In Chapter 1 our hero introduces himself as simply “Ishmael.” No last name, no identifying details. Victorian era writers used this technique often, to obscure details and shroud a book in mystery. Sophistication in creating amorphous settings wasn’t all that well developed, I suppose. That, or it didn’t take as much to let the reader know the author’s intent. It seems silly now but contemporary readers would have expected it.
Some things about the classics don’t translate as well as others. These things are what makes a work seem “dated,” putting off the iGeneration, but once you get past that you open yourself up to a whole world of beautiful, often rambling prose. Neither of these qualities are absent from some of the best books written today. A lot of the books I adore are stripped down, bare bones prose but I also love more florid styles that soar with poetry and detail. Not everything has changed.
Melville’s prose isn’t technically concise but neither is he as loquacious as, say, Dickens or Tolstoy. His writing about the sea is from the heart. In this first chapter he waxes lyrical on how all young men yearn for adventure, Ishmael expressing his desire to be gone before he either roughs someone up or commits a heinous crime. What’s surprising, in a good way, is Melville does so humorously:
” Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. “
And really that’s all Chapter 1 is, the set up for Ishmael to get out of New York City and find a whaling ship. Before chapter’s end he leads in with his description of whales and whaling:
” Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.
By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air. “
Ah, “one grand hooded phantom…” Have a guess who that could be.
Chapter 2 describes Ishmael’s trip from NYC to New Bedford, Massachusetts, from which lots of whaling expeditions set out. He doesn’t bring much, which is true of sailors in general, as per anything else I’ve ever read about them. It’s a Saturday in December and he must find cheap shelter until the ships leave the following Monday.
The place he finds, after rejecting others that look too expensive, is The Spouter Inn, owned by one Peter Coffin. He balks at the name – it does give the impression of a bad omen – but decides this is the best he can afford on his very limited budget:
” It was a queer sort of place—a gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly. It stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul’s tossed craft. Euroclydon, nevertheless, is a mighty pleasant zephyr to any one in-doors, with his feet on the hob quietly toasting for bed. “In judging of that tempestuous wind called Euroclydon,” says an old writer—of whose works I possess the only copy extant—”it maketh a marvellous difference, whether thou lookest out at it from a glass window where the frost is all on the outside, or whether thou observest it from that sashless window, where the frost is on both sides, and of which the wight Death is the only glazier.” True enough, thought I, as this passage occurred to my mind—old black-letter, thou reasonest well. Yes, these eyes are windows, and this body of mine is the house. What a pity they didn’t stop up the chinks and the crannies though, and thrust in a little lint here and there. But it’s too late to make any improvements now. The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago. Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shiverings, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob into his mouth, and yet that would not keep out the tempestuous Euroclydon. Euroclydon! says old Dives, in his red silken wrapper—(he had a redder one afterwards) pooh, pooh! What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights! Let them talk of their oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories; give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals. ”
It helps to know the definition and origin of the term “Euroclydon”:
I wonder how tongue in cheek Ishmael’s reference to the Bible is. Maybe he’s being a wicked little sprite or maybe he’s referring to some other book. In either case, a little dramatic how Melville writes about something as simple as a strong wind. Lots of “thous” and words ending in “-eth.” I can see how off-putting this is for the modern reader. I was an English major and I still don’t care for it.
Isn’t the description of the inn gorgeous? “… gable-ended old house, one side palsied… leaning over sadly.” Can’t you just picture it? It’s so East Coast, salty, old traditional sea port. It’s old for this country, I mean. Others may find it amusing and quaint we consider the 19th century so long ago when they trace their own seafaring traditions back centuries. But New England has a distinctive look and feel representative of our seafaring history.
This particular passage quoted above reminds me of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. The two authors were close friends, to Mrs. Hawthorne’s reported despair, so it’s possible one influenced the other. Interestingly, both books were published the same year – 1851.
As an aside, the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft called The House of the Seven Gables “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature.” He didn’t mean that in the modern sense. It had an influence on his own writing, “weird” from the standpoint of dark and ghostly. Yet another of those things about 19th century writing you have to run through the translator, which probably puts off readers with less patience.
Yes, yes, that explains all the FOOTNOTES. Sorry, students.
Two chapters in and I’m wondering what on earth has put me off Moby Dick this long, aside from that nasty nun. Then again, I haven’t reached the chapters featuring pages and pages of information about blubber. I’m not sure anyone, save a marine biologist, cares so much about blubber.
Early days yet but things are going swimmingly so far! And, believe it or not, I’m blowing through it without including nearly as much detail about the literary criticism and commentary I could. I’m restraining myself, in order to get through the primary read without bogging down in interpretation and such. There will be some, sorry to tell some of you but neither am I consulting Big Encyclopedias of What Nots in Literature. I.e. Google.
Note: I have written more about Melville on the Tumblr blog I’m using as a companion to Bluestalking. If you just can’t get enough of Moby and Herman go have a peek. It’s not the only topic running there but there’s supplementary material to be had amongst the other stuff I’m posting.
The link to my Tumblr blog is on my sidebar, should you ever care to pop over and see what I’m about over there. Even if you don’t care, it’s still there.
Avast ye, matey!