Tag Archives: Moby-Dick

the great American novel hasn’t been written yet (review of “Of Time and the River”)

 

 

“the great American novel hasn’t been written yet”

review of Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe

TIME Magazine

March 11, 1935

 

 

The Great American Novel has not yet been written. Herman Melville did several chapters of it, Walt Whitman some chapter headings, Henry James an appendectiform footnote. Mark Twain roughed out the comic bits, Theodore Dreiser made a prehistoric-skeleton outline, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway all contributed suggestions. Last week it began to look as if Thomas Wolfe might also be at work on this hypothetical volume. His first installment (Look Homeward, Angel) appeared five years ago, his second (Of Time and the River) last week. In the interval Author Wolfe had written some 2,000,000 words, now has ready two more volumes of his projected six. Great in conception and scope, Author Wolfe’s big book occasionally falters in execution, but his second volume is written with a surer hand than the first. If installments to come improve at such a rate there will no longer be any question about Wolfe’s great and lasting contribution to U. S. letters.

Scene, as well as subject, of course, is the U. S. Time-scheme will run from 1791 to 1933; the first two volumes cover 1884-1925, the last will go back to an earlier beginning. Readers of Look Homeward, Angel will remember its wildly sensuous account of the Gant family. In Of Time and the River Author Wolfe picks up his story, continues his method: he flays real life until the skin is off it and the blood comes. The skin-narrative can be shortly told. Eugene Gant, youngest of his family, at 19 leaves his Southern home and goes to Harvard. His father, a Jeremiah miscast, is slowly dying. In Cambridge Eugene studies hard at his playwriting course, makes many a queer acquaintance, one good friend: Starwick, a Midwestern esthete. After going home for his father’s funeral, and finishing his Harvard course, Eugene goes to Manhattan, teaches English for a while at a downtown college, then goes abroad. He gets little good out of England, finds Paris more to his taste. There he meets Starwick again, spends hard-living months with him and two U. S. girls, one of whom has left her husband for Starwick. Eugene falls in love with the other, only to find that she, too, loves Starwick. His disappointment, coupled with a suspicion that his friend is not as manly as he might be, leads to a final quarrel. The quartet breaks up, Eugene adventures for a time by himself, finally decides to go home. As he boards the liner at Cherbourg he sees a face, hears a voice, that he knows will haunt him forever. Here the book ends.

But no such bald outline can give even the superficial taste of this big (912-page) book. It contains hundreds of characters, scenes that range from harsh realism through satire and humor to passages of Joycean impressionism, Whitmanesque poetry. In form it is variously a narrative, an epic, a diatribe, a chronicle, a psalm, but in essence it is a U. S. voice. Author Wolfe’s whole theme: “Why is it we have crossed the stormy seas so many times alone, lain in a thousand alien rooms at night hearing the sounds of time, dark time, and thought until heart, brain, flesh and spirit were sick and weary with the thought of it; ‘Where shall I go now? What shall I do?’. . . We are so lost, so lonely, so forsaken in America: immense and savage skies bend over us, and we have no door.”

Of Manhattan and its citizens he writes: “Hard-mouthed, hard-eyed, and strident-tongued, with their million hard gray faces, they streamed past upon the streets forever, like a single animal, with the sinuous and baleful convolutions of an enormous reptile. And the magical and shining air—the strange, subtle and enchanted weather, was above them, and the buried men were strewn through the earth on which they trod, and a bracelet of great tides was flashing round them, and the enfabled rock on which they swarmed swung eastward in the marches of the sun into eternity, and was masted like a ship with its terrific towers, and was flung with a lion’s port between its tides into the very maw of the infinite, all-taking ocean. . . .”

The Author. Thomas Clayton Wolfe’s career closely parallels that of his hero, Eugene Gant. Born in Asheville, N. C. in 1900, he graduated from the University of North Carolina at 19, then took an M.A. at Harvard, where he studied under the late Professor George Pierce Baker in his famed 47 Workshop. After traveling and studying in Europe he got a job as instructor in the English department at New York University. Five years ago he resigned to devote himself to his magnum opus, went to Europe again on a Guggenheim Fellowship. An omnivorous reader, he says of his hero “Within a period of ten years he read at least 20,000 volumes.” After futile searches for “a place to write,” Thomas Wolfe is at present living in Brooklyn. Says Eugene, in autobiographical disgust: ” ‘To write’—to be that most foolish, vain, and impotent of all impostors, a man who sought the whole world over ‘looking for a place to write’, when, he knew now with every naked, brutal penetration of his life ‘the place to write’ was Brooklyn, Boston, Hammersmith, or Kansas—anywhere on earth, so long as the heart, the power, the faith, the desperation, the bitter and unendurable necessity, and the naked courage were there inside him all the time.”

