Beyond Black Bear Lake

As previously threatened, I’m reading more of the Woodswoman’s books. In this sequel, Anne takes a more vocal stance on environmental issues, shouting from the rooftop of her cabin about acid rain’s destruction on the woods/lake/world. I remember acid rain as the major bugaboo in the 1980s but it has somehow fallen out of favor for the more gripping Climate Change or Global Warming.

In this book, Anne is up to her old tricks with romance, wooing her doctor but never giving up her independence. She has a nice section about being over marriage and pleased that she doesn’t have kids. She travels around as an ecology consultant, and has become somewhat famous from her Woodswoman book, with fans stalking her at her cabin. Yikes!

In addition to those intrusions, the constant whir of motorboats during the summer seriously bums her out. “I go camping on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. I can’t bear to sit in my cabin and listen to what’s happening.” Then she takes it one step further and builds a second cabin on her land, this one set deep within the woods, hidden away on a second lake. She calls the cabin Thoreau II and enlists the help of friends each summer to cut and shape the logs.

Parts of the book are worth the overall strain. She appreciates nature and silence, something we have less and less of with each passing day.

Devotion (Why I Write)

Not every Patti Smith book can be a wonder. Her latest, Devotion, is actually worth missing completely. It seems to be comprised of three parts: her trip to Paris and pilgrimage to Simone Weil’s grave; the story that she wrote while in Paris; a visit to Camus’ house. This “book” seems to be built on the successful framework of M Train, but lacks any meat on its bones. Avoid.

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir

This is a terrible book.

It takes a certain combination of factors to get me to “rage-read” a book and this memoir overflowed with those elements. I really wanted to like it—it’s billed as a tale that weaves surfing in NYC with Moby-Dick. What could go wrong?

Justin is blindingly ignorant of his own privilege, for one thing. He chooses to go to grad school in literature because you get the summers off. His constant braying about being “poor” rings so falsely, but I didn’t start to rage read until he brags about his wealthy friend Kyle Grodin who withdrew a huge stack of money from an ATM and tossed them around like confetti, “like being inside one of those state-lottery globes where it snows money.”

Bragging is—at least— a consistent theme through the book. Attending a Unitarian church service (after whining that you can’t admit to going to church without people looking at you like you’re an alien), he looks around the room at the gray-haired congregation and realizes that the minister’s sermon around Green Day lyrics is probably going over their heads. “It’s a safe bet that I’m the only one in the room with remotely punk rock roots: the only one with multiple tattoos, or who’s seen Fugazi live from the front row of a Wyoming cowboy bar, or who’s skated Burnside solo on a rainy Christmas Eve.”

Remember how he’s poor? Yet when he goes to a donation-based therapist, it’s “a foreign concept for someone who’s spent thousands of dollars in therapy.” Get ready to start feeling really uncomfortable, because this man is a coddled wreck. He goes to this counselor to get advice about a woman who broke up with him 6 months ago. This is where we’re treated (vomit) to a description of this ex-girlfriend, “She was and is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known: sea-green eyes and impossibly long lashes, olive complexion, and aquiline nose and thick dark hair.” Surprise, surprise, she doesn’t want to get back together with him. He goes into shock (I’m not making this up) and somewhat loses his mind: “I thought about calling Nicole [the woman who rejected him], or 911, or the psychic hotline, or every woman in the phone book until someone came to help me.” What the actual fuck? He thinks all women exist solely to talk him out of his funk.

This might be a good time to mention that in the first 30 pages of this mess, he tries to work an “I’m bisexual” vibe in when he visits this dude, Asa. Justin’s dropping Queequeg hints all over the place—they’re hard to miss. “He reaches over and places his hand on my shoulder, squeezes. ‘I’m glad you’re here, man,’ he says. Our eyes meet for a moment, then I glance at the open window, through which I can see his bed and stack of surfboards, and part of me wants to lean back over and kiss him… I realize that I sort of want to spend the night over at Asa’s… Instead of kissing him, I make him promise to take me surfing.” I have no problem with bisexuality, but my god he is such a terrible writer. And the bi-claim goes stale quickly when it’s only women who get reduced to terms of physical appearance from now on, like the “good-looking city women who are out for the weekend” or Lisa Mae who is “totally beautiful.”

