One spring day twenty years ago, for reasons I prefer not to remember, I drove a professor of English from Albany to New York City, ushered him around for five or six hours (including a visit to a Manhattan bar where he met with the poet Jackson Mac Low, who was even more incoherent in person than on the page), and drove him one hundred fifty miles back to Albany. He was a dull, dull man convinced of his cleverness and erudition. For most of the drive south he lectured me on his conviction, self-evident to him, that Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick as a cautionary fable about the predations of capitalism. Naively, I thought at first he was joking.
As I reread the novel, much impresses me: the language, of course, in which I’m hearing frequent precognitive echoes of Bellow; Ishmael’s comic sense; the plot’s heady clip, even for a reader who knows how it ends; Melville’s gift for inhabiting and distinguishing characters who embody a cross-section of humanity (except women); metaphysical wit akin to Shakespeare’s. Among the undisputed masterworks, can you think of another more closely approximating that mythical beast, the “good read?”
That professor, who had never performed a day of physical labor in life and came unembarrassed with his glib Marxist gloss, was among the fulfillments of “To Herman Melville in 1951,” the couplet Yvor Winters wrote for the centenary of Moby-Dick:
“Saint Herman, grant me this: that I may be
Saved from the worms who have infested thee.”