Soon after Gabriel’s first birthday, I finished re-readingMoby Dick, which I had started again that winter, deep in my depression. No other novel I could think of was as big and powerful in its scope, as sweeping in its presentation of human destructiveness, and that winter as I read, I had been caught up in its vision. But as I came to the book’s end, one bright spring day, I felt that I was suddenly aware of all the novel left out. As I read the book’s last pages, when the men are all pulled under in the sunk ship’s downward whirlpool, it occurred to me that Melville leaves out from his book almost entirely women, the domestic, children and the life of the land. With Gabriel playing at my feet, I felt aware of all the novel did not touch upon.
I had been very much seduced by Moby Dick. I appreciated its vastness, its almost existential angst. But now I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if the greatest American novel were about the mysterious, alluring, tedious, exasperating, strange and wonderful work of mothers, of pregnancy, of the human body giving birth to another, of that other coming into its own. If Moby-Dick drives outward towards mystery, which comes at its climaxing destructive end, pregnancy and motherhood seemed to have pulled me inward and back.
I had spent my life reading great literature, and I had been most often attracted to the intricate and complex work of men, to the very authority with which they seemed to write. Why had so few women written with the same authority, with the same extraordinary talent and soul and intricacy, that sense of writing out of their very centers? Was it because, for women, those centers were fulfilled by motherhood? Or was it because those very centers, in women, were closed off, in a realm without a real vocabulary or tradition of which to be a part?
Melville of course could write about men on ships because this was what his imagination could illuminate, but what could my own imagination illuminate? In its very largeness, in what it seemed to move away from––the domestic, the life of families, of men and women and children together–– Moby Dick seemed to signal what I wanted.
I remembered that Arrowhead, the house where Melville wrote Moby Dick, was close to my parents’ house in the Berkshires and close to the house where we had spent Gabriel’s first summer the year before. I thought that seeing the home of this writer who so decidedly seemed to run away from the domestic in his writing might help me. How did Melville in his own life integrate his own largeness of vision, his ambition and despair, with his life and responsibilities as a husband and father? On the one hand Melville seems to run away from the everyday––Melville himself, one might argue, was running his whole life from the fact of his father’s death and the break-up of his first domestic home when he was only thirteen, at the cusp of maturity. Yet the attention to detail, the compassion, the humanity of Melville’s vision seemed also particularly well suited to documenting the strange and ordinary extraordinariness of the everyday, and of parenting itself.
We arranged to go upstate for the weekend. As a little mini-vacation, a kind of celebration of our first year of parenthood, Eric and I dropped Gabriel off with my parents and spent the night at an inn. When we first dropped Gabriel off, Eric and I felt slightly strange, like backpackers who for the first time all day put down their heavy pack; we felt almost weightless, not sure of the shape of our own bodies. Back at the inn, we lounged around in our room, flipped through the leisure magazines, talked, and finally made love, as if reacquainting ourselves with ourselves.
In the late afternoon, we drove to the house we had rented the summer before. The lawn looked almost as lush as it had when we had first arrived the previous summer, though the bed of flowers around the border had not been replanted. There was a car in the driveway, so we didn’t walk in farther to look at the patio or to stand over the stream. Instead we walked once more down the road, through the small town by the junk house, over the bridge, stopping for a while to watch the water flow beneath us, and then down by the farm. Everything looked the same as it had the year before, and I felt as I was walking that I, too, was the same, and that in fact I was the same I as I had always been, as if, even as a young girl, I had contained within me this mother-self I now was.
We turned around at the fork in the road, and didn’t make it to the top of the hill where we had so often seen the sun set. Instead we walked back to our car and drove into town to eat dinner. That evening, back at the inn, we made love again and fell asleep early.
When we woke the next morning it was drizzling outside. After breakfast we drove to Arrowhead. As we traveled through the landscape, I tried to imagine what it had looked like a hundred and fifty years earlier. I tried to imagine farmland and a world without cars, but the contrast made the country roads feel suburban and destroyed, and put me in a bad mood. I tried to stop my imagination and enjoy things as they were.
Arrowhead itself is a medium sized mustard colored clapboard house overlooking a field and a small hill. We drove back behind it and parked, and went inside to buy our tickets. Inside, there were only two other couples on the tour with us.
When the family moved to Arrowhead in 1850, the docent told us, Melville had been married for three years, and had one child, Malcolm (who was to kill himself seventeen years later, though the docent did not tell us this). The Melvilles had summered nearby and enjoyed it so much that Herman bought Arrowhead at the end of the season. Lizzie had been happy to move away from her in-laws, with whom they had been living in Manhattan, but Herman’s mother and three sisters soon moved in with them, and so there were six adults in the house and, over time, four children.
The tour took us first to the dining room, then into the sitting room, where the family spent much of its time. These were the main rooms of the house, and it was hard to imagine how so many people had lived there; it was a chaotic and often noisy place, the docent told us, but I wished I could have known in more specifics what dinner time had been like, what long cold winter afternoons had been like, how they had all arranged themselves in the space, what the women did all day, what they had talked about and what they had quarreled about.
