Monday, June 23, 2003

Yesterday morning I spent a fair amount of time with several stories by Hawthorne: "The Gentle Boy," "The Seven Vagabonds," and "The Canterbury Pilgrims." The best of the lot was the first, about a Quaker child taken in by a Puritan family after his father has been martyred by the community.

Hawthorne is a great writer but he's hard to stay with; the floridity gets burdensome and tends to wear a reader down. My history with him has always been that way; I pick up a book of his stories, read a few, and then am put off from looking at him again for weeks. With Melville, even when he's thrashing around, I find myself wanting to forge ahead, trusting that things will eventually get better -- maybe not this chapter, but the next one; maybe not even this book, but the next. I have more faith in Melville than in Hawthorne. And while Hawthorne's stories can crank up pretty good, they don't always have great endings. Still, I do retain an affection for Hawthorne; same with Poe, eventhough I often find myself saying a lot against both. They are props who have been there from the beginning.

I finished Redburn last week and liked it pretty well. It's B+ Melville, I'd say; a much "easier" read than Mardi, if not quite as illuminating. Redburn is, as Melville's books sometimes are, episodic. It's a tale of innocence meeting experience: the story of a naive, clean-living, pure of heart young man who takes to sea and has a lot of his romantic idealism knocked out of him. It is full of detailed and generally absorbing observations of life on sea and -- when the ship docks for six weeks in Liverpool, heart of the "middle passage" slave trade -- land. After 200 pages, you wonder when some kind of story is going to take off. But the observations are the story; it's a catalogue of cruelties on land and sea. Besides the sailor Wellingborough Redburn, the major character aboard the ship is a vicious, hateful old bastard named Jackson. He's a kind of Iago: godless, hellbent, mean for the sake of it. On land, Redburn falls in with a feckless dandy named Harry, who comes to no good; biographers such as Elizabeth Hardwick see in these passages some possible suggestion expression of Melville's own homosexual experience, which is credible, I suppose. In Redburn's travels throughout Liverpool, trying to follow an outdated guidebook of his father's, he is observant of slavery and wretched poverty -- the most touching scene in the book is one where he sees a helpless mother with two children and a dead infant in her arms. The Melville headnote in the Norton anthology I used in college said the the book was really about man's inhumanity to man. Their guess is as good as mine.

Also finished re-reading Best Friends, taking notes all the way through. More on that later.

In the realm of life, my number one goal is the proper management of printed matter, of which there is entirely too much.

No comments: