapter 86, “The Tail,” Ishmael tells us:
The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. … Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep. I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.
(I don’t suppose I need to remark that Melville here lets one mighty tail stand in for another mighty tale—a tale he cannot face).
12. “Call me Ishmael”: our protagonist hails us.
But these famous opening lines aren’t really the beginning of the book. First we have the section titled “Extracts,” and before that “Etymology.” The first entry on the etymology of the whale, from Hackluyt, warns us not to leave out “the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word.”
Whaling. Hailing. Wailing.
The whiteness of the whale.
The witness of the wail.
13. How, just how, does Ishmael witness? How does he manage to tell this story? Did I obsess over this in earlier readings? I don’t think so—I was too concerned with absorbing the what and the why of the story to closely attend the how of its telling.
14. The novel begins in standard first-person point-of-view territory, Ishmael guiding us through Manhattan, New Bedford, Nantucket—but by the time he’s boarded the Pequod and set out into the wide watery world, this first-person perspective transcends the limits of physics: Our narrator not only attends the private conversations of Ahab, his mates, his harpooners, his men—but also the very interior of those men, their minds, their dreams, their imaginations.
Is Ishmael a ghost?
15. And to return to Ahab for a moment: My god, what a voice! His infecting, addicting insanity. His agon with Moby Dick, with the sun, with himself.
16. And Starbuck: Starbuck comes across weaker and weaker each time I read the book. We’re to believe he’s a man of convictions, but he moves in half-measures. In his final moments he tries to match or feign or approximate Ahab’s insanity: tragicomedy.
17. And Stubb: Despite his cruelties, he may be my favorite character in the book.
18. While I’m riffing: Is there a novel more phallic in the American canon than Moby-Dick? All that sperm: All that life-force.
19. This is maybe what Moby-Dick is about: Life-force. The attempt to to resurrect and die and resurrect again. The coffin that serves as life-buoy. The life-line that connects men that might also be their death. A counterpane to counter pain. A condensation of oppositions.
A yarn, a rope, a series of knots, layered, layering, self-contextualizing.
An attempt to put into language what cannot be put into language.
20. Twenty points: Maybe too long for the “short riff” promised in the title, but also surely too short to even begin to start to approach to pretend to say something adequate about the novel. So a parting thought: Moby-Dick is better—richer, fuller, deeper—each time I read it, and I look forward to reading it again.
Yet, as previously hinted, this omnitooled, open-and-shut carpenter, was, after all, no mere machine of an automaton. If he did not have a common soul in him, he had a subtle something that somehow anomalously did its duty. What that was, whether essence of quicksilver, or a few drops of hartshorn, there is no telling. But there it was; and there it had abided for now some sixty years or more. And this it was, this same unaccountable, cunning life-principle in him; this it was, that kept him a great part of the time soliloquizing; but only like an unreasoning wheel, which also hummingly soliloquizes; or rather, his body was a sentry-box and this soliloquizer on guard there, and talking all the time to keep himself awake.
From “The Carpenter,” Chapter 107 of Melville’s Moby-Dick.
What are the problems of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”?
This question seems like a bad starting place.
Let me share an anecdote instead.
—I was in the tenth grade the first time I read “Bartleby.”
At the time, I thought I was a teacher’s dream—a sharp reader, someone who loved English class, someone with opinions about the texts we read. Lots and lots of opinions. In retrospect, I realize that I was a nightmare for poor Ms. Hall, a wonderful teacher who I’m sure dreaded our meetings (there were like 15 guys in the class, all unruly).
Simply put, I didn’t want to do things her way.
So she gave me a copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories and told me to read “Bartleby,” suggesting that there was something I might learn from it.
I don’t know if backfired is exactly the right term for the results of this experiment. I do know that “Bartleby” offered me a brilliant retort—a literary allusion!—to refuse any task I didn’t feel like undertaking in 10th grade English:
“I would prefer not to.”
—While we’re here—
“I would prefer not to”
So, this is clearly one of the problems of “Bartleby,” if not the core problem condensed into one utterance: Why would? Why the conditional?
Consider, vs. I prefer not to, a constative (or maybe even performative) utterance.
But Bartleby “would prefer not to.”
Contrast this with the imperative must that the narrator employs:
At the expiration of that period, I peeped behind the screen, and lo!
Bartleby was there.
I buttoned up my coat, balanced myself; advanced slowly towards him, touched his shoulder, and said, “The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.”
“I would prefer not,” he replied, with his back still towards me.
He remained silent.
Now I had an unbounded confidence in this man’s common honesty. He had frequently restored to me sixpences and shillings carelessly dropped upon the floor, for I am apt to be very reckless in such shirt-button affairs. The proceeding then which followed will not be deemed extraordinary.
“Bartleby,” said I, “I owe you twelve dollars on account; here are thirty-two; the odd twenty are yours.—Will you take it?” and I handed the bills towards him.
These brief lines perhaps serve to summarize Melville’s tale.
