HERMAN MELVILLE’S BIG book about the whale hadn’t done as well as he’d expected and twenty-five days after its publication he sat brooding in the kitchen, tugging at his beard. His wife, Elizabeth, sat across the table attempting to ignore the intense brow of her husband that only promised an afternoon of arguing.
“I should’ve perhaps made the whale into something different,” he mused, “something more palpable, more earth-bound.”
“You did your best.”
He sighed, “symbolism…”
He produced an orange and with a small pocketknife began to peel it. Elizabeth set down her needlepoint. Summer had announced itself that very morning with its intense warmth permeating the drapery and casting figures of light upon the nook in the kitchen.
“Maybe it is a big book, maybe it is rough treading, but I couldn’t just slice the book in half, it would’ve been like slicing my own arm.”
Herman looked at his wife then slumped in his chair, knowing he was wasting his words on a vacant audience. She loved Herman and that was the problem. Herman wanted a comprehension that would contradict his ideas, gawk his prophecies. The fights they shared were decent but they were between man and wife, thus lacking any of the fortitude, the meat required to prove his genius.
He ate a slice of orange and the juice escaped his lips and wet the surrounding whiskers of his face.
“There are other books in you.”
“I know that.”
“I’m only saying. We’re all of us tired. Fifteen months of your railing about that fish.”
“It’s not a fish…”
“The mammal. My apologies. But it’s finished now and you have to move on.”
But he couldn’t move on. How does one move on after casting his soul on paper? How does one endure unmarked? Herman was different, the world was different, a fact he nor his wife could refute. And the change was indiscernible, but as certain as death or the four decades of obscurity that awaited him. The other books were good, fine even, but this one was something else. Though still young – he was only 32 – he’d already begun to wear the accumulation of life’s disregards; they collected in the most unlikely places. His shoulders seemed heavier, thicker, more resilient but also more ravaged, as if he’d won the battles but with each subsequent assault his strength had been lessened, leaving him fragmented and, if not broken, nearly broken.
His beard, normally groomed to the times, had grown to lengths suggesting homelessness or lunacy. The hair had literally burst forth, adapting to the progress of his book, zigzagging outwards as if staking out its own quest for a whale. His face began to resemble the mute and noble fury of a lion. He refused to have the clippers set upon it and whenever Elizabeth, hair in bun, approached with scissors and that dignified look almost passing itself off as peace, Herman would retreat to the refuge of his study, not to be bothered.
The boys had also noticed. They stayed upstairs – if home – or gave excuses to friends as to why they should loiter at someone else’s house. They had lived with the man while he wrote the book; the tantrums, the harried pacing that exuded devotion and frenzy but certainly not normalcy. Their father’s implacable attention to details while not noticing he’d worn the same bathrobe for two weeks that carried the stench of anchored flesh. He’d leave the house to go walking and not return for six or seven hours, covered in hoarfrost, beard matted, eyes frantic and ravished and often bringing along a fever the way an ordinary man brought home paychecks.
Elizabeth boiled some water for tea. Although she came from a good family she had a filthy mouth and Herman had spent time enough on the ocean to appreciate her tongue. The swear words had only emerged after five years of marriage and instead of shame or even madness, Herman found a perverse satisfaction in his wife’s vernacular. It also allowed him to let loose with his own colorful speech and not feel any guilt. Around the boys Elizabeth appeared docile, but alone with Herman she spewed obscenities like a fiend. Both of their tempers resembled one another and, accordingly, relied on each other to give them their essence, the acute sense of personality that one calls wit.
“Did you get the check?” she asked.
“Thaniel’s not going to pay you. He would’ve paid you by now if he intended.”
“Oh I forgot, his projects.”
Herman had lent Nathaniel Hawthorne fifty dollars on his last visit in order to have the wheel of his carriage fixed. Herman had made the mistake of telling his wife, whose fiscal responsibilities were fixed in a Puritan mindset. She wouldn’t let up about the money and the topic was only becoming more deep-rooted. Each day she asked the same question, only more often, as if the mail could be delivered more than twice a day. Herman also had noticed the sick security his wife found in his friend’s thoughtlessness.
“Yes,” she said, the water starting to boil, “Thaniel goes to England, Thaniel goes to the capitol, but Thaniel can’t find it in his heart to pay you back your fifty dollars.”
“Your fifty dollars!” He exploded. “If it were mine I wouldn’t be hearing about it.”
“If it were yours you’d of spent it on drink!”
Elizabeth set the cup in front of Herman and poured the boiling water.
“He’ll pay me.”
“He won’t and you know it.”
Herman knew his wife begrudged Nathaniel. Ever since she’d discovered the whale-book had been dedicated to him, changed, as it were, at the last minute. Each subsequent book Herman wrote had been promised her, and the way he had raved and suffered through this one’s creation she felt more than deserving in regards to its dedication. During the various drafts he assured her the book’s dedication belonged to her but after its completion he’d retracted the vow when he caught her being dishonest about having read the entire manuscript. It was the easiest trick in the world for a writer: ask a simple question about the end. The end.
