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The Chambers Report: Melville, Elvis And Baseball

I.

Why is Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; or The Whale probably the least-read fictional masterpiece in America? Its daunting length, of course (800-plus pages in the famous 1930 Random House edition containing the celebrated illustrations of Rockwell Kent), has something to do with it. And then there are all those countless chapters on whales and whaling, reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy's hundreds of detailed pages on Napoleonic battling in War and Peace (1865, 1869), another notoriously unread classic. Who needs these pontifical chapters, after all? Just tell the story! And, finally, there is the likely, yet usually unmentionable, prospect that most readers simply do not have the smarts to take on such a lofty challenge. "I'm just not up to this!"

Despite its lamentable unread status, however, almost everybody knows about the book, about the doomed whaling ship Pequod*, about its moody skipper Captain Ahab, and about that peg-legged monomaniac's obsession with the White Whale that ripped off his appendage on a previous voyage.

It's a rare week during which we don't hear some mention of or a reference to Melville's great tale. Witness that even Elvis Presley, the Rock and Roll King himself - no reader of lengthy books, to be sure, certainly none by one so cerebral as Melville - in a heated moment during his greatest concert, his leather-featured '68 Comeback Special, lofted his standing microphone over his head and made as if to toss it, harpoon-like, into an awaiting, imaginary giant cetacean, while shouting "Moby-Dick!" at the top of his proverbial lungs.

*The Pequod was named for the once-defeated Indian tribe that now owns a highly profitable casino in Connecticut. Melville would love the irony.

In an effort to make Melville's singular novel at last available to all of us, Nathaniel Philbrick, author of several books about whaling and the sea, has written Why Read Moby-Dick?, a modest volume of only 127 small pages, that accomplishes miracles in making the saga of the White Whale accessible.

This reviewer, who once took an entire course on Melville without fully comprehending the grandeur of his greatest book, has now read Philbrick's eloquent little trot three times through, and each time with increasing rewards.

Thanks in part to Philbrick, I now have a better handle on two important questions: (1) Why baseball attracts the attention of America's most thoughtful writers. And (2) why so many of those same writers are smitten with Herman Melville. Answers to these come clearly in the best baseball novel to appear in years, The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. Fielding is awash in Melvillean references, and Philbrick brings clarity and relevance to them all. So let's deal with his compact book first.

II.

Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country's ever-contentious march into the future. This means that whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important.

- Nathaniel Philbrick

I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb.

- Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne

. . . a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.

Ishmael, narrator of Moby-Dick


What an astonishing achievement this tiny volume is! It is a lucid tribute by an enormously talented wordsmith of our own time to the most gifted novelist this country has ever produced.

In his earlier book, In The Heart Of The Sea (Viking, 2000), which won a National Book Award, Philbrick recounted the amazing tale of the tragic whaling ship Essex, which in 1819 was attacked and sunk in the South Pacific by a huge, angry sperm whale, thereby instantly becoming legendary worldwide and, a few decades later in 1851, the inspiration for Moby-Dick. Philbrick's Melville bona fides were also enriched in a variety of other sea studies, uniquely preparing him to pen this most eloquent of all the many commentaries on our finest novel.

In his near-worshipful portrait, Philbrick reveals how in the span of only a couple of years Melville rose from mere literary competence - his earlier South Seas books Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) sold fairly well and brought him a degree of public recognition - to an intellectual and artistic summit reached by no other American writer before him or since.

This rapid ascension was all the more remarkable because Melville's first draft of the book that was to become Moby-Dick was a pedestrian romance of the sea containing none of the profundity that now makes it great.

The catalyst in transforming The Whale into a literary miracle was the writer's introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne, eventual dedicatee of Moby-Dick and namesake of the author of Why Read?.

Totally opposite from the boisterous Melville in almost every way - quiet, circumspect, shyly diffident - the already accomplished and celebrated Hawthorne nevertheless awed his young protege with the "great power of blackness" Melville saw in him, providing an image of forbidding depth and gloom that, in the rewrite of Moby-Dick, would evolve into crazy Ahab, a figure entirely absent in the first draft who would become the core of the second, as well as the darkest protagonist in all of literature.

With Ahab-Hawthorne on the scene, Melville quickly grew into a giant thinker capable, beyond his own understanding, of pouring everything that he knew into a true masterpiece, a novel all but unknown during his own life (Typee outsold it by a 5:1 ratio), but now admired even by those not up to reading or understanding it - a tale of leadership gone awry in the tumultuous age just prior to the Civil War, a cataclysm that continues to define America to this day. Melville saw it all coming.

III.

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.

