If only Melville had known he was Melville


By some accounts, the first draft of Moby-Dick was a conventional sea story. Hawthorne encouraged him to develop such transcendent themes as obsession, anger, revenge, and lust. “Ah, God!” Melville writes in Moby-Dick, “What trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.” Presumably such passages were missing from the first draft, which was heavy with chapters that read like a textbook on cetology or a history of the whaling industry. The critic Leon Howard has written that the “excitement and enthusiasm aroused in him by Hawthorne belonged entirely to the period in which he was reworking Moby-Dick.” Hawthorne’s influence, late in the book, may also explain why the novel has the feel of two books in one: the conventional passages about the whaling industry, and the psychological drama of Ahab’s self-destruction. Ahab’s obsessions must have been conjured in Melville’s Arrowhead writing room. That legacy led me to the most perplexing aspect of the house tour: how Melville, so far from the sea, was able to imagine and write Moby-Dick in a room that looks out on Mount Greylock, the tallest peak in the Berkshires. It would be as if his contemporary, Honoré de Balzac, had written about Paris from a South Sea island. One explanation can be found in one of Melville’s letters to an editor friend, Evert Duyckinck: “I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole in a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the winds shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.”

more from Matthew Stevenson at The Critical Flame here.