Category Archives: Herman Melville

Links: Move it to the Exits

Now it can be told: The inspiration for the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” chapter in Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad (i.e., the PowerPoint chapter) was Semisonic’s “Closing Time.”

Speaking of: Trying to write a novel and raise a kid simultaneously? Jennifer Egan and Darin Strauss are here to help. (Well, in Manhattan to help. For one evening, on September 14.)

Alyson Hagy considers the appealing strangeness of Sherwood Anderson‘s “Paper Pills.” (Winesburg, Ohio was a series of “grotesques,” after all.)

Alice Walker keeps (or at least once kept) a pile of leaves by her writing desk: “She rustles them when she does her writing, because it makes her feel closer to nature as she works.”

When Hawthorne met Melville.

Oscar Hijuelos on inserting himself as a character in his most recent novel, Beautiful Maria of My Soul.

Ron Currie Jr. on reading Infinite Jest: “By the time I’d finished, my copy was a mess of grass clippings, sweat drips, and smears of axle grease and 50:1 gas/oil mix.”

The quintessential Jamesian sentence.

“I think that Shteyngart is part of a whole sweeping movement of young Jewish writers who are bringing a new multicultural picture to American Jewish fiction.”

Ben Fountain remembers the Dallas poet Robert Trammell.

Detailed writing advice from Maxwell Perkins (to be portrayed by Sean Penn on film at some future date) to Ernest Hemingway: “I’m glad you’re going to write some stories. All you have to do is to follow your own judgement, or instinct + disregard what is said, + convey the absolute bottom quality of each person, situation + thing. Isn’t that simple!!

The Whale That Wouldn’t Die

The latest issue of Soundings, a magazine published by MIT’s School of Humanties, Arts and Social Sciences, has a fine feature on MIT English professor Wyn Kelley, a longtime scholar of Herman Melville. Kelley positions Melville as an author who anticipated many of the social concerns of not just the 20th century but the 21st as well, and considers Moby-Dick as a novel that (paging Matt Yglesias!) speaks to a host of contemporary concerns about multiculturalism, environmentalism, religion, and more.

For instance, Kelley argues that Melville, via Ishmael, was more attuned to the cultural diversity of the city than he’s been given credit for:

Ishmael, she notes, serves as Melville’s guide to urban studies in Moby-Dick. “The presence of savages on the streets of New Bedford reminds Ishmael that cities grow out of conflicts between colonizers and natives. At the same time, the town’s shipping industry gives it a diverse, ever changing population; it remixes itself every day,” she writes in Melville’s City.

But Melville’s appreciation for multicultural urban life, as expressed by Ishmael, was viewed narrowly in literary criticism in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kelley says. At that time, “people were talking about Melville’s multicultural perspective in terms of race: the white male author who turns out to be a keen observer of racial divides and politics in the US. And Melville wasn’t alone. Read Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, and you’d think there were only two races worth talking about.

“My MIT students of other backgrounds have put up with this politely for years, but globalism, as economic and cultural and now literary theory, has made those ways of thinking passé,” she says.

Kelley spent a sabbatical year retracing Melville’s travels through Jerusalem and the Galapagos Islands to better understand the author, but she’s has also taken some lighter approaches to her work—including screening Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in class to show how long Moby-Dick‘s shadow is. These days, she says, the book functions much like a wiki for American culture: “In the 19th century, the novel was a new genre, and Melville borrowed from other forms. Today, we add new science, new insights, and new media. Then as now, the text is a whole world.”

Links: Rod and Reel

In a Philip Roth interview with the Wall Street Journal—that would be the Roth interview that doesn’t address green dildos—he talks about his current reading habits, which mainly includes old favorites. “Mostly what I’m doing is rereading stuff that I read in my 20s, writers who were big in my reading life who I haven’t read in 50 years. I’m talking about Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Turgenev, Conrad. I’m trying to reread the best before… I die.”

“Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence”—a lovely piece by Alexander Chee about studying writing under Annie Dillard.

Atlas Shrugged and Ralph Nader’s new novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, have more in common than you might think.

Dan Green takes a close, thoughful look at Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, but determines (rightly, I think) that The Subterraneans is in many ways a superior work.

The American Scholar takes a close, thoughtful look at F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s tax returns.

Ethan Canin on the film adaptations of his work: “Movies are big, exciting, hopeful collaborations, brought down by venality, pandering, and greed.”