Elizabeth had taken a chance and stupidly told her husband she was glad that Ahab had retracted his designs and gotten home safely.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
She realized the mistake as soon as it had left her lips. His wife’s lie was the cruelest of verdicts. Herman’s audience had yet to give the author its reaction, that of indifference, and his wife’s reception seemed like a prophecy of what was to come. Herman disappeared in a fury, she knew not where until the following month when the first editions of the book appeared on their doorstep and Elizabeth, instead of finding her own name in the inscription, discovered Hawthorne’s: “In Token For My Admiration For His Genius…”
She deflated; he went to the printer’s, that son of a bitch! She stalked the house, picking up odds and ends and dusting them to work off her rage. She broke several of the figurines she had collected since childhood.
Genius! Genius! Why this obsession with genius? Genius is the cause of the world’s troubles! Isn’t it enough to have talent, nay, not even that but decency? Once this word genius surfaces it means only strife and unrest. Men think they can behave however they want because of genius!
Herman had suffered visions, delusions – his beard began speaking to him, literally – angels appeared on the sill beyond his desk while he wrote the seemingly endless chapters of his voyage. And his wife had answered these months of inspiration with, of all things, deception. Days went by; neither spoke to the other nor did they desire getting caught speaking to one of the boys. Herman, pale and distracted, shuffled in and out of the house, husband and wife waiting for the other to concede first.
Finally, after ten days Herman approached Elizabeth from behind and spanked her butt playfully. An explicit expression told Herman to lay off her ass.
Herman had piloted the family into debt with the ease and disregard of writing a story for some pseudo-literary periodical. The libraries he used to amass all the erudite facts about leviathans and spermaceti and the motley types of harpoons. Arcane facts. Obscure details. Herman had used everything in his soul to fashion a work of art, Biblical in proportion, something he felt the animal he was describing deserved. For an entire year the librarians had nudged one another as he stumbled through the door, austere, unnecessarily serious, wiping the snow from his coat and hat or, inversely, the sweat. At first they begrudged the eccentric author his hours, the way he fished amongst the dusty piles or pleaded to be allowed more than five books to take home, as if his very soul were hovering above the coals. After the book’s completion and beyond his knowledge, the librarians had actually begun to miss him, asking one another if they had seen the heavy-cloaked visage, the harried brow with the grave beard.
Herman offered his wife a wedge of orange. She declined. He continued eating, the neglected rind coating his fingers. Herman had always been a messy eater and despite his wife’s endeavors wouldn’t change his habits. Often out of superstition or perhaps indolence he’d go weeks without changing his undergarments, especially during a period of writing.
These periods could last up to a month. A trail of stench, of lived-in flesh followed him about the house, to the printers, along the streets of Manhattan where a keen observer might nudge their companion and remark that’s the guy who wrote that island story. Yeah, who? Melville. Herman Melville. I thought he’d died. Both treating the author’s life with the indifference one would give to a stranger’s sneeze or a half-interesting story in the papers.
“I’m sorry.” Liz suddenly said, picking up the strand of the only argument that mattered to her husband.
“Sorry for what, my dear? Not making it through the book or lying about it?”
“I’ve finished it since.”
“I’m sorry for the dishonesty. The one thing I always promised you, faithfulness, and I betrayed you. I’m sorry that I couldn’t make it through your book. Please understand, it’s rather tedious.” She cleared her throat. “And I mean that in a good way. Milton is tedious.”
“Tedious or not, you told me you read it, told me you loved it, ‘your best work ever Herman!’ Bah!”
“It is a big book.”
“No bigger than your talent at telling lies.”
Elizabeth’s face blossomed at the thought of her retort. “If my supposed talent matched yours we wouldn’t be dodging debt collectors would we?”
This was their first true fight since the initial row about her having finished the book and Herman was a little relieved to see his wife had returned. He’d felt bad about retracting the dedication but bad in the way a parent feels when withholding desert from a misbehaving child or not giving in to tantrums at the store.
They finished their tea and Elizabeth attached her bonnet. “I’ll check the mail.”
Surprised at himself for being so wound up so early in the morning he raised his voice. “If there’s nothing from Nathaniel I don’t wanna hear it.”
Moments later she returned, empty handed. She sat across from Herman, unfolded her hands in the hopes of receiving his. She looked unflinching, silently pleading. Both knew there was little money left in the savings, none coming in. What she received from her family, there was that, and besides that, what? The profits from the book, if any, wouldn’t arrive for weeks or even months. Sad though it was, Hawthorne’s fifty dollars wouldn’t merely be helpful; it was necessary.
“The boys need clothes.” She said. “New shoes.”
Herman left the house and took to the sidewalk. Though he didn’t know it himself, he was about to continue the routine he’d begun – and faithfully followed – over the past month. Often he set out with the best of intentions, convinced he would finally send word to Nathaniel asking kindly about the money. However Herman went where his legs led him. Though he’d maintained the fiction of writing his friend, Herman, in reality, was simply pacing the city, taking large, day-long loops that ultimately brought him back home once the boys were asleep and Elizabeth had lit candles in the windows. Sometimes he stopped for tea or a newspaper, but more often he simply walked the entire day, until his feet hurt and the small of his back ached; and all of this in order to evade his wife’s accusing eyes.
