Recommended Reading: The Whale: A Love Story, by Mark Beauregard

The Whale

As I wrote about a few years ago, it took me a long, long time to come around to enjoying Moby-Dick, the now celebrated tome that destroyed its author’s career when it was published. I left off in the middle of a re-read, but Mark Beauregard’s new novel, The Whale: A Love Story*, has me wishing my copy of Melville’s book weren’t packed away right now.

IMG_6959Known to many of his nineteenth-century readers as “the man who lived among the cannibals,” the summer of 1850 finds Herman Melville struggling with a new book, an adventure story about two unlikely friends who set off on a whaling voyage. The book isn’t taking shape the way he’d like, and since creditors have made his family’s home in New York uncomfortable, he and his wife Lizzie are staying in the Berkshires.

When he meets reclusive Nathaniel Hawthorne (to whom Moby-Dick was dedicated) during a rain- and champagne-soaked picnic, Melville’s life—both personal and creative—takes a turn for the unexpected. Infatuated with the handsome older writer and spurred by his advice and presence to press into strange and fantastical waters in his novel, Melville spends money he doesn’t have buying a farm close to Hawthorne’s cottage, convinced that he’s found his muse—and love.

While I wasn’t convinced by the novel’s proposal regarding Melville and Hawthorne’s relationship (and coincidentally, there’s a apparently a new biography of Melville just out that puts forward a different candidate as Melville’s muse and love interest), I liked the audacity of the theory. Mr. Beauregard undertook extensive research as he wrote the novel (the book is studded with Melville’s actual letters to Hawthorne), which shines in its depictions of everyday life in 1850s Massachusetts, its exploration of passion in its many facets, and especially in its portrayal of the mercurial, exuberant, infuriating Melville.

I’d recommend The Whale to Melville fans, Hawthorne fans, literary friendship enthusiasts, and anyone looking for a LGBTQ spin on literary history. If none of those rings your bell, have a gander at these passages I loved:

Melville’s doubts about the early draft of Moby-Dick:

He couldn’t imagine the genteel, middle-class ladies of America flocking to buy a novel in which frenzied sharks devoured whale gore and seagulls plucked each other’s eyes out fighting for the scraps—and middle-class ladies were the only people who bought books.

On his frenzied revision of the book:

He slopped the pigs, scattered seeds for the chickens, and gave his horse oats; and then he climbed the stairs to his study with a cup of tea and sat scribbling madly about the open seas for six or eight hours in a row, trying to keep the different versions of his story straight in his head. He was writing his whaling adventure at Hawthorne now, channeling all of his frustrations and affections, which he could express to no one in real life, into the operatic desires of his fishy allegory.

Christmas in the Berkshires:

The snow transformed the landscape, at first pleasantly erasing the grass and the dirt and the sharp edges and corners of the house and barn; but then, as the flakes became heavier and bigger and fell faster and faster, the air itself turned white, a blank wall against which Herman’s longing was just another ghost.

I marked a half dozen more passages to return to; there’s some very fine writing in The Whale, and I’d be delighted to read Mr. Beauregard’s next book.

What’s your favorite novel about a well known author?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

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Literary Wives: Una Spenser and DIY Wifehood

literarywives2If you missed the Literary Wives introductory post, here’s the summary:  I’ll be joining founding bloggers Ariel, Audra, and Emily, as well as fellow newcomers Cecilia and Lynn, as we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. This month, we’re writing about Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, the sweeping, imaginative, feminist answer to Moby-Dick.

Readers take note: Although I usually refrain from spoilers, what follows is a consideration of one aspect of the novel, and so I shall be spoiling away. Beware!

I read Ahab’s Wife years ago and remembered liking it very much, and I looked forward to reading it again. I like the gusto with which Ms. Naslund throws all she has at Una’s story, giving her connections not only to the characters and world of Moby-Dick, but also to the time and culture of Melville’s novel.

Ahab's Wife

Una experiences much and meets a cast of strange and interesting characters — including Hawthorne, Maria Mitchell, Margaret Fuller (sidebar to myself: a cenotaph to her memory is somewhere in Mount Auburn Cemetery, a must-find), and a young Henry James (this last strains credulity, really). I fear that I’m making the novel sound like a literary Forrest Gump. Ah well. It’s certainly interesting, with passages of real, sensual beauty.

As I read it through this time, I felt as if Ms. Naslund were trying to construct Una as a secular saint, progressive and feminist ahead of her time, flawed but thoughtful. Una understands that “choice lies in the purse” (142); freedom of movement, of action, is often dependent on financial independence, something we twenty-first century feminists think about often. Some of Una’s free-thinking, as it would be called at the time, seems more like wishful thinking on the part of the author.