Upstairs there were only two rooms: the master bedroom, and, across from it, Herman’s study, directly above, and as large as, the sitting room below. The size of the room surprised me. Melville gives his protagonist Pierre a study no bigger than a closet, in which the character locks himself and writes. But Melville’s room was spacious and grand, hardly a garret.
Where did everyone else sleep, we asked the docent. He gestured behind the room: there were some closet like spaces back there, he told us. But where did Herman’s mother and sisters sleep, and the children as they grew? Apparently, there were also what the docent called “outbuildings.” Perhaps the other family members had slept in them. The docent wasn’t really sure. . The kitchen, too, must have been out there, and the servants’ quarters.
This lack of information interested, if it did not quite surprise, me, for in even the best biographies that I had looked at quickly, it appeared that relatively little is known about Melville’s domestic life which, like so much else, has been erased from our knowledge of the world.
We went into the study. Outside the rain had stopped, and at a distance we could see Mount Greylock, the humped whale-shaped mountain, through the mist. Melville’s large desk sat facing the window so that he could see the landmass rising as he wrote. I looked around the room: I noted the fireplace, the poker by the fire, the big writing desk, the view out the window. I tried to imagine what it had been like for Melville to sit there writing. But as so often happens to me in those situations, my imagination felt dull. I kept on wanting to know more about the children, about Lizzie, his wife, about what it had been like, day by day, hour by hour, to live in that house. But the docent had no more information for me.
I thought of the five women in the house, and Melville, the one man, with his large study, writing away to support the whole household on his writings that also were to be the personal expression of his genius. Who can blame him for wanting to escape into his study, for locking the door? He wrote fanatically, finishing his six-hundred-page novel in a year. Virginia Woolf, of course, asserted that for a woman to be a writer, she, too, must have a room of her own. But it also seemed to me that as Melville was scribbling away, always trying to get at the heart of the matter, he was also missing the life that was around him all the time.
He would come down to dinner frustrated, his nerves on end, and later, if not then, his domestic life was often unhappy: his moodiness threatened to break up his marriage; his children, who loved their papa, also found him unpredictable and tyrannical.
Stepping into the bedroom before going down again to the first floor, I recalled reading about Lizzie’s second birth, to Stanwix, a month before Moby Dick was published. It was in this bedroom that she had had such high fevers that the people nursing her back to health had needed to hang sheets over the wallpaper to prevent it from constantly dancing in front of her eyes. After the fevers abated, in the months to come, as Herman got to work across the hall on his next novel, Pierre, Lizzie had problems with abscessed nipples which eventually became so painfully infected that she was forced to wean the baby prematurely, a fact that may have contributed to his being rather sickly.
And Pierre, meanwhile, is about trying to escape some of the tediousness and hypocrisy of domestic life. Some male biographers, writing with a tone of sympathy for Herman, and saying not a word about his wife, have speculated that Melville wrote out of a sense of entrapment when his own physical relations in his marriage were strained because of her illnesses. This might be, but mightn’t we approach the situation differently? And if we sympathize with Herman, who does not get what he wants, what about poor Lizzie across the hall, suffering, caught in the female body that no amount of thinking or imagination will jump over, the body whose job it was to keep itself and to keep the new baby alive. Might we approach the domestic with different expectations, with a sense not just of being burdened, but also of being part of something big and important?
Pierre, written right after Moby Dick, and in the shadow of that book’s disappointing reception, was disastrous for Melville’s literary career. Never again would Melville be able to support the family as a novelist. Eleven years later he needed to sell the beloved Arrowhead, and he spent the last twenty years of his life working six days a week in the New York City customs house, his family life often very unhappy, his marriage often on the verge of collapse, his older son dead by suicide, his younger son wrecked partly as a result, his daughters embittered against their father. If writing novels was to be an escape for Melville, practically, it, too, became a dead-end.
Whatever inspired Pierre, all of Melville’s novels, and most especially Moby Dick, can be seen as attempts at escaping, escaping the anxiety of the self, escaping the hypocrisy and boredom and pettiness of every day life. Written when Melville for the first time settled down in a house of his own, married and with his first child, Moby Dick opens with the idea of escape: when Ishmael finds himself fantasizing about death, he jumps on a ship: “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…. I account it high time to get to sea.” “With a philosophical flourish,” Melville goes on, “Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.” Ahab’s mad quest for Moby Dick can itself be seen as a means of escaping his own existential angst: out and out these men move, ever outward for adventure, revenge, largeness itself. But in the end, Melville’s characters all die except for Ishmael who is saved by a floating coffin and picked up by another ship looking for its Captain’s lost son. The escape that the tale offers, thus, is hardly a very promising one.
In Van Eyck’s and Botticelli’s high renaissance paintings, the order and refinement of the interior world is balanced by the exterior world of escape, a world of twisting rivers and magical landscapes. But in Moby Dick there isonly escape: Melville plunges into the ocean, away from the civilized world, out and out into the unknown until the book itself is consumed by escape itself. There is no alternative space.The very structure of Moby Dick rejects the renaissance ideal of balance. The novel breaks form. It rejects the neat plot of novels; it is huge and shapeless. Already, a hundred and fifty years ago, Melville rejected the belief in human order, in human knowledge, progress, perfection.
