Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Made of Paper: Moby Dick

About thirty-five years ago, I spent a miserably cold winter in upstate New York. Of course, any winter in upstate New York is likely to be miserable for a native of Louisiana. During that time, I consoled myself with what may be the best novel ever written, Herman Melville's Moby Dick.  It was more than a book. It was a revelation. There are a few works of fiction that make one feel like the authors must have been writing down the dictation of some voice greater than that of a simple human being. This story of the wandering outcast Ishmael on the ship guided by the madly questing Ahab has the quality of a parable, but a parable with many and changing points. It contains a world of literary forms, with extended soliloquies on philosophical subjects, tales within tales, and essays on cetology; all bound together by a grim fatalism.

Melville's earliest success came as a writer of adventure stories, based on his own sea voyages and life among South Sea cannibals. His most successful early book, Typee, published in 1846,  told of his experiences among the cannibal islanders of the Marquesas after he deserted his ship. Omoo, which came out a year later, is a fictionalized version of his voyage to Tahiti, a mutiny there on his ship, and his observations of life on that island. Already, Melville was becoming more than an writer of adventure stories with Omoo, which may have been why it was less popular than Typee with the general reading public.

Mardi, published in 1849, is a curious book. It starts out as another sea voyage, but about mid way through, the countries visited by the main characters turn symbolic and one-dimensional, and it becomes an allegory about life in America. It is as if Melville turned from the sea-tale to the philosophical narrative, and the two don't seem to fit together. But read as a first try at what he was to accomplish two years later in Moby Dick, it comes across as Melville's striving for a novel that would be more than a novel.

Moby Dick did not sell well and Melville became one of those largely ignored by his own era and discovered by posterity, although who knows what that means in a posterity that may cease reading books.  I left upstate New York as soon as spring arrived, having decided that I wanted to take a long bicycling trip through the rural parts of the eastern United States to return to New Orleans. I had to travel light, so I carried only one book in my panniers: The Portable Melville.

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