In the narrative, Nantucket becomes a little free-thinking paradise, and almost everyone gets a happy ending. The lost and the dead are mourned, but never for too long; after all, when reading Goethe, Una prefers Wilhelm: “While Werther disintegrated, Wilhelm learned from the wonder of life, and grew” (387).

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

This novel’s first line is misleading in the opposite way that Moby-Dick‘s is deceptive. “Call me Ishmael,” begins the American epic, leading us to believe that we will learn much about the narrator, this Ishmael. Instead, we are offered lessons in cetology and monomania.

Here, Una begins her narrative: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” which suggests that the novel’s focus will be on her husbands and their marriages. However, Ahab’s Wife is always Una’s story, told from her perspective and focusing on her thoughts and feelings, a bildungsroman that extends into middle life.

Along the way, her adventures offer Una many models of wifehood:

  • Una’s own mother, loyal to an abusive husband whose religious zealotry endangers Una; nonetheless, she is an educated, caring woman who protects her daughter the best way she knows how.
  • Aunt Agatha, in perhaps the novel’s ideal union. She and Torchy are equals, co-parents and co-workers, who face their isolated life with good cheer, open minds, and hands together. However, she, like her sister, is confined, an important epiphany for Una:

For my aunt and my mother, journeying lay in their fingers for the most part. They knew the landscape of colored patches, the rivulets and tributaries of stitchery. They knew the voyage of reading. It seemed an inward journey. But the sea! the sea! How could it not seem freer, wider, more uncharted than anything else one could know? I wanted it for Giles. For any man I loved. Perhaps in sending Kit to play the part of companion, Giles wished me to learn that many men could love me, that choice and not inevitability were the lot of both woman and man.

For my mother and my aunt, the thought of babies revitalized their beings. And yet, I did not just want babies, or men who went to sea. I wanted something for myself. (124)

  • Captain Swift’s absent wife, who died in childbed: “Her bed’s the grave . . . She gave her life for Chester of the darling curls” (161). A reminder of the very real danger Una and any other nineteenth-century woman faced in childbirth; an example of what I like to call the good-dead-wife trope.
  • Sallie Swain, feminine, generous, adherent to the standards of feminine behavior common to her time and place, even on board a merchant vessel.
  • Charlotte Hussey, vivacious and cheerful, practical to a limit. Warm toward her much-older husband, but overcome with her love for Kit.
  • Mrs. Macey, a widow who tells Una the joys of being a sailor’s wife: “You can come to love your own life. Alone” (348).
  • Mary Starbuck, steadfast and loyal, calm and religious and kind, the ideal Quaker wife.

(At over 650 pages, you’d expect it to be a long list, right?)

Una learns over time that the experience of being a wife is not an universal one; neither fidelity nor infidelity, neither solitude nor company, neither cruelty nor kindness may be expected of all spouses. Knowing her own mind, Una chooses her husbands with care; she compares herself to Maria Mitchell, reflecting, “my investments were so much in people” (464). By observing the women and marriages around her, Una chooses pieces of wifehood for herself, crafting an approach to wifehood all her own.

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

What magic there was in the word when it names all that I would be! Mother, daughter, neighbor, friend—I let go of all those names, except my own, for that of wife. I drank the word as if it were wine. (457)

Una comes to marriage on her own terms, and she defines herself as married even when, in the case of her last marriage, there’s no semblance of ceremony or state sponsorship to confirm the union. How she views her own position as “wife” varies from marriage to marriage, but in every marriage, as she says of the second, “I did not question the legitimacy of our marriage, our power to define our lives” (361).

In her first marriage to the mad (and frequently abusive) Kit, Una sees her role as that of caretaker and provider. She plans to sew to make money, to grow food in a garden, to cook and bake with Kit, and do her best to keep him sane. Her loyalty is shaken by his madness, but when Charlotte offers a possible avenue out of the marriage, by gently suggesting that a marriage at sea is not binding, Una refuses the gesture: “We have shared a bed . . . That binds” (320). However, when Una comes to realize that some harms cannot be undone, she lets Kit go with grace and good will, recognizing that his self-preservation will also be her own.

Una’s marriage to Ahab embodies Charlotte’s earlier admonishment: “The world is not closed off, Una, because a man and his wife make a small, inviolate circle at the center of it” (324). Ahab divorces Una from Kit (he had declared them married) and marries her himself on the Pequod‘s deck (“Ahab no more needed the validation of priest or paper than I” [360].). After their first night together, Ahab goes off on a whaling voyage, leaving Una to her own devices. They both relish this independence, especially Una, who realizes that this kind of relationship is not always typical: “Now I was married, but because my husband was independent, so was I” (386, emphasis mine).

