Also the intro and the biographical sketch barely give a sense of Melville’s artistic despair. Here’s a man that told Hawthorne that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated.”
And don’t get me started on Hawthorne! That prick. I’m not one for judging people’s art based on their personalities or morality (because if you do that you should just burn everything), but Hawthorne is a shit and so is his work, and I’ll fistfight anyone who says otherwise. Here’s Hawthorne’s observation on seeing the starving Irish flood through Liverpool: they were “as numerous as maggots in cheese.” Here’s Melville’s view: “endless vistas of want and woe staggering arm in arm along these miserable streets.”
But still Melville was friends with & in awe of Hawthorne. Even dedicating his masterpiece to him: “In Token of My Admiration for His Genius This Book Is Inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Anyway, where was I? The beginning. Which as we all know is not “Call me Ishmael.” That’s the first line. But to get to that first line you have to go through the too often skipped etymology and extracts. There are some great selected whale quotes in the extracts. Like the non-sequitur-ish “Very like a whale” from Hamlet. Or a nice description of whale breath from Ulloa’s South America: “and the breath of the whale is frequently attended with such an insupportable smell, as to bring on a disorder of the brain.” But the bit I love best about the Extracts is the character he ascribes their selection to: “Supplied by a Sub-sub-librarian.” And as with the Irish, Melville elevates the lowly, imagining a special place in heaven for such thankless workers.
This is to say nothing of the Etymology. I was so taken with it as an undergrad that I wrote a concrete poem. That’s right, a concrete poem. Are you familiar with concrete poetry or shape poetry? It’s poetry that looks like stuff. Like a butterfly or wings. Can you guess what mine was in the shape of? There it is over there. It’s a whale!