Call me Ishmael, and don't snicker. I know what you're thinking here. How can I say that a big unwieldy book that can't decide what it's about for most of its length and, at any rate, tells a familiar story had any impact on my life, especially when it was something I read because it was assigned in a course I was taking (meaning I HAD to read it)? I have a feeling I'm going to tell you more about myself than I should here, but doesn't everyone who writes one of these do that? It's either that or tell you how to make a watch when all you did was ask me the time, and I'm probably going to do some of that too, but whatever.
Let's just say it set me on the career path I followed 28 years after I read it. When I had to figure a few things out about what to do next, remembering the experience of reading it confirmed what I wanted to do, and did. Explanations below.
I read Moby-Dick during the fall semester of my sophomore year at Cornell. What do you really need to know about that? I had pretty much finished my distribution requirements, I was catching up on the social sciences I didn't know much about (economics - macro and sociology), finishing my prereqs (the history of political philosophy) for a Government major and taking an English course for non-majors (that was a serious mistake), and, since I was also considering a History major, taking a history course.
Not any history course, you understand. 19th Century Cultural and Intellectual History of the United States, with David Brion Davis (and Ken Dryden, but that's an entirely different story). It was the only class I was taking that I wasn't taking with somebody I already knew, but then, I had done that with the upper-level course on Black Politics I had taken the previous spring. I grew up as the only child of an only child (my mother) and an estranged child (my father, but he had done that to himself, and I'm not cutting him any slack for it). I turned 19 that semester, and I think I had to read Moby-Dick about two weeks after my birthday.
It's safe to say that I wasn't sure who I was at that point. I certainly wasn't out yet, but, more to the point, I hadn't acted on anything that would suggest I even think about it yet. I thought if I tried hard enough, I could make heterosexuality work for me (and I sort of did the following year, but it obviously didn't take). I didn't have any idea what I was going to do about a career either -- there was always advertising if nothing else came to mind. Something told me I shouldn't go into the law, and I don't regret that all these years later.
So I was just trying out the life of the mind when I told my friends that Saturday morning, as we walked to the undergraduate library, I would be in the smoking room on the fourth floor (a room very few people went to) reading, and to come get me for lunch. I sat down at I think 10 AM, and opened the book, and I read. They came to get me for lunch, and I brought the book with me, and kept reading. They came to get me for dinner, and I brought the book with me, and I kept reading. I think I finished around 11 PM. Yes, I read Moby-Dick in one sitting. I had to: it was that compelling, and I was that fascinated.
I guess I should say something about the book, and about the author, now. Herman Melville was, in great part, writing about what he knew. In 1840, at the age of 21, he had signed on as an ordinary seaman on the whaleship Acushnet and when he returned to port, he began to write. He published Typee, about the time he spent in the Marquesas Islands, in 1846, and another travel adventure, Omoo, the following year, and both sold well.
In October 1851, The Whale was published in London, and the following month, Harper's published it in the United States as Moby-Dick. It confused its readers, which is odd, because readers were interested, VERY interested, in books on whaling in the 1850s. After all, the whaling industry was the first business enterprise in which the United States had become top nation, and the book, while it has a plot, is really about the whaling business.
Perhaps it's stuff like this, from a chapter mid-book called "The Whiteness of the Whale"
What the White Whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.You get the idea. It just made it better for me. An adventure story, with a monomaniacal protagonist and a secret crew (if I weren't Dave in Northridge, I'd be "Fedallah") introduced in the middle of the story, a reasonably complete analysis of the business parts of a whaling ship with a detailed analysis of how the whale oil and the baleen are produced, and some wonderful philosophic writing. What could be better? It's the reason I like Thomas Pynchon's books too.
Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man's soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.
Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title 'Lord of the White Elephants' above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things -- the innocence of brides, the benignity of age;
Anyhow, Moby-Dick sank like a stone in the American market, and the reason people can argue it is really the greatest American novel is the product of a Melville revival in the 1920s. I'm glad it was revived. What the experience taught me was that there was absolutely nothing wrong with pursuing the life of the mind. It also reminded me, since I was reading it in a history class, that if I couldn't decide between a lit major (which my reaction to this book told me was not impossible after all) and a poli sci major, history would let me be both.
I didn't do especially well that semester (my only GPA under 3, in fact), but I applied myself and graduated magna cum laude in history, and then went off to Stanford for graduate work. Oh, yes. I wasn't doing anything during the spring semester of my senior year but researching and writing an honors thesis (I had miscalculated my AP credits), so I was able to go to the Bay Area at the end of March 1971 to see the school, and I "discovered" myself in San Francisco, where I knew nobody and nobody knew me. Majoring in History did that for me, at least now in retrospect (and thank you, Ishmael and Queequeg). The man I met a month later in Boston (we knew the first time our eyes met on the dance floor at 1270 -- not there any more) was ready for a change, so we left for Palo Alto in September 1971. We're still a couple, and now we're married (California, June 19, 2008).
We can now fast forward 23 years (skipping disappointment with the direction history was taking at Stanford, and two decades in advertising media in Manhattan, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Manhattan again) to life in Los Angeles, doing some free-lance writing for Maine Antique Digest. For one of the articles, on a show of Pacific-Asian fine and folk art, we had to do research, which reminded me I LIKED to do research, so going back to graduate school was a no-brainer. I found myself in a class my first semester at Claremont Graduate School in a course called 19th Century Cultural and Intellectual History of the United States, taught by, coincidentally, someone who had been one of Davis's grad students when I was taking the course, but nothing registered as a rereading as much as Moby-Dick did (it was only the second time I read it, and it didn't lose any of its power). So we come full-circle. Changed my life? You bet.
Oh, yes. What else did I read that semester? Lots of stuff, but I can't remember 80% of it. (I'm trying to remember 43 years later, after all.) NOTHING else from the course I read Moby-Dick in; from the waste-of-time English course, D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; from the Sociology course, Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, something by Marx on alienation and something by Durkheim on anomie; from the Government course, Machiavelli, The Prince, Hobbes, Leviathan, Locke, First and Second Discourses, and Rousseau's Second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Also, Ken Dryden and I were on hello-saying terms for the remainder of that academic year, at the end of which he graduated.
11:31 AM PT: Thanks for the warm reception, R&BLers. I'm very happy to be one of you now.
2:55 PM PT: and thanks as well, DKOMA! My first diary for you!