Thursday, December 23, 2010

Returning to Port

Year-End Review and Future Plans Concerning the Melville, PA Project

Now, after nearly twelve months straight at “sea,” metaphorically speaking anyway, I am finally able to see land. The reading portion of the Melville, Pennsylvania project is finally coming to a close as I finish Mardi for the second time this year. It has been a long haul, and in some ways I am glad to see it end, but also, as I hope to get across in this post, pleased about the overall experience and optimistic that it may yet yield greater results than just my personal satisfaction.

Ever since I logged this post explaining what I was trying to do, I have had questions in my mind about whether it was really worth the time and effort. I’m used to reading 40-50 books a year, and just thinking of all the writers I wasn’t going to read in 2010 - including my annual Dickensfest – was bad enough. At this stage of the project, I am ultra-chuffed to dive in to the infinite seas of all the literature I’ve been missing. I’ve felt a bit like a soldier on a long deployment, missing all the comforts of home.

My standard rule up until this year was never to read even two books by the same writer in a row, with the extremely rare exception here and there. But reading the same writer for an entire year was absolutely insane by my customary way of thinking. Indeed, I can’t think of anyone I know who has ever done it, unless you count those who read the Bible in a year’s time. (For the record, I never have.) And I certainly don’t know anyone who would consider it a good idea, or how I might convince anyone else that it is. All I know is that it seemed like an interesting challenge to me, and the more I considered it the more I felt that way.

Before moving ahead, let’s clarify a few things. I did not read everything Melville ever wrote. I focused primarily on his fiction, but what most people don’t realize is that Herman Melville produced his novels and stories primarily over a period of only 11 years, from 1846-1857 (Billy Budd, Sailor, his final prose work, excepted, as he was still tinkering with this when he died in 1891); whereas he spent more than 30 years, from 1858 until his death, writing poetry almost exclusively. He also wrote a few short stories I never was able to find.

I’m not quite as interested in poetry in general as I am in fiction, and even if I was trying to read all of Melville’s poetry, much of it is hard to find, such as his last four collections: Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), John Marr and Other Sailors (188); Timoleon (1891); and Weeds and Wildings, and a Rose or Two (posthumous, 1924). There’s also Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), a book-length epic in verse about a love affair between a Jewish woman and an American theological student. Each of these poetic works I was only able to read samples from, collected into one volume published by the Modern Library called Tales, Poems, and Other Writings.

I also did read the occasional title from another author this year, including Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (look for a future installment of our Literary Discussions feature here soon), but whenever I did so, which was rarely, I also read whatever Melville book I was working on simultaneously. So at no time this year was I ever not knee-deep in a book by Herman Melville. Not that this is crucial, but one of my primary goals was to read his work steadily for one entire 12-month cycle, which plays into my concept for the book I have started to write (more on that shortly).

I tried to document the project by maintaining a journal, therein to record my impressions of whatever books I was reading at the time, and to jot down thoughts about what was going on with me or my family. I thought this might help me recall the experience of reading the books one by one, especially as I understood that the longer I worked on writing a book myself, the further I would distance myself from that experience. Finally, as readers of this blog would know, if there are any, I also wrote brief, informal “essays” on each of the books as I completed them and posted them to The Secret Thread.

So all along I have had plans to do more than just read Melville for a year. Which speaks to the heart of the matter: what is this project really all about, in the end? It’s about two things.

One: it gave me first-hand familiarity with all of the novels and most of the stories of one of my own country’s greatest literary masters, an honor that I thought Melville’s work richly deserved based on the life-changing impact Moby-Dick had on me back in 2000.

Two: it provided me with an idea for writing a book about Melville that I hoped would be unique and interesting even in spite of the deluge of books already in existence on the subject.

To parry off that last point, I hereby announce that the Melville, Pennsylvania project is now officially extended to two years, not one, and that January 1, 2011 marks the technical starting point for Phase II, in which I pledge to write about Melville after spending one year reading his work and previously published biographical material about him. But in point of fact, the second phase is already underway. In late November I began writing the introduction to the book, which has a tentative title of Forever Voyaging: A Literary Sabbatical with Herman Melville.

A word about my tentative title: it does not come from Melville’s pen. Rather I came across a couplet of lines written by the poet William Wordsworth in Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s excellent biography, Melville. She informs us that Melville had read and underscored in a book the following lines describing a statue of Sir Isaac Newton in a lengthy poem called “The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind”:

The marble index of a mind forever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone

In Robertson-Lorant’s telling it seems clear that Melville connected to these lines, and to anyone who knows even a little about him it is a rather apt characterization of Melville himself, or at least of his intellect and/or his inner life. Just read Mardi alone and you’ll see.

I started out calling my manuscript A Mind Forever Voyaging, but have recently decided to clip it to simply Forever Voyaging; that way, it might refer to more than just one individual. The title could be describing the subject of the book, but it could, if it’s not too disingenuous to say, be describing its author as well. For that matter, it could even describe anyone else who may be inspired by the book, in theory anyway, to explore Melville’s work, because they will be taking on their own voyage through those same “strange” seas.

Now that I have started writing the book, I feel some relief, and the headrush of creation to some extent, but also some trepidation about where it will go and how substantial the final product will be. I do have a good jump on the writing, however, considering I planned to work on it in 2011. I am on the third section of the book, called “February” since I am dividing the book in twelve sections to chronicle the entire year. Thus I am currently writing about Redburn and will do some reflection on White-Jacket as well, although I didn’t finish the latter until March.

The concept is to reflect on my experience of reading the book; offer a bit of “shithouse criticism,” to play off a phrase I used to hear a lot in the Army, which basically means low-octane literary analysis; and reflect on the progress of my own life as well, specifically with regard to literary matters. It’s kind of a risky scheme. I am writing about my own fiction and nonfiction, which has a basically nonexistent readership. It’s not as though I can reflect on my own books; there are none in print. But I see myself, even at 40 years old, as a writer still in gestation, and I want the book to be reflective of the great effort and struggles that it is requiring of me to get anywhere in the world of literature.

It’s very frustrating to be at something for 20 years and have almost nothing to show for it, especially if you feel you have grown and advanced considerably over those two decades. But at the same time, Melville has unquestionably inspired me to keep at it, and I take consolation from the fact that he wrote on despite circumstances that were far beyond what I have had to endure: terrible drubbing from literary critics; stressful financial difficulties; domestic strain; some periods of alcoholism; and even the premature death of both of his two sons.

Melville wrote both because he wanted to and he needed to, and he stayed true to his own literary principles. He didn’t compromise. He’s the sort of writer I want to be, disregarding whether it’s smart to be one from any commercial, popular, or critical standpoint. And the work he left behind has been supremely undervalued on the whole. It’s very much worth reading and contemplating, and I would like to inspire as many readers as I can to reconsider all of his fiction, including critical and commercial disasters like Pierre or even Moby-Dick.

That’s where the project stands. I am going to work hard on this book throughout 2011. I hope I can make it something special and unique. I don’t know if anyone will get to see it even if I can accomplish that, but I do know that it’s worth doing. It’s a good idea, and I know have some momentum going on it, so we’ll see where it all leads.

Melville once famously and presciently put down on paper in a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Though I wrote the gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.” Melville doesn’t belong in the gutter, and I will do what I have the power to do to keep him out of it. Herman Melville’s books ought to be on display at eye-level, to at least compete with all the other distractions and twaddle filling our eyes and ears today at every turn.

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