James Fenimore Cooper’s Brave Old World

The Father of Us All

James Fenimore Cooper, once the most familiar of American writers, has by now become very nearly the strangest. He is an ancestor just remote enough to be im­penetrable, the voice of an origin to which we no longer feel intimately linked. Only a generation separates him from Melville, but that generation marks a great divide: in our perspective Melville seems the first of the moderns, and Cooper the last of the ancients. Yet this alienation from Cooper will perhaps enable us to read him fully for the first time. For Cooper’s scope is vast, and only a portion of his work — The Leatherstocking Tales, The Spy, a handful of the sea stories — was ever assimilated into the national canon. His extraordinary range en­compasses tendentious novels of ideas (Home As Found, The Chainbearer), idyllic regional chronicles (Satanstoe), grotesque satire (The Manikins), ideological dissec­tions of European history (The Bravo), travel books (Sketches of Switzerland), controversial political treatises (The Ameri­can Democrat), and increasingly experimental flights of social and religious allegory (The Crater, The Oak Openings). Taken as a whole, his work reveals him as a primordial inventor of genres, the cosmogra­pher of a new literature and a new mind. Traditionally, however, his books have been valued not so much on their own quirky terms as for their wealth of suggestive and infinitely plunderable images and situ­ations. He has functioned as a psychic com­post heap; until recently, any American writer could be counted on to have passed, usually at an early age, through Cooper’s primal landscapes of sea and forest. The glades and rapids and rocky barricades of The Last of the Mohicans and The Deer­slayer have served American literature as an internalized theme park, a terrain where every cranny became absorbed into the col­lective unconscious.

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Yet despite his penetration of the nation­al psyche, and his status as more or less the George Washington of American letters, the respect Cooper has received at home has rarely been more than grudging. The writer who so profoundly affected Balzac and Schubert and Belinsky was definitively classed by his compatriots as a maker of children’s adventures. There is hardly a lit­erary sin of which he has not been accused. His conception of novelistic form was said to be clumsily appropriated from Sir Walter Scott; his characterizations were wooden, his plots perfunctory. Worst of all, he was — ­and is — widely considered the most incom­petent of stylists. His prose, more than any­thing, has kept readers away from him — a style usually described as inexpressive, stilted, convoluted. It isn’t simply that his writing is old-fashioned; Cooper’s prose has been making problems for people right from the start. Early on, Poe took aim at “an awkwardness so remarkable as to be a matter of absolute astonishment, when we consider his long and continual practice with the pen,” and Mark Twain, elaborating irritably on the thesis that ”Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language,” testified to the queasiness that Cooper’s style can induce: ”When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it. This is Cooper.”

I have my own rueful associations with that style, since Cooper was the first grown­up writer I ever attempted to read. Driven by a childhood obsession with war-whoops and musket-fire, and having exhausted ev­ery available synopsis, retelling, and comic book adaptation of the Leatherstocking novels, I felt it was time to enter the real forest. No doubt I envisioned some fabulous intensification of experience: the wooded playland glimpsed in N.C. Wyeth’s splendid illustrations would, if I could read the original, be brought to life. The disappoint­ment that ensued sent me back to Dr. Seuss and Little Lulu for another year. Where I had anticipated lakes and clearings and bracing wilderness air, I was assailed by thickets of subordinate clauses, labyrinths of circumlocution, and the meanderings of a syntax that seemed to move away from the reality I wanted it to reveal.

Cooper’s literary mannerisms can un­questionably be a trial. Despite his almost somnambulistic methods of composition —­ he wrote rapidly and prolifically, often without pausing to revise or even read over what he had done — his language is remark­able not for its fluency or forward drive but for its tentativeness, its tortuous entangle­ments, the sense of heavy lifting which in­forms its minutest transitions. Repeatedly we encounter the sentence that turns back on itself, the sentence that struggles to es­cape from its own beginning, the sentence that hauls itself breathlessly to shore: “Mabel was becoming used to a situation that, at first, she had found not only novel, but a little irksome, and the officers and men, in their turn, gradually familiarized to the presence of a young and blooming girl, whose attire and carriage had that air of modest gentility about them, which she had obtained in the family of her patroness, an­noyed her less by their ill concealed admira­tion, while they gratified her by the respect which, she was fain to think, they paid her on account of her father, but which, in truth, was more to be attributed to her own modest, but spirited deportment, than to any deference for the worthy serjeant.”

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Cooper’s admirers tend to get around such sentences by calling him a great or near-great writer who by chance wrote bad­ly — in which case he would seem to achieve by sheer ineptitude that discomfiture with language that some postmodernists inten­tionally induce. But I don’t think the sub­liminal implications of his style can be dis­missed as accidental side effects. The smoothness he lacks may be a smoothness that on some level he rejected; the torsions of his syntax may denote not a technical failure but a deep and unresolved debate over what is to be seen and what is to be said. This would make Cooper the first of a long line of American writers who have sought to crash through the web of “fine writing” to reach a rawer sense of things as they are. The unease and incompleteness of Cooper’s sentences are associated with an opening up to the things of the world, a desire to include everything.

In all his writings, Cooper is aware that he is the first full-scale imaginer, the progenitor of a literature. He has a blank book in which to transcribe a new world, but the only language available to him is that of the old world. The struggle starts there. He must shift that language around so that it can show something its makers never saw: a task, all the harder in that Cooper wasn’t much of a literary type to begin with. (An ex-Navy man living the life of a gentleman farmer, he had backed into a writing career at 31 — supposedly out of exasperation on reading a popular novel.) He becomes visi­bly frustrated at the difficulties of saying exactly what he means, but he persists, sac­rificing grace to honesty: Writing of a young girl unable to draw her lover’s face from memory, he compares her to “the author, whose fertile imagination fancies pictures that defy his powers of description”: a simi­le from the heart. In Cooper’s temperament one senses a rough impatience, an urge to seize hold of language and push it where he wants it to go. His prose is a battlefield, and sometimes the author himself seems to feel he is losing the battle. At such moments there is an impression of something just missed, an equation not quite completed, a mental flailing in which the boundary be­tween words and what they describe is momentarily smudged. His rocks have commas in them; the trees are made of paper; you part the glistening branches and find an unwieldy cluster of abstractions staring you in the face.

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“The season and the night, to represent them truly, were of a nature to stimulate the sensations which youth, health and hap­piness are wont to associate with novelty.” This might be a snapshot by John Locke, and it requires a leap of faith to find in it the weather of Lake Ontario on an autumn evening. Nevertheless the underlying sense of physical reality is so strong in Cooper’s books that some readers make the leap. We never doubt that there is a world there; its dynamics are evident in the very inarticulateness to which he is sometimes reduced. Seeing is rarely a simple process, least of all for Cooper. When he tries to say what is in the woods he finds himself caught between conflicting systems: there is the tree in it­self, the tree as the Indians see it, the tree as the whites see it. Cooper charts contradictory viewpoints with cumbersome preci­sion. Judge Temple, in The Pioneers, sees the woods with the foresight of a real estate developer: “To his eye, where others saw nothing but a wilderness, towns, manufactories, bridges, canals, mines, and all the other resources of an old country, were constantly presenting themselves.” The mental baggage people bring to the wilderness is part of the scene, and the abstract nouns which haunt Cooper’s landscapes can be seen as the ghostly harbingers of the civili­zation which has come to despoil the lakes and forests. A phrase such as “vast sublimi­ty” hovers above the treetops like a malevolent helicopter.

We should take nothing for granted about Cooper’s writing; it’s too easy to focus on what he fails to do and thereby miss what he does. Even to think of his books as novels may be misleading. While they bear a close external resemblance to the romances of Sir Walter Scott — complete with poetic epigraphs and orotund expository preludes — their internal workings are en­tirely different: looser, more open to digression, more various on texture. A Cooper nov­el can be as much a hodgepodge of disparate elements as The Cantos or The Maximus Poems or any other example of that most American of genres, the universal collage, the Book of Everything. Although he was demonstrably capable of writing a polished, unified novel — The Bravo, his claustrophobic exercise in Venetian in­trigue, is a superb example — he often didn’t choose to do so. His books, become clearer if we read them as a succession of scenes,

sentences, fragments. Some are fragments of novels, some of other things: a descrip­tive geography, a manual of carpentry, a dialect comedy acted by off-duty militia­men, a pamphlet on land rights, a philosophical disputation, a demonstration of the art of wooing, a sermon, a bill of lading, the rant of a bearded prophet spawned by the wilderness. Cooper discon­certs by his unpredictability. One minute he evokes, with reverent awe, the glories of God; the next he’s muttering about the money-grubbing habits of Connecticut men or discoursing on the fine points of canoe construction. Jokes and massacres are found side by side. The balance is always uneasy, always improvisational.

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Essentially Cooper wants to do far more than his chosen form will let him. The stan­dard novel imposes standard destinies, but Cooper is trying to talk about things that have never happened before. His own origi­nality undermines the structures of his books, so that they are often most powerful just where the cracks in the design begin to show. How else account for the undeniable impression of reality he creates out of the most unreal elements? The Prairie, for, in­stance, features a plot that is clumsy to the point of incoherence; its characters shift about like peculiar operatic marionettes, and its scenes of comic relief are tedious even by Cooper ‘s standards. Yet the stagi­ness and the static rhythms fuse into an insistent solemnity. The melodramatic epi­sodes open up to reveal other scenes latent within them, the flowery speeches reverber­ate against an arid silence, and the stereo­typed characters startle into sudden life, as if without warning a mask became a dis­turbingly real face. Rocks and vegetation work their way into the story and somehow take it over: ”A solitary willow had taken root in the alluvion, and profiting by its exclusive possession of the soil, the tree had sent up its stem far above the crest of the adjacent rock, whose peaked summit had once been shadowed by its branches. But its loveliness had gone with the mysterious principle of life … The larger, ragged and fantastick branches still obtruded them­selves abroad, while the white and hoary trunk stood naked and tempest-riven. Not a leaf, not a sign of vegetation was to be seen about it. In all things it proclaimed the frailty of existence, and the fulfillment of time.” Such are the gnarled epiphanies of Cooper’s art.

If we assume that Cooper wrote the way he intended to write, even his most annoying traits begin to look like meaningful strategies rather than the result of haste and slovenliness. Take, for example, the verbiage he lavishes on the most fleeting of incidents. In The Deerslayer he spends nearly a page analyzing the way Natty Bumppo lifts his rifle and fires at a concealed target. In the midst of this split-second action, Cooper even finds time for a flashback, recalling “the long practices Deerslayer as a hunter” which enables him to aim without sighting; and when, an instant later, a wounded Mingo comes hurt­ling out of the bushes, Cooper informs us that Natty stands there “steady as one of the pines in the calm of a June morning.” He deliberately dilates the moment, creat­ing an effect curiously like slow motion by introducing images which crudely insert the idea of long duration.

