2014: The Best & Worst
This is the time of the year when writers coast. They dream up their
totally subjective best and worse lists for the year that's rapidly
coming to a close. Why? So they can focus on the important things...the
holidays. So with that in mind:
This is going to upset a lot of people, but I finally settled in last February to read all 822 pages of Moby Dick; or, The Whale. Aptly named by Melville, the book is a whale, a leviathan adventure filled with a lot of Biblical references, good and evil, evil and good.
Savage nature, remorseless fang, must be subdued, nigh killed.
But, the overriding question posed in the 136 chapters is not "Will obsessed Ahab get the Great White Whale?" But, "Hadn't manuscript editors been invented in 1851?"
Thomas Wolfe wrote voluminously as well, but his editor Maxwell Perkins cut over 90,000 words from "Look Homeward, Angel." And did we miss them?
Moby Dick starts well, very dark and moody, very Hawthornean. Queequeg, Ishmael, Starbuck, Ahab and even the Pequod are introduced, all wonderful characters, especially he noble savage Queequeg, so tainted by his time with "civilized men" that he can never return home to his birthright and unspoiled island.
And Melville can write, “At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth, slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”
But as a writer, Melville soon realized he had a problem: It was going to take Ahab a long time to chase down Moby Dick, months and months. And great sea voyages are mostly tedious affairs. So Melville had to come up with a lot of tedium, everything whale related imaginable from “minutest seminal germs” to the “coil of his bowels.” He even threw in what dictionary he used to write the tome: a huge quarto edition of Johnson, thus disguising the tediousness with obtuseness.
Melville writes in chapter 104, “Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels. Having already described him in most of his present habitatory and anatomical peculiarities, it now remains to magnify him in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view. Applied to any other creature than the Leviathan - to an ant or a flea - such portly terms might justly be deemed unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is altered. Fain am I to stagger to this emprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer's uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me.”
Well, fain am I, but that whale of a paragraph is one of many that should have been cut.
Unwarrantably (not justifiable) grandiloquent (a lofty, extravagantly colorful, pompous, or bombastic style, manner, or quality especially in language.) He was concerned how we deemed it and I deemed it omnisciently exhaustive!
Well, call me exhausted! But I did finish all 822 pages and in the end was ready to fling myself into the water. Let Moby do what he may.
And just so you know, the dictionary I keep close at hand is my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, Eleventh Edition.