Lionel Shriver opens up about using her family as source material for her novel A Perfectly Good Family.

The Nation on the novels of Don Carpenter. (subscription req’d)

A gallery of Tom Adamscurious paperback covers for Raymond Chandler novels.

Writers aren’t doing too well in the Baltimore Sun‘s contest to declare the area’s biggest local celebrity, but Anne Tyler‘s still in the running.

In related news, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane speak out on the importance of the late James Crumley.

“The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved.”

Should you wait until you’re 40 before attempting to read Moby-Dick?

Links: Pocket Symphony

James Ellroy has very strong opinions about classical music: “‘I dig late Mozart,'” he says. ‘There’s a hair of dissonance, there’s more vavoom, the late symphonies. I got Böhm, the Berlin Philharmonic. I love the 21st Piano Concerto – “Elvira Madigan” – Sinfonia Concertante, the Clarinet Concerto. But that’s it. Haydn you can have, Handel you can have, Baroque I can’t listen to.'”

Matthew Yglesias
is still catching hell for liking Moby-Dick. A Mother Jones blogger retorts: “I didn’t care for it. I’ll spare you the details since I’d just be opening myself up to quite justified charges of philistinism, and who needs that?” Yglesias did make an error in saying that you can’t understand America without it; the only book for which that’s true is the Bible, and then just the angry parts.

“Mailer felt obliged to make literature, or better yet a demonic theoretical broadside, out of his hump-piles and pungent smoke.”

Montana: America’s new home for werewolf fantasy novels.

The Ransom Center has a host of online materials relating to Edgar Allan Poe, in relation to the exhibit that opens there next week.

Eudora Welty‘s One Writer’s Beginnings helped keep Mary Chapin Carpenter from becoming miserable when she was starting to play her songs at D.C. clubs.

Production of the film version of Don DeLillo‘s End Zone is on hold.

The Chicago Tribune‘s Julia Keller, who once worried in public whether a graphic-novel adaptation of the 9/11 Commission Report represented “an advance or retreat for civilization” (no, really), is now sweating a graphic-novel adaptation to Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451: “I find myself wishing graphic novels weren’t so hip; their popularity has made me question my own motives. Am I just trying to sound cool? Is an affection for graphic novels by anyone over 25 simply the literary equivalent of buying a sports car or getting a face-lift?”

There’s a seminar on September 15 on whether Mark Twain would use Twitter. For some reason, Michael Buckley will be a part of this; frankly, I’d be more interested in reading a long essay by Twain about “What the Buck?”

It’s Labor Day weekend, so I likely won’t be around here until after the holiday. In the meantime, you can read the story about Studs Terkel, Labor Day, the yuppie couple, and the bus stop in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—over and over again.

They Would Prefer Not To

I suspect that there are a few bright thoughts about books in the 160 comments to a post by Moby-Dick enthusiast Matthew Yglesias. But, because the very first line of the very first comment is “Fuck Moby Dick,” I’m dissuaded from exploring further. Yglesias’ post is inspired by a New York Times story in which a New York University professor suggests that no child is interested in reading Moby-Dick. The story as a whole is an interesting look at an experiment to let elementary and middle-school students pick their own reading assignments; though it’s not quite anything-goes, some are permitted to read Twilight novels and James Patterson thrillers.

Benjamin Dueholm talks a lot of sense about the matter in his post, “A Child Who Picks Up Moby Dick Won’t Actually Like It”:

[A] classic out of season is worthless to most anyone. You don’t learn to love reading because you were blown away by Moby-Dick; you learn to persevere through Moby-Dick because you learned to love reading from simpler, trendier, more instantly-gratifying stuff. Chase thrillers, Star Trek novelizations, Judy Blume, whatever–it’s the Pixie Stix of literary pleasure that get us hooked and in need of subtler, more thrilling highs.

To the extent that it’s doubtful a middle school ever assigned Moby-Dick anyhow, it’s a moot point. But what I wish the Times story were clearer about—and this is tough to quantify, I know—is whether the choose-your-own-adventure approach increased an overall interest in reading, or if being force-fed Huck Finn actually decreases it. (The story mentions one study that says choice improved performance on comprehension exams, but doesn’t say by how much, or if those cases involved a mix of choice and assignments.)