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When his scenes of action really get rolling, Cooper’s methods sometimes anticipate cinema. In The Pathfinder, the lone survi­vor of an Indian massacre hides in an attic and stares helplessly at its open trapdoor: “As yet nothing was visible at the trap, but her ears, rendered exquisitely sensitive by intense feeling, distinctly acquainted her that some one was within a few inches of the opening in the floor. Next followed the evidence of her eyes, which beheld the dark hair of an Indian rising so slowly through the passage that the movement of the head might be likened to that of the minute hand of a clock. Then came the dark skin and wild features, until the whole of the swarthy, face had risen above the floor.” Again the effect is obtained by a distension of time, here made intolerable by the deadly simile (and time-consuming, with so little time to spare) of a minute hand. At moments of crisis Cooper evokes those dreams in which one cannot run. A kind of stupor overtakes him in the heart of the action, a suspended lurch, like the feeling of being in the top car when a ferris wheel stops turning. The apparently halting rhythms of his prose can also be experienced as a vibrant stasis.

This uncertain relationship to time is perhaps what is most American about “the American Scott,” as his contemporaries in­sisted on calling him. In Scott the perspec­tives and durations are of a piece; he preserves a fixed distance from the events depicted, an undisturbed frame; he has made his peace with space and time. The result is harmony, balance, unity of tone. But no terms had been set for what Cooper was trying to do. “On the human imagina­tion,” he notes at the beginning of The Deerslayer, “events produce the effects of time.” The opening up of the American wil­derness was a rent in the spatio-temporal fabric, and the coordinates by which the event could be measured remained indeter­minate. As a consequence, point of view and depth of focus shift erratically in Cooper’s fiction, and the unfolding of events is some­what random. Nothing is given to him; he has to work out on his own where he’s standing and where he’s going.

The groping, lumpy quality of his plots has often been criticized, yet their awk­wardness — like the awkwardness of his lan­guage — is what saves them from petrifac­tion. The Last of the Mohicans, for instance, consists largely of circuitous criss­crossing movements through different kinds of space: sieges, concealments, infil­trations, pursuits. Characters are defined by how they get from one point to another, which in turn is determined by their con­ception of place. In a typical scene, Cooper assembles his beleaguered protagonists in a clearing and for a few pages sustains a box­like little tableau — a hermetic salon — only to have an alien presence intrude from the underbrush and shatter the frame. The sweetly soporific tinkle of civilized chitchat is interrupted by “horrible cries and screams, such as man alone can utter, and he only when in a state of the fiercest bar­barity.” The woods become a collage of dis­similar noises. The Indians are acquainted with “the extremes of human sounds,” have access to shrill or guttural limits unknown to the whites, who cautiously stick to the middle register of the larynx, just as they hew to the main path through the woods and try not to think about the tangled shadows that border it.

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Cooper is mapping a wilderness, and to do so he must stand a little outside his civilized Christian heroes and heroines: he must spy on them like an Indian hidden in the branches. The whites carry a mental theater with them through the forest, a dia­gram of boundary lines and focal points which keeps them sane by giving them a false sense of security. The Indians, mean­while, inhabit a distinct space which happens to occupy the same ground. The colo­nists can’t see a thing, blinded by their notions of background and foreground, in­side and outside. The berries that Captain Heyward notes along the fringe of the trail are in fact “the glistening eye-balls of a prowling savage”: in other words, what seems a fringe to him is the center of a separate world.

The Indian’s relation to space is a dis­course the European cannot decipher. The eye of the treacherous Magua — “like a fiery star … fixed, as if penetrating the distant air” —  discerns invisible paths where the whites see only “thickening gloom … a dark barrier along the margin of the stream.” Civilized modes of perception be­come a positive drawback, an encumbrance like the elaborate skirts of Cooper’s endan­gered females. “What right have christian whites to boast of their learning,” cries Nat­ty Bumppo, “when a savage can read a lan­guage, that would prove too much for the wisest of them all!” Whatever can he said about Cooper’s depiction of Indian culture, he at least acknowledges that it exists and that its terms are valid within their own sphere. Much has been made of the Good Indian/Bad Indian dichotomy embodied by his Delawares and Hurons, but even the ferocious Magua is allowed a perfectly rea­sonable justification for his actions. In fact his eloquent fulmination against the whites reflects some of Cooper’s enduring preoccu­pations: “With his tongue, he stops the ears of the Indian; his heart teaches him to pay warriors to fight his battles; his cunning tells him how to get together the goods of the earth; and his arms enclose the land from the shores of the salt water, to the islands of the great lake. His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough, and yet he wants all. Such are the pale-faces.”

What Cooper admits through the speech of Indians is an alternate description of the world, a description suffused, like the war­-song of Uncas, with “depth and energy.” When Chingachgook discourses on the history of his people, it isn’t simply an exercise in exotic diction. Cooper attempts to convey a different way of thinking about place and personal identity and the passage of time: “We came from the place where the sun is hid at night, over great plains where the buffaloes live, until we reached the big riv­er.” Cooper’s images often seem more re­ductive than they are. It’s true that he com­pares the cave dwellings of the Hurons to “the shades of the infernal regions, across which unhappy ghosts and savage demons were flitting in multitudes.” But he isn’t saying that the Hurons are demons, only that they look that way to the whites. A troubled relativism eats away at the moral certainties of his fictions. In the end little is left unquestioned.

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It was natural that his great saga should shape itself around the figure of an outsid­er, a detached onlooker. Natty Bumppo, Cooper’s infinitely serviceable hero, is both marginal and fundamental: the mystical frontiersman, Saint Francis of the Venison, “simple-minded, faithful, utterly without fear … a sort of type of what Adam might have been supposed to be before the fall.” Only Natty, of all the whites, understands the shape of the land and the code of its native inhabitants. Since he alone knows what’s out there, only he can assess the value of any particular action. The other Europeans simply flounder. Natty’s job much of the time is to conduct them from one controlled enclosure to another, the iro­ny being that the new imperial owners of the wilderness are powerless within it. They literally do not know where they are until they find themselves once again within a fortified zone. Natty is the indispensable conduit, the medium of translation, the Pathfinder who opens up connections be­tween alien cultures while fully belonging to none. Instead of being centered in one frame of reference, he stands at the edge, at the point where turfs collide.

To the hapless whites he materializes like the woodland sprite of a fairy tale. The multiplicity of his names — Deerslayer, Hawk-eye, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, La Longue Carabine, or, in his transcendent old age, simply ”the trapper” — gives him the air of a mercurial being, and his powers of adaptation and camouflage are little short of magical. It takes all his serpentine litheness to save the whites from the conse­quences of their physical and conceptual rigidity. At the same time, the mythic ener­gies that Natty’s presence unleashes save Cooper from the stylistic rigidity into which he is ever in danger of lapsing. “His feelings appeared to possess the freshness and na­ture of the forests in which he passed so much of his time”: he is the Green Man of the American woodland, the Ariel of the vast and trackless island on which the Europeans have stranded themselves. He goes and comes silently and as he pleases. Natty might be said to embody Cooper’s imagina­tion, so much more rapid and flexible than the inherited mechanics of his storytelling.

Mostly, Natty passively endures. Like a rock or an oak he weathers the storms of history. Cooper first presented him, in The Pioneers, as a crotchety half-comical old man; brought him to his death in the mid­dle novel of the series, The Prairie; and then moved with him progressively back­ward in time, rejuvenating Natty until he recedes into a verdant prehistoric alcher­inga teeming with fish and game. From first to last he exists outside of historical progression; he carries about his person his own nimbuslike Golden Age; wherever he walks is the transient Eden that preceded the trauma of settlement. His heroism consists of refraining from action, and through all his adaptations he changes without chang­ing his surroundings. Like the Indians, he leaves no trail, and he hunts without deplet­ing: “If a body had a craving for pigeon’s flesh, why! it’s made the same as all other creaters for man’s eating, but not to kill twenty and eat one.” His experience of the new civilization is a slowly gathering sor­row: “I have lived to see what I thought eyes could never behold in these hills, and I have no heart left for singing.” The more deeply we are drawn into Natty’s view of the world, the more we understand why Cooper’s narrative halts and draws back, why he lingers so naggingly over uncompleted actions. It’s because he wants time to reverse, or to stop altogether. He doesn’t want the story to reach its appointed conclusion; he doesn’t want history to happen.

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The reasons were clear from the outset. In the first book of the series we have al­ready seen the end: the regulated streets of Templeton, the tree stumps testifying to decimated forests, the heaps of wild pigeons slaughtered to no purpose, the slow stran­gulation of liberty by lawyers and bailiffs. This was the world that Cooper’s father made. William Cooper established Coopers­town in the wilderness of upstate New York, and reigned there — as squire, judge, and congressman — in baronial style. Tem­pleton is Cooperstown, and The Pioneers, that jaggedly elegiac book, is Cooper’s at­tempt to project himself into what existed just before his own birth. That region be­yond memory is his paradise, but a paradise already hopelessly tainted. The noble Chingachgook has become Indian John, re­duced by civilization to alcoholism and a debased Christianity; he sells baskets for a living and when drunk lapses into ancient chants. Natty Bumppo, unable to fend off the encroaching “troubles and divilties of the law,” goes to jail for hunting out of season. The first American novelist writes, at bottom, of the death of America: a death, as it were, in embryo. All that might have been had already been uprooted, cast aside, trampled on. The Leatherstocking Tales spring from a rankling and obsessive nostal­gia, and they oscillate restlessly between the lost paradise of the virgin woods and the “vast and naked fields” of the prairie land to which Natty is finally driven “to escape the wasteful temper of my people. The Prairie as it progresses becomes more and more an apocalyptic recitative, the bitterly resigned death-song of Natty Bumppo: “It will not be long afore an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert from the shores of the Maine sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man and stript of the comfort and loveliness it received from the hand of the Lord!”

