52 in 52 Week 10: Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick
I totally agree with the bolded part of Philbrick's interview about coming to these works later in life, after life experiences. Here is the quote from the book regarding that:
Melville's example demonstrates the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after accumulated essential life experiences can make all the difference. For Melville, the timing could not have been better, and in the flyleaf of the last volume of his seven-volume set (large print because his eyes were going bad - Carol's addition) of Shakespeare's plays are notes written during the composition of Moby-Dick about Ahab, Pip, and other characters. (p.61)
Reading Moby-Dick, we are in the presence of a writer who spent several impressionable years on a whaleship, internalized everything he saw, and seven or so years later, after internalizing Shakespeare, Hawthorne, the Bible, and much more, found the voice and the method that enabled him to broadcast his youthful experiences into the future. And this, ultimately, is where the great, unmatched potency of Moby-Dick, the novel resides. It comes from an author who not only was there but possessed the capacious and impressionable soul required to appreciate the wonder of what he was seeing. (p. 70)
At that time, Hawthorne enjoyed a reputation as a mild-mannered recluse penning well-crafted stories about New England's quaint colonial past. This, Melville insisted, was missing the point. Instead of a "harmless" stylist, Hawthorne was an unappreciated genius possessed by "this great power of blackness." Hidden beneath his stories' lapidarian surfaces were truth so profound and disturbing that they ranked with anything written in the English language.More on Hawthorne:
Melville then turned his attention in the review to Shakespeare. "[I]t is those deep far-away things in him," Melville declared, "those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth, in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality; -- these are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare." Moreover, it was through his "dark characters," such as Hamlet, Lear, and Iago, that Shakespeare "craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint at them!" In writing about Hawthorne, Melville, via Shakespeare, was laying the groundwork for Ahab. (p. 44-45)
The other breakthrough associated with his invention of Ahab was something he clearly got from Hawthorne: a way to put artistic distance between himself and the very thing he most identified with, thus providing a way to write about the darkest and most frightening aspects of human experience. That was why he could write to Hawthorne, "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb." (p.48)Love his chapter on "Poetry" in the Moby-Dick. It is better to listen to the author read this excerpt from the book, but here is what he says:
PHILBRICK: Yeah. This is a passage from Chapter 51. It's called "The Spirit Spout," and picks up with the Pequod just south of St. Helena.
(Reading) While gliding through these latter waves in that one serene and moonlit night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver and by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude. On such a silent night, a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea.
SIEGEL: Wow, when you read that, I can imagine Melville reading it aloud as he was writing it. It sounds very much like elaborate, spoken prose.
PHILBRICK: It is. And you know, it's iambic pentameter at times. And the level of the writing is truly poetic, and yet he's telling this epic story. And so the combination is really, one that was built for the ages.I could go on and on about this great little book about a BIG book. This author is excellent. I kept reading quotes from the book to my husband last night, and he started reading it!