Twain Knows Why I Can’t Stand Herman Melville

I’ve long held that Herman Melville is a bad writer, a guy who started out with some interesting stories (Typee, White Jacket) then got so mired down in SAYING things, it became impossible for him to tell a story. Get your knickers in a twist all you like, but with the background plot of Moby Dick, no one should have a problem getting through it. Instead, Melville larded it up with so much blubber it’s difficult for even some more academically minded readers to get through.

It might be different if Melville had a consistent poetry or fluidity to his writing–like Faulkner or Joyce–but no. (And there’s no clearer proof of this than his awful, awful attempts at poetry.)

Still, I like to give authors–especially important ones–a second chance, a third chance. Hell, I avoided Faulkner as much as I could in undergrad and grad school, but picked him up a few years ago–Absalom, Absalom and The Sound and the Fury–and ate it right up. So I figured I’d give Herman Melville another chance. And I’d go easy on him by trying Billy Budd, a book I remember liking the first time I read it back when I was knee-high to a chicken.

So much for that. I’m 25 pages into it and, with the exception of one scene, can’t stand it. Indeed, that one scene–in which lieutenant from the Indomitable has boarded The Rights of Man (MELVILLE DOES NOT DO SUBTLE!!!) to shanghai Billy the Sailor–is the only scene as we think of them, the only thing that is remotely like a story. The rest is poorly written exposition and background detailing the short and, at the time, recent history of mutiny in the British Navy. Down in the word-smithing mines known as Creative Writing Workshops, Melville would be admonished for telling rather than showing. He’d be drubbed out of the workshop. (Which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with talent, but that’s a story for a different day.)

Now, it just so happens that I’m also reading Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi,” which starts out with the entire history of European exploration of the river. You’d think that would be dull, but it’s among the funnier things I’ve read this year. And it actually manages to get across a number of “big ideas” about humanity without spray painting it on the wall. Later in the book, he manages to relay how the Mississippi has shortened its course by hundreds of miles in less than a hundred years all the while having a laugh at the blind faith some folks put in certain aspects of the scientific method. Seriously. You try to write something about that AND make it funny.

During my ride down the Mississippi, I came across this passage from Twain describing an old river pilot:

And then without observing that he was departing from the true line of his talk, he was more than likely to hurl in a long-drawn parenthetical biography of the writer of that letter; and you were lucky indeed if he did not take up that writer’s relatives, one by one, and give you their biographies, too. . . .Such a memory as that is a great misfortune. To it, all occurrences are of the same size. Its possessor cannot distinguish an interesting circumstance from an uninteresting one. As a talker, he is bound to clog his narrative with tiresome details and make himself an insufferable bore. Moreover, he cannot stick to his subject. He picks up every little grain of memory he discerns in his way, and so is led aside.

I’ll admit I originally highlighted that passage not for some high-minded literary reason, but because it reminded me of how my ex told stories (whereas she always complained I left out all the details). But then it occurred to me that this passage could very well describe the way Melville writes. How did it occur to me? Not by my amazing powers of insight, but by a passage Melville himself wrote in Billy Budd.

I thought it was bad enough that Melville (or the narrator if someone’s going to make the foolish claim that the narrator is a carefully constructed and controlled devise in this case) was basically coming off like a blowhard giving directions. You know the guy: “Well, you know that big red barn, down at the end of the highway, where it kind of makes that fork. Not the barn with Hershey’s sign on it, the one with the Borden sign. Yeah, Ol’ Man Gimley’s barn. Well, you just forget about that barn. What you want to do is…”

Here’s the start of Chapter 3 from Billy Budd: “At the time of Billy Budd’s arbitrary enlistment into the Indomitable that ship was on her way to join the Mediterranean fleet. No long time elapsed before the junction was effected. As one of that fleet the seventy-four participated in its movements, tho’ at times, on account of her superior sailing qualities, in the absence of frigates, despatched on separate duty as a scout and at times on less temporary service. But with all this the story has little concernment, restricted as it is to the inner life of one particular ship and the career of an individual sailor.