The inward agony of the novels lies in Cooper’s inability to detach himself either from the land or from the civilization that rips it apart. They are all in him: his father the builder of towns, Natty the magical woodsman drained of his powers by prog­ress, and Hard Heart, the Pawnee chief, who exclaims: “Is a nation to be sold like the skin of a beaver!” The warring elements can arrive at no real harmony. Each novel culminates in a retreat; the pieces will not fit together; one of the parties must with­draw or die. Cooper’s Romantic tastes failed to alleviate the painful objectivity with which he was cursed. He was stuck with an aesthetic of discomfort. The simplest of longings — for some stability, some respite from America’s dizzying and horrifying se­quence of transformations — could find nowhere to nest. Not in the culture of the Indians, which Cooper might in some re­spects admire but could never emulate; not in the rapacious culture of oligarchs and demagogues toward which he saw America evolving. His imagination took refuge in a sliver-thin interval of time that had already ended, or had perhaps never existed. He transcribed its dense unsettled woods into a fictional language equally dense and equally unsettled. ■

Vol. 1: The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie.
Vol. 2: The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer
By James Fenimore Cooper
Library of America; $27.50 each


Herman Melville’s Great Escape

Born to Run

From within his commemorative stamp­ — dyed an appropriate nautical blue — the un­likely hero figure of American literature gazes blankly out. Melville’s shrines and monuments accumulate relentlessly, as if in atonement for past neglect: he becomes a plaque in the Poets’ Corner of St. John the Divine, a three-volume set (all the fiction, with the poetry still to come) from the Li­brary of America, a museum in the Berk­shires, a 90-minute movie full of beaches and sails and waves. Yet all our hagiolatry cannot force the stately mask to wink back at us. We want to make Melville “ours,” have him talk to us as a friend, but he withdraws irrevocably into a muteness like that of the Galapagos Islands, where “no voice, no low, no howl is heard.” It’s a curi­ous communion his work offers: the deeper we wade in it, the more it seems a vast isolation, chill at the core yet capacious as a National Park. He’s our official literary wil­derness, in whose clefts and shadows we come to lose ourselves and thereby find the world again. Where other writers proffer ideas or stories or companionable chat, Melville seems to promise the very stuff of existence: time, space, air. We don’t so much read him as inhale him.

His promise is the impossible promise of language. Melville was mad enough to be­lieve that the groves and harbors the words make are real, that the imagined world opens into actual spaces. He entered those spaces, felt out their recesses — those “won­drous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro”­ — with a blunt boldness that brought on ca­tastrophe. The hazy shores and receding horizons which intoxicated his readers were not enough for him, and he made the fatal error of chasing them to their point of ori­gin: the point where they fade back into the insubstantiality of language, and thought itself collapses inward. It’s a disappearing act mirrored outwardly in his disappear­ance as an author, the distance he gradually established between his writing and any possible reader. To an audience eager for the vibrant clamor of his palm fronds and tattooed bodies and sibilant Pacific bays, he could offer in the end only the silence of matter, the hard dead rock at the root of creation.

The first readers responded to freshness, a sea breeze, deliverance from civilized clut­ter. Typee proposed open spaces in which to relax: clearings, nakedness, calm lagoons, the visible absence of brickwork and ma­chines and arithmetic. Melville’s secret lay in what he left out: families, courtships, marriages, wills and lawsuits, internecine politics and international diplomacy, the maddening knots of kinship and finance and social obligation — everything, in short, that provided material for all the other novelists. For Melville the great cities are dusty, depleting puppet-shows, the hum­ming heart of Wall Street a tomb. As for the warm ties of home, the interweaving of the generations, the delicacies of flirtation: all that stifles him. The book must be a casting off. He’s stimulated most keenly by desert­edness. The emptier the better: plunging into the implications of a word like “blank” or “dim” or “fissure,” he finds sprawling worlds. A flat sea generates infinite linguis­tic expression. The “contents” of that ex­pression — ideas, literature, religions, politi­cal systems — are simply what a sailor invents to keep himself awake on night-­watch, extrapolating them from the pat­terns made by swirling sea-scum.

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He had passed up the chance to write a great realistic novel of life on land: the story of his family. Had Melville been able to write about his people as he wrote of his shipmates, we would know far more not only about him but about the America he venerated, fled, and finally detested. Both his grandfathers were heroes of the Revolu­tion: Major Thomas Melvill flung tea into Boston Harbor and fought at Bunker Hill, while General Peter Gansevoort became legendary as “The Hero of Fort Stanwix,” savior of the Mohawk Valley. Born near the center of power and culture, connected through his uncles and cousins to the world of James Monroe, DeWitt Clinton, James Fenimore Cooper, Melville grew up swathed in an aura of inherited glory. His father, an importer of Parisian silks and gowns, criss­-crossed the Atlantic on business and when at home entertained lavishly in a series of Manhattan mansions, while his mother vigi­lantly kept up the tone of the Hudson Val­ley aristocracy she came from.

He never wrote about that world of patri­cian ease and cosmopolitan brilliance, and the one time it starts to leak out — in Red­burn — he cuts himself short: “But I must not think of those delightful days, before my father became a bankrupt, and died, and we removed from the city; for when I think of those days, something rises up in my throat and almost strangles me.” His father’s business failed suddenly and unex­pectedly in 1830, when Melville was 11, and he learned at once that there was no sine­cure for the descendants of patriotic heroes. The family slid into genteel penury, and two years later, following further financial reverses, Melville saw his father collapse into sickness, madness, and death. The mask was off the world. His schooling cur­tailed, he worked as a bank clerk, a hand on his uncle’s farm, a clerk in his brother’s store (before that too failed), a rural school­teacher. After seven years of inconsequen­tial labor — years during which his relations with his mother were by all accounts suffo­catingly close — he went off to sea.

It was his single decisive gesture, to be repeated as needed: sever connections, withdraw from a complex and rather hope­less situation, take flight. For five years he was in constant motion: to Liverpool as a novice seaman; back home briefly, then some inland roaming along the Erie Canal and down the Mississippi by steamboat; off on a New Bedford whaler; jumped ship six months later, passed the time with canni­bals for a few weeks; escaped to another whaler and, accused of mutiny along with the rest of the crew, was rather half-heart­edly incarcerated in Tahiti; escaped, wan­dered around Tahiti, sailed on yet another whaler, wandered around Honolulu, and fi­nally enlisted in the Navy in order to get passage home. He came back to precisely the same situation he had walked away from, and still had no idea what to do with himself. Logically enough he decided to write a book.

The public never got over that book, to Melville’s eventual sorrow. His image, mist­ed over with adolescent nostalgia, would re­main that of a bright-eyed rover, a compan­ion in the reveries of youth. To his reading of Typee Jack London attributed “the wonder that was to lead me to many lands, and that still leads and never palls. The years passed, but Typee was not forgotten.” For Robert Louis Stevenson as well the discov­ery of Melville’s early books was a rite of initiation. By the time Melville died his books were mostly out of print, and all that lingered of his reputation was a faint after-­image of coral reefs and coconuts. He was an artifact of popular culture, the man who had become an overnight star by bringing home a new flavor of fantasy. That erotic dream of Polynesia soaked into the Ameri­can mind, ultimately finding its way into pop songs and pinball machines and B­-movies like the one Allan Dwan extracted from Typee: Enchanted Island, with Jane Powell posed in sarong against the eternal Technicolor palm trees.

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Melville had kicked off that process with his visions of the nymph Fayaway. Several generations grew up imbued with the implications of phrases like “free pliant figure” and “the easy unstudied graces of a child of nature.” Typee contained all the necessary materials for a P.T. Barnum spectacle of the mind, cannibals and dancing girls pa­rading past at a safe distance. Its subtitle — “A Peep at Polynesian Life” — suggests a picture of Melville narrating a magic lantern show; and indeed the book is very much a public performance. With a show­man’s instincts he spins his yarn in a prose punctuated by sly winks, digs in the ribs, and appeals to warm fellow feeling. The cheerful young adventurer — a humorist, a bit of a scamp, at bottom an ordinary enough fellow — unpacks his sea chest, hauls out his South Seas trophies, and holds the listeners spellbound.

It was all so easy: easy to read, as the reviewers enthusiastically noted, and con­ceptually if not always technically easy for Melville to write. A delicious passivity in­forms the heart of Typee. Among the unex­pectedly tender cannibals, Meville can lie back and be fed and fanned and caressed. In a land where sustenance falls from trees or is scooped from shallows, he indulges in the joy of making no effort whatsoever. Coming home, he finds it’s equally easy to hold his audience’s attention. He need only reiterate certain surefire images: “Naked houris — cannibal banquets — groves of coca­nut — coral reefs — tatooed chiefs — and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with bread-fruit trees — carved canoes danc­ing on the flashing blue waters — savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols — hea­thenish rites and human sacrifices.” These, Melville informs us, were the images in his head before he arrived in the Marquesas; yet oddly they were also the images the average reader retained from Typee. Those who cared to look deeper found considera­bly more — but Melville made sure his mass audience got what it paid for. He was play­ing a double game, writing one book for himself, another for his readers: part of him was back with the Typees, happily bathing in sensual harmonies, while in another as­pect he shrewdly gauged the responses of a flock of prurient Christians.

The contradiction didn’t trouble him yet. As the man in the middle, he could shuttle between worlds without committing himself to either. His very amiability, his effortless gratifying of the readers’ desires, gave him license to slip in all sorts of audacities. It fit his image: a man who had lived with canni­bals was expected to have rough edges. There were limits, of course, and so the digs at missionaries had to be excised from the second edition. But otherwise Melville was free to let off steam about civilized evils: “the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life.” The audience sat willingly though the sermon in order to catch anoth­er glimpse of “the half-immersed figure of a beautiful girl, standing in the transparent water.”

An instinctive escape artist, Melville found a home in the tantalizingly shifting surfaces of language. Writing a book about his escape to the South Seas was a further escape, enabling him to postpone becoming indentured to a respectable profession or a fixed identity. Since the act of writing it had preserved his freedom, naturally the book became a celebration of freedom; and in Typee and its successor Omoo (a garrulous, often slapstick “road novel” of lazy days in the tropics), he hit upon technical tricks that gave him additional liberties. Facts, for one thing, could be altered. His three-week stay among the Typees not be­ing impressive enough, he could expand it to six months. Every accidental event could be transformed into what it ought to have been. He also learned the uses of found material: to make his Polynesia more dense, it was simple enough to lift clumps of detail from another voyager’s account. Tearing a page from a botany text and pasting it in position was a way of incorporating the world into the book. If he couldn’t have actual moss and sand and seawater — and surely he would have loved to — he could at least interpolate ship’s logs and law docu­ments and pedestrian guidebooks, crime stories from the newspapers and rough­-hewn nonliterary memoirs like those of Owen Chase and Amasa Delano and Israel Potter. Such writing influenced him more than anything aside from Shakespeare and the Bible. To his private domain of lan­guage it imparted a distinctly democratic air, the polyglot jokes and curses of the foredeck jostling the kinglike speech of Ahab.