I had to take a break mid-way through to recover from eye-roll strain. “Dawn stays out in the ocean for another half hour, while Teagan and I nap and flirt on the beach. It’s late afternoon by the time we make it back to Brooklyn. I shower and put on a T-shirt and jeans and cowboy boots. Before heading out I do a quick double take in the mirror, a little surprised how surfing has transformed my upper body.” He is so in love with himself, and it comes through in every whine and annoying comment.

Remember Nicole? She’s not the only ex-girlfriend in this story. A more recent breakup is Karissa, whose acne is described in disgusting detail when she comes to visit him pre-breakup. But now he’s mooning over her and “Then it hits me—what feels like an epiphany: I want to be with Karissa.” When he calls her in Portland, he finds out that she’s happily dating someone else. “Feeling panicked and desperate, I tell her how I’ve dated some people too, but that I realize now how special what we had was…”

I guess this is as good a place as any to mention that this idiot goes to “men’s meetings” as a way to deal with his “addiction” to relationships. I’ll just let that sit here.

At one of these men’s meetings (try not to giggle imagining these terrible get-togethers), a man mentions that he’s dealing with his ex working in the same office with him. Justin gets a jolt of anxiety listening to his story, thinking “what if Karissa’s new boyfriend has a bigger dick than me?” I think I actually hooted with laughter here.

Throughout this sad tale of a Colorado spoiled brat who moves to NYC and surfs at Rockaway while going to men’s meetings and agonizing over whether to quit his job or not, he tries to weave in more personal details along with the terrible pastiche of Melville trivia. This is how we learn about his grandmother who loved spending time at the beach in California, playing her ukulele. “It’s a little sad that Mariana stayed in Missouri, her creative connection to the ocean relegated to an old-fashioned bathtub…” Even sadder is that she had children that in turn had you, my friend. His uncle got kicked out of Scientology, if that gives you any indication of the type of genius that runs in this family.

Justin dons his professor cap to teach us about “dark romanticism” vs the romance novels that he’s editing for his day job. Adopt a nasally tone as you read this in your head: “As a genre, romance traces back to masters of the novel like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. I have nothing but respect for both writers; I’d read and loved Jane Eyre. And a century later, their brand of spooky romance is back in vogue, and I think it’s sort of cool.” Sort of cool. Right. And let’s just skip over Samuel Richardson and Walter Scott, shall we? Back at work, Justin is editing romance novels and in BIG TROUBLE because he’s also an addict, remember? He’s in a 12-step program dealing with co-dependence and it makes him squirmy to read hot and heavy text all day. “Even worse, there’s a new emphasis on Latina romance, stuff that gets really steamy, and that reminds me, page after agonizing page, of Karissa.” (Page after agonizing page? I feel your pain.) When he brings up this pathetic complaint to his group, his “new Puerto Rican friend Carlos” tells him to wake up: “So you have to edit some romance novels, so what? Is reading a book going to kill you?” Carlos is the only sane person in this memoir. Justin ignores their advice not to quit his job, because, white male privilege.

My favorite part of the book is when Justin gets carjacked in Denver. As he drives to his stepsister’s house, he muses about how much tougher his Brooklyn hood is: “I laugh inwardly at what she considers rough… it has no graffiti tags, rats, broken beer bottles, used condoms, or female junkies shooting smack in broad daylight.” Female junkies? Thanks for clarifying. Anyway, his rental car gets stolen along with his laptop and backpack, and this gives him carte blanche to start whining about PTSD. And when he’s back at the beach in NYC, “I notice my heart punching in my chest when a couple thugs blasting 50 Cent in a lowered Nissan circle around the parking lot.”

He gets some anti-depressants and thinks he’ll end up at Bellevue. “The evening after my Ambien reaction, I call my mother and tell her what happened. Clearly distressed, she asks if I’ve considered hurting myself. [INSERT DRAMATIC PAUSE] I tell her the truth.” Please do us all a favor and off yourself already.

