In “Pierre; or, The Ambiguities,” Herman Melville’s weirdly dizzying gothic thriller, we find the disturbed and disturbing Pierre incinerating everything his father left behind. A portrait curls in the flames, as do stacks of letters. “There is no knowing Herman Melville,” Jill Lepore writes in her article in the New Yorker in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth this summer. In part this is because he didn’t want his papers to be preserved, burning his manuscripts and shying away from photographers.
Moby Dick defeated me for years–I just couldn’t get past the first few pages. Some books are like that, requiring repeated effort. I did end up reading it many years ago but I have to admit it was work. Despite tripping up on the “idolatrous dotings” of the Egyptians and “the aboriginal whalemen, the ‘Redmen,'” despite being baffled by the endnotes (and that “Sub-Sub Librarian”) I did get glimpses of what all the fuss was about. The vast expanse of the book, like the ocean itself; the ship in peril at the hands of the obsessive captain; all that cetology; all that commentary on the world as the author must have known it, its realities obscure and dim to my 20th century mind; and the other world that was purely about the flaws and blindness to which humans are prey.
Practically ignored in its author’s lifetime, the first American edition of Moby-Dick of 2,915 copies did not sell well at $1.50 and only netted Melville lifetime earnings of $556.37. The rest went up in smoke, literally, in the Harper fire of 1853.
Aside from providing windows into Melville’s life, Lepore’s article reminds me of the value of re-reading and growing into books that we may have chanced upon prematurely in our youth. Re-reading grows the curatorial collection in the mind, a bit like sea-glass getting polished by the ocean’s waves.
Perhaps it’s time to reread Moby Dick. We are now, after all, in the middle of a real-life cetacean Armageddon. Beyond that, we are all playing witness to the actions of deranged captains of the good ship Earth, or perhaps we are, collectively, those captains. Some of us, by default, pick up the pens of sub-sub librarians, taking notes. “Thus and thus and thus,” we write, hoping against hope to escape the ashes.