Happy birthday to Herman Melville

Herman Melville was born on this day in 1819. Moby-Dick is one of my all-time favorite books – so I figured I wouldn’t just re-hash that old territory – but compile here 5,000,000 quotes about Melville. They come from everywhere – from reviews of Moby Dick when it first came out (baffled, for the most part) – to John Huston’s comment on it, when directing the film – to Hart Crane’s stunning poem about Melville’s “tomb”. Oh, and I included a bit from a correspondence I had with a certain gentleman I was once in love with, where we covered the chapter from Moby Dick “The Whiteness of the Whale” in our email exchanges.

The Maldive Shark by Herman Melville

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat–
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Art by Herman Melville

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt–a wind to freeze;
Sad patience–joyous energies;
Humility–yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity–reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel–Art.

Moby Dick proved hard and exhausting to write. But he knew it was original and he understood that it was good. Published in 1851, it was not a success; until the first quarter of the twentieth century it was neglected. Ambitious later books were rejected. The failure of Moby Dick helped turn his primary attention to verse. Battle-Pieces (1866) was welcomed as peripheral work by a man who had once been famous for his prose. Seriously disturbed in his mind, he made a trip to the Holy Land (meeting with [Nathaniel] Hawthorne in Southport en route), and out of this visit emerged his most ambitious if not his most accomplished poem, the 18,000-line Clarel, twice as long as Paradise Lost, and in the octo-syllabic couplets of Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Eventually, Melville – after working as a minor customs officer in New York – was reduced to dependence on his wife’s money: she gave him an allowance to buy books and to print his later works in small editions for the tiny readership he retained. He died in 1891, quite forgotten, with the manuscript of the prose work Billy Budd completed but unpublished. His reputation was at such a low ebb that even this masterpiece went unpublished until 1924.” — Michael Schmidt, The Lives of the Poets

“The paucity of primary sources derives in large part from the downward trajectory of Melville’s career. When Typee came out in 1846, he was only 27 years old. A best seller in its day, the book ‘made him as famous as he would ever be when he was alive,’ says Samuel Otter, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Melville’s Anatomies (University of California Press, 1999).

“The name died before the man,” Mr. Olsen-Smith says. “Compare Melville to Mark Twain, for instance – a man who remained beloved throughout his life and after, up to the present. People saved every scrap. … It’s a different story with Melville.’ ” — Jennifer Howard, “Chronicle”

At Melville’s Tomb
by Hart Crane

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.


“Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand!” — Melville apparently shouted this, as he sat at his desk writing “Moby Dick”

“…a cosmos (a chaos) not only perceptibly malignant as the Gnostics had intuited, but also irrational, like the cosmos in the hexameters of Lucretius.” — Jorge Luis Borges on the “cosmos” of “Moby Dick”

“In general, it is the non-psychological novel that offers the richest opportunities for psychological elucidation. Here the author, having no intentions of this sort, does not show his characters in a psychological light and thus leaves room for analysis and interpretation, or even invites it by his unprejudiced mode of presentation… I would also include Melville’s Moby Dick, which I consider the be the greatest American novel, in this broad class of writings.” — Carl Jung inThe Spirit in Man, Art, & Literature

Moby Dick was the most difficult picture I ever made. I lost so many battles during it that I even began to suspect that my assistant director was plotting against me. Then I realized that it was only God. God had a perfectly good reason. Ahab saw the White Whale as a mask worn by the Deity, and he saw the Deity as a malignant force. It was God’s pleasure to torment and torture man. Ahab didn’t deny God, he simply looked on him as a murderer – a thought that is utterly blasphemous: “Is Ahab Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?…Where do murderers go?… Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?”‘ — John Huston, An Open Book, 1980

“We have little more to say in reprobation or in recommendation of this absurd book…. Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature — since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist. —Henry F. Chorley, in London Athenaeum, October 25 1851, review of “Moby Dick”

Me to him:

The second poem terrified me. The image of the white horse in the distance – it has haunted me ever since I read it. Why is it such a scary image? I don’t know, but it is. I just finished Moby Dick and I don’t know how long ago you read it but there’s a chapter called The Whiteness of the Whale which is a tour de force. I underlined almost every sentence. He’s talking about how the whale was terrifying because he was a big ol’ whale, yes … but there was something else going on. It was the WHITENESS that terrified and struck horror in the hearts of sailors. The whiteness of the whale. That’s what came up for me when I read that line in your poem. If I have nightmares tonight about a far-away white horse I will have you to thank.