Meanwhile, he’s been offered a job in Portland and cannot get off his ass to move there. After accepting the job, he lags for another few months before moving. During that time, there’s a break-in at the office and computers and monitors are stolen. “I know it’s because the organization is a captainless ship, in chaos without me.” Ow, ow, ow, my eye roll strained again.

He hears some voices (not making this up) that tell him to move to Porland. He asks the voices what to do about Karissa, who lives there. “At this there is laughter; a voice explains that I’m not to worry, that I’ll meet a girl who does yoga and surfs.” OMG this guy.

Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness

I am a sucker for stories about heading off into the woods to live simply, and this was a book that was mentioned in Nomadland as a favorite of the migrating campers. The quality of this collection of nature musings was mediocre, but I’ll probably look up the sequels to continue reading her saga. I’m also a sucker for punishment.

One problem is her attitude throughout. Hiking a multi-day trail alone, she worries about meeting “rough kids on drugs, or worse, a criminal.” She’s also weirdly proud about having a black friend (and another friend with a pet racoon) come stay for a weekend, imagining comments from her neighbors as “A Negro and a tame raccoon! What’s that girl in the log cabin up to now?”

It’s also a little creepy that she married a much older man who was her manager at the hotel she helped at during summers between school. Not surprisingly, they divorce after a few years, prompting Anne’s departure to the wilderness where she builds her log cabin with the help of a few laborers.

On the positive side, it was astonishing to see that even in the early 1970s silence in the woods was disappearing. Anne chronicles the arrival of snowmobiles and actually gets one herself. One local muses that “when I was a boy, I could step outside in winter and hear the silence. Nothing anywhere, just once in awhile a tree cracking or ice making up on the flow. It’s not like that anymore.” Road rage makes an appearance when she visits DC and learns that traffic was so bad that someone went to the car in front of them and shot them. Back on the lake, she’s annoyed by motorboats and tries to reason with her neighbor who speeds dangerously through the lake. She gives up and goes camping during the summer to avoid the “summer people” who destroy the peacefulness of her refuge.

Most useful was her description of how exactly she was living off the grid—extensive use of propane gas, bathing in the lake, drinking from the lake, chopping firewood, using the snowmobile to go into town for supplies. She had an outhouse for the summer and rigged up an indoor portapotty for the winter. Her oven was a metal box that fit over one of the propane stove burners.

Her writing was cringe-worthy at times: “He grinned, patted me on the head, and began wolfing his food. Pitzi was also chomping busily at his bowl in the corner.”

Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville

Charles Olson can ostensibly get away with this flimsy 1947 opinion piece on Melville because he’s a poet. Something wasn’t quite right about the whole thing, and after finishing it, cursory research on Olson reveals that he was a known misogynist, “sexist, chauvinist and macho.” That’s what comes across most jarringly in Olson’s essay, this hatred of women, calling Melville’s marriage a “white marriage” in the same breath as talking about the tragedy of his two sons (“white marriage” = not consummated, e.g. acting as a beard, but if children result is it divine intervention?)

Of more interest is when he can occasionally float above this rotted attitude and stick to the facts, dissecting the precise influence of King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, etc. on Melville. But anyone looking for a thoughtful and considered deep dive on Moby or even Melville’s life should chuck this into the garbage bin where it belongs.

Herman Melville: Representative selections, with introduction, bibliography

Following some threads that I uncovered while reading Moby-Dick, I was led to Willard Thorp’s 1938 book that encompasses snippets from Melville’s work along with a 100+ page introduction by Thorp. I skipped over the pieces of M’s novels since I plan to read them in their entirety and gobbled up the letters, criticism, and poetry.

The reprints of his literary criticism include M’s thoughts on Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1847) and a near-love-letter to Hawthorne’s Mosses from an old Manse, fairly oozing with adoration. This last was written on the eve of the two men meeting for the first time, and apparently Hawthorne was reading M as well, saying “I have read Melville’s works with a progressive appreciation of the author. No writer ever put the reality before his reader more unflinchingly than he does in ‘Redburn,’ and ‘White Jacket’ ‘Mardi’ is a rich book, with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life. It is so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded long over it, so as to make it a great deal better.” (Hawthorne to Duyckinck, August 1850).