- Melville, Moby-Dick


Near the beginning of his novel, author Chad Harbach quotes from another volume of the same name supposedly written by one Aparicio Rodriguez, fictional former star of the St. Louis Cardinals, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and "the greatest shortstop who ever lived." Rodriguez's The Art of Fielding is a how-to text on mastering baseball, particularly playing the infield. Among its many numbered "truths" are these:

3. "There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being."

33. "Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few."

Thoughtless Harbach certainly is not. Like a number of our best and most probing novelists - John Updike, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, even John Grisham most recently - Harbach is an intellectual mesmerized by our national pastime.

Yet why? To rephrase a question noted above, just what is it about baseball that so attracts serious creative writers to it? Perhaps it's the old game's stately, leisurely quality, a pace somewhere between ennui and spirituality? Whatever it is, other sports lack it.

Great baseball books and movies continue to appear regularly - The Art of Fielding and Moneyball only last year - but the same inspiration seems to be entirely missing from our other iconic games.

In his The Art of Fielding, a brilliant Harvard graduate - an English major, nonetheless - endeavors to do for/with baseball what Herman Melville did for whaling, the chief American industry of his time. In the manner of his mentor, Chad Harbach erects a mythical structure around baseball and tries to demonstrate its surpassing beauty while revealing its relevance to . . . well, to everything.

Perhaps the impossible achievement of perfection - and its inevitable wreckage on the rocks of self-consciousness and endless thought - is Harbach's real topic here?

Henry Skrimshander - his very name evoking the beauty of whalebone - is a disciple of Aparicio Rodriguez and, always religiously following Aparicio's principles, seemingly the perfect shortstop . . . until terrible circumstances cause him to start thinking about it.

When the only errant throw of his young life almost kills his Westish College roommate Owen, Henry, like Rick Ankiel, suddenly loses his god-given talent to merge with his sport without analyzing it. His natural, unthinking grace disappears, and, along with it, seemingly his chances for the lucrative major league career for which he seemed destined.

Yet all may not be lost. At book's end - 500-plus pages along - Henry, under the tutelage of his mentor, catcher Mike Schwartz (who, from page one, senses and appreciates the kid's divine gift) shows signs of rehabilitating his talent (he has decided to turn down an offer from the Cardinals and stay on at the lowly Wisconsin division III Westish College for a final year under Mike's guidance).

All this takes place in a sea of literary allusions and quotations that, far from offending the reader as pretentious, serve to enrich Harbach's novel and give it the kind of heft and depth that its models from the 19th century have in abundance.

Melville is everywhere in The Art of Fielding as well as Eliot, Lowell, Emerson, et al) as he was in Harbach's formal education: his statue adorns the Westish campus, gazing in lonely splendor out at the inland sea that is Lake Michigan; the college's baseball team that Henry and Mike bring to greatness is called the Harpooners; and the college's handsome, rakish President Guert Affenlight is named for a Melville ancestor and gains some measure of academic fame by publishing a scholarly book on his hero, who once supposedly lectured at Westish.

As the chapters roll seamlessly by, we learn a great deal about baseball, but also much about the academy, the perils of searching for love (both heterosexual and homosexual), and the brevity and uncertainty of life.

What does it all come to? What do the characters - and the reader - take away from this astonishingly accomplished first novel, which took Harbach years to complete and was continually turned down by publishers, but which eventually became a "freight train" (in the words of one critic) of rave reviews, a huge advance, and the promise of an HBO series a la Friday Night Lights?

One lesson is the value of hard work in overcoming the Prufrockian self-absorption that threatens to bog down and eventually drown all of us. Pella, the President's beautiful and rebellious daughter, goes daily to labor in the college's dining hall (even in the wake of her father's untimely death . . . maybe someday such focus will turn her into a celebrated chef?); Henry continues to field grounders, to absorb Aparicio's truths, and to try to throw accurately to first base; Harbach continued to work on his seemingly eternal manuscript. Mike will not be the Yale-educated lawyer he wanted to become, but seems born to be a successful coach, instead. Owen will go off to Japan to discover more about himself and his world.

And we, the readers? We'll continue our own quests for the White Whale at a lower, yet still worthwhile depth, with the invaluable assistance of such as Melville, T.S. Eliot, Emerson, Robert Lowell, and Chad Harbach, who, like Ishmael, survives to tell this marvelous tale.

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Previously in Bob's Books:
* Steve Jobs vs. Jack Kennedy

* The Last Boy Of Summer

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Steve Rhodes:

-

2. From Steve Rhodes:

Starbuck.

-

3. From Steve Rhodes:

A Whale Of A Drink.



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Posted on July 2, 2012


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