“Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter,” lamented Herman Melville in 1851, the year Moby-Dick was published.
He had good reason to be gloomy. Reviewers either ignored or panned the book. One asked of its author, “Who is this madman?”
For his own part, Melville far from backed himself. “[A]ll my books are botches,” he wrote. “Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning upon me, holding the door ajar.”
It wasn’t until after the centenary of Melville’s birth that people starting seeing Moby-Dick differently. “His book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe,” wrote D. H. Lawrence in 1927. “A labyrinth, and that labyrinth is the universe,” wrote Lewis Mumford. William Faulkner said simply that he wished he had written it.
And now here we are at the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, and the brow of the white whale looms in front of our eyes still, and Melville demands of us, “Read it if you can.”
A friend has just reminded me that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman. I can’t let that pass unacknowledged. Twenty-five years ago, National Geographic published a wonderful tribute to Whitman through the photography of Maria Stenzel. She had carried Whitman’s verse in her mind and heart, making images that reflected his words. I found her work striking then, and still do today. You can see the published images here.
Here’s one of them:
Mary Oliver was also a great lover of Whitman. Here is what she wrote about his importance to her as a young poet, in her essay collection Upstream: “In those years truth was elusive—as was my own faith that I could recognise and contain it. Whitman kept me from the swamps of a worse uncertainty, and I lived many hours within the lit circle of his certainty, and his bravado. . . And there was the passion which he invested in the poems. The metaphysical curiosity! The oracular tenderness with which he viewed the world—its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider—nothing was outside the range of his interest. But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artefact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is.”
And now, hear from the man himself:
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
– Walt Whitman
At the end of the Geographic story, author Joel Swerdlow recommended that, like the poet himself, we should “Go outside and read aloud. Adventure awaits. You may also find a piece of yourself you didn’t know was missing.”