Yankee Doodle Doldrums
When Ernest Hemingway wrote that “prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over” I couldn’t have disagreed with the great man more. I’d already spent my imprudent youth reading those who came before him, including one writer whose semantic ‘architecture’ represented a veritable Versailles.
It all began with the cinema.
I just had to see the film again. In fact, I saw it five times and by the end of that week I knew most of the dialogue. It was lofty, archaic, biblical stuff, Baroque, even, yet what fascinated me most when the credits rolled was ‘Screenplay by Ray Bradbury’. I was 13 and had already read Bradbury’s Illustrated Man and his Golden Apples of the Sun. I knew he was special. Thus John Huston’s film of Moby Dick became a wider gateway to American literature. I bought Melville’s hefty book yet unlike Bradbury’s idiosyncratic, down-home prose, it would take me decades to fathom the greatness of Moby-Dick. The book’s philosophical density was perplexing for a young lad, yet what impressed me was how much of Melville’s grandiloquent dialogue Bradbury had lovingly preserved for the screen.
He had led me to all the great 20th century US science
fiction writers with strange names like Vonnegut, Heinlein and Asimov, and my
particular favourites Robert Sheckley and H.P. Lovecraft. Later in life, I’d
get onto the ‘hard stuff’; Edgar Allan Poe, Longfellow, Thoreau and others, and
as my prolonged puberty receded I’d come down to earth for Saul Bellow, Bernard
Malamud and even Norman Mailer. 60 years after my cinematic portal into
American writing, US culture, high and low, dominates everything, from the
infantile vacuity of superheroes to the gripping drama of Breaking Bad. Yet it wasn’t
|The great Ray Bradbury|
|Rev. Sidney Smith|
It’s hard to imagine what Sidney Smith would have made of the new era of American writing in the years immediately following his death. No doubt he would have scoffed at Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, although he may have recognised its themes of sin, guilt and legality. As for Whitman’s Blades of Grass or Melville’s Moby-Dick, they did little to dissuade sections of Britain’s literati from the notion that American literature remained adrift in the doldrums. Without any transatlantic copyright law and no royalties to pay, American publishers made easy money by reprinting anything worthwhile which came out of Britain. Jane Austen, the Brontes, Scott, and above all, Dickens all rolled of the presses, whilst looking down from his lofty perch, Shakespeare, as ever, remained supreme.
As American writers like Longfellow, Thoreau and others found their voice, they expressed their dismay at the situation. Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and others were more than peeved with their country’s failure to support writers, and especially with Shakespeare’s godlike status. In August 1850, still putting the finishing touches to Moby-Dick, despite his boundless admiration for the Bard, Herman Melville grumbled in the journal The Literary World, “You must believe in Shakespeare's unapproachability, or quit the country. But what sort of belief is this for an American, a man who is bound to carry republican progressiveness into Literature?” Melville, then unknowingly on the cusp of obscurity, epitomises the tragic growing pains of American literature. It would be almost a century before we realised what a treasure chest American writing would become. Melville was no stranger to a good critical bludgeoning. Whilst Moby-Dick was still puzzling blinkered reviewers, on September 8, 1852 the New York Day Book carried a rancorous headline, "HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY" above a mauling of his latest book, Ambiguities. Masquerading as a news item, it ‘reported’ the views of a ‘critical friend’ who regarded Ambiguities “to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman” and finished with a truly knock-out punch; “… his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.” That kind of reviewing today would be a lawyer’s bean feast.