Him to me:

The whiteness of the whale: yes, that, well Melville probably had some residue of Plato’s spirit forms in his head when he was writing that book. Moby Dick, the whale itself, is based on an actual legend of a white whale and the ramming of a whale ship by a sperm whale. The Platonic bits resonate more clearly in the Masthead chapter, when he warns the lookout not to go mad from staring at nothing all day and plunge into the water. Also, there is the mystical image of the infinite pairs of whales in processions with a great white whale, like a snowy mountain (an actual mountain visible from his study at the time he was writing), eternal and sexless. The whiteness is not an obliteration of knowledge but the absence of it. Without stimulus, the human mind cannot work. In the Counterpane chapter, he explains that we understand the world through oppositions, as in warmth of a Counterpane from the one extremity sticking out on a winter’s ight. Because the whale is white, a blankness, a tabula rasa, it can be interpreted differently by each man who encounters it. The mutinous Shakers, for instance, believe it is the Shaker God, a blind god at the center of the universe. Queequeg, the last of his people, believes it is one of his tribe’s gods. Each of the first mates has his own relationship with the whale. Ahab believes that Moby Dick is a spiteful, thinking animal, the embodiment of meaning and evil in the cosmos. Starbuck, a righteous if unimaginative man, believes this blasphemy. To this accusation, Ahab famously answers: “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!”

It is a great disaster of a novel but a Great book. Unfortunately it is being replaced on high school and college curricula by books about the Middle Passage of the African slaves to North America – usually a more readable and certainly more topical choice.

I last read the book the day after my father’s funeral, in ****. Of course I read his edition, which I still have. My parents were called in for a parent-teacher conference when I was in third grade. The teacher had taken my copy of Moby Dick, since she caught me reading it in class. To be fair, I think it was math class, but nevertheless the book has always been important to me and haunts me.

Letter of Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne:

June 29 1851

My dear Hawthorne ,

The clear air and open window invite me to write to you. For some time past I have been so busy with a thousand things that I have almost forgotten when I wrote you last, and whether I received an answer. This most persuasive season has now for weeks recalled me from certain crotchetty and over doleful chimearas, the like of which men like you and me and some others, forming a chain of God’s posts round the world, must be content to encounter now and then, and fight them the best way we can. But come they will, — for, in the boundless, trackless, but still glorious wild wilderness through which these outposts run, the Indians do sorely abound, as well as the insignificant but still stinging mosquitoes. Since you have been here, I have been building some shanties of houses (connected with the old one) and likewise some shanties of chapters and essays. I have been plowing and sowing and raising and painting and printing and praying, — and now begin to come out upon a less bustling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of the old farm house here.

Not entirely yet, though, am I without something to be urgent with. The “Whale” is only half through the press; for, wearied with the long delay of the printers, and disgusted with the heat and dust of the babylonish brick-kiln of New York, I came back to the country to feel the grass — and end the book reclining on it, if I may. — I am sure you will pardon this speaking all about myself, for if I say so much on that head, be sure all the rest of the world are thinking about themselves ten times as much. Let us speak, although we show all our faults and weaknesses, — for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it, — not in [a] set way and ostentatiously, though, but incidentally and without premeditation. — But I am falling into my old foible — preaching. I am busy, but shall not be very long. Come and spend a day here, if you can and want to; if not, stay in Lenox, and God give you long life. When I am quite free of my present engagements, I am going to treat myself to a ride and a visit to you. Have ready a bottle of brandy, because I always feel like drinking that heroic drink when we talk ontological heroics together. This is rather a crazy letter in some respects, I apprehend. If so, ascribe it to the intoxicating effects of the latter end of June operating upon a very susceptible and peradventure feeble temperament.