The selections of letters are too sparse for my liking, but the ones that were included were a gem. In his 1861 letter back home to his wife, he talks about meeting President Lincoln in Washington: “A steady stream of two-&-twos wound thro’ the apartments shaking hands with ‘Old Abe’ and immediately passing on. This continued without cessation for an hour & a half. Of course I was one of the shakers. Old Abe is much better looking that [sic] I expected & younger looking. He shook hands like a good fellow—working hard at it like a man sawing wood at so much per cord.”

M’s letters to Hawthorne once they become fast friends are a whirlwind. “There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no, —why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego.” (March 1851)

The whole June 1851 letter is amazing, M writing in the heat of battle as he finishes up Moby. Some choice parts:

“In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my “Whale” while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, – I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, – that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me, – I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, –it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”

“If ever, my dear Hawthorne, in the eternal times that are to come, you and I shall sit down in Paradise, in some little shady corner by ourselves; and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won’t believe in a Temperance Heaven), and if we shall then cross our celestial legs in the celestial grass that is forever tropical, and strike our glasses and our heads together, till both musically ring in concert, –then, O my dear fellow-mortal, how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold which now so distress us, –when all the earth shall be but a reminiscence, yea, its final dissolution an antiquity. ”

“Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

“My development has been all within a few years past. I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil, it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould. So I. Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life.”

“P.S. You must not fail to admire my discretion in paying the postage on this letter.”

 

Last Girl Standing

I just spent the afternoon with Trina Robbins. Well, I read her memoir, that is. There are minor annoyances like editing flubs where she repeated four sentences as a mistake in Chapter 9. And she does come across a bit braggy about her inside connection to the hip kids of the 60s and 70s (“I slept with Jim Morrison! and here’s a list of other guys I could have slept with but didn’t because I was married: Bob Dylan…” and Sonny/Cher wanted her to design their clothes) If you can stomach that, then it’s worth the effort. Tales from the trenches of male-dominated underground comix world, designing clothes for the rock gods and goddesses of the time, raising a daughter as a single mother, bopping around NYC, LA, and landing in SF for good. She takes the opportunity to settle some scores, debunking myths/rumors and going after people who have shunned her. I’m glad she was able to churn this out as a record for posterity.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, Jessica Bruder reports on the new migrant white middle-class workforce that treks around the country picking up low wage jobs and seeking spots to camp their rigs. The author follows the tribes for a few years and settles in to tell Linda May’s story, a sixty-something woman battling to survive on less than $500 a month in Social Security benefits, including work as a camp monitor in the spring/summer and then one of the “Amazombies” at the warehouses gearing up for Christmas madness. Amazon warehouses have wall-mounted dispensers of free OTC painkillers for their aging workforce. Not all nomads can get a job in the warehouses- you need at least a high school diploma for some reason.

The chipper stories of elderly workers will break your heart—one woman slipped going up stairs, ending up with stitches and bruises, but gushed her delight that she wasn’t fired and that an HR rep visited her trailer. Lest you think Amazon is doing this out of the goodness of their heart, they get federal tax credits (25-40% of wages) for hiring disadvantaged workers like those on SSI or food stamps. Also laughable is that they call their meetings “stand ups” – gatherings before the shift begins where everyone does exercises while getting productivity goals barked at them by supervisors. “Each item Linda scanned was a pixel in a picture that depressed her.”

Some of the workers seem savvy about the nightmare they’re participating in. One woman, Patti, tells people not to shop at Amazon or Walmart but to buy from a mom and pop store down the street.

Workers gather in free camping spots in the southwest through the winter and share tips, work small jobs, get by. One man showed off his modded Prius where he’d taken out the passenger seat to make a counter that he cooked on and slept on; Prius ideal as a camping vehicle because the power supply lets you keep the heat on without the engine running.

Other things I can’t stop thinking about:

  • The nomads travel over the Mexican border to get cheaper dental work and prescription drugs.
  • States and the nation overall are cracking down on residency requirements, making it seem like you actually need a house/home in order to get license, passport. South Dakota seemed to have the most lax requirements, but that may be changing.
  • BLM land remains the best choice in the west for free camping. How long will that last?

