Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Melville redux

I've been a little immersed in 19th century literature lately. I just read a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne -- one of those writers whose presence haunts all of American literature. The Scarlet Letter always draws me in. If I pick it up again and begin reading -- somewhere at random, or from the beginning, I fall back into its spell -- the secret sin of the pastor, the female outsider who endures, and the wronged husband -- all the buried emotion and twisted obsessions that motivate the characters -- Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth. It is Hawthorne at his most assured, in beautiful, crystalline prose that for all its coolness, also burns and thrills, or so it seems to me.

And of course, that other novel that dominates American literature is Moby Dick, by Hawthorne's contemporary and passionate admirer, Herman Melville. I read Moby Dick years ago, one quiet summer while working in a university English department as an office admin and going to graduate school at night. It was the same summer that I put together one of those huge DIY office desks. Just me, Melville, and a power screw driver. It was one of the times in my life, when I was most solitary -- single, living in a town where I had no family and no close friends. Call me Ishmael. I, too, could choose a name, start a new story.

Melville has always been an interesting figure to me, both because of his writing (I always loved the perfectly weird short story, Bartleby the Scrivener) and snippets of his personal life that I've encountered here and there. His later life was rather sad, after his early success and fame. His finances collapsed and his home life disintegrated. He appears as a forlorn and broken man in Frederick Busch's darkly beautiful novel, The Night Inspector, when he has taken a job as a customs inspector for the city of New York and his oldest son, has shot and killed himself -- unclear whether by accident or suicide. Melville is buried in a cemetery in the Bronx.

Lately, I've been contemplating the value of re-reading old books as opposed to consuming new ones. Philip Roth, who announced his retirement from fiction recently, said that he was re-reading writers that he hadn't returned to for 50 years -- Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Faulkner, and Hemingway. It made sense to me, and after encountering Melville in the Hawthone biography, it made me think about that summer and how I was surprised and enamored by a book, that frankly, I thought might be a bit of a drag. So I've decided to re-read Moby Dick. I expect it will be quite a different experience nearly 20 years later, and living quite a different life. Maybe I'll identify more with Ahab this time. Who knows?

What books have you re-read? Mine is a short list: The Scarlett Letter, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Little Men. There may be a few more of far less stature, and maybe something else I've forgotten.

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