Our Opinion: Celebrating Melville and his timeless novel
Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Herman Melville, who wrote most of "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale" in his home in Pittsfield. The anniversary is being celebrated from Pittsfield to Paris, giving the author of one of the most famous novels in literature the acclaim he surely would have appreciated when he was alive.
The story of Captain Ahab, who takes the unfortunate crew of his ship the Pequod on the vengeful pursuit of a white whale that bit off his leg, has long been a part of the cultural lexicon. "Chasing the great white whale" has become a phrase that symbolizes dangerously obsessive, doomed pursuits, used commonly in reference to political and military misadventures. Begun in New York City, the novel was for the most part written at Arrowhead, Melville's farmhouse on Holmes Road where he lived for 13 years. Published in 1851, it was not a major success, but became one in the early 20th century, too late to benefit the debt-ridden Melville, who died in 1891.
In a tribute to Melville and "Moby-Dick" in Tuesday's Guardian of London, writer Philip Hoare, an author of books on whales, tells of a book launch party for "Moby-Dick" in Paris attended only by Melville and friend and fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose own Berkshire connections are considerable. Disappointed yet defiant, Melville declared, "I have written a blasphemous book, and I feel as spotless as the lamb."
A blasphemous book? Absolutely. The novel was quite subversive and, asserts Mr. Hoare, "maps out the modern world as if Melville had lived his life in the future and was only waiting for us to catch up." Within the pages of this adventure epic, we observe indictments of slavery that anticipated the Civil War on the horizon, as well as attacks on imperialism. There are references to mass extinctions (whales have long been endangered) and the collapse of the climate. The crew members of the Pequod, most notably the resolute harpooner Queequeg, represent several ethnic groups and work together selflessly and heroically. The book, Mr. Hoare maintains, includes an approving scene of a gay marriage ceremony.
"Moby-Dick" is a good yarn (though intimidating in length). But it is also a book of our times, writes Hoare, which explains the high regard in which it is held still in the 21st century.
Mr. Hoare notes that there will be a reading of "Moby-Dick" today in a Paris bookshop, but there is no need to go to the City of Light for a reading. The annual marathon reading of "Moby-Dick" at Arrowhead begins on Friday, goes through the weekend and concludes on Monday. Arrowhead is owned by the Berkshire Historical Society, and a visit to Melville's home will provide an education in Berkshire history along with insight into Melville's life and career. Details about Arrowhead and the Melville celebration are available at berkshirehistory.org.
The Berkshire Athenaeum's Melville Room will be open for free tours at noon today, and at 1 p.m., the Pittsfield institution will receive an American Library Association-sponsored Literary Landmark Plaque in honor of Melville's bicentennial. The collection at the Athenaeum is believed to be the largest Melville collection of its kind in the world.
Because of "Moby-Dick," Melville, as Mr. Hoare writes, belongs to the world. But he also belongs very specifically to Pittsfield and the Berkshires, which will celebrate today and the days ahead his time here and the book that is his enduring legacy.
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