Once again, Melville could help Americans grapple with dark times – and not because he composed classic works of universal truths about good and evil. Melville still matters because he was directly engaged with the very aspects of modern American life that continue to haunt the country in the 21st century.
Melville’s books deal with a host of issues that are relevant today, from race relations and immigration to the mechanization of everyday life.
Yet these aren’t the works of a hopeless tragedian. Rather, Melville was a determined realist.
The typical Melville character is depressed and alienated, overwhelmed by societal changes. But he also endures.
Ultimately, “Moby-Dick” is about the quest of the narrator, Ishmael, the story’s lone survivor, to make meaning out of trauma and keep the human story going.
Ishmael goes to sea in the first place because he’s feeling a particularly modern form of angst. He walks the streets of Manhattan wanting to knock people’s hats off, furious that the only available jobs in the new capitalist economy leave workers “tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” The whale ship is no paradise, but at least it affords him a chance to work in the open air with people of all races, from all over the world.
When the crewmen sit in a circle squeezing lumps of whale sperm into oil, they find themselves clasping each other’s hands, developing “an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling.”
Then there’s Melville’s novel “Redburn,” one of the author’s lesser-known works. It’s mostly a story of disillusionment: A young naïf joins the merchant marine to see the world, and in Britain all he finds are “masses of squalid men, women, and children” spilling out from the factories. The narrator is abused by the ship’s cynical crew and swindled out of his wages.
But his hard experience nonetheless broadens his sympathies. As he sails home to New York with some Irish families fleeing the famine, he remarks:
“Let us waive that agitated national topic, as to whether such multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores; let us waive it, with the one only thought, that if they can get here, they have God’s right to come…. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.”
Melville’s fall and rise
Back in November 1851, when “Moby-Dick” was published, Melville was among the best-known authors in the English-speaking world. But his reputation started to decline just months later, when a review of his next book, “Pierre,” bore the headline, “Herman Melville Crazy.”
That opinion was not atypical. By 1857, he had mostly stopped writing, his publisher was bankrupt, and those Americans who still knew his name may well have thought he’d been institutionalized.
Yet in 1919 – the year of Melville’s centennial – scholars started returning to his work. They found a writer of grim, tangled epics delving into the social tensions that would ultimately lead to the Civil War.
It just so happened that 1919 was a year of labor strife, mail bombs, weekly lynchings, and race riots in 26 cities. There were crackdowns on foreigners, privacy, and civil liberties, not to mention the lingering trauma of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic.
Over the ensuing three decades – an era that included the Great Depression and World War II – Melville was canonized, and all of his works were reprinted in popular editions.
“I owe a debt to Melville,” wrote critic and historian Lewis Mumford, “because my wrestling with him, my efforts to plumb his own tragic sense of life, were the best preparations I could have had for facing our present world.”
Why Melville still matters
America is now dealing with its own dark times, full of foreboding over climate change, extreme class divisions, racial and religious bigotry, refugee crises, mass shootings, and near-constant warfare.
Go back and read Melville, and you’ll find apt depictions of white privilege and obliviousness in “Benito Cereno.” Melville paints consumer capitalism as an elaborate con game in “The Confidence-Man,” while excoriating America’s imperial ambitions in “Typee” and “Omoo.” He was even inspired to break his silence at the end of the Civil War and write an earnest plea for “Re-establishment” and “Reconstruction.”
“Those of us who always abhorred slavery as an atheistical iniquity,” he wrote, “gladly we join the exulting chorus of humanity over its downfall.” But now it was time to find ways for everyone to get along.
His 1866 book “Battle-Pieces,” though full of bitter fragments, has a final section dominated by idealistic nouns: common sense and Christian charity, patriotic passion, moderation, generosity of sentiment, benevolence, kindliness, freedom, sympathies, solicitude, amity, reciprocal respect, decency, peace, sincerity, faith. Melville was trying to remind Americans that in democracies there is a perpetual need to carve out common ground.
It’s not that society doesn’t or shouldn’t change; it’s that change and continuity play off each other in surprising and sometimes bracing ways.
In dark times, the rediscovery that human beings have almost always had to confront terrible challenges can produce powerful emotions.
You might feel like knocking someone’s hat off. But you might also feel like giving the Ishmaels of the world a gentle squeeze of the hand.
And in doing so, you might help to keep the human story going.
The scene: a field in southwest England. The sun is shining for a quintessentially British event, the Great Dorset Steam Fair. A six-and-a-half tonne steamroller takes centre stage. This, the Lord Jericho, goes head-to-head with a computer hard drive, and in a battle of old and new technologies, rolls over it several times. Then, just to be on the safe side, the hard drive is placed in a steam-powered stone crusher.
Pratchett, author of the much-loved Discworld series, wrote more than 60 books in his lifetime. But it was his wish that any unfinished works remained unpublished, and so he instructed that the hard drive containing his remaining works be crushed by a steamroller.
Commenting on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, authors Patrick Ness and Samantha Norman asserted Pratchett’s absolute right to determine the future of his unfinished work. In recent years, though, both authors have completed unfinished novels by other writers. In Norman’s case, it was The Siege Winter, a book by her late mother, Ariana Franklin. For Ness, it was Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls, now adapted into a hit film.
For each of these canonical authors, their unfinished texts add to our accumulated knowledge of their writing, their rich imagination, and the development of their thinking. After completing Dorothy L Sayers’ last novel, Jill Paton Walsh went on to create warmly regarded new novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. J R R Tolkien’s son Christopher likewise has worked painstakingly on unfinished works by his father, including The Children of Hurin.
Unlike Pratchett, the strict instructions left by some authors about their legacy have been ignored, sometimes to the reader’s benefit. Max Brod’s decision to counter Franz Kafka’s wish for destruction is to literary history’s benefit, as it led to the publication of The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika. Emily Dickinson left no instructions on what to do with the approximately 1,800 unpublished poems she wrote before her death in 1886. Fortunately, her sister Lavinia took it on as her mission to see them made public.
When Swedish crime novelist Stieg Larsson died suddenly, unmarried and with no will, his estate came under the control of his father and brother. They commissioned ghostwriter David Largenrcrantz to create new works using Larsson’s characters, with the latest, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye due in September 2017. Larsson’s bereaved long-term partner is in possession of the author’s laptop which is believed to hold Larsson’s last unfinished novel, but she has refused to turn it over to his family.
The biographical figure of the author has, despite Roland Barthes’ critical articulation of “The death of the Author” in 1967, never been more present. Now, readers have unprecedented access to the names on the spines of their books, thanks to festivals, talks and social media.
While some authors may not want to show the struggle of their early drafts to the world, there is both an industry (famous author’ manuscripts can sell for high figures) and scholarship attached to them. Formal archives of Pratchett’s work exist in Senate House in London, for example – including some tantalising glimpses replete with coffee stains and notes to the publisher. Salman Rushdie has even given a desktop computer and several laptops to Emory University in the US.
There is no doubt that Pratchett was within his rights to deprive readers of these last rough-hewn gems, though understandably fans may be disappointed with his choice. However, the rumours swirling around the appearance of Go Set a Watchman – the original version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird – suggest that elderly and infirm authors can potentially be preyed upon. Pratchett’s wish to control his literary legacy was consonant with his advocacy for assisted dying. He, more than anyone else, understood the power of letting things come to an end.
As an author who had “Death” as one of his major recurring characters, Pratchett had thoroughly tested its presence in human life. But now, even knowing that Pratchett’s crushed hard drive will soon feature in an exhibition, we can’t but regret the loss of these early, unfinished drafts, which contained the very last doorway into the Discworld.
The Google Books lawsuit has sprung back into life with an appeal being launched by the Author’s Guild. I certainly don’t support this appeal. This lot don’t seem to get that Google Books has the potential to sell more copies of their works for a start.
The Book Stand is a Tumblr Blog I operate, focussing on ebooks. I post concerning free ebooks, with the occasional post offering what I consider to be a good deal on an ebook. Most posts are for the Kindle platform, though there is the occasional post concerning ebooks in other formats that I sometimes come across. There are also various infographics, pictures and quotes that have to do with ebooks, reading, libraries, etc.
My most recent series of posts (today) include a great quantity of free ebooks available in the Kindle format and will be of especial interest to those interested in nonfiction works concerning the US Civil War, various other historical and biographical works and theological works, as well as some collections of classic works.
