Installment 1: Herman Melville

May 30, 2009
I chose my high school English courses carefully with the main objective being to avoid reading Moby Dick. I avoided the book throughout college and graduate school as well, that and Kipling’s Captains’ Courageous. I was well into my 50s before the requirement came to read the accursed tome. Its not that I disliked whales or adventurous saltwater tales — I just wasn’t that into Victorian literature, nor into swabbing, boiling smelly try pots, or square-rigged whalers. Just as I had sided with the injuns in our childhood cowboys and indians games of pretend, I backed the hunted whales and scared crew against the tyrannical, capricious captain owned by greedy Nantucket/New Bedford ship merchants.

Why read about a haunted sea captain driven mad by a whale given human traits of revenge and a righteousness unto thy Lord. Why? I had applied for the right to read about America in the 1800s and dwelve (my word) into Winslow Homer’s great body of work, and tagging along side Homer comes Melville. Arggg me matey, and Kipling, too! I ordered 3 required reading books from amazon.com, Captains’ among them and blew the dust off of Moby (yes, I owned a hardcover – shouldn’t everyone?) and sat down to read the first four chapters.

My book contained an etymology (supplied, it claimed, by a late consumptive usher to a grammar school) and extracts (supplied by a sub-sub librarian) that offered pages and pages of “… whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoevers, sacred or profane.” No one told me that Melville had a dry sense of humor.

The extracts started with Genesis and ended with Nantucket whaling songs. I read them all and came away with the fact that, historically, people were really bothered by those nasty leviathans and, like cattle, thought they were there for the harvesting. Who got the great idea that whale fat (blubber) could be boiled and rendered for oil to light the world? Was every mammal boiled before eating – besides pigs and cattle fat boiled for lard that is – to see if the fat could stand up either with tallow or cotton wick and burn slowly without too much soot?

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