Sunday, November 14, 2010

God bless Herman Melville

Moby-Dick was published on this day in 1851. The author, Herman Melville, had a nervous breakdown four years later, in part because of his novel's dismal sales. After unsuccessful lecture tours, Melville found work as a customs inspector on the New York City docks. His oldest son committed suicide in 1867.

Melville's death on September 28, 1891, in New York, was noted with only one obituary notice. Moby-Dick sold only 3,000 copies during his lifetime.

An unfinished work, Billy Budd, Foretopman, was unpublished until 1924. The protagonist of the story, set during the war between England and France, is the innocent and angelic Billy Budd, the favorite of everyone on the crew of the HMS Bellipotent except John Claggart, the sadistic master-at-arms. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of being involved in a mutiny. Billy, unable to answer the charge because of his stammer, accidentally kills Claggart.
The ship's captain, Vere, has seen through Claggart's plot but fears rebellion if Billy isn't punished. He calls a court, which condemns Billy, who goes cheerfully to his fate and is hanged from the yardarm, right after crying out "God bless Captain Vere." When Vere is mortally wounded during an engagement with the French, he murmurs as his last words Billy's name.

"Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried," Melville wrote in Moby-Dick; "it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored..."

By day they churned down the river, Camille at the wheel, he and Cutterback drunk. They blasted music (Themes from the Great Westerns), roaring at the top of their lungs. At night they’d dock and take over a bar. Cutterback arm-wrestled all comers. They ate catfish, mountains and pyramids of it. After Camille had gone to bed they sat up on deck, listening to the water lapping at the hull. Cutterback sang, drawing out the lines he particularly relished. Sully had brought along Moby Dick. He read aloud the passages he’d marked. All men were mesmerized by the deep, Ishmael had said. They saw in it the ungraspable phantom of life.  --  Chapter 42, The Misforgotten.

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