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Prose, he discovers, is a wonderland he can populate as heterogeneously as he likes, meanwhile divesting himself of familial bonds and all the oppressive encroachments of the land-dwellers. Words perpetuate fleeting motions: the exhilarating leap, caught in midair between ship and shore, need never end in a disappointing arrival. In Redburn he recreates the moment when, on his first voyage, the ship left land be­hind: “About sunset we got fairly ‘outside,’ and well may it so be called; for I felt thrust out of the world.” Such is the transfixed Melvillean moment, wide awake and lonely and equally alienated from point of depar­ture and ultimate destination. He wants­ — or wants to want — to live forever in that “outside,” to be permanently in transit, to be away. But language has its obligations as well as its freedoms; the same hooks he’s been avoiding in family and society lurk in words too. His imagined liberty has to con­tend with the structure of imagination it­self. The restlessness that won’t let him stay in one place too long — not even the earthly paradise of the Marquesas — also steers his sentences away from any meaning too fixed or immutable. Language — as codified by polite literature and scholastic logic — frus­trates him because it forces him toward un­desired resolutions. In Typee he sometimes has difficulty completing sentences: caught up in cascading fragments of description­”bold rock-bound coasts, with the surf beat­ing high against the lofty cliffs, and broken here and there into deep inlets, which open to the view thickly-wooded valleys” — his energy runs down as the period approaches, as if grammatical closure were like a harbor he didn’t want to return to.

He’d rather go through language toward a condition of indefinable mineral ecstasy, a coral cuneiform suitable for transcribing what he reads in the waves: “a sort of wide heaving and swelling and sinking all over the ocean.” He wants, quite frankly, the impossible: to revel in the unimpeded de­lights of language while freeing himself, once and for all, of the relations that lan­guage unavoidably implies, the squidlike embrace of interconnectedness. Like the philosopher Babbalanja in Mardi, he ex­empts himself from linguistic rules in order to assert that “there is no place but the universe; no limit but the limitless; no bot­tom but the bottomless.”

In his perception, however, the most cloudily undefined is at one with the most meticulously concrete. His faculty for tech­nical description — for the intricacies of rig­gings and top-gallants and capstans and ca­bles — hinges on the ultimate abstractness of mechanical procedures. Every elaborate, impersonal, morally neutral process fasci­nates him: the fluxing of currents and tides, the slow accretion of coral islands, the inte­rior functioning of whalers and men-of-war. Such systems share the complexity of lan­guage, but unlike language they don’t raise problems of identity or meaning. Melville can get lost in them as in the patterns of a Turkish rug.

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He approaches writing in much the same a spirit, tinkering with clauses, running through possible modes of rhythmic organi­zation in a sentence, slapping down oddly mixed bits of jargon and erudition. If the meanings to which language refers make Melville uneasy, its mechanics liberate him: he finds more freedom of action in grammar than in life. Whereas in life he must make irrevocable decisions — to settle down, get married and raise children, ultimately sacri­fice his writing career for the family’s sake — in writing he can make an eternal refusal to commit himself. Everything can remain unfinished, indefinite, poised for a resolution which never quite arrives: “God keep me from ever completing anything,” he writes in Moby-Dick. “This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught.” Melville’s deliberate hesitation frees us to invent his books as we read them. No one provides more openings. As the second mate of the Pequod remarks, “You books must know your places. You’ll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.” In vaults piled high with commentary, each stray sentence of Melville’s has formed the basis for more or less arbitrary system-mak­ing. If words are seeds, his have engendered forests upon forests. The commentators, by and large, would like to pin the man down. Yet when we read through Melville, two phrases recur insistently: “sort of’ and “here and there.” They might be emblems of a profoundly fertile imprecision.

Randomness — the accidental quality of whatever the mind finds within itself — be­came his guiding principle. The shapes of his thoughts intrigued him much as strange fish slapping up against a ship’s sides. The ingratiating glibness of Typee and Omoo had no ulterior purpose; it sprang merely from his enjoyment in spinning out the tale. To resemble more truly a voyage, a book must move toward unknown waters: and so, careless of consequences, Melville made his first divergence from his audience. Sabotag­ing his own facility, he dismantled his ex­pectations of what a book should be, or a sentence, or a thought, and called the result Mardi: an immense improvisation, the imagination of a private ocean in which — as in the last shot of Tarkovsky’s Solaris­ — ideas become islands. Melville stages a homemade creation myth, with language serving as his primordial mud.

He starts with a realistic, circumscribed set-up not unlike the beginning of Typee­ — a ship at sea, two discontented sailors absconding in an open boat — but with each link in the narrative chain gets further away from his premise. Every episode erases what went before. It becomes clear that we’ll nev­er return to the starting point: we are just going to keep moving outward. The story is overtaken by its prose: the metaphors usurp control, becoming more powerful than what they represent. A calm at sea sets off apoca­lyptic resonances: “The stillness of the calm is awful. His voice begins to grow strange and portentous . . . His cranium is a dome full of reverberations. The hollows of his very bones are as whispering galleries.” Melville wallows in language with a more innocent exuberance than ever again, and lets the wispy narrative float where it will. The mysterious maiden Yillah, prisoner of an evil priest, is rescued by the hero Taji, only to vanish again. Accompanied by King Media of the island empire Mardi and three philosophical courtiers, Taji searches among Pacific wastes for the lost Yillah, while silent messengers from the sinister enchantress Hautia pelt him with symbolic flowers. The treatment is absurdly perfunc­tory: crucial plot turns occupy a few hasty paragraphs, while Taji and his quest disap­pear altogether for hundreds of pages at a stretch. Yet Mardi‘s fluid disordered struc­ture casts up hundreds of small self-con­tained structures, like the secret residence of King Donjalolo: “The husk-inhusked meat in a nut; the innermost spark in a ruby; the juice-nested seed in a golden-rind­ed orange; the red royal stone in an effemi­nate peach; the insphered sphere of spheres.”

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Melville just wants to write: the uncon­trolled process hypnotizes him, and as he immerses himself in the “world of wonders insphered within the spontaneous con­sciousness,” strange things start happening. The philosopher Babbalanja, a marginal figure, imposes himself ever more insistently, evoking eons of imaginary geology, imag­inary history, imaginary commentaries on imaginary literatures. In Babbalanja the no­tion of personal identity begins to come apart: “Though I have now been upon terms of close companionship with myself for nigh five hundred moons, I have not yet been able to decide who or what I am.” Unforeseen interiors heave into view. A de­mon named Azzageddi lives dormant in Babbalanja, a psyche within a psyche, sometimes speaking through him in wild prose cadenzas. Melville is drawn into pro­gressively more schizoid involutions: “He is locked up in me. In a mask, he dodges me. He prowls about in me, hither and thither; he peers, and I stare . . . So present is he always, that I seem not so much to live of myself, as to be a mere apprehension of the unaccountable being that is in me. Yet all the time, this being is I, myself.” (Later, Ahab will urge: “Strike through the mask!”)

Toward the end, as if suddenly waking to the presence of an audience, Melville ex­claims: “Oh, reader, list! I’ve chartless voy­aged.” The readers had doubtless already reached the same conclusion about a book embracing florid dream sequences, whimsical paeans to wine and tobacco, labored po­litical allegories, and metaphysical disquisi­tions modeled after Sir Thomas Browne, not to mention the first major literary treatment of surfing. Asked at one point for the meaning of his remarks, Babbalanja replies: “It is a polysensuum” — as good a descrip­tion as any for Melville’s concoction. Even Mardi‘s doldrums are part of its effect, cre­ating through boredom a sense of actual distance, actual duration. For the first but not last time, Melville broached the idea of unreadability as an aesthetic value. To treat of an ocean it wasn’t enough to say “and so forth”; the weight and volume of the waters had to be contained between the covers.

At the same time, out in the real world, Melville was meshing after a fashion with the imperatives of his milieu: in 1847, just after the publication of Omoo, he married Elizabeth Shaw, and within 18 months the first of four children was born. Marriage would seem to be a turning outward; but considering that Elizabeth’s father, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts, had been the best friend of Melville’s father, and had passionately loved Melville’s aunt until her early death, the marriage begins to look like an acting out of someone else’s fantasy, a reassertion of the family bonds which Melville had never really been free of. That his mother and sisters were frequent boarders in the new household could only have reinforced that sense. In any event, the marriage was plainly not a happy one. We hear of uncontrolled rages, depres­sions, nervous ailments. Melville evidently felt trapped; what Elizabeth felt only rarely surfaces in her desperately cheerful letters. Whatever Melville may have expected from marriage and children, they became for him only the most intimate emblem of the world and its pressures.

Those pressures were mounting steadily. Mardi having predictably failed, he rushed out with a couple of realistic, eminently salable narratives more in keeping with the Melville brand name: Redburn, a thinly fic­tionalized account of his first voyage, and White-Jacket, a quasijournalistic retailing of his Navy stint. He was working at a kill­ing pace, dashing off Redburn in a few months right on the heels of Mardi, and wrapping up White-Jacket some 14 weeks later. Yet it wasn’t only commercial necessi­ty that kept him focused on his years at sea. They represented a magic zone of libera­tion, whose most ordinary details were charged with radiant energies. He worked determinedly to keep certain sense-impres­sions alive, as if through them he might effect an alchemical wedding between the terms “ocean” and “language.”

Life at sea is so much simpler. You have the ocean and you have the ship: clear boundaries. Not that a sailor’s existence is particularly blissful. Redburn mostly reca­pitulates bitter memories of “vulgar and brutal men lording it over me, as if I were an African in Alabama,” and White-Jack­et‘s man-o-war, with its ritualistic discipline and routine floggings, its Acts of War whose penalty for every infraction is death, is even more violently repressive. For what, pre­cisely, is Melville nostalgic? Does he aspire to the childlike condition of the sailor, who does what he is told and who, after enjoying on shore leave a brief destructive outburst of freedom, returns sheepishly to the paren­tal care of his commander? Doubtless Mel­ville himself puzzled over it. He took liberty as seriously as any American writer has done, and in White-Jacket wrote a precise, thoroughgoing condemnation of the naval mind and its innate authoritarian bias. He detested confinement, restriction of any kind; was anarchist enough to affirm only partly in jest that “a thief in jail is as honor­able a personage as Gen. George Washing­ton”; and in his own time at sea had succes­sively enacted the roles of deserter, mutineer, jailbird, beachcomber.

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On the other hand, a sailor has a few clear advantages. His work is cut out for him, and no one obstructs him from doing it. His intensely structured existence frees him in a curious way for the most abandoned medi­tations. He’s next to the elements, stripped down to his essence: “At sea . . . all men ap­pear as they are . . . The contact of one man with another is too near and constant to favor deceit. You wear your character as loosely as your flowing trowsers.” It meant a great deal to Melville — a bookish lad, none too dexterous, and by his own account easily shocked — to win a degree of accep­tance from his fellows on the Acushnet, the Lucy Ann, the Charles and Henry, and the United States. Certainly his own class, the aristocratic class he had so rudely fallen from, had done him little good. There lay his democratic touchstone: to treat officers as the enemy camp and take his stand reso­lutely on the foredeck. But on shipboard­ — barring mutiny — the will of the crew finds no concrete political expression. Instead it seeps wistfully into songs, tales, riotous fes­tivities, half-inarticulate soul-to-soul con­versations in the riggings. Melville, who could be cold-blooded when it came to reli­gion and patriotism and law and family, reserved his sentimentality for the camara­derie of sailors.

