Dawn Reader

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

Friday, November 2, 2012

Melville's Too Hard?

The way I 1st "read"

On the Dictionary.com site last week there was a little Q&A thingy about Melville.  Take the Moby[-]Dick Challenge, it says.  And there's a picture of old HM staring over your left shoulder, daring you to read a passage from Moby-Dick--and ... to understand it!  His arms are folded, a smug pose, you know?  As if to say: No way you can figure out my words!  Just try it, Fool!

So (fool that I am) ... I clicked on the image, and here is the piece of text that appeared:

However baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make.

The lines appear in chapter LVIII (ain't online searchable documents just the cat's meow!), the chapter titled "Brit," and even though I've read Moby-Dick a number of times (a number between 0-10), I did not remember that title when I first looked at it.  So off I went to look at the copy of M-D I'd most recently read and marked (2001), and there I saw ... I'd underlined some stuff, but not the "challenging" passage that Dictionary.com had picked out.  Instead, I'd underlined his description of "that wondrous Venetian blind in their mouths" (he's talking about right whales) and another about the power of the ocean (so relevant in recent days)--"Panting and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe" (234, 235--in Norton Crit Ed).

BTW: Here's what the Oxford English Dictionary, citing Melville (!), says about "brit," the chapter title:

 2. Planktonic animals (chiefly minute crustaceans) upon which right whales feed, esp. as seen floating on the surface. Also more fully sea-brit. Now hist.Sometimes described as the spawn of herring (cf. bret n. 2).

1838   J. S. Polack New Zealand II. 402   [Right Whales' food] is principally spawn of a pabulous nature, of a red and yellow hue, called by the fishermen brit; which is sometimes seen supernatant on the surface of the ocean, many miles around.
1851   H. Melville Moby-Dick lviii. 305   We fell in with vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds.
1873   N. Pike Sub-trop. Rambles ii. 32,   I observed large red patches of what appeared like weeds on the sea... I found it was alive with crustaceous animals which whalemen call Brit, on which the right whale feeds.
1965   E. Dahlberg Reasons of Heart 90   Herman Melville composed odes to ambergris and sea-brit, and in such oceanic flora lie the parables of the future.

The paragraph containing the "baby man" stuff ... that one I have not marked at all.  Dummy.

But consider the relevance of that passage now that we're experiencing the grim aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  The sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make ....  And we remember that among Sandy's victims this week was the replica of HMS Bounty ...

Oddly, Dictionary.com posted this item before Sandy arrived.  And the point of it was really this: Can readers today even comprehend Melville's 1851 work?  I'm not sure why/how they picked the "Brit" segment, but it doesn't strike me as all that incomprehensible.  In fact, it seems quite clear to me.

I first read Moby-Dick in high school study hall my senior year (a scheduling "issue" had given me four study halls in a row every afternoon!).  I don't know that I made much of it, but it was a book everyone had heard of.  And I had read the Classics Illustrated version numerous times.

I think this remains true today--that most folks know about the story.  Often, there are cartoons about the novel on the comics pages in newspapers.  The two you see are fairly recent--both from the newspaper this fall.  In our culture, it seems, you probably know that Moby-Dick is about a great white whale chased by a one-legged crazy guy named Ahab?

1st ed, Moby-Dick, 1851
And it's pricey.  Just checked on ABE: a 1st printing can go for as much as $85,000.  (I have a birthday soon--and Christmas!)

But does anyone actually read the novel?  Outside of undergraduate and graduate school classrooms?  I worked with a colleague a few years ago who taught it to high school juniors at Western Reserve Academy; they spent many weeks on it (don't remember if they actually finished it all).  And I had another colleague at that same school, some years earlier, who adored the novel and Melville and sometimes offered an elective course for seniors.  He also organized a couple of all-night read-a-thons: the entire novel, read aloud, by groups of students and faculty not interested in sleep.

I never tried it with students.  I love the book--but it was the time, I guess, that dissuaded me.  So many weeks on that book would prevent us from reading other American worthies.  I did have them read Melville's "Benito Cereno," the great story about a revolt aboard a slave ship.  I think I taught Billy Budd years ago, too, once or twice.  But never Moby-Dick.

I've read all of Melville now--have seen his grave in the Bronx.  I had read some of is work, but in the fall of 2003 when I had to take a leave-of-absence from WRA (I was hit with Bell's palsy--a story for another blog!), I decided to read everything by him, including his massive poem Clarel.  I had fun with most all of it--the exception being The Confidence-Man, which left me, afterwards, a man without much confidence.  My main reaction to it: WTF?!?!?!?!  I need to try it again--now that I'm, uh, more, uh, mature.

Well ... never is a big word.  I actually did teach the novel once--sort of.  On 27 April 2001 I led a discussion at the Hudson Library about Ahab's Wife, (1999) by Sena Jeter Naslund.

But that is a story for tomorrow ...


  1. I read Moby Dick in high school and couldn't stand it! I can't remember if I read it on my own or if it was for a class. I think I would pick any number of other novels to stay up all night reading aloud.

  2. I read last year and it was great. I read, "A Longman Critical Edition" and I read every footnote and enjoyed more.