They had no need to kick Melville; he was already down. Britain’s literary dominance dragged him further, because Moby-Dick was first published here by the London publisher of his earlier works, Richard Bentley. With those earlier works page proofs had been set by Harper in the US and sent to London for publication. This gave American critics the chance to see what they regarded as their more erudite British counterparts made of a work and then add their own bit of venom. Bentley offered Melville a £150 advance. He was already in debt to the tune of $700 to his American publisher, Harper, so they wouldn’t set the type for Moby-Dick; he was forced to borrow money and pay for the composition himself. Sadly, the Bentley edition would suffer all manner of pedantic editorial indignities. For those Americans who did read books, England may well have been a literary lighthouse, but its beams were tinged with patriotic Anglican piety. Anything remotely dismissive of Britain’s monarchy was removed. Sacrilegious passages were savaged with a vengeance. It wouldn’t do for an American upstart like Melville to attribute human failures to God, and the censorial pen would not allow Captain Ahab to stand on the deck of the godless Pequod “with a crucifixion in his face” in Chapter 28. And there was that undertow of sex; allusions to hookers, a faint whiff of gay goings-on in the fo’c’sle, Ishmael’s pondering over Queequeg’s underpants. Yet Melville got away with it in Chapter 95, "The Cassock", by using indirect language describing the whale’s penis. Yet the biggest calumny in the British edition of Moby-Dick was the inexplicable omission of the Epilogue, which explains why the story has been told by Ishmael, beginning with the quote from the Book of Job 1:15: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
In his lifetime Moby-Dick never sold its initial print run of 3,000 copies. In fact his royalties for the American edition from Harper & Brothers amounted to a measly $556 - that’s roughly £390. After spending his final 19 years of obscurity working as the most honest customs officer in New York, Herman Melville passed away in 1891 completely forgotten, with a 47-word obituary in the New York Times, where they referred to what would become his classic as ‘Mobie’ Dick. One small report called him ‘Henry’ and in December that year Harper’s Magazine gave his death just nine words.
|Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick|
Herman Melville’s long poem, Clarel, published in 1876, had an initial printing of just 350 copies. By the time he’d written it, his writing career had already been over for a decade. Then, in 1925 critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of Clarel ‘with its pages uncut’ in the New York Public Library, where it had remained, unread and untouched by human hands for 50 years. 30 years after they’d laid Herman Melville to rest in a poor plot in a Bronx cemetery, our own D. H. Lawrence led the charge to recognise his work and transform him into the literary monument he is today. In Lawrence’s 1924 Studies in Classic American Literature his ornate and politically awkward essay on Moby-Dick likens the crew of the Pequod, including the narrator, Ishmael, to America itself: “Renegades, castaways, cannibals, Ishmael, Quakers”. Yet it feels right that Melville’s stream of consciousness style should have finally achieved recognition in the 1920s, when James Joyce’s Ulysses was breaking new ground.
An un-collated, unfinished draft of Melville’s final prose work, Billy Budd, Sailor was tidily packed away by his widow, Lizzie and would not appear in print until 1925. Albert Camus, W. H. Auden and E. M. Forster all waxed lyrical over Billy Budd, and close to death, Thomas Mann called it ‘the most beautiful story in the world’, adding ‘O that I could have written that!’
So I thank Ishmael, Queequeg and Mr. Starbuck for inspiring me to take a chance on writing. Ray Bradbury said that “Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.” As for the intrepid Melville, his thoughts remain relevant in today’s corrupt, ill-mannered world. Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick should form the basis of any investigative writer’s creed: “But delight is to him who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth stands forth his own inexorable self, who destroys all sin, though he pluck it out from the robes of senators and judges!”
Most material re. Melville from
DELBANCO, ANDREW: Melville, His World & Work Picador, 2006
SMITH, SYDNEY: The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith, Faber & Faber 2012.
LAWRENCE, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature: Penguin 1971, re-issued Cambridge University Press 2014.
CUNLIFFE, MARCUS: The Literature of the United States Pelican, 1970.
MELVILLE, HERMAN: Moby-Dick / Billy Budd etc., Numerous editions.
HUSTON, JOHN (Producer) Moby Dick (Film, 1956, Screenplay by Ray Bradbury, starring Gregory Peck, Orson Welles and Leo Genn) is available on Optimum Home DVD OPTD0069 and is in this writer’s opinion, although a very condensed rendition of a massive work, retains its elegance and dignity. There is also a later TV version starring Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab. It ambitiously tells much more of the book,
But the ’56 version does it for me.