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Deep-diving Whale

July 2024
2min read

The fields of the historian and the novelist do overlap. In a sense, Parkman had the novelist’s talents —imagination, understanding, a feeling for literary form, a curiosity about the ultimate meaning of the things men do. And Herman Melville, one of America’s greatest novelists, had something of the historian in him, too, which is to say that he wanted to get at the truth of things. Moby Dick remains to this day about as good a history of the old American whaling industry as we are likely to need, and for all of his transcendentalism and his soaring flights of fancy, Melville had all of Parkman’s reverence for hard facts.

Melville revealed himself in his letters, too, and it is worthwhile to let him speak for himself just after listening to Parkman. The Letters of Herman Melville , edited by Merrell R. Davis and William H. Oilman, offers an excellent opportunity to do this. Hear Melville, as he writes to Richard Henry Dana while in the midst of the composition of Moby Dick :

“It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree;— & to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing.”

Lack of a sound physique handicapped Parkman; lack of money was Melville’s curse, and he explained it succinctly: “The calm, the coolness, the silent grassgrowing mood in which a man ought always to compose,—that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar—. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot.” He could lament bitterly, “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter”; and to the wife of a friend he could sum up his greatest book in these words: “Don’t you buy it—don’t you read it, when it comes out, because it is by no means the sort of book for you. It is not a piece of fine feminine Spitalfields silk—but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables & hausers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.”

Melville was driven, just as Parkman was driven, just as any writer worth reading is driven, by the demand of the unfinished job, the insistence that what there is in him to say is going to get said. Like Parkman, too, he could express his artistic creed in a line. Writing to Hawthorne, Melville asked: “Lord, when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing.”

The facts the novelist seeks are of course of a different sort than the facts which the historian gropes for, and some of them lie at profound depths. Melville writes about Emerson, to an acquaintance who had found Emerson cloudy, unintelligible, and rather foolish:”—for the sake of the argument, let us call him a fool;—then had I rather be a fool than a wise man.—I love all men who dive . Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he dont attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can’t fashion the plumet that will.”

The Letters of Herman Melville, edited by Merrell R. Davis and William H. Oilman. Yale University Press. 398 pp. $6.50.

Melville had books in his brain, as he said—at least fifty of them, he once wrote, all of them half-planned and demanding to be considered separately. Getting them out was a problem, but he had a certain consolation: “I dont know but a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf—at any rate it is safer from criticism. And taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety— & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.”

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