Shall I send you a fin of the Whale by way of a specimen mouthful? The tail is not yet cooked — though the hell-fire in which the whole book is broiled might not unreasonably have cooked it all ere this. This is the book’s motto (the secret one), — Ego non baptiso te in nomine — but make out the rest yourself.

“I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed, and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould.” — Herman Melville

“Some critics would place his name among the most important American poets of the nineteenth century, or even today.” — Robert Penn Warren

“Melville’s poems, less sumptuous in semantic nuance than the prose, less second nature to him than his fiction, are worked at and worked up, yet the difficulty of the restraining forms remains central. So does the rumor of an ‘unspeakable’ theme, unacknowledged at times, at times veiled from himself, which has to do with a radiant sexual irresolution. More insistently even than Conrad, Melville depicts a male world in prose and verse, a world in which intimate relationships and erotic experiences are between men and types of men: at sea, in the army and elsewhere. He celebrates, laments, touches – and he occasionally foresees, not the huge and benign vision of Walt Whitman, but with narrowed eyes, looking further than the future. His is not the optimism of Emerson but something more serious: he sees beyond a bad age, he sees to the other side of evil; nature consoles, but it also remembers and comments.” — Michael Schmidt, “Lives of the Poets”

“Mr. Herman Melville has earned a deservedly high reputation for his performances in descriptive fiction. He has gathered his own materials, and travelled along fresh and untrodden literary paths, exhibiting powers of no common order, and great originality. The more careful, therefore, should he be to maintain the fame he so rapidly acquired, and not waste his strength on such purposeless and unequal doings as these rambling volumes about spermaceti whales.” — London Literary Gazette, December 6 1851

“I could readily see in Emerson … the insinuation that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions.” — Herman Melville

“Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation…. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne, on a walk on the beach with Melville, 1857

Mardi is a rich book, with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life. It is so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded over it, so as to make it a great deal better.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a letter to Evert Duyckinck

“Readers will note that I have said nothing very much about Moby-Dick . But what can anyone say? Its quietly portentous first sentence is as famous as any in world literature (‘Call me Ishmael’), and some of Ahab’s monologues, like the one beginning ‘Is Ahab Ahab?,’ achieve an eloquence rivaling that of the Bible and Shakespeare. There are longueurs, but even in the midst of tedious cetological lore, one comes across such disturbing passages as that in which the Pequod’s sailors squeeze and squeeze and squeeze handfuls of white spermacetti. Then there are the marvelous portraits of the crew — the black cabin boy Pip, who goes mad and loses his sense of self, the well-meaning but weak Starbuck, the mysterious harpooners Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo. There are the haunting encounters with other ships, especially the Rachel ‘searching for her lost children.’ And throughout there is philosophizing that at times rises to a kind of prose poetry:

‘All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in a whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.’

In Melville’s lifetime few recognized or even suspected the writer’s exceptional genius — but Nathaniel Hawthorne came close, and the two men established a long-lasting friendship. After their first encounters, the writer of Polynesian adventures went back to his romantic tale about ‘Whale Fishery’ and, in Delbanco’s words, ‘tore it up from within.’ Melville deepened and amplified his novel, enlarged it in every sense, with the obvious hope of joining what he called, in an essay on Hawthorne, that fraternity where ‘genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.’ With wonderful appropriateness, then, the author of The Scarlet Letter — which appeared in 1850 — became the dedicatee of the following year’s Moby-Dick . — Michael Dirda, 2005

“It will be a strange sort of book, tho,’ I fear; blubber is blubber you know … and to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the things, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves.” — Melville on “Moby Dick” – in a letter to Richard Henry, Jr.

“A sense of unspeakable security is in me at this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” — Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne – after Hawthorne read Moby Dick

“…fresh from his mountain charged to the muzzle with sailor metaphysics and jargon of things unknowable,” — Evert Duyckinck in his journal, describing a meeting with Melville, 1856

— “[He is] a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder…. and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne, on seeing Melville in 1857

“It is–or seems to be–a wise sort of thing, to realise that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of a joke…. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed around pretty liberally and impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it.” — Melville to Henry Savage

E.M. Forster, from one of his lectures on the novel.