‘Phantoms on the Bookshelves,’ by Jacques Bonnet was translated from the French original by Sian Reynolds and has an introduction by James Salter. The copy I have is a Kindle edition. It was first published in Great Britain in 2010 by MacLehose Press. It is a relatively short book at 123 pages in length, so it won’t take too much to get through it.
The introduction to the book by James Salter is a good, brief read concerning the author of the book and his book collecting ways. It could easily describe me, though I have nowhere near as many books as Bonnet, even though I have thousands myself in traditional form and/or digital format. I see similarities between the description given of Bonnet by Salter and myself, with my far fewer volumes. I too struggle now to find room for them all, with my virtual bookshelves requiring expansion in the near future to accomodate my book collecting ways into the current century and digital age. Traditional books have long run out of room in this house, as I suspect they have in Bonnet’s apartment.
Bonnet is a man who loves books and his thoughts on what is normal in a home, the presence of many books, is something I can relate to. I also find myself in wonder when I see homes with no books, particularly in some of the circles in which I move or have moved. How can they get by without books? Mind you it is probably not as easy a situation to read (no pun intended – truly not) these days, with books now being able to be stored by the thousands on a home computer and/or on an external hard drive or two. Still, I have wondered this for many years and I think Bonnet would probably agree with me. Relating to others is made easier when discussing books for Bonnet and I find this an agreeable thing also. It is the way of Bibliophiles, whether we use that term or not (perhaps for some Bibliomaniac is a better term).
I did not find Bonnet’s chapter on cataloguing and organisation helpful at all, though I expect it would help some. This is probably because I have developed my own system which closely resembles that of the Dewey to almost certainly be called a Dewey system. The Bonnet decsription horrified me and I thought it would become far too confusing and disorienting for me. He is certainly right about the Internet making a major impact on libraries and the need to have as many books as he has in his collection. It is not only the storing of works on the World Wide Web, in the cloud and on other digital storage systems like computers, external drives, etc, where libraries are changing and/or have changed, but also in the cataloguing and organisation of books. I have a large number of books stored on digital devices and by digital means, but I also have access to far more over the Internet from vast libraries that I can access online. But I also have both offline and online digital methods for assisting me in cataloguing and organising my books, which I use as best I can and with great relief for being able to do so. Yet it boils down to individual choice and comfortableness, being able to manage these resources in a way that allows the individual to harness them to the greatest effect, which is indeed something of an indiviual matter and process.
The Bonnet method of reading will not be everyones cup of tea, but that’s OK too, because that is also a very individualistic thing. Bonnet likes lying down to read, I prefer sitting at a desk. Bonnet likes to underline and write in his books as he reads, I prefer to highlight and collate quotes via other media. There is no one rule for all, but many different rules for many different people. The thing is to retain what one reads in some way, that I think is the key to reading. It is certainly not a requirement to read each and every book from cover to cover, but to take a dip in each one to some extent and to achieve some purpose when doing so is required if you wish to say that you read your books and they aren’t just display items.
The manner in which Bonnet has collected his books is almost baffling to someone who has not done so in the same manner. He seems almost obsessed with completing lists and collections of books, of following every author/book line that comes up in what he reads or experiences. It seems any book mentioned must be obtained for his library. This is the way of a Bibliomaniac, that is for sure. His obsession with collecting ‘picture’ books is another seemingly crazed hobby which almost seems to be a driving force for him. I too collect books, but this insight into how another book lover and lover of reading goes about collecting his books is one that is beyond my experience. It is a fascinating world of book hunting and gathering if ever there was one. Something about one book leads to another which leads to another, or some conversation leads to a book which leads to another, etc.
Bonnet’s reflections upon his books shows someone who truly absorbs what he reads and imbibes the being of those written about. He seems to feel them, to know them, far better than any creator of them. Authors of books, whether fictional pieces or biographical/autobiographical works fade with the passing of time, if indeed a true reflection of them is left in the pages of the books they write or in the annals of history. However, those created and placed within the realms of literature remain the same and can be known almost completely. There are places to visit, whether real or ethereal, people to meet and to greet. Books bring a whole world to one’s home and experience, and even beyond that one travels into the realm of fictional lands and peoples. A plethora of experience that is only exaggerated when the library is swollen by multimedia resources. What an amazing world the library can become – is.
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