Una regards Ahab as more capable of love and devotion than Kit, and delights in Ahab’s passion for her. They meet as partners, bearers of histories: “Nothing was concealed, and though nothing was overtly revealed, all was known. In guilt and in forgiveness we counted ourselves equals, and always had” (475).  Ahab regards their marriage as one of true minds (and I do love a good Shakespeare sonnet), a union of souls for which “marriage” is too common a word. He tells Una in a letter that he would go mad and destroy any thing that kept them apart. Unfortunately for Una, Ahab’s first encounter with Moby Dick leaves Ahab mangled, in body and mind. Though Una does not regard their relationship differently, she sorrows at Ahab’s monomania, and does not try, materially, to stop him from seeking revenge. She knows that he will not return, and grieves for it, but soon settles into new routines.

Una’s third marriage is with Ishmael (I’m afraid I think this last turn is too cute by half), whom she glimpses at times in the story — on board the merchant ship that rescues her with Giles and Kit, and at the dock before the Pequod’s last sailing, for instance. Together, the creative two “write” their tales, united by choice though not custom: “We are not legally married [. . .] but united by our natures. Each day and forever we choose to be husband and wife” (664). Once again, Una chooses a non-traditional (for the nineteenth century, of course) mode of wifehood, focusing on her own continuing choices and those of her partner. Each is independent, though they craft their companionship together.

Now that you’ve read my meanderings on the subject, please visit the other Literary Wives bloggers! 

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Audra at Unabridged Chick

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

We’d love to hear what you think of Ahab’s Wife, and we hope you’ll join us on December 1, when we’ll be talking about The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhorn (visit the site at http://www.ariellawhon.com/). 

Musings on Moby-Dick, Part 3: Meeting Ahab

(Chapter 28, if you’re counting.)

Moby-Dick

I’d wager that a person who hasn’t read Moby-Dick, but who’s heard of it, can tell you one thing about Ahab: he has a peg leg, made of whalebone. However, for Ishmael, Ahab’s “grim aspect” is so engrossing that “for the first few moments I hardly noted that not a little of this overbearing grimness was owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood.” In other words, Ahab’s missing leg is not his defining physical feature, at least to the men he works with.

The ship’s mates are uncomfortable too, for “moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe” (135). Indeed, Ishmael’s first impression is similar to the impression of torment given in this passage; at first glance, Ahab “looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness” (134).

I find this juxtaposition of images — the Christ-figure crucified and the heretic at the stake — intriguing, especially since my first reading of the stake comparison relied on my image of Joan of Arc — until I realized that she wasn’t canonized until 1920.  With these two images, Melville and Ishmael provide us with a foreshadowing of Ahab’s later character development; we’ll find him to be brave, stoic, even, but also possessed with the pursuit of unrighteous revenge.

I’ll leave off my musing with another contrasting set of images: Ahab as a tree.

In the first, his scarring (which happened before his encounter with the white whale) is compared to the mark of a lightning strike on a great tree, in such a way that I thought of Ahab as nature’s inertia embodied, markable but not really changeable in essence (was his monomania brought on by Moby Dick’s attack, or was the capacity for madness always lurking within him?).

In the second, the possibility for softness in Ahab’s character emerges without diminishing his otherness from his fellow men.

(1)

[Ahab’s scar] resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. (134)

(2)

For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods, even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile. (136)

What do you remember most about Ahab?

Musings on Moby-Dick, Part 2

William Giraldi’s essay on Herman Melville-as-reader has been making the rounds on the web this week, appearing first in the LA Times and then elsewhere (Maria Popova tweeted about it; A Piece of Monologue ran it), including Salon, which is where I ran across it.

Moby-Dick

It’s a good piece, though I could do without the put-downs of genre fiction and some of the vitriol (Mr. Giraldi is known in literary circles for his excoriating review of two Alix Ohlin books. His point in this essay boils down to: The drivel that’s published these days flows from the keys of those who do not read (Mr. Giraldi’s closing line is “So put down your pen awhile. Pick up Moby Dick [sic].) Melville, like other great writers, stood on the shoulders of giants. In order to write well, one must read well, and often, and deeply. (I’d make the same argument about living well, but that’s for another time). He points to Milton, one of those authors Melville grapples with most intensely, and rightly so. Earlier this week, though, I was thinking about another kind of literacy, or literary awareness, as I read Chapter 9 of Moby-Dick (“The Sermon”).

Though I’m not a believer, I’m grateful for an elementary education that gave me familiarity with Bible stories and concepts. It’s incredibly helpful, in all kinds of contexts, to understand references to Judith and Holofernes, for example, or the wedding feast at Cana.