Ultimately nothing counted more for him than a mate to whom he could tell every­thing, “mate” being a term male and nauti­cal rather than female and domestic. All his adventures were undertaken in tandem: Ty­pee with Toby, Omoo with the fantastical Doctor Long Ghost, Mardi with the stolid Norseman Jarl; Redburn with the adored Harry Bolting, whose “eyes were large, black, and womanly,” and whose voice “was as the sound of a harp”; White-Jacket with ­Jack Chase of the “clear open eye” and “fine broad brow,” who fought for Peru’s freedom and bellowed out stanzas of Ca­moens from the maintop. Eventually Mel­ville kept himself going with the memory of such friendships. More importantly, his whole conception of what writing was for revolved increasingly around the hoped-for existence of an isolated sympathetic ear.

He found such an ear, appended to the person of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The moment was crucial. Melville, activated as he would never be again, had bought a proper­ty in the Berkshires and was trying his somewhat dilettantish hand at farming, while working resolutely on yet another potboiler, this one drawing on his whaling experiences. “I write these books of mine almost entirely for ‘lucre,’ — by the job, as a woodsawyer draws wood,” he confided to Richard Henry Dana. “It will be a strange sort of book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber, you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree.” His encounter with Haw­thorne, at a neighborhood picnic, seems to have precipitated something like a religious experience. He had already been reading Mosses from an Old Manse, of which he wrote rhapsodically: “This Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I con­template him; and further, and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.”

A new sense of urgent purpose animated Melville. Hauling back the whaling book for revision he ended up remaking it altogether: after 18 months — for Melville an unconscio­nably long period of composition — it emerged as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. He dedicated it to Hawthorne, in whom he had finally met a reader who could replace all other readers. He saw their friendship — a friendship finally wrecked by Melville’s over-demanding fervor — as the communion of two great souls: “Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s,” he wrote, in a letter whose mystical-erotic tenor could only have perturbed the emo­tionally restrained Hawthorne. “I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the supper, and that we are the pie­ces . . . Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.” He fan­tasized about having a paper mill in his house, unrolling an endless sheet of paper upon which “I should write a thousand-a million-billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter-to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds.”

Perhaps Hawthorne only half-guessed the occult role into which he had been thrust: that of spiritual brother to whom — and to no one else — Melville could impart the illu­minations that were sweeping through him. The writing of Moby-Dick had made him feel his separateness. To his family he was already strange, sequestered in his cham­ber, refusing food from morning to night as he gave himself over to writing. Perhaps only with his imagined Hawthorne on the receiving end could Melville have transmit­ted that network of signals which was Moby-Dick. In any event he sensed the pro­cess would somehow kill him: “I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb,” he wrote to Hawthorne, “and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould.” He was only 31.

Each of his books had been literally a voyage, shaped by the movement it enacted, each sentence a smaller voyage mirroring the larger. In Mardi the canoe journey had already declared itself a psychic ritual, while in Redburn and White-Jacket the mi­nutiae of nautical life — sea weather and navigation and the internal structure of sailing vessels — were laid out item by item like a language being readied for use. But despite that work of preparation, the mak­ing of Moby-Dick remains mysterious, like the eruption of one of those “wild talents” the parapsychologists like to talk about. It registers the shock of a sudden, only partly voluntary transformation, accompanied by the acquisition of new powers. All at once Melville knows that he cannot make a false step. The problem of meaning ceases to  trouble him because he can mean every­thing at the same time. As if talking in tongues, he breaks into dozens of different voices, becomes a whole crew of “Feegeeans, Tongatabooans, Erromanggoans, Pannan­gians, and Brighggians.” Inanimate objects squirm with life, colors are magnified, tiny sounds grow thunderous.

A shaping force has seized hold of the book: an entirely novel sense of inevitability surges up under Melville’s relaxed random­ness. The change arises precisely from Mel­ville’s trust in language, his practice — culti­vated in Mardi — of letting syntax simmer and swirl and hatch its multiform offspring. But what surfaces this time is something different in kind, an alien presence, dark and mute: not the whale, I mean, but Ahab. Here was the demon Azzegeddi made mani­fest: and Melville, who had shied from cap­tains, finds himself ventriloquizing dreadful commands. The instant Ahab pops up into daylight the book’s chemistry changes: “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or tak­ing away one particle from their compacted aged robustness.” Really he is already dead: an inert totem gone beyond responsiveness. But his very deadness catalyzes the vitality around him, calling up an atmosphere in which no pebble or syllable can be moved without cosmic consequences.

Although we can see what Ahab is made of — stances, props, adjectives, analogies, a smattering of grandiloquent cadences — nothing short of voodoo adequately ex­plains his power. On the most obvious level we see a stagy figure thundering forth Elizabethanisms: “I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!” Ahab’s eeriness lies not in his outward behavior but in the secret influence he seems to exert over his creator. Like a demon issued fullblown from a hexed pen­tagram, overwhelming his invoker, the char­acter starts telling the author what to do: and Melville, an obedient seaman, obeys his captain. Ahab, a Golem, a Frankenstein monster, uncannily feeds off the energy of mental projection, surviving in an unnatu­ral half-life, not Ahab any longer but “what was Ahab”: “a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself.”

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Yet to have given birth to Ahab was a profound liberation. The horrible dead old man was no longer within Melville but out­side him, sharply etched against empty sky. The externalization of that “tormented spirit” effects an appeasement: like a decoy Ahab absorbs all dark forces, while Melville is freed to exercise his powers with a kind of divine license. Omnipresent, he dives to the bottom of the ocean, enters into whales, learns what it is “to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world.” He speaks with the tongue of Shakespeare and Solo­mon, and his book becomes a proclamation of its own expansive intentions: “Already we are boldly launched upon the deep, but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, har­borless immensities.” Burnt-out Ahab bides his time below, a vacant silhouette, a black hole drawing the whole ship down with him.

In the “oceanic doom” genre — which en­compasses The Rime of the Ancient Mari­ner and The Flying Dutchman and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym — there’s nothing unusual about a great gothic ma­chine of a ship sailing into horror. But while for Coleridge and Poe the ocean mirrored their own paranoia, for Melville it’s a secret home, a slithery womb full of freshets and phosphorescent glimmers. His death-ship may glide ceremonially toward the abyss, heralded by signs and portents, but the ocean on which it floats brims with a slow and ancient bliss. How could it be other­wise, since the idea of ocean infallibly re­leases Melville’s power as a writer? It’s the harsh and impermeable Ahab who is the Other. The ocean, on the contrary, is that innermost resting place in whose depths, says Ishmael, “I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.” Moby Dick‘s vast body — ­mapped out chapter by chapter, in all the amplitude of its “thick walls, and . . . inte­rior spaciousness,”— is analogous to the body of the book. It was in whale form, we are told, that Vishnu swam to “the bottom of the waters” to retrieve the sacred writings: and when Ishmael, momentarily separated from the Pequod, peers down into those same waters, it is to gaze entranced at the “dalliance and delight” of serenely copulat­ing whales.

The impulse to freedom — which in Mel­ville is a form of laziness — seeks the deeps, away from the hypnotic proto-Hitler Ahab, whose “sultanism” becomes “incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship” as he guides his crew toward death. By attaching himself to a single unambiguous meaning, Ahab sacri­fices his freedom of action. His personality narrows down to a sentence: I will kill the whale. It becomes a political slogan: as mas­ter of the Pequod he imposes on the crew an ideology consisting of that sentence alone. The ship, locked into its rigid structure of meaning, sails on an ocean which is all swelling and heaving ambivalence, that “indefiniteness” of which the whale’s white­ness is emblematic. Whiteness appalls be­cause it “shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation.” Yet the mind — Melville’s mind most particularly — keeps coming back to that brink, to “the white depths of the milky way” and the “dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows”: full, not of one specific meaning, but of all meanings blended, “a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.” Even as he shrinks from it, Melville is stirred by a counter-impulse of desire — or so the temblors of his prose assure us. If there is an eroticism of annihilation, the white whale embodies it.

Although his alter ego Ishmael survives the wreck, it was as if Melville had in truth been swallowed by the whale. He had stum­bled almost accidentally into writing, but once caught up in the process had been pulled ever deeper into the spiraling struc­tures it generated. The timetables of the outside world must have begun to seem re­mote: he was out of sync. There was no money. His great prophetic utterance was received as a rather convoluted sea story. Even in Hawthorne he sensed a nervous withdrawal. As for his family, they were no longer merely worrying about his health, but openly questioning his sanity. Their correspondence shows the conclave of rela­tives sending emergency signals back and forth about Herman’s “condition.” His mother fears that “this constant working of the brain, and excitement of the imagina­tion, is wearing Herman out”; his father-in­-law concurs that Melville “overworks him­self and brings on severe nervous afflic­tions.” All agree that, in sister Augusta’s words, “it is of the utmost importance that something should be done to prevent the necessity of Herman’s writing.” But Her­man, closeted in his room like Ahab in his cabin, plunged straight into the next book as if afraid to stop.

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That book — Pierre, or The Ambigu­ities — brought the crisis to a head: it was not only an abject failure, but a work of unbridled psychological aggression in which Melville undertook the symbolic destruc­tion of his entire family. Until now he had been like a little boy playing in his room, making up stories about his imaginary boat: the world of his books was safely separated by vast tracts of ocean from his real life as son and husband and father. In Pierre the little boy crept into the rest of the house, poking among bedrooms and closets and attics and making some unpleasant discov­eries. The old Melville household  with its dominating mother, dead father, and oppressively legendary grandfather — was played back in the distorted light of re­awakened childhood memory.

Pierre‘s plot resembles the garish fantasy of a morbidly precocious child: Noble young Pierre lives alone with his still beautiful mother, on whom he lavishes a “courteous lover-like adoration.” (Mother and son playfully “call each other brother and sis­ter.”) Otherwise Pierre spends his time ven­erating a portrait of his father and strolling through gardens with his virginal fiancee Lucy. Into this petrified bower of bliss comes the dark Isabel, who reveals herself in secret to Pierre as his illegitimate half-­sister. Horrified at this exposure of parental hypocrisy and determined to do the right thing by Isabel, Pierre abruptly burns his father’s portrait, vacates the family man­sion, breaks off with Lucy, and unites — for, motives too complexly self-contradictory to explain — in a mock marriage with Isabel. His mother dies of grief; Lucy, in a bizarre fit of self-sacrifice, comes to live with Pierre and Isabel as their servant; and Glen, Pierre’s cousin (and, it is suggested, his one­time lover), publicly insults him, in re­sponse to which Pierre shoots him down in the street. Imprisoned, Pierre is joined by Lucy and Isabel, and all three — in a kind of small-scale Jonestown — expire together.

