A Los Angeles Review of Books essay on Melville by William Giraldi
September 1, 2013 12:17 PM   Subscribe

The Writer As Reader: Melville and his Marginalia In the General Rare Books Collection at Princeton University Library sits a stunning two-volume edition of John Milton that once belonged to Herman Melville. Melville's tremendous debt to Milton — and to Homer, Virgil, the Bible, and Shakespeare — might be evident to anyone who has wrestled with the moral and intellectual complexity that lends Moby Dick its immortal heft, but to see Melville's marginalia in his 1836 Poetical Works of John Milton is to understand just how intimately the author of the great American novel engaged with the author of the greatest poem in English. Checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs reveal the passages in Paradise Lost and other poems that would have such a determining effect on Melville's own work.
posted by jason's_planet (11 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
That's a really weird essay. He starts with a discussion of Melville's marginalia, but then turns it into a piece of invective against all the stupid, petty people who write and try to get published. I have read Melville, I love Melville, and there is a degree of humanism, an appreciation of the human comedy and human foibles in his work that would make Melville unlikely to scorn his fellow human beings who had the temerity to try to become writers.

So I think this essay shows a smallness of spirit that is unworthy of Melville's legacy. It makes this Giraldi fellow seem rather small and resentful. I am very annoyed with these essays, which seem to form a kind of genre of their own, containing so many mean-spirited digs at aspiring writers.

Here are some mean-spirited quotes from Giraldi's essay:
The Austrian journalist Karl Kraus, an aphorist as scathingly accurate as Oscar Wilde and H.L. Mencken, once quipped: "So many people write because they lack the character not to." By "character" Kraus meant the good sense to know that not every story is worth telling; not everyone can muster the intellectual, emotional, and narrative equipment needed to succeed as a novelist. But the abracadabra of the internet has transformed us into a society of berserk scribblers; now anyone can have a public voice and spew his middling stories and thoughts at will. Forget that blog is just one letter away from bog, or that the passel of burgeoning “literary” websites is largely a harvest of inanity with only the most tenuous hold on actual literature. Our capacity for untamed, ceaseless communication has convinced us that we have something priceless to say. Amis maintains that “democratization” via the internet “has made one inalienable gain: equality of the sentiments.” He paraphrases Gore Vidal: “Nowadays, nobody’s feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else’s.” Our every precious notion must be broadcast for consumption, tweeted or emailed or posted for attention, otherwise the validity of our existence withers. See me, hear me, all the time.

* * *

If you’ve ever been to a writers’ conference for aspiring authors you might have noticed a ruck of attendees eyeing retirement and praying for a bestseller, or a contingent of troubled twenty-somethings who have been bamboozled by second-raters such as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and have arrived to molest you with spontaneous prose which ought to remain incarcerated inside their diaries. You might have glimpsed manuscripts choking on either the toxic stupidity of Tom Clancy or the vapid bathos of Nicholas Sparks. Manuscripts defaced by cliché — the end of the world, a summertime love affair, another young guy’s proud struggle with drugs — doodled by individuals who love Harry Potter and the belching of George R. R. Martin but can’t be bothered by anything more substantive or adult. Always sentences with the totter of a starved hobo.

* * *

Unread dopes become wealthy, semi-famous authors — the bestseller list has testified to this from the start. And swarms of the uninitiated are taking stabs at their own books because each Sunday afternoon they curl up with lobotomized bestsellers that make writing a book seem as effortless as linking paperclips.
Every age in which printed books have been widespread has had its writers of potboilers, its aspiring writers, its ways of getting things published that are not through the elevated channels of prestige culture. Reading the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, for example, one learns that he got his start writing potboiler-type novels occupied with the supernatural, and they were published by vanity presses. After those first forays into literary life, he moved into more elevated types of writing.

These professional discouragers like Giraldi are a scourge on literary culture.

