Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Cambridge Introduction to Melville

"I shall have a fine book of travels, I feel sure; and will tell you more of the South Seas than any writer has done--except Herman Melville, perhaps, who is a howling cheese."
-R. L. Stevenson, in a letter to Charles Baxter

 I came across that quote (via Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania) and it sent me down a Google rabbit hole in order to decide what the heck Stevenson really thought of Melville. (A howling cheese? If somebody called me a howling cheese, I think my first instinct would be to slug them.) But it seems Stevenson only meant good things about Stevenson by that quote.

At least that's what Kevin Hayes says in The Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville. ("It means something similar to the proverbial phrase, 'to take the cake.'") Also Stevenson compares the Master of Ballantrae in that novel to Captain Ahab--The Master of Ballantrae comes out in 1889, when Melville's reputation is probably at its lowest, yet Stevenson knows his works well.

Overall I can't say I particularly found the Hayes book helpful, though; on Moby-Dick itself Hayes seemed too taken with the idea of the double or Doppelgänger. Old Ishmael telling the story of course has a relation to young Ishmael living the story, but it doesn't strike me as useful to refer to them as doubles. When Hayes calls Ahab and the whale doubles he has a better, though still not entirely convincing to me, argument. Your mileage may vary. 

Still there were a few fun things. One of the contemporary reviews said this of the chapter 'The Whiteness of the Whale':
It 'should be read at midnight, alone, with nothing heard but the sounds of the wind moaning without, and the embers falling into the grate within.'
I'm sure I didn't succeed in doing that, but it sounds good. The next time I read the book. Also 'The Whiteness of the Whale' was Sergei Eisenstein's favorite chapter in the book.

I also learned about Giorgio Federico Ghedini, an Italian composer who died in 1965. His best-known work is the Concerto dell'Albatro, which includes spoken text from Moby-Dick. For classical music fans, here it is from Youtube: (the spoken word part is in the third movement beginning around the 17th minute.)

I previously shared elsewhere in a slightly abbreviated form, this quote from Hayes:
"Moby-Dick demands readers who are unafraid to confront the strange and the unusual, those willing to use their minds, if not their palates, to face the mysteries of existence as reflected through an epic whaling quest."
Aw, shucks. You shouldn't have. You really think so?

And Hayes' final words on Moby-Dick?
"Moby-Dick is the greatest book in the history of the English language."
So now you know.


  1. well, "best book" is rather a stretch i should say... i read it and thought it was mystifying and that that was the way Melville wanted it... my English teacher was disappointed that i didn't pick up on the "Biblical language"... didn't like all the gore, tho... "doubling": i recall maybe forty years ago this was a kind of cliche in lit crit: everything had shadows or was doubled in some way... i don't think i ever got the point of it...

    1. I'm a fan, but, yes, I'm not entirely sure about best book. Fortunately we're not actually required to rank all the classics in the English language...

      I'm with you: the whole doubling thing strikes me as a sort of litcritty cliche now wildly out of date. This came out in 2007, which further detracted from my appreciation of his idea...

  2. Woops, I was told that Middlmarch is the greatest book in the history of the English language. Now which is it?! LOL

    I read someplace that Melville lifted a lot of his whale details straight from other non-fiction books. Has any of these books on Melville addressed that?

    1. Hayes (and the Delbanco I read earlier) both mention that Melville did take episodes from other authors. Melville's first two books (Typee and Omoo) played on the fact that they were 'true'--like a James Frey memoir--and they were partly, but Melville did also read others stories of the south seas and recast their stories as if they happened to the narrator. It sounds like both books should be treated as fiction. Certainly in Moby-Dick he used a couple of earlier non-fiction accounts to give substance to his story.

      I don't get the impression there's ever any out and out plagiarism, though.

      As I said to Mudpuddle, I'm just glad we're not actually required to rank classics...

    2. Middlemarch rewritten by Melville and George Eliot's version of Moby Dick - now those would be interesting reads.

  3. I love that Stevenson quote...whatever he meant. :)

    1. Isn't it a hoot? Now that I know, I wouldn't mind somebody calling me a howling cheese.

  4. I may go call my husband a howling cheese and see what he says. Maybe I can throw it out ("You are a howling cheese!") to my fellow walkers this morning along the trail. Let's see where this takes me.

    1. Oh, dear! What's this I read in the paper this morning? Some sort of cheese riot in Houston?... ;-)