So much for Melville’s effort to write a commercial novel: now not only his relatives but the critics were calling him insane. Pierre hasn’t fared well with critics in our day either, having been variously described as a “disaster” (Charles Olson), “grindingly, ludicrously bad” (John Updike), and “one of the most painfully ill-conditioned books ever to be produced by a first-rate mind” (Newton Arvin). It is indeed a suicidal book, undermining its own structure, chok­ing off the emotions to which it appeals, and exploding into arbitrary violence which shatters any remaining framework of sym­pathy. Melville cannibalizes himself: in the same way that he had turned his sea voy­ages into books, he attempts to patch his rawest traumas and rages into a gothic ro­mance. Charged with the residue of Moby­-Dick‘s energies, he directs them against his own precarious sense of wholeness, with bloody results. Small wonder that many have recoiled from a book where, in a typi­cal instance, the hero angrily smashes his head against a wall and falls down “dab­bling in the vomit of his loathed identity.”

Yet in its way Pierre is as ambitious and original as Moby-Dick. The whole first half is a sustained trance in which, against the droning background created by the repeti­tion of “dim” and “vague” and “mysteri­ous” and “indefinite,” Melville lets shadows leak into the cozy family nest. The process by which familiar associations turn menac­ing, as the hero’s consciousness gives way to engulfment, is described with obsessive pre­cision: “He felt that what he had always before considered the solid land of veritable reality, was now being audaciously en­croached upon by bannered armies of hood­ed phantoms, disembarking in his soul, as from flotillas of specter-boats.” In short lu­rid bursts, Pierre’s states of mind are lit up like cavernous Thomas Cole landscapes. These sudden vistas of mental recesses jan­gle with voluptuous negativity: meanings deny themselves and coil inward to reveal further meanings likewise receding into shadow. An anguished unresolved probing extends itself in tortuously prolonged sen­tences, like the one in which Pierre contem­plates his dead father’s portrait, “ever watching the strangely concealed lights of the meanings that so mysteriously moved to and fro within . . . unconsciously throwing himself open to all those ineffable hints and ambiguities, and undefined half-sugges­tions, which now and then people the soul’s atmosphere, as thickly as in a soft, steady snow-storm, the snow-flakes people the air.”

In Moby-Dick Melville had written that “those far mysteries we dream of,” if pur­sued, “either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.” His trail had led him into a maze poisonous with “dark persuadings” and “horrible haunting toads and scorpions,” and his companion this time was no hearty fellow sailor but the spectral sickly Isabel, Melville’s feminine twin at last bodied forth. Her speeches have  a hollow, somnolent ring, like an emanation at a seance. In that alien voice we seem to hear the controlling spirit of Melville’s writing speaking for itself: “I never affect any thoughts, and I never adulterate any thoughts; but when I speak, think forth from the tongue, speech being sometimes  before the thought; so, often, my own tongue teaches me new things.” If Pierre starts to cave in somewhere past its mid­point, it’s perhaps because Melville, sud­denly aware of what he was perpetrating, tried to escape from the process he had initiated. Living in poverty with Isabel, Pierre writes a book — a book plainly identi­cal to the one we are reading. Pierre’s book collapses too: he is overwhelmed by “the primitive elementalizing of the strange stuff, which in the act of attempting that book, has upheaved and upgushed in his soul.” Finally there’s no way out but a murderous showdown: so in 1852, by default, Melville invented the genre of James Cain’s Serenade and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.

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He would never let himself go like that again. After Pierre he reined in the sponta­neity which had led him so wildly astray. A new mistrust surfaces in his prose: he masks himself. The scrupulous impersonality of “Benito Cereno” extends even to its weath­er patterns: “Everything was mute and calm; everything gray.” Structurally a de­tective story, “Benito Cereno” shares that genre’s flatness of characterization. Its com­panion piece, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” eliminates characterization altogether in its portrait of a human degree zero, defined exclusively in negative terms. Beyond the rotted lushness of Pierre we emerge into a bone-white dessication, perfect and empty: “I placed his desk close up to a small side­-window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erection, com­manded at present no view at all, though it gave some light.” Having advanced so far into the nonhuman, he even wrote a novella-like set of sketches, “The Encantadas,” whose “characters” are clumps of volcanic rock and huge primeval tortoises, and where such humans as appear function as bits of rubble littering the landscape. In the deso­lation of those lava slopes, in the barrenness of the Chilean coast off which “Benito Cer­eno” unfolds, in the blankness of Bartleby, Melville found his new field of action: the desert. But if his ocean had been full of noises, his desert was to be mostly silent.

Israel Potter, the miserably unlucky hero of Bunker Hill, was condemned by fate to 50 years of beggarly exile. Melville’s own exile was internal: a separation from lan­guage as he had loved it, primordial and generous, and in its place a hair-splitting intellectual paranoia, a remorseless jabbing at words to find out their hidden enmities. Pierre had already revealed to him “the universal lurking insincerity of even the greatest and purest written thoughts,” and The Confidence-Man, that queasiest of books, states the case to the point of ex­haustion. The enthusiastic, hyperbolic lan­guage which had once been Melville’s now belongs to the Confidence-Man, grinning emissary of the great American bilking ma­chine, chameleonic trickster and archetypal glad-hander, with his bluff cries of “Good fellowship forever!” and his ravenous eye for human vulnerability. Like any salesman his implicit motto is: “If you don’t trust me, there must be something wrong with you.”

For us, with its impeccable foreshadowing of the style and methodology of a Spiro Agnew or Jerry Falwell, The Confidence­ Man looks prophetic: and like many anoth­er prophetic book, it borders on the unread­able. As airless and badly lit as the Mississippi steamer aboard which it’s set, the novel pits a faceless malevolent pres­ence — we recognize him only by the insinu­ating thrust of his discourse — against a se­ries of lumpish grotesques, ultimate materialists characterized solely by the clothes they wear and the money they spend: “From an old buckskin pouch, tremulously dragged forth, ten hoarded ea­gles, tarnished into the appearance of ten old horn-buttons, were taken, and half-ea­gerly, half-reluctantly, offered.” All affir­mations being suspect, Melville undercuts his own writing: the words recoil from themselves, and the book trails off into a choking darkness. With a cryptic gesture of farewell ± “Something further may follow of this Masquerade” — the novelist steals away into silence.

He published no more prose. In 1856, just after finishing The Confidence-Man, he went — or was packed off — across the ocean again, at his father-in-law’s expense: a hag­gard convalescent on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Stopping off in England he paid his respects to Hawthorne, talking endlessly of religion and the life after death, and ac­knowledging that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated.” The sacred places of Jerusalem and Judea, duti­fully though he wrote them up in his note­book, imparted no spiritual healing. He seems to have come home resigned to a muffled, depleted existence. Admitting that he was finished as a professional writer, he lectured unsuccessfully for a few seasons on topics like “Roman Statuary” and “Travel: Its Pleasures, Pains, and Profits”; made vain efforts to parlay his family’s Demo­cratic connections into a diplomatic ap­pointment; and in 1866 — having by now sold the farm and settled into an apartment on East 26th Street — he accepted a job as Inspector of Customs, at $4 a day, on the New York docks. He remained there until his retirement 20 years later.

The record of those years is a round of barren drudgery and family occasions. Mel­ville evolved into a diffident functionary, notoriously honest amid a nest of bureau­cratic corruption, who in off hours indulged his taste for books and fine prints while complying dutifully with the rituals of domestic life. A few blinding tragedies inter­rupted the surface monotony. Soon after Melville went to work in the customs office, his teenaged son Malcolm — who slept with a gun under his pillow and had often quarreled with his father — blew his brains out for no clear reason. A year later the other son, Stanwix, set sail for China to begin a downward spiral of indecisive drifting, modeled perhaps on Typee and Omoo, and terminated by an early death in far-off Cali­fornia. Melville himself disappeared from literary society, and by the mid-’80s was being written of in these terms: “Herman Melville exemplifies the transiency of liter­ary reputation . . . Although his early works are still popular, the author is generally supposed to be dead.”

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In fact he had not even stopped writing; he had simply stopped addressing an audi­ence. Melville’s particular silence took the form of poetry. He may have nursed a brief hope that the Civil War poems of Battle­-Pieces would elevate him to the rank of public bard; but no one noticed and few would have appreciated his subtle modifica­tion of military rhetoric through images of “the parched ones stretched in pain” or “the rusted gun,/Green shoes full of bones, the mouldering coat/And cuddled-up skel­eton.” Battle-Pieces is Melville’s least per­sonal book (his own tumult for once sub­sides into a larger civic solemnity) and the mode of formal recitative in which it’s cast has become remote to us. It does contain at least one idiosyncratic masterpiece, “The House-‘Top,” a “night piece” registering in Jacobean tones the shock of New York’s draft riots:

No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain-a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades, Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya.

Melville’s democratic enthusiasm curdles, confronted with an anarchy in which “All civil charms/And priestly spells which late held hearts in sway/. . . like a dream dis­solve,/ And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.” It feels like a poem of the next century, and the poet’s grim applause for the forces of martial law is only too premon­itory: “Wise Draco comes, deep in the mid­night roll/ Of black artillery.”

After the critical failure of Battle-Pieces, Melville was free to be indifferent. The ap­plause, rewards, laurel wreaths and honor­ary appointments would be distributed elsewhere: he was left as his own audience of one. Out of that solitude he constructed Clarel, an immensely long poem drawing on his trip to Palestine. Apparently begun in the wake of his son’s suicide, it was pub­lished 10 years later at his uncle’s expense, and was greeted — as might be anticipated­ — with dead silence. Melville later cavalierly described Clarel as “eminently adapted for unpopularity”; yet his wife provides a more anguished glimpse of what it meant to him: “Herman, poor fellow, is in such a frightful­ly nervous state . . . that I am actually afraid to have any one here for fear that he will be upset. entirely . . . If ever this dread­ful incubus of a book (I call it so because it has undermined all our happiness) gets off Herman’s shoulders I do hope he may be in better mental health.”