Great taste of the overall tale available in this Wired article. And to follow along with some of the nomads mentioned, Silvianne’s blog and LaVonne’s blog.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

An absolute must-read. I am humbled by my ignorance about this major historical movement that ended right about the time I was getting birthed into the South. Isabel Wilkerson spent over a decade researching this story, interviewing thousands of surviving migrants who made it out of the Jim Crow South to places like LA, Chicago, New York, Oakland. The brilliance of this work is reflected in the careful curation of those thousands of stories into three main threads that she follows: Ida Mae from Mississippi to Chicago in the late 1930s, George Starling from Florida in the 1940s, and Dr. Foster from Louisiana to LA in the 1950s.

Quotes from Frederick Douglass (I hear he’s having a comeback!) in his last public lecture, 1894: “I hope and trust all will come out right in the end, but the immediate future looks dark and troubled. I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me.”

There are brutal realities revealed within. And absurdities, like the fact that blacks were arrested in Florida in the 1940s if they were “caught not working,” charged with vagrancy and made to pick fruit or cut sugarcane.

Flagrant idiocy and cruelty of the South is evident throughout, but I had to laugh at the initial reaction when blacks started to leave. “As the North grows blacker, the South grows whiter,” noted the New Orleans paper. Then they realized that they had no labor to pick their crops. Whoops. “Where shall we get labor to take their places?” Blacks in South Carolina has to apply for a permit to do any work other than agriculture after Reconstruction.

As the writing of the book stretched from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, Wilkerson got to include Obama as well, and he makes a surprise visit as an unknown state senator bopping into Ida Mae’s monthly community meeting in 1996. “Nobody in the room could have imagined that they had just seen the man who would become the first black president of the United States.”

This seems worth quoting in full. From the 1922 white-led Chicago Commission on Race Relations in the aftermath of the 1919 riots:

It is important for our white citizens always to remember that the Negroes alone of all our immigrants came to America against their will by the special compelling invitation of the whites; that the institution of slavery was introduced, expanded, and maintained in the United States by the white people and for their own benefit; and that they likewise created the conditions that followed emancipation.

Our Negro problem, therefore, is not of the Negro’s making. No group in our population is less responsible for its existence. But every group is responsible for its continuance; and every citizen, regardless of color or racial origin, is in honor and conscience bound to seek and forward its solution.

A Song for Lost Angels

I love reading the Wednesday SF Chronicle for one reason—the column by Kevin Fisher-Paulson. His tales from the outer, outer Excelsior detail being married to his partner Brian, raising two sons whose mothers were addicted to drugs while they were in the womb, navigating life as a gay white dad raising black sons in a weird world; oh and he works at the sheriff’s department while his husband is a professional dancer. He’s a great storyteller in those Wednesday columns, and through them I found out that he had written a book about their first attempt to adopt. In the early 2000’s, they fostered triplets whose mother abandoned them while they were in the ICU after birth; she was a diagnosed schizophrenic who seemed to have no desire to raise the children when they met with her in obligatory visits, but her mother, the triplets’ grandmother, was eager to get paid by the state to care for the babies. The Fisher-Paulsons took amazing care of these fragile creatures for a year while the state and birth grandmother machinated on how to obtain custody. A homophobic social worker started lying about their behavior and eventually the babies were taken away. There is a bittersweet ended in that the couple goes on to successfully adopt their current sons, and news filters back that the triplets were taken from their mother after abuse charges surfaced.

Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation

A collection of stories that had the best intentions and enlisted some superstar talent to share thoughts on the class divide. Repurposed content from other places along with stories and essays written purely for the book. My favorites were the reprint of Rebecca Solnit’s Death by Gentrification, an original poem i’m sick of pretending to give a shit about what whypeepo think by Danez Smith, Sandra Cisnero’s musings on Chicago, Timothy Egan’s quick summation of how life in Seattle has changed now that the good union jobs are replaced with tech work that brings brogrammers, and Chris Offutt’s Trash Food. The rest did not grab me or were highly skim-able.

