• Gail Wilson Kenna

"Moby Dick tore off Ahab's leg at the knee," the famous British writer, D.H. Lawrence wrote,

then added, "Quite right, too. Should have torn off both legs, and a bit more besides."

This gives a sense of Lawrence's jocular tone in what he wrote about Moby-Dick in 1923 for Studies in Classic American Literature. I am not buying the book and will rely on a website ( for the essay. Whether the form on this August 6, 2018, site is the same as Lawrence's published essay, I do not know. But I appreciated the whimsical, entertaining, and informal nature of the piece I read.

Three times D.H. uses 'sententious' to describe Herman Melville, and 'sententiously' once. It strikes me as an odd word because of its contrary meaning: inflated and puffed-up, but succinct, short and sweet. I went to my unabridged OED and found the meaning I think Lawrence intended for Melville: prone to pompous moralizing or bombastic formality.

Lawrence wrote: "The artist was so much better than the man…a tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical-transcendentalist sort (Emerson, Hawthorne). Lawrence wrote his review of Moby-Dick years before the 1928 publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover. This controversial novel remained banned in the United States until 1960.

In the fourteen-page piece from Berfrois, I enjoyed Lawrence's salty comments. For example, after he said (see above), "a bit more besides," he added: "But Ahab doesn’t think so. Ahab is now a monomaniac. Moby Dick is his monomania. Moby Dick must die or Ahab can't live any longer…All right. This Pequod, ship of the American soul, has three mates.

1. Starbuck: Quaker, Nantucketer, a good responsible man of reason, forethought, intrepidity, what is called a dependable man. At bottom, afraid.

2. Stubbs: Fearless as fire, and as mechanical. Insists on being reckless and jolly on every occasion. Must be afraid, too.

3. Flask: Stubborn, obstinate, without imagination. To him, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse or water-rat.

There you have them: a maniac captain and his three mates, three splendid seamen, admirable whalemen, first-class men at their job.


It is rather like Mr. (Woodrow) Wilson and his admirable, efficient crew, at the Peace Conference. Except that none of the Pequodders took their wives along.

A maniac captain of the soul, and three eminently practical mates.


Then such a crew, Renegades, castaways, cannibals, Ishmael, Quakers.


Lawrence goes on to name the three harpooners, followed by Ahab's secret crew members, including the nefarious Fedallah.

D.H. then asks: "What do you think of the ship Pequod the ship of the soul of America?

Many races, many peoples, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes. Beaten with many stripes. Seeing stars sometimes. And in a mad ship, under a mad captain, in a mad fanatic's hunt for Moby Dick, the great white whale."

Yet Lawrence concludes, "It is a surpassingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts!"

And in fourteen pages (on the website), Lawrence works his way through the novel, concluding that M-D "is an epic of the sea…a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of CONSIDERABLE TIRESOMENESS!"

Yet again, he counters this known truth about Moby-Dick's factual tedium, by stating: "It is the greatest book of the seas ever written. It moves awe in the soul."

For a visual experience, you might consider watching a short documentary on the internet: Phillip Hoare &"The Hunt for Moby Dick."

Next week: A real whale rams and sinks a real ship, the Essex

18 views0 comments

The quote is from Leo Tolstoy's, The Kreutzer Sonata. Leo's wife, the Countess Tolstoy, was her husband's scribe and copyist, a female "Bartleby the Scrivener." * Herman Melville, the author of this short story*, wrote in pencil. Wife Lizzie recopied his work in ink, a female prototype for Bartleby, only she did not say, "I would prefer not to." Herman's three sisters were also enlisted as scriveners at the family's farmhouse, Arrowhead, according to a feminist scholar.

Having begun with Tolstoy's quote, I now quote another Russian: Anton Chekhov, who claimed it takes a lifetime to squeeze the slave out of oneself. Remembering Anton's words made me shift from unconventional Sarah Morewood to dutiful Elizabeth Shaw Melville. And I tried to imagine Lizzie on Christmas 1851, watching the wreath ceremony between beautiful, free-spirited Sarah and husband Herman (see last week's blog). Realizing that I knew little about Elizabeth, I entered her name and Sarah's in Google. Which is when I saw a familiar name, Jay Parini.

One summer at the Bread Loaf writers' conference I took a class on Hemingway from Parini, a Middlebury English professor. Seeing his name, I opened and printed his 1998 New York Times review, "Call Me Herman," about The Handsome Sailor. Both Sarah and Lizzie's names had popped up because the novelist, Larry Duberstein, based his book on Melville's later years, mainly 1882, in New York. But the novel's middle section takes place in the Berkshires during the time Melville finished Moby-Dick, then wrote the disastrous, Pierre. In the novel, Duberstein creates an imagined Sarah Morewood diary. This did not impress reviewer Parini, but he found her authentic correspondence insightful. He concludes, "There is little evidence from which to infer that a relationship (seduction & adultery) actually took place" between Sarah and Melville. Michael Shelden's 2016 Melville in Love provides evidence to the contrary. In Duberstein's novel, Melville is involved decades later with a Cora Stevenson; but unlike Sarah, Cora is not based on an actual person. Yet in the novel's first section, Parini notes, "The stunted marriage of Lizzie and Herman becomes palpable," raising many questions. Parini ends by saying the novel did not "shine much light into those shadowy last years" of Melville's life.

After too long on Google, delving into The Melville Society, I opened Elizabeth Hardwick's Melville in the Penguin Lives series. I read her short chapter on Elizabeth, laboring on a weary evening, to bring the skewered, cramped handwriting to legibility, and reading of "disenchanting matrimonial days and nights."

Hardwick comments with humor on the italicized phrase. Well, Lizzie, pass on in the manner of a court stenographer clicking away about heads severed with a hatchet.

Then Hardwick adds: "What did the burdened wife think of the incestuous follies of Pierre and about the magazine piece, "I and My Chimney," in which a husband is trying to save a treasured bit of household familiarity and the wife is in a rampaging renovation mood? Elizabeth would say that the obstructing female virago was Herman's mother, not herself."

Call Lizzie enslaved; and it seems obvious there is a definite conflict between the ardor of Melville's work and his unhappy household. Yet Herman and Elizabeth remained married for 44 years, through Malcolm's suicide and Stanwick's early death from T.B. in California.

Hershel Parker, known as the leading Melville scholar, whose first of two volumes on Melville ran 883 pages, suffers for his literary hero. First, Herman was ignored and forgotten, called Henry in his NY Times obit. Then a New York doctoral student named Weaver dug Melville from obscurity, even found through a granddaughter, the unknown novel, Billy Budd. And a Melville revival began in the early 1920s. Now the "new age" third wave, is washing Melville to shore, the old sailor tattooed with labels: wife beater, child abuser, alcoholic, misogynist, repressed homosexual, racist, and more. The penchant for judging an artist from 'then' according to 'now. What are your thoughts on this?

I will end with scholar Hershel Parker.

Annoyed at an interviewer's questions about the Melville marriage, and the depiction of his literary hero as a monster, Parker shot back, "A genius should not marry."

Next time: The delight of reading D.H. Lawrence's thoughts on Moby-Dick

35 views2 comments
  • Gail Wilson Kenna

The prologue to Michael Shelden's Melville in Love details Sarah Anne Morewood's "old-fashion'd English Christmas with Holly & Mistletoe & bobbing apples." One Shelden source for describing this 1851 dinner (and Sarah's wreath) is none other than the Gorgon: Maria Gansevoort Melville (see last week's blog). On December 29 and 30, she wrote to her daughter, Augusta, about the Christmas dinner at Broadhall. (The letter reported in 2002, used in the 2016 Melville in Love.)

"When dinner is announced, he (Herman) takes his hostess by the arm and leads her into the dining room, leaving her husband to follow, as if this is Melville's home, and Sarah is his wife. When they reach the table, a beautiful Laurel wreath lies before them on a plate…the handiwork of Mrs. Morewood, who has a talent for floral design.

Without a word, she picks up the wreath and gently lifts it to Melville's brow, pressing close against him on her toes because he is so much taller. For a moment they look like actors playing a scene in an old drama. With a little imagination, this looks like the moment onstage when a queen crowns her champion, or a maiden shows her favor to the victor of the race."

What is necessary backstory, dear reader, before I continue with this Christmas scene?

In November of 1851, Moby-Dick was published.

But I would like to imagine an earlier time in 1851 at Arrowhead, Herman's farmhouse, prior to completion of MD. From morning until late afternoon, he is in his study, pencil in hand, working on his novel, straining his eyes, worrying about excessive debts, while below in the farmhouse, five women and a baby depend on him. Still, despite his circumstances, Melville is convinced his Whale book will be his breakthrough novel, a bestseller, receive favorable reviews, and relieve him of debt. What happens? "The book is an unmitigated commercial disaster." In Melville's lifetime, Moby-Dick sells just over 3,000 copies and earns him $556.37, according to the April 1969, Harvard Library Bulletin.

The rub for Melville, besides the literary world's general disdain of MD, was the Pittsfield community's reaction. Melville was harshly criticized, and his novel called Blasphemous with a capital B. This takes us back to Sarah's wreath and notable persons from the community at her Christmas dinner and "pagan" ceremony. Now, Melville lifts the wreath from his brow, places it on Sarah's, says he will "not be crowned," and crowns her instead. Shelden surmises there was a long and uncomfortable pause following this scene. The wreath stays on the table. Later the guests disperse. As Melville takes the reins of his sleigh, laden with wife and mother, a servant comes forward with the wreath. Sarah will not let Herman leave without her token of honor to the artist and genius, who has written a "mighty work worthy of a crown."

If you were to read Shelden's book, you would see what a playful duo Herman and Sarah were, especially in "coded" correspondence and pranks, like the one they staged on Christmas, with its quasi-reversal of the Apollo-Daphne myth. Yet Sarah obeys Apollo's decree that the leaves of this Greek god's favorite tree, the Laurel, be used for her lover's victory wreath.

Next week: " A mountain lion doesn't mate with a Persian cat," joked D.H. Lawrence, who called Melville a "proud and savage" man.

16 views0 comments