Tag Archives: Moby-Dick is such an American book — could have only been written here.

the Great American Novel II

 

As an addendum to my post

the Great American Novel

the Great American Novel

I got to thinking today about what I wrote there.

As my friend Charles Pierre told me one evening when we both working the night shift in a Boston warehouse and he was reading Moby-Dick (at around the time when I myself read the novel), it is such an American book — could have only been written here. The famous first line, “Call me Ishmael,” is so American, informal. It greets the reader (and sets the tone of the book) in a way that we and only we address and relate to one another — did in those days.

And the subject matter — whaling and everything else — the characters, the dialogue the political undertones with a war between the states a threat and possibility — Moby-Dick is immediately identifiable as an American book in the way that War and Peace could only be Russian.

 

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Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. …

Upon entering the place I found a number of young seamen gathered about a table, examining by a dim light divers specimens of skrimshander. I sought the landlord, and telling him I desired to be accommodated with a room, received for answer that his house was full—not a bed unoccupied. “But avast,” he added, tapping his forehead, “you haint no objections to sharing a harpooneer’s blanket, have ye? I s’pose you are goin’ a-whalin’, so you’d better get used to that sort of thing.”

I told him that I never liked to sleep two in a bed; that if I should ever do so, it would depend upon who the harpooneer might be, and that if he (the landlord) really had no other place for me, and the harpooneer was not decidedly objectionable, why rather than wander further about a strange town on so bitter a night, I would put up with the half of any decent man’s blanket.

“I thought so. All right; take a seat. Supper?—you want supper? Supper’ll be ready directly.” …

Supper over, the company went back to the bar-room, when, knowing not what else to do with myself, I resolved to spend the rest of the evening as a looker on.

Presently a rioting noise was heard without. Starting up, the landlord cried, “That’s the Grampus’s crew. I seed her reported in the offing this morning; a three years’ voyage, and a full ship. Hurrah, boys; now we’ll have the latest news from the Feegees.”

A tramping of sea boots was heard in the entry; the door was flung open, and in rolled a wild set of mariners enough. …

No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. In fact, you would a good deal rather not sleep with your own brother. …

“Landlord! I’ve changed my mind about that harpooneer.—I shan’t sleep with him. I’ll try the bench here.”

“Just as you please; I’m sorry I can’t spare ye a tablecloth for a mattress, and it’s a plaguy rough board here”—feeling of the knots and notches. “But wait a bit, Skrimshander; I’ve got a carpenter’s plane there in the bar—wait, I say, and I’ll make ye snug enough.” So saying he procured the plane; and with his old silk handkerchief first dusting the bench, vigorously set to planing away at my bed, the while grinning like an ape. The shavings flew right and left; till at last the plane-iron came bump against an indestructible knot. The landlord was near spraining his wrist, and I told him for heaven’s sake to quit—the bed was soft enough to suit me, and I did not know how all the planing in the world could make eider down of a pine plank. So gathering up the shavings with another grin, and throwing them into the great stove in the middle of the room, he went about his business, and left me in a brown study.

I now took the measure of the bench, and found that it was a foot too short; but that could be mended with a chair. But it was a foot too narrow, and the other bench in the room was about four inches higher than the planed one—so there was no yoking them. I then placed the first bench lengthwise along the only clear space against the wall, leaving a little interval between, for my back to settle down in. But I soon found that there came such a draught of cold air over me from under the sill of the window, that this plan would never do at all, especially as another current from the rickety door met the one from the window, and both together formed a series of small whirlwinds in the immediate vicinity of the spot where I had thought to spend the night.

The devil fetch that harpooneer, thought I, but stop, couldn’t I steal a march on him—bolt his door inside, and jump into his bed, not to be wakened by the most violent knockings? It seemed no bad idea; but upon second thoughts I dismissed it. For who could tell but what the next morning, so soon as I popped out of the room, the harpooneer might be standing in the entry, all ready to knock me down!

Still, looking round me again, and seeing no possible chance of spending a sufferable night unless in some other person’s bed, I began to think that after all I might be cherishing unwarrantable prejudices against this unknown harpooneer. … But though the other boarders kept coming in by ones, twos, and threes, and going to bed, yet no sign of my harpooneer.

“Landlord!” said I, “what sort of a chap is he—does he always keep such late hours?” It was now hard upon twelve o’clock.

The landlord chuckled again with his lean chuckle, and seemed to be mightily tickled at something beyond my comprehension. “No,” he answered, “generally he’s an early bird—airley to bed and airley to rise—yes, he’s the bird what catches the worm. But to-night he went out a peddling, you see, and I don’t see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, may be, he can’t sell his head.”

“Can’t sell his head?—What sort of a bamboozingly story is this you are telling me?” getting into a towering rage. “Do you pretend to say, landlord, that this harpooneer is actually engaged this blessed Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, in peddling his head around this town?” …

This account cleared up the otherwise unaccountable mystery, and showed that the landlord, after all, had had no idea of fooling me—but at the same time what could I think of a harpooneer who stayed out of a Saturday night clean into the holy Sabbath, engaged in such a cannibal business as selling the heads of dead idolators?

“Depend upon it, landlord, that harpooneer is a dangerous man.”

“He pays reg’lar,” was the rejoinder.

 

— CHAPTER 3, “The Spouter-Inn”

 

It was quite late in the evening when the little Moss came snugly to anchor, and Queequeg and I went ashore; so we could attend to no business that day, at least none but a supper and a bed. The landlord of the Spouter-Inn had recommended us to his cousin Hosea Hussey of the Try Pots, whom he asserted to be the proprietor of one of the best kept hotels in all Nantucket, and moreover he had assured us that Cousin Hosea, as he called him, was famous for his chowders. …

Two enormous wooden pots painted black, and suspended by asses’ ears, swung from the cross-trees of an old top-mast, planted in front of an old doorway. The horns of the cross-trees were sawed off on the other side, so that this old top-mast looked not a little like a gallows. Perhaps I was over sensitive to such impressions at the time, but I could not help staring at this gallows with a vague misgiving. A sort of crick was in my neck as I gazed up to the two remaining horns; yes, two of them, one for Queequeg, and one for me. It’s ominous, thinks I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen’s chapel; and here a gallows! and a pair of prodigious black pots too! Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?

I was called from these reflections by the sight of a freckled woman with yellow hair and a yellow gown, standing in the porch of the inn, under a dull red lamp swinging there, that looked much like an injured eye, and carrying on a brisk scolding with a man in a purple woollen shirt.

“Get along with ye,” said she to the man, “or I’ll be combing ye!”

“Come on, Queequeg,” said I, “all right. There’s Mrs. Hussey.”

And so it turned out; Mr. Hosea Hussey being from home, but leaving Mrs. Hussey entirely competent to attend to all his affairs. Upon making known our desires for a supper and a bed, Mrs. Hussey, postponing further scolding for the present, ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said—“Clam or Cod?”

“What’s that about Cods, ma’am?” said I, with much politeness.

“Clam or Cod?” she repeated.

“A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?” says I, “but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?”

But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple Shirt, who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word “clam,” Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out “clam for two,” disappeared.

“Queequeg,” said I, “do you think that we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?”

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained.

— CHAPTER 15, “Chowder”

 

– posted by Roger W. Smith

   January 2022