The Highsmith books I couldn’t finish

The first book I abandoned was her attempt to set a book in Mexico: A Game for the Living. Pat considered this her worst book, saying, “I had tried to do something different from what I had been doing, but this caused me to leave out certain elements that are vital for me: surprise, speed of action, stretching the reader’s credulity, and above all the intimacy with the murderer himself… The result, after rewriting the book four times in a grueling year of work, was mediocrity…I disobeyed my natural laws in this boring book.”

Also abandoned: Animal-lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. Tales from the perspective of animals are not Highsmith’s forte. She should have stuck to homo sapiens.  She doesn’t hate this book, but she does call it a departure from her usual style. “Thirteen short stories in which animals get the better of their masters or owners, because the latter merit their comeuppance.”

Another failure was The Glass Cell. Pat wrote about this book in her Plotting Suspense Fiction book but I took it for a spin just in case it had some hidden joy. Nope. Dunno if it was the jailhouse setting or the clunky slang dialog but the lines grew tedious after a few pages and I scrapped it.

Further dud: the 1980s collection of short stories Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes. Weird tumorous growths in the cemetery, a strange take on Moby-Dick, lots of aborted story ideas that were gathered up into this failed collection.

And that’s all she wrote.

 

People Who Knock on the Door

What a dud to finish Highsmith’s oeuvre on. I’ve worked my way through her complete list of novels and short stories and this is the last one I was able to finish (another post to come on the ones that stunk so badly that I couldn’t even hold my nose to complete). I guess I stuck it out with this one out of curiosity—when would the crime happen, how dull could she make it? This is from her terrible 1980s phase and she amps up the unblinking dullness. The story revolves around Arthur, a teenager who plans on going to Columbia in the fall but who knocks up his girlfriend Maggie who has an abortion. Arthur’s dad has become a born-again Christian and kicks him out of the house for this nonsense, says he won’t pay for Columbia. Arthur picks himself up, lives at a friend’s house and then in the local college’s dorms. Mr. high and mighty religious nut dad ends up getting Irene, a woman in his church, pregnant, and Arthur’s younger brother Robbie shoots him out of disgust for his sin. Happily ever after, amen, pass the salt. Lackluster effort that wasn’t worth flipping pages to get to the end.

Moby-Dick

How to go about capturing the umpteenth reading of this classic work? My copy is pockmarked with post-it notes of things to remember. This was the first time I read the book with the extremely helpful 1952 Hendricks House edition’s hundreds of pages of notes (which also is filling up with my post-it notes, reviewed here). I sip at a chapter of M-D, dive into the Hendricks notes, cross-reference with online notations, look up delicious words in the dictionary, and scribble the good ones into a notebook where I’m collecting words. It’s taking me awhile to swim through, but as always it is a delight. Fart jokes, Shakespeare/Milton/Goethe/Carlyle/Montaigne influences, Biblical stories, alliterative gold. The book is a wonder. You hop from Hamlet to Macbeth to King Lear to Job and back again. The hero of the book swims into view only in the final 3 chapters—masterful!

Chapter 1: Loomings. Nothing comes close to the perfection of this opening chapter. Ishmael finds himself growing grim about the mouth, bringing up the rear of every funeral he meets, wanting to knock people’s hats off, so he goes to sea. Also nestled in this chapter is the timeless reference to a “Grand Contested Election for Presidency of the United States” and a bloody battle in Afghanistan.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag. Ishmael is on his way. Stuck in New Bedford until the next ferry to Nantucket, he looks for a cheap hotel. Melville makes me weak at the knees: “Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.” And don’t miss the fart joke: “For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)”—e.g. don’t eat beans.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn. Enter Queequeg, Ishmael’s sleeping companion and soon bosom buddy. Here we find M-D‘s first aphorism: “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

I can’t continue to go chapter by chapter else I write the longest entry ever, but I also want to call out the beautiful explanation of Jonah’s Biblical story in Chapter 9: The Sermon. If church were always so lyrical, I might be tempted to attend.