Big, heavyset, wild-eyed, Thomas Wolfe looks the intensely serious writer he is. In Sinclair Lewis’s belligerent speech accepting the Nobel Prize (1930) he said of Wolfe: “He may have a chance to be the greatest American writer. . . . In fact I don’t see why he should not be one of the greatest world writers.” No backscratcher, in Of Time and the River Author Wolfe replies: “A book like Main Street, which made such a stir, is like Main Street.”

 

 

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This review caught my eye. Because it gives a feeling for how Thomas Wolfe (whom I have been intending to read more of, if I can find the time) was perceived relatively early in his career.

Regarding the anonymous Time reviewer’s comment that “The Great American Novel has not yet been written” yet, I disagree that it hadn’t. Of course, Walt Whitman was not a novelist (though he wrote a couple of novels); and the review is written in the breezy style that Time was known for.

I consider it my own opinion, but come to think of it, I think that it was first expressed to me by a former friend of mine, Charles Pierre: namely, that The Great American Novel had been written long before Wolfe and Hemingway existed — by Herman Melville. Moby-Dick. Charlie and I were both reading Moby-Dick at about the same time. There is no doubt on my part as to the truth of this statement.

 
— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

Roger W. Smith, “A Commentary on Nathaniel Philbrick’s Observations about ‘Moby-Dick'”

 

I have been reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011).

Philbrick is a great admirer of Herman Melville. He states, in the first chapter, that he has read Melville’s novel Moby-Dick “at least a dozen times.”

I read Moby-Dick in a book borrowed from the New York Public Library in the 1970’s. I couldn’t put it down. The book and Melville were a revelation for me.

The following are some thoughts of my own about Moby-Dick based upon my reading of Philbrick’s excellent study cum appréciaton.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     September 2016

 

 

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(Page numbers below refer to Why Read Moby-Dick?)

 

 

pg. 9

Philbrick says, “I am not one of those purists who insist on reading the entire untruncated text at all costs.”

Although I agree with most of the points Philbrick makes, I disagree strongly here. To fully appreciate the book, you’ve got to take it all in, including the cetology.

 

pg. 17

“free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy”; Ishmael’s, approach to life, in his own words.

An apt characterization. Ishmael, the first person narrator, begins the book with the words “Call me Ishmael”—setting the informal, free and easy tone of the book, and establishing a level of UNformality notably American.

 

pg.  21

Philbrick comments on how, at intervals, Melville “slows the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl.”

Well put. The book is like a sea voyage under sail. There are very long stretches where land is not in sight, so to speak, and progress seems slow. By the time one finishes the book, one feels that one’s self has been on a long voyage.

 

pg.  22

I don’t agree with Ishmael’s statement (i.e., a statement made in the novel by Melville indirectly in the words of the main character Ishmael, not by Philbrick) that one ought to “forgo the cloying chunks of needless potato” in clam chowder. Clam chowder, which I love (New England clam chowder, that is), is so much better and filling with potatoes, which, in my view, are indispensable.

 

pg. 37

Melville:  “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

Shakespearean language.

The influence of Shakespeare on Melville can be seen as plain as day.

 

pg. 44

Philbrick: “Hidden beneath his [Melville’s] lapidarian surfaces were truths so profound and disturbing that they ranked with anything written in the English language.”

YES. Melville fuses narrative with metaphysical speculation, reality with imagination, grim actuality with underlying truths.

 

pg. 48

Philbrick: “[Melville’s] metaphysical preoccupations perpetually threatened to overwhelm his unsurpassed ability to find the specific, concrete detail that conveys everything.”

Very true. A keen observation.

 

pg.  59

Philbrick writes of the “longings: of the twelve-year-old boy [Melville] for his dead father; of the author for fame; and of the almost-middle-aged man for a friend.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne. Such a heart rending story. Hawthorne was discomfited by Melville’s love and shrunk from it.

 

pg. 61

Philbrick mentions “the wisdom of waiting to read the classics.”

YES. An excellent point.

Waiting until you are ready, motivated, and receptive.

Waiting until the most opportune time.

This is precisely that happened to me with Moby-Dick. And, practically every other classic and/or “great book” I have ever read.

Hardly any of them – almost none – were read by me as school assignments.