Not to be outdone by himself, and more to the point of the Twain passage quoted above and what made this all gel for me, Chapter 4 of Billy Budd, after a quote from Tennyson that puts me in mind of an intro to lit student forced to include a quote, starts with this beauty:

In this matter of writing, resolve as one may to keep to the main road, some by-paths have an enticement not readily to be withstood. I am going to err into such a by-path. If the reader will keep me company I shall be glad. At the least we can promise ourselves that pleasure which is wickedly said to be in sinning, for a literary sin the divergence will be.

In plain English, let me waste your time with some bullshit not really germane to the story because I feel like holding forth about Nelson and Trafalgar.

You’ll note, too, that both of the above Melville passages take some concentration for the modern reader to decipher. Some might argue, “Well, that’s just the way they wrote back then.” Hey, you know who else was writing back then? Mark Twain.

At any rate, life is too short to waste on books that drive you crazy, but at this point I feel compelled to keep pushing ahead if only to find out at what chapter the story starts and to remember what about it I liked the first time around. (I’m starting to think that as it was read for class, we simply skipped to the pertinent plot points.)

7 thoughts on “Twain Knows Why I Can’t Stand Herman Melville

  1. Wouldn’t it make a lot of difference if he didn’t tell you he was doing that stuff? If he just intro’d, well, the ship he’s been kidnapped into is going to rendezvous with the fleet. They have blah blah blah and the ship might have to do thus-and-such duty. Now Billy knew that ….and right back into it about the guy?

    Seems to make the original sin ten times worse to call it out himself.

  2. Put the book down and step away. You’re not in grad school anymore. Besides, if I remember correctly the prose ain’t going to get better from here. I won’t tell anyone if you just rent it on Netflix.

    PS – I’m reading Life on the Mississippi right now too!

  3. As it happens, I’m reading MOBY DICK for the first time, and I’m struck by how much its writing reminds me of some favorite Twain books: LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI and ROUGHING IT (with a little of THE INNOCENTS ABROAD). A cursory search reveals no connection between the two writers (such as whether Twain read MOBY DICK, which I believe was poorly received in its day).

    But I am relishing this book, so much as to put it up on the Great-American-Novel pedestal first topped by HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

    Of course, there’s no accounting for taste…. ; -)


    (($; -)}


  4. Your commentary on Melville seems to indicate more about you than it does the author. Both Melville and Clemens present dark visions of America, each through a journey of discovery; one for Ishmael the other for Huck Finn. In the end of both of their master works, the learner is alone; Ishmael an orphan floating on the endless wilderness of the ocean, Huck running to the western wilderness like Natty Bumppo to melt away into obscurity. I will give Melville one advantage in this comparison of great authors who teach us much about America. His redemptive relationship with Queequeg offers a model of social reconciliation in America. Clemens relies on a dues ex machina to save his plot, not unlike James Fenimore Cooper in The Pioneers. Melville offers us a model, Clemens resigns himself to the cynicism of Tom Sawyers return. It’s no wonder that Clemens disliked Cooper so much as an artist…he could not escape the paradigm that the Leatherstock Tales present. Only Meliville among America’s authors has been able to do that, and it’s no wonder that the he was not understood by his nation until long after his death, and remains enigmatic.

  5. Moby-Dick is simple. You just need the right teacher, or the right sense of desperation to grasp Ishmael’s comic longing to flee his homicidal-suicidal furies.


    Quite some time has now passed on this discussion, for all of us. But my reading of MOBY DICK continued beyond the time of my late comment, posted here.

    Late in my own life’s way, I completed my first reading of this book. On finishing it. I found my thoughts called back to Twain’s analysis of the humorous anecdote.

    In the case of Melville’s book, what a great way either to educate readers about whaling or to make a short, short bar-stool-quality yarn last through a great many drinking rounds.


    (($; -)}


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