Alliteration

Something that strikes the ear repeatedly is Melville’s masterful use of alliteration. These are some of my favorites, by no means an exhaustive list:

Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch… (Ch 13)

On Ahab: “There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance.” (Ch 28, when Ahab first arrives on the scene)

Having impulsively, it is probable, and perhaps somewhat prematurely revealed the prime but private purpose of the Pequod’s voyage, Ahab was now entirely conscious that, in so doing, he had indirectly laid himself open to the unanswerable charge of usurpation; (Ch 46)

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. (Ch 51)

As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea. (Ch 58)

Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness. (Ch 64)

So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale. (Ch 134)

Rhyme, humor, or playing with words:

Go it, Pip! Bang it, bell-boy! Rig it, dig it stig it, quig it, bell-boy! Make fire-flies; break the jinglers! (Ch 40)

The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. (Ch 86)

Ch 15, while eating chowder, wondering what the effect is on the head (e.g. chowder-headed people)

… this same cash would soon cashier Ahab. (Ch 46)

The whole scene in Ch 91 where Stubb speaks disrespectfully to the French captain through an interpreter. “You may as well tell him now that – that – in fact, tell him I’ve diddled him…”

Top-heavy was the ship as a dinnerless student with all Aristotle in his head. (Ch 110)

Oh! jolly is the gale, And a joker is the whale, A’ flourishin’ his tail, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! The scud all a flyin’, That’s his flip only foamin’; When he stirs in the spicin’, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! Thunder splits the ships, But he only smacks his lips, A tastin’ of this flip, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! (Ch 119)

Melancholy:

A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that. (Ch 16)

For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. (Ch 35)

Defiant:

And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have left undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard. (Ch 24)

Self-referential (or on writing)

For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience! (Ch 32)

But I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans; I have had to do with whales with these visible hands; I am in earnest; and I will try. (Ch 32)

So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. (Ch 45)

Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost. (Ch 49)

Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. (Ch 85)

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. (Ch 104)

Words to love:

portentous, ponderous, fain, arrant, toper, obstreperous, farrago, bosky, withal, tarry, stalwart, inexorable, nonce, wights, celerity, stultify, brindled, palavering, apotheosis, puissant, pallid, expatiate, flummery, solecism, legerdemain, howdah, windrow, cozening, scaramouch, freshet, vicissitude, ineffable, recondite, expatiate, chriography, stolidity, effulgences

Annotated edition of Moby-Dick

The best edition of Moby-Dick for scholars is the 1952 Hendricks House edition (edited by Luther Mansfield & Howard Vincent), which is incredibly hard to find, a copy currently retailing online for almost $6k. Luckily, the extended library network sent me a copy and I kept it handy while reading the text. Melville’s borrowings and embellishments and source material are all exposed here, and you can see just how closely he adhered to those sources or exactly the magic sprinkle he gave words to make them jump. He was deeply indebted to:

  • Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839)
  • Frederick Bennett’s Narrative of a Whaling Voyage Round the Globe (1840)
  • J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1850)
  • Henry Cheever’s The Whale and his Captors (1850)
  • Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) – the notes make continual reference to the fact that Melville pokes fun, “indulges in baiting the humorless Scoresby,” throughout the text.

Here is where I found detailed information about the Pythagoras fart joke, his maxim being “To abstain from beans because they are flatulent and partake most of the breath of life.” Here also is the explanation for the “Grand Contested Election” that freaked me out as a 2017 reader. Melville was talking about the Tippecanoe and Tyler too victory that unseated Van Buren. The recommendation to read Poe’s excellent Arthur Pym came from here as well.

There must have been a dozen pages each explaining the name Ishmael, Ahab, and the other main characters. Catching a whiff of Shakespeare in the text? Turn to the notes to see if it’s coming from Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar. The exposition on good/evil is off the charts. Unending pages about Satan (Melville writes in The Confidence-Man that the 3 great original characters in fiction are Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Milton’s Satan.)

One of the things I liked best about the notes was that they incorporated reference to all of M’s other works as well; like the example of discussing the “condor’s quill” reference, saying that Melville’s finest account of his creative process was in Mardi, chap 180, along with letters to Duyckinck in Dec 1850 and Hawthorne June 1851, printed in Thorp’s Representative Selections of Herman Melville.

The note about Pompey’s Pillar explains that the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Greek inscription on the pedestal “by the middle of the nineteen century had been much effaced by initial-carving tourists.” What is this base desire to leave an “I wuz here” mark wherever tourists go???