I hadn’t read Moby Dick since my junior year of high school, and so, I figured that it was long past time for a re-reading. The experience was everything I could have possibly hoped for; whatever the amount of hype attendant to the book, and however much one might set oneself up for a disappointment upon actually reading it, the tale of the Whale did not disappoint. Melville was not merely a magnificent American author, he was a magnificent author, period, end of sentence, without qualification. His story, and the manner in which he tells it, is epic in scope, and splendidly descriptive language attends it. He allows Ishmael to be both supremely involved in the narrative, or Proustian in his detachment, and his ability to observe dispassionately. Ahab is the very epitome of monomaniacal madness. The whole of the story is terrifyingly profound, and tremendously sobering on multiple levels. Those hoping to write the Great American Novel shall be disappointed to know that the Great American Novel has been written.
I found this article on Melville by the late John Updike via Twitter yesterday. The article was published in 1985, but that doesn’t make the following passage ring any less true:
. . . [Melville's] audience, in that England-oriented, semi-literate America of 140 years ago, was wandering away, but something was frazzling as well in his relation with his raw material. Melville was interested—turned on, we might say—by the sea, and by male interchange, and toward the end of his long silent life wrote in his obscurity one more masterpiece, Billy Budd, in line with these concerns. The vast land of America and the complexities of family life depressed rather than fired his imagination. So, his attempts to abandon his oceanic material rebuked, he abdicated the professional writer’s struggle and has probably made a stronger impression on posterity for it. He seems, at this distance, unencumbered by facile prolixity or mere professionalism; in his professional defeat his imagination remained his own.
In this present age of excessive information and of cheerful inaccuracy, where six shrewd or at least intimidatingly verbal critics exist for every creative spirit, the writer has no clearer moral duty than to keep his imagination his own. In doing so, he risks becoming offensive. Listen, if you will, to the tone of this contemporary review of Moby-Dick:
Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon. He is gauging, at once, our gullibility and our patience. Having written one or two passable extravagances, he has considered himself privileged to produce as many more as he pleases, increasingly exaggerated and increasingly dull …. The truth is, Mr. Melville has survived his reputation. If he had been contented with writing one or two books, he might have been famous, but his vanity has destroyed all his chances of immortality, or even of a good name with his own generation.
“O generation of vipers,” runs through the mind. All generations, each in its time, are viperish, and how the artist survives and makes his way in his own lifetime is fundamentally a personal problem, with many solutions, none of them ideal. But this much seems certain: what we end by treasuring in the creative imagination is the freedom it manages to keep, regardless of contemporary response. Or, rather, the degree to which it, imagining an ideal audience, succeeds in pitching its efforts toward our own deepest response.