Clarel has almost the air of a self-im­posed penance, as Melville meticulously re­constructs his failure to find any trace of God in the Holy Land. This 18,000-line work, with its dozens of characters and dense layers of Bible lore and Orientalia, was the most labored, the most consciously artistic thing Melville ever did: yet its very elaboration seems designed to stave off an overwhelming feeling of hollowness. The narrative line is stark: An American divinity student has undergone a crisis of faith. Hoping for spiritual renewal he wanders through Jerusalem and across the Judean desert to Bethlehem, in company with a band of pilgrims representing every shade of credence: sincere piety, fanaticism, mod­ern liberalism, scientific scepticism, with a few taciturn Moslems and Druses thrown in for contrast. The debate moves back and forth, while in counterpoint the sacred sites roll by. We might be in the midst of one of those 19th century paintings depicting a group of travelers dwarfed by the surround­ing crags and ruins. Young Clarel wavers from one side to another, only to sink deep­er in uncertainty and self-doubt: and, re­turning to Jerusalem to find his chaste be­loved dead of fever, he slumps into a perhaps unredeemable despair. Melville systematically frustrates the desire for a transcendent resolution. Despite the for­mality of its trappings — a ceremonial order­ing of calendrical and geographic compo­nents, a constricting metrical scheme (rhymed tetrameters), a Dantean inter­weaving of symbols — Clarel remains stub­bornly open-ended, dislocated, a monument to unappeasable vacillation. It prays for meaning and no meaning appears.

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Had Melville’s skill at versification been equal to a work of such length, Clarel would be the great poem which it obliquely im­plies but only fitfully becomes. The techni­cal constraints too often weigh him down, and we feel trapped in the thudding move­ments of some monstrously cumbersome machine. Yet Clarel has its fascinations. The meter’s choked, clotted gait induces claustrophobia. Amid incessant images of aridity and death, the poem’s dry and ab­stract talk mirrors the desert’s barrenness: ” ‘Tis horror absolute — severe,/ Dead, livid, honeycombed, dumb, fell — / A caked depopulated hell.”

Suffocating as it often is, Clarel works beautifully as concrete poetry. The short lines, unrolling like a scroll through empty space, heighten the physical presence of Melville’s heterogeneous, always surprising vocabulary; the placement of words on the page is often more significant than symbolic patterns or intellectual arguments. The lay­out’s dizzying verticality, combined with a persistent staccato of enjambment, estab­lishes a jagged topography:

Overlooked, the houses sloped from him — 
Terraced or domed, unchimnied, gray,
All stone — a moor of roofs. No play
Of life; no smoke went up, no sound
Except low hum, and that half drowned. 

Clarel might be described as a symbolic poem about the failure of symbolism. The great unifying Biblical images are reduced to empty forms: just a hill, just a rock, just a tomb. The result of “that vast eclipse” is to make all actions arbitrary. The randomness which once delighted Melville now horrifies him: “No shape astir/Except at whiles a shadow falls/Athwart the way, and key in hand/Noiseless applies it, enters so/And vanishes.” The world is all mask, a grainy surface crisscrossed by accidental comings and goings.

In Clarel, that cipher of a hero, Melville had come to rest in an image of ultimate passivity. Tormented by religious doubt, by premonitions of political cataclysm, by nag­ging sexual uncertainties, the student with­draws from action altogether. Like Clarel, Melville had never really decided which sex he was drawn to, or whether he didn’t pre­fer a solitary asceticism; as for what kind of government to support, or what God to be­lieve or not believe in, his judgments flut­tered and plunged and reared up with remorseless unpredictability. Writing served as a refuge from that crisis, as Melville discovered how contradictory possibilities could be fused together in imaginary linguistic structures. In that paradise he could defer what were for him impossible decisions. Moments of flight or procrastination or dead calm — when a ship cannot move even if it wants to — became pockets of eternity.

Perhaps in the end he felt that all his choices had been forced upon him. His last poems brim with nostalgia for a life only half lived: he conjures up the ghosts of dead sailors (“Where’s Commander All-a­-Tanto?/ Where’s Orlop Bob singing up from below?/ Where’s Rhyming Ned? has he spun his last canto?/ Where’s Jewsharp Jim? Where’s Rigadoon Joe?”) and recalls “The Typee-truants under stars/Unknown to Shakespeare’s Midsummer-Night.” The final years seem to have been more tranquil than what went before. He could even write: “Healed of my hurt, I laud the inhuman sea.” The best of these late poems, “Billy in the Darbies,” formed the seed of his last story, the almost-finished Billy Budd. There a whole drama of wrongful hurt, and warped desire turned hateful, dissolved into a reconciliation between the condemned in­nocent and the father-figure who must kill him. The scene is bathed in a resolutely unrevealing luminosity: “There is no telling the sacrament . . . wherever under circum­stances at all akin to those here attempted to be set forth two of great Nature’s nobler order embrace. There is privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor; the holy oblivion, the sequel to each diviner magnanimity, providentially covers all at last.” The desire to particularize at last surrenders to the desire to sink, to be embraced, to submit to the disciplinary prerogatives of silence: “I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.” ■


We Owe This Fall’s Most Anticipated Books to Herman Melville

Herman Melville, whose 195th birthday passed this August, is one of the few white American writers of the pre-civil rights era whose writing doesn’t swoop into icky moments of surprise racism—you know, those times when, say, a pack of “woolly-headed” “Negroes” suddenly appears in an otherwise highbrow novel, “grinning” and “rolling their eyes,” at which point bookish black folks like myself either snap the thing shut or—sometimes—read on in fascinated horror. I am far from the first to note that Melville’s sensibility had a prophetically modern cast (despite his troublesome lack of interest in female characters).

See also: The 2014 Fall (Arts) Issue: An Index

Even by today’s standards, he’s something of a radical. Anticolonial before colonialism really kicked in, Melville also “went native” before it was cool—his first book, Typee, is the mostly true account of when he jumped ship in French Polynesia and lived as the guest of a tribe considered to be cannibals. How did that go? It gave him a new perspective on white people: “The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth,” he wrote. In 1846.

Melville mocked missionaries in his work; some American editions of his books were altered to avoid criticism from the church. The little-read Pierre presents an oblique condemnation of Christian morality. Not surprisingly, Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne described Melville as someone ambivalent even about his lack of faith.

LGBT critics frequently point to various passages in Melville (especially that “sperm squeezing” scene from Moby-Dick) and certain details of his biography to make a case for his homosexuality, though he was perhaps in the process of inventing gay identity more than living it. And why wouldn’t you want Herman on your team? Heck, he even looked like he could get a job as a bartender in a modern Brooklyn alehouse.

The dustier elocutions of 19th-century prose that still cling to Melville’s style have remained part and parcel of his influence on modern thought and expression, and his ideas have percolated through American letters, especially historical and neo-historical fiction, at an even higher temperature since his rediscovery in the 1920s.

As if in celebration of his 195th, a big chunk of this fall’s most anticipated books and authors owe at least part of their heritages to Melville—others might have pleased him. David Mitchell flaunts a grandiosity and wanderlust that wax Melvillian, while Denis Johnson would make Melville proud with his questioning attitude toward the rapacious capitalist impulse in the Southern Hemisphere. Even Marilynne Robinson, who’s quite pious in comparison to Melville, indulges in a similar fiery lyricism. Naomi Klein’s and Lydia Millet’s insistent environmentalism dovetails nicely with Melville’s; Millet’s ironic voice could’ve been inspired by Omoo, the sequel to Typee, whose snarky protagonist takes part in a mutiny. Laila Lalami reaches into the past—further back than Melville ever did—to demonstrate to modernity a fact that Melville flaunted both in Typee and Benito Cereno (1855): that the nonwhite casualties of global capitalism have always had articulate voices and stories worth hearing.

The Bone Clocks
By David Mitchell
September 2

His highly acclaimed novels Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet have given David Mitchell a towering reputation as a wizard-like, shape-shifting, time-defying stylist. You might call him the Terry Gilliam of literary fiction, were he not so prolific. While Mitchell has taken readers to feudal Japan, midcentury Belgium, and a nightmarish future Korea, he occasionally tackles less elaborate, more personal material: say, the agony of stuttering alter ego Jason Taylor in Black Swan Green. His newest finds him synthesizing his impulse to conquer time, space, and consciousness with his more personal side in order to inhabit the mind of Holly Sykes, who begins the novel as a saucy teen runaway in the 1980s. From there, Mitchell leaps into the future—all the way to 2043, in fact—to demonstrate the repercussions of Holly’s impulsive youthful mistakes. Random House, $30, 640 pp.

The Moor’s Account
By Laila Lalami
September 9

While David Mitchell explores Westernized takes on postcolonial globalism, award-winning Moroccan writer Laila Lalami offers a more radical break with that tradition, one in which the subaltern literally speaks. The Moor’s Account is based on the true story of Andres Dorantes, a real explorer who was part of a doomed expedition in 1527 to colonize Florida—or rather, the imagined testimony of Dorantes’s slave, Estebanico, one of four men out of the 600-strong crew to survive and make their way across what is now the Gulf Coast. Pantheon, $25.95, 336 pp.

This Changes Everything
By Naomi Klein
September 16

Having toppled the “free market” economic theories of Milton Friedman in the national bestseller The Shock Doctrine, or at least exposed their nefarious ability to create income disparity and encourage their adherents to take advantage of chaos around the world, Klein’s ready to take on something even more ambitious, if one can imagine that — climate change. Free-market mentality is again her target, but in this case, the stakes are higher, since the entire planet’s at risk. As if telling the world’s story would not already exhaust a lesser journalist, Klein then argues that the effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions can’t help but temper the spread of global capitalism and its various associated evils. Simon & Schuster, $30, 384 pp.

By Marilynne Robinson
October 7

Marilynne Robinson’s project is unusual in modern American letters: In four beloved novels, three of which tell interconnected stories taking place in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, she has passionately advocated for American religious faith to regain the quiet dignity, erudition, and rationality which seem to have all but disappeared from public discourse, let alone modern religion. Her belief that Puritanism has been unfairly stereotyped and misunderstood fueled the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead (2004), whose main character is a clergyman, John Ames. Lila presents the counter narrative of Ames’s humble wife, an uneducated former migrant worker, further complicating Robinson’s novel series as she more deeply excavates her small plot of Midwestern ground. FSG, $26, 272 pp.

Mermaids in Paradise
By Lydia Millet
November 3

After a trilogy of urgent, intense novels and a Pulitzer-finalist story collection, Millet returns to her absurdist roots with a hilarious farce about a couple on honeymoon in the Caribbean who first encounter real mermaids, and, shortly after, the corporate zeal for monetizing them. In the process, Millet’s deadpan heroine, Deb, wades through a morass of annoying trends, spiritual bankruptcy, and insubstantial dreck that bears a close resemblance to modern life. Of her husband, Deb says, “Chip had initially wanted one of those Renaissance faire weddings, until I told him I’d rather get a Renaissance faire divorce. I could live with [his] gaming, I told him—though it was going to be a stretch, sustaining sexual desire for a mate with multiple cudgel-bearing avatars.” Norton, $25.95, 288 pp.