 

pg. 64

Philbrick: “Moby-Dick is a true epic, embodying almost every powerful American archetype.”

A personal observation of mine: Moby-Dick is the Great American Novel. Though many admire the book, few, if any, seem to realize this.

 

pg. 64

Philbrick: “There is wonderful slapdash quality to the book.”

Very true. Well put.

Slapdash: The great writers seem to be able to write in this way, as if they were tossing something off and sort of “taking dictation” (from within), telling you a story or something or other in an unrehearsed, unscripted conversation. Their writing does not seem “studied” (does not read that way).

Melville excels at this, beginning with the novel’s opening words:  Call me Ishmael.” He picks up the story there, and, bang, you’re into it.

Another writer who, in my opinion, pulled this off – who would not ordinarily be thought of in this context – was Henry Miller in Tropic of Capricorn. (It seems to me that Melville might be diagnosed today as having been, at times, manic, as I imagine Henry Miller may also have been.)

Also, Daniel Defoe does the same thing. Defoe seems artless, like he’s merely there to write it down. It actually makes him a great read.

 

pg.  64

Philbrick: “Ishmael is the narrator, but at times Melville invests him with an authorial omniscience.”

A good critical insight.

 

pg.  65

Philbrick: “[T]he plot is [often] left to languish and entire groups of characters [in Moby-Dick] vanish without a trace.”

True. Cf. Bulkington.

 

 pg. 65

Philbrick: “… Melville is conveying the quirky artlessness of life though his ramshackle art. ‘[C]areful disorderliness,’ Ishmael assures us, ‘is the true method.’ ”

Right on target as concerns Melville the writer (as well as Melville’s view of life).

 

pp.80-81

Philbrick: “Melville has created a portrait of the redemptive power of intimate human relations, what he calls elsewhere [in Moby-Dick] ‘the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.’ It is an ideal world that would sadly elude him for much of his married life.”

The quote is from Moby-Dick, Chapter XCLV.

 

pg. 82

Philbrick quotes from Moby-Dick (Chapter LXXXVII): ‘A low advancing hum was soon heard; and then like to the tumultuous masses of block-ice when the great river Hudson breaks up in Spring, the entire host of whales came tumbling upon their inner center. …’

This is wonderful descriptive prose. (Remember how, in the experience of most of us, one of the first writing assignments we had in school was to write a paper describing something?)

A personal note: In the 1970’s, when I was living in Manhattan a block away from Riverside Park, along the Hudson River, there was a particularly cold winter. The Hudson froze over, and I can remember the hissing and popping sounds as the ice was breaking up slowly.

 

pg.  83

There is a quote from Chapter XCIII of Moby-Dick (not so indicated by Philbrick): “flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater’s skin hammered out to the extremest.”

This is undoubtedly an echo of John Donne’s famous poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (another scholar confirmed my opinion):

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Melville, as the scholar put it, “knew seventeenth century English literature.”

 

 pg.  85

“So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense. …” (Moby-Dick, Chapter XCIII).

A profound observation by Melville.

 

pg. 103

Philbrick: “[Melville’s] dangerously digressive, sometimes bombastic novel….”

An apt description — perhaps one should say brilliant — very much on target.

 

pg. 114

Philbrick: “No matter how fantastic it may seem, everything in these last three chapters [Chapters CXXXIII-CXXXV of Moby-Dick] could have happened.”

Very true. And, the ability the pull this off is what makes Melville and the novel great. As philosophic as the book gets, whatever flights of fancy Melville gets carried way with, the book is firmly grounded in reality.

 

pg.  115

Philbrick: “In the destruction of the two whaleboats [in Chapter CXXXIV of Moby-Dick], Melville is also portraying the destruction of his own talent.”

 

pg.  117

“[The Pequod], like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her” (Moby-Dick, Chapter CXXXV).

This passage sounds Miltonic.

 

pg.  119

Philbrick mentions “the loss of [Melville’s] shy muse.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne.

 

pg.  127

“[A]t my years, and with my disposition, or rather, constitution, one gets to care less and less for everything except downright good feeling. Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational (from a certain point of view) that one knows not what to make of it, unless–well, finish the sentence for yourself.” (Melville to his brother-in-law Lemuel Shaw, April 23 1849)

the Great American Novel

 

A friend who was an omnivorous reader and an astute private critic once made the following observation to me:

Everyone talks about the Great American Novel: when will it ever be written?

It already has been written.

It was published one hundred and fifty years ago; the author’s name was Herman Melville; the title was Moby-Dick.

— Roger W. Smith

     September 2016