Moby Dick is an easy book, as long as we read it as a yarn or an account of whaling interspersed with snatches of poetry. But as soon as we catch the song in it, it grows difficult and immensely important. Narrowed and hardened into words the spiritual theme of Moby Dick is as follows: a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. The White Whale is evil, and Captain Ahab is warped by constant pursuit until his knight-errantry turns into revenge. These are words — a symbol for the book if we want one — but they do not carry us much further than the acceptance of the book as a yarn — perhaps they carry us backwards, for they may mislead us into harmonizing the incidents, and so losing their roughness and richness. The idea of a contest we may retain: all action is a battle, the only happiness is peace. But contest between what? We get false if we say that it is between good and evil or between two unreconciled evils. The essential in Moby Dick, its prophetic song, flows athwart the action and the surface morality like an undercurrent. It lies outside words…we cannot catch the words of the song. There has been stress, with intervals: but no explicable solution, certainly no reaching back into universal pity and love; no ‘Gentlemen, I’ve had a good dream.’

The extraordinary nature of the book appears in two of its early incidents — the sermon about Jonah and the friendship with Queequeg.

The sermon has nothing to do with Christianity. It asks for endurance or loyalty without hope of reward. The preacher ‘kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.’ Then he works up and up and concludes on a note of joy that is far more terrifying than a menace…

Immediately after the sermon, Ishmael makes a passionate alliance with the cannibal Queequeg, and it looks for a moment that the book is to be a saga of blood-brotherhood. But human relationships mean little to Melville, and after a grotesque and violent entry, Queequeg is almost forgotten. Almost — not quite…

Moby Dick is full of meanings: its meaning is a different problem. It is wrong to turn the Delight or the coffin into symbols, because even if the symbolism is correct, it silences the book. Nothing can be stated about Moby Dick except that it is a contest. The rest is song.”

Forster said that “prophetic” literature was one of the “forms” of the novel, and that only 4 writers came close to being prophetic: Dostoevsky, DH Lawrence, Emily Bronte, and Herman Melville. I also have to say I cannot agree strongly enough with his comment: “The rest is song.” YES.

As in this, one of my favorite bits of writing not only from Moby Dick, but ever:

A word or two more concerning this matter of the skin or blubber of the whale. It has already been said, that it is stript from him in long pieces, called blanket-pieces. Like most sea-terms, this one is very happy and significant. For the whale is indeed wrapt up in his blubber as in a real blanket or counterpane; or, still better, an Indian poncho slipt over his head, and skirting his extremity. It is by reason of this cosy blanketing of his body, that the whale is enabled to keep himself comfortable in all weathers, in all seas, times, and tides. What would become of a Greenland whale, say, in those shuddering, icy seas of the north, if unsupplied with his cosy surtout? True, other fish are found exceedingly brisk in those Hyperborean waters; but these, be it observed, are your cold-blooded, lungless fish, whose very bellies are refrigerators; creatures, that warm themselves under the lee of an iceberg, as a traveller in winter would bask before an inn fire; whereas, like man, the whale has lungs and warm blood. Freeze his blood, and he dies. How wonderful is it then – except after explanation – that this great monster, to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it is to man; how wonderful that he should be found at home, immersed to his lips for life in those Arctic waters! where, when seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued in amber. But more surprising is it to know, as has been proved by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo negro in summer.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

My eternal struggle.

Happy birthday, Mr. Melville.

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3 Responses to Happy birthday to Herman Melville

  1. mutecypher says:

    Fracking Jesus, Sheila. Nothing compares to your love.

  2. jean says:

    “…live in this world without being of it.” WOW

  3. Rob V. says:

    What a well-done tribute to Melville! I’ll have to come back when I have a chance so that I can read more of these quotes (I didn’t get through all of them… yet).

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