Monday, February 07, 2011

`Growing Grim Around the Mouth'

I’m reading Moby-Dick again, as is my custom, though less often than in younger years. There were times in my twenties when I felt it was the only book, an unholy gospel that held me like hypnosis or religious fervor. I’ve collected most of “The Writings of Herman Melville,” the uniform editions published starting in 1965 by Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library. Many I bought in the gift shop at Arrowhead, the house in Pittsfield, Mass., where Melville and his family lived from 1850 to 1863, and where he wrote most of Moby-Dick. Next to the gift-shop cash register was an ink pad and whale-shaped stamp. I would stamp the first page of the volumes as I bought them and inscribe the date.

I’m simultaneously skimming Melville’s Journals (edited by Howard C. Horsford with Lynn Horth, 1989). Collected are the unpolished, fragmentary notes Melville kept while traveling. In 1856-57, five years after the resounding silence set off by the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville traveled to Britain, the Mediterranean and the Ottoman Middle East. Twenty years later, he published the principle literary product of the journey -- Clarel, an 18,000-line poem. The journals, however, are fascinating in themselves for the inclusiveness of Melville’s curiosity and for what they reveal about the grimness of his emotional/metaphysical state. Often the broken prose is poetic in a peculiarly modern sense. Here’s a portion of the entry for Dec. 14, 1856, written in Istanbul (Constantinople):

“Went towards the cemeteries of Pera [“across” in Greek]. Great resort of summer evenings. Bank of the Bosphorous—like the Brooklyn heights. From one point a superb view of Sea of Marmora & Prince Isles & Scutari.—Armenian funerals winding through the streets. Coffin covered with flowers borne on a bier. Wax candles burn on each side in daylight. Boys & men chanting alternately. Striking effect, winding through the narrow lanes.—Saw a burial. Armenian. Juggling & incantations of the priests—making signs &c.—Nearby, saw a woman over a new grave—no grass on it yet. Such abandonment of misery! Called to the dead, put her head down as close to it as possible; as if calling down a hatchway into a cellar; besought—Why don’t you speak to be? My God!—It is I! Ah,--speak—but one word!’—All deaf.—So much for consolation.—This woman & her cries haunt me horribly.—”

In their notes, Horsford and Horth tell us Melville is describing “the great Moslem and Armenian cemeteries on the heights above the Bosporus,” and refers readers to a passage from The Crescent and the Cross (1844) by Eliot Warburton. The view from Pera, he writes, is:

“one of the finest in the world: here all the gay people of the Frank [European] city assemble in the evening, and wander among the tombs with merry chat and laughter; or sit beneath the cypress-trees, eating ice and smoking their chibouques [long-stemmed Turkish tobacco pipes with clay bowls].”

About the grieving woman on the new grave, the editors cite a passage from the euphoniously named Emelia Bithynia Hornby’s In and Around Stamboul (1858): “…the women usually take a last adieu within the walls of the house, tearing their hair and garments with loud lamentations, after the fashion of the East.”

The apparent discordance of grieving Armenians and “gay” Europeans touring the cemetery (Orientalism!) is resolved by context. In the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, large cemeteries served as parks and places of contemplation. Families toured the graves and picnicked nearby. Death, then, was part of life, as it was for the great New Yorker non-fiction writer Joseph Mitchell. In “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (The Bottom of the Harbor, 1961) he describes an old black community on Staten Island where he enjoys visiting the cemetery and studying its wildflowers. The story begins like this:

“When things get too much for me, I put a wildflower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there.”

Do you hear any echoes in that passage? Does it sound familiar? Does this help?:

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.”


Joe Keller said...

I'm not only currently re-reading "Moby Dick", I'm listening to it while walking 2 hours each day. It makes me so deliriously happy, I sometimes just keep walking.

Fran Manushkin said...

I'm re-reading Melveile now, for the first time since college. I'm reading it on an IPod, on the subway, in Manahatta. I'm hoping that Melville, with his sense of humor would not mind this.

Helen Pinkerton Trimpi said...

All I can say is be careful with Melville, if you can. I speak as a recovering Melville addict after a long time of compulsive imbibement--reading, teaching, researching and writing about his work. Moby-Dick does not let you go, nor does The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, the stories, the journals, nor the poems. Even Clarel--not a successful poem--can grasp you by the head and drag you into its web of history and philosophic pathologies of the 19th-century. Since I first read Moby-Dick in 1950, watching the wake of the Queen Elizabeth on my way to England, I thereafter devoted perhaps too many years to the study of his novels and poems. I don't regret the years, but now that I am on the wagon, I try to stay clear, but it is hard.