We see here the basic plot—our titular scrivener will not leave the lawyer’s office after weeks of refusing (although refusing is not quite the right word) to work.
We also see here what I take to be the theme of “Bartleby,” the strange ethical position Bartleby’s (conditional) would prefer not to places the narrator’s (imperative) must set against the moral backdrop of do unto others: namely, an impossible ethical position for a Wall Street lawyer especially and most of us in general.
And “Bartleby,” as you’ll no doubt recall, is in some ways Melville trying to work out the problems of Matthew 25:35-39—
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
Perhaps our narrator tries to do these things—tries to feed and clothe and help this stranger Bartleby—but he can’t. Because Bartleby won’t give him an agency to relate to.
Because Bartleby’s utterance “I would prefer not to” denies the performative or constantive or declarative—indeed, it suspends or disrupts its own conditionality, the relation of the subject to its predicate verb.
Or consider one of Bartleby’s only other lines: “What is wanted?” His grammar again suspends agency, disrupts the notion of a stable I (let alone objective case me) that the narrator can interface with, dictate to, interrogate, see his own narcissistic reflection in).
—Hang on though, I was telling an anecdote. It was about the first time I read “Bartleby,” when I was fourteen or fifteen. This is the book:
I stole it of course, or never returned it. Yes, that’s duct tape on its side. It is more or less falling apart. Here’s the back, barcode and all.
Over the years, like many readers, I returned many times to “Bartleby,” reading it again in high school, then in college, then in grad school. I read it unassigned too, of course—when I read Kafka and it recalled itself to me, and when I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I read it when compelled. And then I read it with my own students. (I read most of the other stuff in the collection too, of course — Billy Budd and then later (why so much later?!) Benito Cereno).
I scrawled through so much of the book that my annotations are basically worthless, virtually everything underlined or circled:
So we butt up against the problems of “Bartleby”—the problems of interpretation. How to figure an eponymous “hero” who is no more than a phantom, a trace, a lack? How to hash out a narrator who presents himself in relatively admirable terms and yet is so clearly an ethical failure? Why oh why would Bartleby prefer not to? Is the story a tragedy or a comedy? Does it present a world with rules, codes, ethics, or is all absurd here—nihilistic even? Is Bartleby a Christ figure? An ascetic monk? A ghost? Is the story just about Melville’s own anger over the poor reception of Pierre? How much of contemporary transcendentalist thought can we find in the story?
The kind people of Melville House were sporting enough to send a copy of “Bartleby” my way. The book is part of their HybridBooks project; these books offer “digital illuminations” along with traditional (uh, paper) books.
I’d requested a HybridBook—any one of them, really—because I now read about half the time on a Kindle Fire—so I was particularly interested in what a “hybrid” had to offer. What is the reading experience like?
First, the book itself is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series—beautiful, minimal design with French flaps. I read it on my porch the afternoon it arrived, enjoying its pristine, white, unmarked pages. Then, I checked out the “Digital Illuminations.”
The illuminations are available in several device-specific options, all easy to download with the QRC that comes with the book. I read most of the illuminations on my Kindle, but I also put them on my iPhone and my laptop. I had originally intended this post to be specifically about the digital illuminations, but hell, “Bartleby” is just too damn freighted a read for me at this point. Anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff in there, including “The Transcendentalist” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, selections from Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Priestly, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and several excerpts from Melville himself, including letters, other books, and reviews. What I found must, uh, illuminating was “Of Some of the Sources of Poetry Amongst Democratic Nations” from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. There are also illustrations, including a map; there’s even a recipe for ginger nuts. I wish that MH had included a digital copy of the book though. From a practical, concrete standpoint, I found it easier to switch between the free public domain version of “Bartleby” on my Kindle and MH’s illuminations than it would have been to pick up the physical book.
Now, to shift back (perhaps):
Do the digital illuminations help to answer or solve or address some of the problems of “Bartleby,” some of the issues posed above?
—I suppose the hedging answer is yes and no.
The additional material illuminates some of the philosophical, political, historical, and even personal context for “Bartleby.” The material is edited with minimal intrusion, but with enough explication to clearly connect the various selections to Melville’s story. If I’m reading with my teacher hat on (this is a metaphor; there is no literal hat), I’d say you probably couldn’t do better than what Melville House has put together here. The digital illuminations provide a strong foundation for an informed reading, a range of texts that speak (obliquely or otherwise) to “Bartleby.”
Does it all add up to a deeper or richer understanding of “Bartleby”?
—Well. No. And then no.
I mean, would we want a series of essays that would provide the missing pieces that would allow us to puzzle out “Bartleby”? Could we even trust such pieces, let alone trust ourselves to trust such pieces? Isn’t this strange uncertainty why “Bartleby” endures—and endures apart from Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, strange texts themselves, but also not nearly as confounding?
“Bartleby” simultaneously wriggles and plays dead; it burns with apparent wit but then reminds us that we might not be in on the joke. It is Kafkaesque thirty years before Kafka was even born. It shakes off its allegorical idiom the minute we think we might limn its contours. It makes us read it again because we cannot pin it down.
