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I am deeply involved in trying to solve the discrepancy between being interested in zen and trying to acquire all the things I've been accumulating

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Living With A Writer

On the back cover of Living With A Writer edited by Dale Salwak (Palgrave, 2004), the following question is posed: "what is the cost of a masterpiece or a caring relationship?" The first essay that I chose to read in this book answers that question all too well. In Damned By Dollars: Moby-Dick and the Price of Genius, Herman Melville biographer Hershel Parker tallies the huge cost that Melville paid in plying his craft in the face of a public and a publishing industry that was blind to his talent.

The opening of this wonderful essay sets the stage for this question:

In early May 1851, when he had finished almost all of Moby-Dick except the concluding chapters and late insertions, Melville wrote Hawthorne about 'the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose', a mood that could seldom be his: 'Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar.'

Melville went on to say that because dollars damned him, because he was so rushed, 'the product is a final hash,' and all his books were botches. Certainly nothing could be further from the truth and one need not read very far into Moby-Dick to see it for the classic work that it is. Certainly one of the greatest tragedies in all of literature, it is still astounding to think that nearly fifty years after it was published, Moby-Dick had sold a scant four thousand copies. I am instantly reminded of the classic Gahan Wilson cartoon in the New Yorker in which a modern day Melville is adrift upon a city street and everywhere he looks are whale references, even on the slippers of a young child scuttling by him. The caption for the cartoon is something like, "I wonder if we've oversold Moby-Dick." One can only wonder what Melville might have produced had he not been so beaten down by his lack of recognition and his constant indebtedness, and achieved even a modest success. Certainly he escaped the worst, or maybe not -- one kept expecting his failure to rush him to an early grave but maybe having to work nineteen years as a lowly paid customs worker while stories swirled in your head may have been worse than death.

Reading Parker's fascinating essay on the toll that his masterpiece took on Melville and his family temporarily sends me scurrying for the countless books that I have with Melville references, especially Herman Melville A to Z by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock (Checkmark Books, 2001), which I hope to find the time to read soon. And from the "too bizarre to be true" department, this from HarperCollins Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature 2nd Edition:

Mocha-Dick J.N. Reynolds published an account of this white whale in The Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839, twelve years before Melville's Moby-Dick. It was the earliest account of a white whale legendary among seamen for its fierceness and the difficulty of killing it.

Lucky for Reynolds that he didn't expand his piece into an epic novel. No matter how good it might have turned out to be, I don't think the world is ready even today for Mocha- Dick. Those great white whales may not kill you, but they sure do a lot of damage.

3 Comments:

Blogger Bill said...

It's nice to know that someone's a fan of MOBY. I didn't know there were many of us left.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Andy J said...

Someday I hope to actually read MOBY all the way through without getting sidetracked (Don Quixote too!) but my attention tends to wander a bit too much to finish almost anything without having to revisit it several times. I could read that first page every day though and never tire of it. I guess I'd probably stand a better chance of finishing the Melville biography than the masterpiece. I have to recommend the LIVING WITH WRITERS book to you. There doesn't seem to be a bad entry in it and as a writer yourself, I'm sure you'll get even more out of it than I have. Thanks much for the mention!

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Jeff Meyerson said...

Also a bit unsettling in a totally different way is the thought that they're adding 100, 000 books a year. Why that's 400 books a day (a business day anyway)! Now that's a hard one to grasp.

Yeah, Andy, that's almost as many as you buy, right? ;)

7:51 AM  

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