Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Melville's Too Hard? (Part 2)

As I wrote the other day, in my 45-year career in the classroom I never taught Moby-Dick.  For much of that career (some 30 years) it wouldn't have been feasible: I was teaching seventh and eighth graders, most of whom were not whale-ready.  And when I taught at Western Reserve Academy, I believed I just couldn't justify spending that much time on a single work.  I taught an American lit survey, and my belief then (and now) was (is) that kids should read a lot, not spend endless weeks on a close reading of a single text.

But, as I indicated the other day, I came close to teaching M-D on 27 April 2001 when I led a discussion at our local Hudson Library on Sena Jeter Naslund's recent bestseller (1999), Ahab's Wife.


Well, a friend was a librarian in Hudson at the time and asked me if there was any recent book I'd like to do with a group.  I'd already bought (but not read) Naslund's novel, so I thought that this would give me an excuse to read it.  (I sometimes need that, you know--an excuse to do what's right.)  And I knew it would also prompt me to read Moby-Dick again; I don't believe I'd read the novel in some twenty years or so before that.  Also ... I would get $50, always a nice little sum when you're living on a pension (as I was at the time--I didn't begin at WRA until that fall).

I didn't know anything much about Naslund when I began the project.  I'd seen the book in piles in all the bookstores (remember them?).  And I knew it was about Moby-Dick, sort of.  So I set off to do what I usually do when I am totally ignorant--try to remove the totally from that phrase.  I got a list of her other books and began to read them.  And here they are ... at the time of the publication of Ahab's Wife:

  • Ice Skating at the North Pole, 1989 (short stories)
  • The Animal Way to Love, 1993 (novel)
  • Sherlock in Love, 1993 (novel--yes, it's that Sherlock)
  • The Disobedience of Water, 1999 (stories & novellas)
I bought them all (1st printings, if you want to know!), read them all.  But I also re-read Moby-Dick and made note of the few times that Melville mentions the wife of Ahab (never named).  We also learn that he has a son.

  • In "The Ship," Peleg says, "Besides, my boy, he has a wife--not three voyages wedded--a sweet, resigned girl.  Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man has a child ....  Ahab has his humanities!"
  • In "The Symphony," Ahab himself says: "... whole oceans away from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow--wife? wife?--rather a widow with her husband alive!  Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck ...."
BTW: My spell-checker just tried to change Starbuck to Starbucks.

As I said, I did re-read Moby-Dick before Ahab's Wife, and my little note inside the front cover reminds me that I read it between Jan. 23-Feb. 23, 2001.  In my journal that first day I wrote: narrator is far wittier than I remember.  And I think that's one thing that surprises readers: Ishmael's wry humor in the early chapters.  Things do darken, though.  Considerably.  But every now and then Ishmael cracks wise, even later on.  Near the beginning of chap. 97 ("The Lamp") he says: "In merchantmen, oil for the sailor is more scarce than the milk of queens."

And oh that gorgeous final sentence--the rescue of Ishmael, sole survivor of the Pequod: "It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan."

Meanwhile, besides re-reading Melville and reading all of Naslund, wanted to learn more about the principal setting for her novel--Nantucket, where I'd never been.  So on 12 April 2001 (two weeks before my library session), we drove to the Nantucket ferry, paid our $50 round-trip fee, and sailed on a placid day--but in a steady, substantial rain--out to the island, where we checked in at the Roberts House Inn, an old rooming house.  Because of the season (and weather), we were among the few tourists on the island, but we walked around photographing and visiting the sites Naslund mentions in the novel.  We spent a couple of days out there--took a cab tour around the island with a guide who seemed far more interested in the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous than in the whaling history of Nantucket.  Oh well.  The rain was relentless.

Next day, back on the mainland, we visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum--learned a lot more there.  Saw the chapel that Melville knew and re-created in the famous "The Chapel" chapter early in the novel.

And then it was home to prepare for the book discussion, a discussion I was going to illustrate with an old-fashioned (now, not then) 35mm slide show with an old-fashioned (now, not then) Carousel projector.


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