Happily, I’ve read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick twice in my life – once in college (Xavier University, Class of ’71) and once on a trip to Nantucket four years later, during which I walked contemplatively down a grassy strip of road and picked up a staggering number of ticks, one of which lived on in my Jamaica Plain change-jar for the next six months.
But I digress – the same way Melville did so often throughout the greatest novel in all of American literature. As this Studio 360 American Icons feature asserted, Melville was the original blogger.
It’s yesterday’s New York Times piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg, though, that has me looking for “a way . . . of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.”
Is there a stranger figure in American literature than the narrator of “Moby-Dick”? He says, “Call me Ishmael” — the very first words of the book — but that isn’t exactly the same as saying “My name is Ishmael.” He could be anyone, of any name, but Ishmael is what the reader must agree to call him before the book can get under way. I recently drove with a friend from my farm in New York State to Southern California, and Ishmael was our companion. We picked him up, so to speak, on the dark, icy streets of New Bedford, round about 1851, and delivered him within sight of what he calls “your contemplative Pacific,” ageless as always.
As “Moby-Dick” proceeded — read aloud by the sterling William Hootkins — I began to feel as though we were carrying a garrulous hitchhiker, a transcendental encyclopedist, indeed a back-seat whaler of sorts. Sometimes Ishmael reclined at his leisure, telling his tale with an outspoken, formal bravado, the way he tells the Town-Ho story to some Spanish gentlemen in Lima in the 54th chapter. Mostly, he leaned forward into the space between the driver’s and passenger’s seats, shifting between philosophical agony and philosophical reverie, looking out upon the country passing by, moralizing it for us, perpetually searching out its meaning.
And the question Ishmael continually asks is: “Do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”
Yes, and I’d like to find those strange analogies again.
Maybe I will.
I’m putting Moby-Dick alongside my desk. Wish me luck.