Melville was published many times. But writing wasn’t paying the bills.
Call me Kent.
Somehow it just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Kent sounds far too normal. It isn’t exotic enough and has no reference back to a Biblical character whose origins were less than ideal.
On Nov. 14, 1851, about a decade before the American Civil War and about three decades after a real disaster that many believe was the basis for the tale, Herman Melville published Moby Dick.
“Call me Ishmael” is one of the most recognizable opening lines of any novel. The book was Melville’s sixth published work.
He was living the life that many writers dream about, right? We write for a living so we believe that we can easily make the transition from city council meetings and children’s programs to fame and fortune.
Many published writers have dreams of being Tom Clancy or Steven King and telling exciting tales of fiction that are real enough to be believed. Others want to be Doris Kearns Goodwin and gather facts for historical biographies.
But fame and fortune aren’t always found at the end of this seemingly well-paved road. Melville was published many times. But writing wasn’t paying the bills.
So he took a job as a customs inspector in New York where he worked for 20 years before he died.
About 30 years after he died, scholars and educators began to rediscover Melville’s greatest achievement. Thanks to the resurgence, his final novel, Billy Budd, was published.
Like a lot of art, Moby Dick wasn’t appreciated as a classic until Melville wasn’t around to enjoy the notoriety.
The tale was snatched from the headlines from an account of a 160,000-pound sperm whale attacking and destroying a whaling vessel.
Melville used a lot of symbolism in his story retold by Ishmael, who narrated the events. There were so many themes touched on in the book that it is easy to understand how it took some time for the appreciation of the novel to grow.
But the action of the basic theme of the revenge-driven, one-legged Capt. Ahab should have been good enough to hold an audience even if the deeper meanings were sunk a little deeper.
I have always enjoyed the story of the white whale that was vilified and hunted by a madman finally killing his pursuer and the only survivor clinging to a coffin for his life and living to tell us the tale.
Ahab, upon realizing that he was going to die as his ship and his body were being torn apart, he spoke the second most popular line in the book.
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee,” Ahab said. “Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”
Even as his personal quest for vengeance had cost him his crew, his ship and his life, his hatred was only quenched by his own watery death.
It was 161 years ago this week that Melville published this story of an exciting tale told thoughtfully. It is a classic that few of us will ever match but to which we can all aspire.
Now, where was I?
Call me Kent…
Kent Bush is the Augusta Gazette Publisher. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.