A Cup of Coffee with Melville

I spent some time today editing my thesis – it’s due in 55 days – so I was out and about in the city, first at the library, then at a bakery. As I was reading through a section about Ishmael’s musings on fate and free will, noticing how much someone could read into the text of the novel and thinking about how oblivious authors are to the depth they are creating, I thought about how much I wanted to have Herman Melville sitting across from me at that moment.

Moby-Dick was not a well-received book when it came out, panned by the critics, misunderstood by audiences, tossed aside and even relegated to the whaling history sections of libraries. He was somewhat of a celebrity – a kind of scandalous one at that – after the publication of his first books, adventure narratives set in the South Pacific. Moby-Dick started out that way, and you can see the strains of an “Ishmael and Queequeg Go a-Whalin'” adventure novel in the first quarter of the book. But after Melville read Shakespeare, and befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, the tone of the book shifts dramatically just after the Pequod leaves shore, and we’re off into this dramatic, heightened, epic novel of life, death, the problems of evil, the nature of reality, theodicy, God, whale history, whale biology, and on and on.

No one got it.

Melville’s next book after Moby-Dick was about a young man who is a failed novelist. And then he essentially shifted to poetry, working a day job at New York City customs before dying nameless. Literally. They misspelled his name in his obituary.

As a novelist myself, I think often about Melville. If I could go back in time, I would go back to talk to him after Moby-Dick was published, and tell him, “Just wait. It’ll happen. It’s going to strike a chord. It’s going to become one of the most well-known books in American literature. You’re going to be compared to Shakespeare. You’re going to be called a Modernist before there even was Modernism. We’re going to converge and spend whole weekends doing marathon reads of the novel. There will be shelves and shelves of scholarship written about your work, and there will be people who call themselves Melville Scholars. Just wait. It’s going to happen. What you wanted to happen will happen.”

This afternoon I imagined Herman sitting across from me in the cafe. He was around the same age I am now when he wrote Moby-Dick (which blows my mind), so I imagined him like one of my friends, one of my friend group. I imagined him quiet, introspective, maybe, a lot on his mind. I wanted to ask him if he knew he wrote this much depth into his novel. What was really going on in his head when he wrote those passages about Ishmael. What his perspective would be on the ideas in my thesis. Did I get it right? I wonder if he would ponder something I mentioned, looking towards the window out to the Square, eyebrows raised, and say, “Oh, I never thought about it like that before. Huh. I guess you could read that into that passage.”

In many ways, though, Melville and I are having a conversation, across time and space, through his book. (I’m thinking of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” His poem is the ferry between him in the past, and me in the future, creating a connection across time and space.) I think that’s one of the many reasons I do literature: To find friends. They are, unfortunately, long dead friends, but they are men and women that I can have conversations with by engaging with their texts, men and women I can relate to and understand and be inspired and encouraged by. (Henry David Thoreau was the first one that did that for me, back in high school. You find these kindred spirits with authors. I wish I could go back in time to him, too, and tell him that what he wrote will make a difference.)

We sat at a table by the pick-up counter, Melville and I. I imagined Thoreau and Emerson a little ways off, perched on stools at the counter, deep in conversation, lighthearted, Henry gesturing wildly, Ralph with his arms crossed and head down, listening, smiling. Nathaniel Hawthorne, of course, was across the room at the far table, dressed all in black, sighing over a cup of tea, brooding.

My literary friends.


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