Or Jonah and the Whale. Without the background music of Biblical phrasing in mind, it would have been difficult for me to appreciate just how brilliant this chapter is. Father Mapple tailors his sermon for the sea-going folk and sea-watchers in his congregation, conjuring up the details of Jonah’s cabin (“a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room” [50]) to make the text come alive. In embroidering an old tale to reach a new audience, he becomes a figure of the novelist. And when he ends his sermon, he’s shaken by his awesome responsibility.

Here’s a little gem from the sermon: “But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep” (54).

Musings on Moby-Dick

Here’s a little story about me and Moby-Dick. (Since Ahab’s Wife is up next in the Literary Wives series, I thought I should probably have a look at Moby-Dick; it’s been a few years. I’ll be posting about it every once in awhile as I go along.)

Yes, I know this is a Maine lighthouse, but I don't have any recent pictures of harpooned whales or peg-legged ship captains.

Yes, I know this is a Maine lighthouse, but I don’t have any recent pictures of harpooned whales or peg-legged ship captains.

Now, there was a time when I hated Moby-Dick with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. That was when I was about eleven.

You see, my parents were and are big believers in reading aloud. My Mom read aloud to us when we were little, and when she went back to work and Dad started staying home,  he read aloud individually to us until we left for college (though less in high school when extracurriculars took up more of our time). He chose books in consultation with us, so my brother might be listening to Ivanhoe an hour after Dad read “The Twin Brothers” to our younger sister.

It was a delightful tradition. We’d settle into the comfy chairs in the living room, and Dad would read in his perfectly cadenced voice while I listened, sometimes working on whatever craft project I was trying out that week (never with success, I might add). When I was about eleven, we decided to settle in for a challenge: Moby-Dick.

We hated it. We hated the chapter on Cetology and the long philosophical disquisitions and the drawn-out plot. For years we said it would have been a great story if it had been fifty pages, not the 500 of our hardcover version. We hated it so much that eventually we decided to finish it just so we could say we had done it — we had killed Moby-Dick.

To this day, of all the books Dad read to me, it’s the one I remember best, the one we joke about the most often. Dad gave me the Cliffs Notes to the novel as a Christmas present one year, even though I hated the book so much that I avoided any American Lit course that mentioned it in the course description — and I was an English major!

And yet, something in the back of my brain needled me, like a tooth-pick-sized harpoon. What if I hadn’t given it a fair shot? What if I was too young when I read it? Why did other people (including one of my uncles, a brilliant English teacher) like it so much?

So, more than ten years after I’d read the book with my dad, I tried again. And I loved it. Because it’s musical. Because it’s exciting. Because it’s funny.

No, really. It is.

Consider the very first chapter. We all know the famous first three words, but what follows is a riot. Ishmael decides to put to sea not because the ocean calls to his soul (that bit comes later), but because he’s hilariously, hyperbolically depressed:

whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can (3).

See? Told you it was funny. Now if only I could convince my dad.

What are your favorite first lines?

Yesterday, my friend Kori pointed me to a piece in the Atlantic in which authors choose their favorite opening lines, and write little paragraphs about their reasoning, or, in Margaret Atwood’s case, a tweet:

“Call me Ishmael.” 3 words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?

That’s my favorite of the lot. My own favorite first line, however, is a tossup between Hamlet and Jane Eyre.

Hamlet begins with Bernardo’s challenge, “Who’s there?” — and the interpretive possibilities are endless. Is he afraid? Full of bravado? Why is a soldier, on duty in his own kingdom, challenging someone else in uniform? Is it nighttime? Is he speaking to us, the audience? Who’s the “who”? How do we define ourselves? How do we answer?

Shakespeare offers at least as many questions in two words as Melville does in three.

Now, on to Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Why not? Who was planning on walking? What’s the significance of “that” day?

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

This line has more meaning as you progress through the novel (and if you haven’t, now’s the time to stop reading this post so I don’t ruin the experience for you. And seriously, go read Jane Eyre!).

Of course, “that” day is the day that John Reed throws a book at Jane’s head and Mrs. Reed sends Jane to the Red Room, which precipitates her move to Lowood, and, eventually, Thornfield Hall. And while Jane and her cousins remain inside on account of the rain, in a few short weeks, she and the other unfortunate girls at Lowood will be exposed to all manner of the elements. Jane often walks when others think she ought not to, or when she has no other choice. For instance, it’s on a long walk alone (despite the protestations of Mrs. Fairfax) that she meets Mr. Rochester, and it’s alone again that she makes her way through the fields to the Riverses’ cottage.

But where would Jane have ended up if she had been able to walk that day?

What are your favorite first lines?