Like Yglesias and Dueholm, I’m a big fan of Moby-Dick; like Dueholm, I didn’t read it until I was out of college. Maybe it’s ambitious reading in high school that makes you a lifelong reader, though I sometimes wish I had a do-over for the classics I read then that I didn’t have an especially good grip on: Don Quixote, Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury. What I do know is that the comic books and Star Trek novelizations I also read back then didn’t adequately prepare me for those books; what I needed (and sometimes got) was a smart teacher who could speak about how thoughtful literature works. Which is why I’m a little skeptical of the idea of a curriculum designed to support pretty much whatever the student feels like. It smacks of everybody-gets-a-trophy-ism, and risks avoiding a cold fact of adult life that school ostensibly prepares you for: We’re often charged with reading things that are complicated but which we are obligated to understand anyway. Classics can be difficult, but isn’t that why we teach them?

Snark, the Early Days

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books features a piece (subscribers only) by Christopher Benfey on the work of Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller, who was among the first well-known and well-respected female literary critics in the country. Not respected enough, Benfey argues. He gets a few jabs in toward writers who tried to present Fuller as a weak flower suffering her father’s abuses because he made her read Virgil as a child (something a lot of smarty-pants boys were compelled to do); and he zings Susan Cheever‘s book on New England intellectuals, American Bloomsbury, for openly speculating about a romance between Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Cheever’s lively and well-written book, which fans fires where few have found smoke, is perhaps best treated as a historical novel,” he writes.

If that seems a little snarky, Benfey is just calling up some of the same spirit that Fuller brought to her book reviewing, particularly for Horace Greeley‘s New York Tribune. He writes:

Fuller’s book reviews have never received the attention they deserve. Amid the chaos and contention of American publishing . . . Fuller was able to identify the most vigorous and promising writers of her time: Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, Frederick Douglass, and Melville. . . . She was reading their books at an early stage in their careers, and did not live long enough to read Hawthorne’s novels or to find the promise of Typee—in which she relished the savage irony directed at missionaries in Hawaii and the South Seas—fulfilled in Moby-Dick and “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

About those missionaries—Fuller’s review of Typee for the Tribune in 1846 tries to rattle the high-minded women who sponsor missionary work in the hopes of taming the savages:

[I]t would be well if the sewing societies, now engaged in providing funds for such enterprises would read the particulars, they will find in this book…and make inquiries in consequence, before going on with their efforts. Generally, the sewing societies of the country villages will find this the very book they wish to have read while assembled at their work. Othello’s hairbreadth ‘scapes were nothing to those by this hero in the descent of the cataracts, and many a Desdemona might seriously incline her ear to the descriptions of the lovely Fay-a-way.

Not exactly Dorothy Parker, but as a skewering of old-fashioned sensibilities, I imagine it did the job.

Links: Clock’s Ticking

Edgar Allan Poe turns 200. Take the quiz, or buy the stamp.

Moby-Dick‘s influence on artist Frank Stella.

Gerald Early discusses his job as editor of the brand-new “Best African American Essays” and “Best African American Fiction” series. E. Lynn Harris guest-edited the first edition of the latter series; Nikki Giovanni is handling next year’s.

Richard Ford bids the Bush administration farewell in the Guardian.

And speaking of the Guardian: If you wanted to read Audrey Niffenegger‘s online graphic novel The Night Bookmobile but had a hard time navigating its clunky interface, John Dunlevy has assembled a helpful table of contents.

Thanks to Very Short List for pointing to Daily Routines, which gathers up anecdotes on the work lives of famous people. The section for writers, as you might imagine, draws heavily on Paris Review interviews—among those included are Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Ernest Hemingway. But let’s take a look at Pauline Kael, who offers a useful reminder of the first principles of good writing:

[S]taring at the piece in horror and exclaiming at her own ineptitude, she would immediately begin tearing it apart, scissoring and recombining the paragraphs, writing in new observations and jokes in the margins or above the lines, at which point the piece would be typed again. The process continued without interruption at the office where, like Proust after an injection of caffeine, she would assault the galleys, rearranging and rewriting, adding and subtracting still more jokes–on and on, until the pages were reluctantly yielded to the press.

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The D.C.-Area Readings page has been updated. Among the notable events coming up in a very notable week in Washington: Alice Walker Monday at Busboys & Poets 14th & V; Iraqi-born artist and writer Wafaa Bilal Thursday at Busboys & Poets 14th & V; and Jayne Anne Phillips, discussing her brilliant new novel, Lark & Termite, Friday at Politics & Prose. As always, your tips and recommendations for the readings page are welcome.