—But maybe you want to pin it down, tickle it, torture it, make it solve its problems (or at least respond, damn it!).
And maybe I claimed that “Bartleby” was about something—that it was about ethical relations, about duty to one’s fellows—especially when a fellow isn’t a fellow but rather the trace of a fellow, the idea of a fellow, a ghost.
So, look, here’s a take on it:
The narrator—let’s call him Lawyer—Lawyer, see he’s a dick, in the parlance of our times. He’s a dick because he doesn’t know that he’s a dick, which is one of the constituting factors of the ontological state of being a dick. He also does not want to see himself as being a dick (this is another factor in the ontological state of being a dick). He wants to see himself as a good guy, this Wall Street dickhead, but Bartleby won’t let him do that. Bartleby won’t even let him see himself at all: Bartleby doesn’t reflect back. He prefers not to.
Our Lawyer, see, he’s all buttoned up, he’s snug (these are his words). He tells us upfront that he possesses “a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”; he repeatedly points out the way that people are “useful” to him (or to others). He sees no possibility of an ethics outside of usefulness; on top of that, he cannot see that he cannot see any possibility of an ethics based on anything but “usefulness” (or the negative economy of obstruction figured in Bartleby).
And ah Bartleby, ah humanity: One time model employee, once apparently free from the eccentricities that plague the Lawyer’s other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. Machinelike.
Bartleby mechanically completes large quantities of copies without comment or complaint. But when asked to simply read in unison with Lawyer and his scriveners, Bartleby replies: “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby will not read with others—he is literally not on the same page as his colleagues.
Lawyer confronts Bartleby with his noncompliance; Bartleby repeats his mantra. Fuck mantra though because it’s not a mantra. It’s only repeated for Lawyer, to Lawyer, really, who can’t schematize/name/pin down Bartleby’s response. In fact, I would prefer not to so startles Lawyer that he says he’s “unmanned” by the words. So he rationalizes Bartleby’s odd response, internalizes it, paraphrases it, if you like.
And then Bartleby ceases to even do his copying work. Oh the anarchy! But wait, there’s not even anarchy. There’s not even protest. There’s just big nothing. But not even big nothing—instead the smallest nothing (which proves that big nothing is possible).
So Lawyer attempts to “help” Bartleby. Lawyer believes doing so is his “Christian duty.” And to know that this duty has been met, Lawyer needs Bartleby to be his echo. But Bartleby’s I prefer not to denies this narcissistic exchange. He empties his I of ego (shades of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball).
Confused, Lawyer tries to pay off Bartleby. When that doesn’t work, Lawyer actually packs up and moves to a new office. But even here he can’t cut off Bartleby. The office’s landlord comes to Lawyer to remove Bartleby.
And when Bartleby refuses to leave the office he is taken to “the Tombs”—prison.
Here, Lawyer tries to provide comfort for Bartleby (hearken ye back to Matthew 25:35-39). He arranges for Bartleby to receive good food in the prison. Bartleby prefers not to eat though, and dies curled up in the fetal position during a visit by Lawyer.
Lawyer is the first reader of Bartleby. But like many readers of “Bartleby,” he is confused.
Lawyer’s confusion results from his need for safety—for ease, for comfort, for a snug, buttoned-upness—and that safety is bought through an affirmation of first-person experience: namely, in the affirmation of the self in the other. That security is bought through assimilating another person’s first-person perspective. But Bartleby is empty of I, of self, of ego.
Bartleby would prefer not to: He will not be ventriloquized: He will not echo: He will not read from the same script: He will not be “of use,” as Lawyer puts it.
So Bartleby dissipates and dissolves: He goes down in the Tombs: a ghost, and impossibility, presence coupled with absence.
— And the epilogue:
We all recall the epilogue, yes?
Lawyer offers up “one little item of rumor,” a morsel, a “vague report . . . that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington.” The idea tears the narrator up inside: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”
For Lawyer, Bartleby is a dead letter, a failed letter.
Did Melville worry that “Bartleby” would be a failed letter? That it would not find an audience? That his work would not be delivered? If he did, it seems too then that Bartleby’s negations foreclose or reject this concern. Not sure of how to wrap up this riff, I’ll retreat to the safety of my title.
We find the final problems (in basic narrative chronology, that is) of “Bartleby” in its final line. Has Lawyer learned from his experience? Can he empathize, finally feel something for Bartleby beyond the confines of a perceived ethical duty? Is Bartleby a place holder for all humanity? Or is Bartleby in opposition to humanity? What does it mean—-
Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!
The good people at Melville House sent me their edition of Melville’s classic novella Bartleby the Scrivener. I’ve read it at least half a dozen times since the 10th grade, but the Melville House version is part of their Hybrid Books series, which features digital illuminations. I shall report in full in a week or two, focusing on what the illuminations add to the book, and what the reading experience is like.
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.