Herman Melville is “still vigorous,” said one article published in 1890, one year before the death of the author. It was news. Melville was, like Ishmael, a wandering survivor of a masterful wreck. When the obits followed in 1891, readers again needed reminding. Melville? Alive? No longer. And his books, perhaps, the obit writers said, Typee will be remembered. And one, Melville was “an untrained imagination” with an “inaccurate and unliterary” vocabulary.
I’ve run aground too many bad opinions of Moby-Dick or The Whale to think that my recommending it here will be well received. But Melville’s 200th birthday just passed, so I’m going to plead with you. Read it. Don’t stop at the chapter where he catalogs whales. And don’t skip it. In this catalog is a love of subject, a powerful attempt to understand these animals that are so difficult to observe now, let alone in the 19th century. Outside of that chapter, which I’ll grant is dry, Moby-Dick needs no promoters. Like the whale ship with the wind astern and sea smooth, the reader sometimes glides upon the language and, at other times, feels near to being ripped apart by it. Characters, Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck, Bildad, none are stuffing. Each appears like a figurehead from the fog before showing they are quick with life. And its funny. Truly, truly funny. Take the meeting of Ishmael and Queequeg, the buddies at the heart of the story. They meet in a double-booked bed at a whaler’s inn. Tension explodes into action and then a friendship consummated by the smoking of a pipe/hatchet hybrid. I promise, it will make all other buddy film/story meetings pale.
And then read Typee. The Encantadas. Bartleby, the Scrivener – also hilarious, like a 19th century Office Space. Read everything. Melville’s genius understood people, our profound flaws as well as our peculiar strengths, and it reveled with great guffaws in strangeness of being.
Once you consume Melville, you’ll forever have an appetite for anything that reminds you of him. For those appetites, try Alfred Lancing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. For a differently related read altogether, try Dan Beachy-Quick’s lyrical debut novel An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky.
Support for Check It Out Comes from Avery Brothers.