The Laughing Monsters
By Denis Johnson
November 4

His novel Tree of Smoke (2007) won a National Book Award, his novella Train Dreams (2002/2011) got shortlisted for the Pulitzer, Jesus’ Son (1992) is revered everywhere. With all that pressure to succeed, it seems like Johnson has reacted by going pulp: His neo-noir Nobody Move (2009) was like a rebellious child—serialized in Playboy, with trashy, ignoble grifters at its center, it went relatively unaccoladed. FSG bills The Laughing Monsters as “a literary spy thriller,” but this tale of a Scandinavian entrepreneur drawn back to Sierra Leone by the promise of a vague moneymaking scheme dreamed up by a long-lost African friend promises to be a post-colonial take on Heart of Darkness, or at least the Nigerian 419 scam. FSG, $25, 240 pp.


Laurie Anderson

“In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space,” wrote Herman Melville in Moby-Dick. In this roundtable discussion, iconoclastic performance artist Laurie Anderson reflects on space-time with Met curator Melanie Holcomb, time-bending novelist Rebecca Stead, and astrophysicist-cum-art historian SeungJung Kim. From her multimedia adaptation of Melville’s sprawling epic to her recent Hurricane Sandy-inspired collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, “Landfall,” Anderson reconciles the existential enormity of geologic time with the the revelation that only one thing is timeless: “Art is long, life is short,” or to quote her late husband, “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.”

Wed., April 30, 6 p.m., 2014



Hop aboard a British man-of-war and set sail for 1797 at BAM, where Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, based on Herman Melville’s novella, is having a revival in honor of the composer’s centenary. The acclaimed production from Glyndebourne Festival Opera, which features a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, tells the story of a pure-hearted young sailor wrongly accused of being a mutineer and the court-martial that decides his fate. Tony winner Michael Grandage directs.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: Feb. 7. Continues through Feb. 13, 2014



We’ve gained a bit of experience faring with what nature can throw at us in recent weeks, but nothing can top what Ishmael, Captain Ahab, and the rest of the Pequod crew endure on their quest for revenge against one of literature’s most well-known and vicious marine mammals in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or, the Whale. Across Manhattan and Brooklyn, bookstores will be celebrating the anniversary of this American classic with the first Moby-Dick Marathon, featuring more than 100 readers and all 135 chapters of this epic sea adventure. On Friday at Word Bookstore, actor Paul Dano of Little Miss Sunshine fame will be kicking off the chase that, by the end of the weekend, will have the entire city calling themselves Ishmael. Friday at 6, Word Bookstore, 126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn; Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m., Housing Works Bookstore Café, 126 Crosby Street; Saturday evening, 
Molasses Books, 770 Hart Street, Brooklyn.

Fri., Nov. 16, 6 p.m., 2012


The Fish That Wasn’t

“I take the good old-fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me,” Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick, disregarding the irksome detail that whales, like mammals, have warm blood and lungs. Melville had, after all, spent enough time at sea to heed conventional wisdom, which equated all swimming things with the scaly tribe.

As D. Graham Burnett notes in his curious new history, Trying Leviathan, “[t]he vast majority of Americans not only assumed that a whale was a fish, but were surprised to learn that the question could be debated.” In fact, that debate would become deeply contentious with the 1818 trial of Samuel Judd, owner of the New-York Spermaceti Oil & Candle Factory. Ordered by an inspector, James Maurice, to pay a fine on three barrels of whale oil, Judd protested that whales were not fish and therefore not subject to the fees levied on fish products. Burnett, who has written on exploration and intellectual history and now teaches at Princeton, sees the pitched legal battle over the $75 in question as a pivotal moment in the expanding conversation about the role of science in the infant republic, as well as a harbinger of the vitriol that would become commonplace in the American courtroom.

As would be the case with the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925—the landmark prosecution of a Tennessee teacher who dared to bring evolution into his classroom—Maurice v. Judd was closer to a violent clash of cultural notions than a spirited scientific debate. Judd’s defense was stacked with New York’s intelligentsia, schooled in the revolutionary taxonomy of Linnaeus and disdainful of bumpkins who, ignorant of modern science, harbored convictions that would keep America a backward nation.

Maurice’s camp consisted of traditionalists who chastised “the evils of burdensome nomenclatures,” reminding that the Bible left little ambiguity about the place of whales in the natural order. His lawyer endlessly derided taxonomy as a fanciful hobby that, beyond its strange treatment of the whale, would disturbingly “rank mankind with apes, monkeys, maucaucos and bats.” Burnett also espies racial fearmongering here: If the law that placed humans before animals were upset, would the established hierarchy of white men over black follow suit?

The jury was ultimately persuaded that Judd should pay taxes on his whale oil, but reason prevailed when the state legislature decreed that whales were mammals. Burnett describes the trial with the keen eye of an informed courtroom observer, but he writes in a dense, academic tone that precludes him from teasing out the relevance of Maurice v. Judd to contemporary America, where opponents of stem-cell research and abortion traffic much more readily in religious polemic than scientific fact.


Scibblers Ahoy!

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville may seem obvious titans of American letters today, but in the 1850s, one had resorted to a desk job, and the other was on the verge of suicide. Hawthorne had become history’s most overqualified “as told to” hack, having written a biography of school chum President Franklin Pierce, who reciprocated by appointing him American consul to Liverpool. Melville, Hawthorne’s young acolyte, had at age 30 already authored the great American novel, but the critics deemed Moby Dick insane and vulgar. Distraught, he set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, on the way stopping in England to see his friend and hero.

This literary layover supplies the plot for downtown veteran Len Jenkin’s obscure yet intriguing Kraken, which is less valuable as historical biography than as a meditation on the path of the artist. Like a 19th-century My Dinner With Andre, the story pits a practical bourgeois versus a wild mystic; Melville’s brooding passion scares Hawthorne, but forces him to confront his own timid complacency. (Ironically, we see Melville eventually succumb to bureaucratic drudgery himself.) A “kraken” may be a mythical predatory sea monster, but it’s inner demons that drive Jenkin’s drama, which is conveyed with complexity, poetry, fantasy, and even song.

While Hawthorne and Melville (acted expertly by Augustus Truhn and Tom Escovar) are drawn with depth and sensitivity, Jenkin surrounds them with a less consistently engaging supporting crew. A sweet-faced angel of death—a tart literary critic from the afterlife—provides some eerie moments, but her sporadic narration and emcee duties become precious. A pair of cockney carnies lend some class conflict, but Daphne, a tattooed whore, doesn’t offer much more than the usual folk wisdom; her abusive husband/pimp, a “wandering Jew,” is more refreshing as an unlikely analogue to the two homeless Yankees. Mrs. Hawthorne makes an appearance, too, but seems wasted without anything distinct to contribute, though a couple of “local color” roles are rendered with welcome flair by Richardson Jones.

The production—elegantly spare yet dry—neither fully exploits nor counteracts the script’s static discursiveness. Director Michael Kimmel lets Jenkin’s dense text breathe, but the slow-paced, intermissionless two-hour staging could use some more wind in the sails. For those patient on the voyage, though, Kraken does dock at a satisfying port.


Bookstore Confidential

The Strand Bookstore’s slogan, affixed to ubiquitous tote bags and T-shirts, is “18 Miles of Books.” The Secret of Lost Things, a first novel by former Strand employee Sheridan Hay, is noticeably shorter. Nevertheless, Hay packs its pages with Tasmanian hat shops, Argentinian desaparecidos, a mysterious Herman Melville manuscript, a Polish playboy, a pre-op transsexual, an albino, an orphan, and an encomium to the Strand itself. There are at least two, possibly three separate novels, crammed into Hay’s midsized volume.

In what will be a surprise for anyone who has ever visited the Strand, there are organizational principles at work there, and in Hay’s novel, as well—just not particularly effective ones. The owner of Hay’s fictional bookstore, here renamed the Arcade, instructs the heroine, Rosemary, “Order by poet, mind you. Only by poet. Don’t give a damn about editors and translators—that’s all a charade…. Remove all anthologies! Alphabetical that is all.” Hay doesn’t embrace quite the same system. The novel begins as a coming-of-age story in which 18-year-old Rosemary arrives in New York from Tasmania. It ends as a rather less satisfying literary mystery in which Rosemary and several Arcade employees are on the trail of a lost Melville novel. In between, and touching on both narratives, is thick description of the Arcade and its cloyingly oddball employees. Hay has a passion for the grotesque and none of her characters is quite spared. Rosemary, foreign, flame-haired, orphaned, perilously naive, is quite the most normal of the group.

Rosemary maintains that “The Arcade’s charm is oddly absolute.” Hay’s is not. She has a sensitivity to character, and the first chapters, set in Tasmania, are unsentimental and robust. But in the New York passages, she too often veers towards the precious (“A bookstore [is] also a reliquary for the bones of strange creatures. Mermaid’s tails, unicorn horns”) and the weighty pronouncement (“How illusory is any accumulation of knowledge.” )

Hay’s passion for her material is apparent, as is her passion for literature, but she hasn’t yet discovered how to translate those interests into convincing narrative. She writes at the novel’s opening, “I hadn’t heard of [the Arcade’s] reputation for housing lost things: books once possessed and missed or never possessed and longed for.” The first novel is itself too acquisitive, wanting to pack far too many books, stories, characters, and quotations between its thin covers.


Whale of a Show

Orson Welles’s interest in dramatizing Moby Dick goes back at least to a 1946 radio version; this followed by an oratorio that never happened and a cameo as Father Mapple in John Huston’s movie, which apparently Welles wanted to make. In 1955, he staged his minimalist Moby Dick—Rehearsed in London: A late-19th-century Shakespearean stock company, led by Himself, interrupts a rehearsal of Lear to read-through an adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel. This legendary production, which Welles also attempted to film, ran three weeks and was staged on Broadway seven years later with Rod Steiger as Lear-Ahab-Welles.

Marc Silberschatz’s bare-bones but robustly acted production may be the first New York has seen since. Performed without a set, Moby Dick—Rehearsed is close to radio drama. The emphasis is on the power of Melville’s language, and the sturdy ensemble gathered in the cozy confines of the Richmond Shepard Theater is anchored by Seth Duerr’s bravura, at times Wellesian, Ahab. The use of the play within the play isn’t at all Pirandellian; once the stage is set, Welles does not break the spell. He does tweak it a bit however, turning Melville’s chapter on the evil of whiteness into a dialogue between Ahab and terrified Pip. The African American cabin boy is played, per Welles’s script, by the company’s Cordelia (Nicole Benish), never more white and womanly than when exclaiming, “Have mercy on a small black boy!”