And for someone who is UNKNOWN like Giraldi is, to casually dismiss Kerouac and Bukowski as second-raters (in the passage I bolded above) ... what a ridiculously silly, bad faith statement to make. You would do well to be as "second rate" as Kerouac and Bukowski. It is a small, sad, resentful person who resorts to rankings and dismissals of this type. These are people who suffered a great deal to bring their vision of life to readers, and for a seventeenth-rater like Giraldi to scornfully deride them as "second raters" ... is pathetic.
posted by Unified Theory at 1:00 PM on September 1, 2013 [10 favorites]

From the article:
Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.
I just started re-reading "Moby-Dick," mostly because I'm reading the Wishbone version ("Moby Dog") to my 5-year-old. The "Etymology" and "Extracts" sections of the original are a plethora of borrowings: from various languages, naming the whale; from the Bible, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Spenser, Milton; from accounts of sailors; from Cuvier and Hawthorne (to whom the book is dedicated) and Darwin and the songs of Nantucket. The sub-sub-librarian has kept a commonplace book of inspirations, and is openly acknowledging his debts to their thinking. It's like a primitive tumblr or twitter, with all of the quotations posted one by one.

The meat of the book (and pardon the pun) is 135 ways of looking at a whale -- at its religious symbolism, at the business of whaling, at the physiology, at the social/spiritual dimensions of giving chase to the leviathan. It has resonance with the niche social histories that I love, those books that explore a single topic, like salt, or cotton, or cod.

These frameworks help me love this book because they helps me get my head around Melville consuming so much research and combing so many texts inspiration as a means to finding his own way to approach such a vast topic. (Yeah, dude didn't just read the O.E.D. and write about it. He went down to the sea on a whaler in a dangerous time.)

Seriously, if you haven't read it, give it a shot. Or perhaps a listen? Now with added help for the hopeless landlubber.

Anyhow -- thanks, jason's planet!

Um, there's a hyphen missing in Giraldi's formulation of the book's title, no?
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:08 PM on September 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I wish he would have linked to the wonderful Melville Marginalia site, not that his piece has much to do with Melville's marginalia.

Um, there's a hyphen missing in Giraldi's formulation of the book's title, no?

I almost never see it referred to with the hyphen.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:49 PM on September 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thanks, Horace Rumpole. I wondered. I use it because my edition of the book does.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:17 PM on September 1, 2013

Moby Dick is one of my three favorite works written in the English language, but I'll be damned if I've ever made it two pages into Paradise Lost, though I seriously enjoyed the Odyssey, so it's maybe not a problem with epic poetry in general, but I just don't fathom the place that Milton writes from. I was an F-minus student in school though because i just didn't give a shit when I was young, so of course no college invited me to give them my money, and I just managed to grow old without a clue. This kinda make me want to try again, though.

Some day.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:24 PM on September 1, 2013

How might Melville react to today's writers' conferences and creative writing workshops in which so many have no usable knowledge of literary tradition and are mostly mere weekend readers of in-vogue books? An untold number of Americans will finish a book manuscript this year, and the mind-numbing majority of them will be confected by nonreaders.

Yeah, this guy, however is mayhap a bit priggish, eh?
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:35 PM on September 1, 2013

This essay was hilarious.
I wish it had been more about Melville. Ranting (at time poorly) against the obvious and immutable (everyone thinks they can write/dance/fight like Bruce Lee) is hard to pull off for more than a paragraph.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:16 PM on September 1, 2013

The best part was how he dumped on writing 'conferences' for 'amateur' writers - and he has been going to them for years and years.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:01 AM on September 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's not so much that everybody thinks they're Bruce Lee. It's more like this guy thinks if you're not Bruce Lee, you shouldn't even try.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:49 AM on September 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Giraldi's essay makes me think of something I've noticed that we could call the "newest pack member principle."

I have a had a number of dogs over the last ten years, picked up one by one off the street. I've noticed that it's always the newest pack member who is most threatened by the latest dog I bring home. I have speculated that this is because the newest pack member is the most insecure in his or her status, that it reacts most violently and aggressively to the dog I am bringing home. The older dogs are more secure so they react with equanimity to a new addition.

Giraldi has published one novel. It's almost as if he is exemplifying the newest pack member principle with his seething contempt for these workshop writers and their unlettered forays into the written word. And his contempt has driven him to risible heights of invective, casually hurling insults about the "second rate" status of Kerouac and Bukowski.

It's sad. What was Giraldi thinking? Did he really not think he comes off as ridiculous?
posted by Unified Theory at 9:42 AM on September 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I notice the inevitable and lazy blaming of blogs for...whatever it is that he thinks is amiss. That whole part of the rant, though, was done better, in a novel, decades before the tide of unworthy Internet authors:

"...The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania the writing of books has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.”
posted by thelonius at 4:56 PM on September 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

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