I’ve posted about Moby-Dick a number of times on this blog. I make no bones about the fact that it’s my favorite novel. Still, I don’t know much about Herman Melville as I’d like. Only what you can learn from reading his novel and a few other books. The thing is, I’m really growing an interest in the literature of the American Renaissance. While Washington Irving isn’t my favorite writer, he was perhaps the earliest of the Renaissance crowd. Consider this, these writers all lived during Irving’s lifetime: James Fennimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, William Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. Many others as well, but what heady times! Can you imagine walking into a bookstore and seeing all the wonders on offer for the first time?
But back to Melville. I was recently doing some further reading about him—I need a good biography, actually—and learned some things I didn’t know. I knew he’d gone to sea, but I wasn’t aware that his mother raised him with a strict Calvinism (which explains much in Moby-Dick), but that he eventually returned to his father’s Unitarianism. Indeed, Melville’s work displays many of the values of the Unitarian tradition. Moby-Dick is largely his struggle with religion, laid out in terms of Ahab and the great white whale. Melville spent a period of his life, before Moby-Dick, as a successful writer. In a way that seems unimaginable to us today, that novel was a flop and he eventually had to take on a pedestrian job, although he kept on writing. I have to admit that I’ve read none of his other novels. I’m just blown away with his most famous work that I’m a little afraid of being disappointed in his other efforts.
I know a few novelists. Of only one of them have I managed to read all their works, and that’s because this particular author only wrote one novel (which made a big enough splash to get reviewed in Time). My dilettantism has been a characteristic of my life. I’m too curious, perhaps, and there’s not enough time to read every work of every author I admire, even those I personally know. I haven’t given up joining their ranks someday. One of my novels is currently out for consideration, but I have no real expectation of success. The best I can do in these circumstances is to read the work of those who managed to succeed, even if they didn’t live to see it. And to wonder what it must’ve been like when so much talent appeared at the same time in a very young country.