He mumbled to himself as he often did when walking. Sometimes he made outlines for future stories, arriving at lines so resilient he was forced to step inside the shops and borrow ink and paper. His thoughts traversed many things; America, popular trials; the south and slavery. All this existing madness and he with his self-obsessed notions, it dated him. Made him feel unfashionable to himself. I have to write Hawthorne, he mumbled, have to ask him for that cursed money. He walked toward the Battery, passed Gansveoort Hotel. Passed a cigar shop, a haberdashery. Why so sultry? He wondered. The days, the days the endless days. I want to see the ocean. The soul’s sublimation in work. The sea, always the sea. He passed a shop of sundries, the front window immersed in best-sellers. Copies of copies of copies. The machine broken. America so young and the machine already broken. And in the same breath so many ghosts. I’ll bring Liz flowers. Daises.
People stopped, speculated where he was headed. Nobody would have guessed he was tidying up the most common of domestic disasters, that of appeasing the wife. Nor would they have guessed he was on his way to wire Nathaniel Hawthorne with his wife’s banal demand for fifty dollars which in this life means nothing and everything both at once. Fifty dollars and less that have ended friendships meant to take the great voyage to eternity. Melville paused, retreated, turned a different corner then crossed the street. Words collected, pooled, trafficked through his mind, the soul’s refuse, Praxis, Seraphim, India Ink, Violets, she likes violets; the words turned corners and leapt, as if aping his flesh.
People already thought Melville was mad or at the very least suffered periods of instability. His publishers were weary of dealing with an artist whose struggles had never been repaid. Melville was old hat. Washed up. The more superstitious of publishers had even prohibited Herman’s manuscripts from crossing the precipice of their offices, their desks, lest they curse the other writer’s works with the tinge of failure.
So what was compelling him to move forward? Was it the same force that extracted words from his mind, the same fecundity that drove him to madness, ecstasy? The heart simply beats and man can do nothing but continue until the heart decides its work is done. Herman considered the countless days he exerted, all squandered, all spent appeasing others. The years wasted in prosaic chores, spent making others recognize something his soul identified at first glance. The days of endless defeats, the hours spent defending the soul: a routine of forfeits.
Heavy skyscrapers loomed; eventually they would be replaced by taller and more seductive ones. The demon of progress skulking the corners of the Burroughs, wearing a top hat and passing itself off as the past while it beguiled its occupants with the ruckus of motion. The brutish and mustard yellow breath of progress, filling the shop windows with enticements. A trolley passed. Melville picked up his stride, straightened his direction. The post office, I must, fifty dollars.
He passed the same square where a statue of the Revolutionary War resided. His first lap. Once again he was buying time, immersed in the ritual.
Melville’s shadow struck the side of a building where an advertisement for chewing tobacco had been painted. More than thirty years remained in his life to watch the city manifold; cables of electricity fashioned across streets like lines of laundry with no clothes, the depths of earth giving birth to subway cars that rumbled beneath the concrete like monsters fighting. The mosquito buzzing of neon signs that held the promise of apocalypse. These inventions yet to occur, Melville felt the presage in his soul. All of this left to see in his life. The earth didn’t spin, he mused, it lunged.
All afternoon he walked, already a ghost, the sun ebbing behind the cavernous haunts of Manhattan. Still he couldn’t staunch the flow of words: pity, defeat, toil so much toil in this single life, toil and toil and even confronting death there is toil it never ends, living and dying are both so much toil what is one left with but the work of one’s life which again is toil? Melville never thought of words like literature. Literature was a word used by students, publishers, critics. Melville was literature. It coursed his veins, carried its scent with each drawn breath, absorbed into his skin like soot in a coal mine. Melville thought of literature the way a painter thinks of color, in that they don’t. Don’t accept it nor fight it, it’s simply there, suspended, suffused with the soul, an appendage of their lives never asking for consent. And even had he sat down to write out his wits he would’ve still been haunted by words, awoken the next day replenished. He didn’t ask for this gift, this curse, the same way a sleeping person never asks for dreams.
The sun diminished. Men in top hats walked the streets with poles, lighting the lampposts. The pungent smells of family dinners clashed in the night, graduating to the scents of bitter coffee and, in other, wealthier avenues, cigars.
Literature. What a sad silly gorge we make of ourselves when all is said, when what’s got to be set down is set down and done. Man emptied like a shell.
He thinks better of himself. I will wire Hawthorne, the boys need shoes. The post office in his borough is already closed but this doesn’t stop him (when did the library’s hours stop him?) Liz is right, must come back to earth, no more oceans or seas, no more grass skirts or passages from the Bible. That world has died.
Herman Melville, sad old man at 32, an obituary already written, tries the door of the post office knowing he has succeeded in failing once again. The door is locked and to appease his conscience he even knocks. No one answers.