In his early book, Redburn, Melville looked to the civilized world and was horrified. In one of the most harrowing scenes I have ever read, the young narrator, an American disembarking for the first time in the old world, full of illusions and hopes about that civilized land of his ancestors, comes upon a mother and her children literally starving to death in Liverpool under a stair; when the narrator goes back to them with a bit of bread, he finds a dead infant at the woman’ shrunken breast. This is Redburn’s first introduction to the old world of high civilization. If Chardin predates the Romantics by a generation, dying ten years before the French Revolution, Melville, a generation after the high Romantics, writing in the new world, replaced the needlessly killed rabbits with the great colossal white sperm whale: the vision of death and destruction has reached a kind of apocalyptic pitch. In Moby Dick there seems no longer any hope for a coherent civilized world, and so Melville tries to escape into nature, into a new order of writing itself. But neither offers him any respite.
Melville had thought that he was starting a new American tradition, but the very terms in which he had tried to define that tradition were ones that he himself rejected—America would have a new world class literature because of its new imperial powers, he wrote in an essay about his friend and mentor Nathaniel Hawthorne, though he deplored the very imperialism of which he spoke, and Moby Dickparticipates in the very largeness of ambition, the rage and all encompassing mania that it itself critiques. Pierre, his darkest novel, written in the wake of the critical failure of his masterpiece, is about a novelist who tries to find some original essence, tries himself to develop a new world writing, but decides that there is nothing authentic, that everything is strata upon strata all the way down, and commits suicide in the end.
There can be, Melville concludes, no escape; escape itself sucks us into itself. Now, it would seem, we know this better than ever. Moby Dick is perhaps the last great book that imagines the infinite largeness of the world. Now we can have no illusions on that scale; the illusion of infinite resources has come up against its own end.
A hundred and fifty years ago, Melville seemed to reach a limit of destructiveness from which one could hardly even imagine escape or an alternate space. But today, the world is even more full of death and despair than it was in Melville’s time. We have moved out and out and out until history has, appallingly, superceded even the horror of the vision of Moby Dick. In Melville’s great novel of human destruction, the whale swims away.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the oceans could still represent the ultimate escape into the unknown. But today, beautiful and powerful as oceans still are, we cannot lose ourselves in them in the same way; humans have cast our filth even into the vast unknown of the ocean; many species of whales are now almost extinct.
There is a region in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas where the ocean resembles a plastic dump. There is now, according to some estimates, more plastic than plankton in the waters, and even if we were to stop producing all plastic today, which of course we are certainly not doing, the oceans would not be free of plastics for another thousand years.
In the past fifty years, ninety percent of the fish populations—of those populations that remain at all—are down to ten percent of their original numbers. In the past fifty years the area scraped clean by deep sea trawling rivals all the forests ever cut on land-the ancient cedar groves of Lebanon, the great oak forests that once covered Greece, the forests of the Amazon, the forests of Africa, of America, of all the land on earth. Great dead zones take up much of the ocean, dead zones that are ever on the increase.
Can we any longer imagine any alternate space? We have gone out and out on such a vast scale that we have colonized the whole earth. If Melville wrote Moby Dick today, could the great white whale swim away? And if it did not, what does that mean for the imagination, which the whale, the unknowable, the great blank that entices and eludes, represents?
And it was into this world that I had brought new life. All winter that thought had horrified me. But as we walked out of Arrowhead, the mist had cleared and the sky was blue. It was a beautiful early summer day. Grasses danced in the meadow in a slight breeze in the near distance, and farther off, Mount Greylock was rising, as it always is, out from the land into the sky. I was now missing Gabriel, and eager to return to my parents’ house where I would see him. And suddenly it seemed clear to me that I had come to Melville’s house looking for answers neither Melville the writer nor Melville the man could answer; I still expected to find in the books and the art I loved some larger authority. But now, looking up to Mount Greylock humped up into the now mistless sky, I thought I could see through that desire.
In my own life, I had often been seduced by largeness, by anger, by despair. It could be almost intoxicating, itself a form of escape. But I had reached a limit. My despair would do nothing for my son.
And human history, too, seems to have reached a limit. For a long time, the globe seemed almost infinitely large. But for the past five hundred years, it has seemed smaller and smaller to the human imagination. Try as Melville did to create a new beginning, he seemed to run into a dead-end. It is, perhaps, the dead-end of the culture itself, a culture bent on destroying other animals, the earth, even what is best about itself. What was perhaps most striking about the tour of Melville’s house was how few of the people on the tour had ever read anything by Melville, and how accustomed the docent was to this state of affairs. Thus high civilization itself, and the greatest products of it become merely empty signs, stops on a weekend tour for wealthy tourists in their leisure time.
And yet, still, no one writes more movingly of the human soul than Melville, and perhaps what I could learn from Melville was I needed both to participate in the tradition that I loved, but also to stand outside of it.
I thought about Melville’s vision going out beyond the self to the seas, and about how my own experience of pregnancy and early motherhood had seemed to bring me back to myself and turned in, not to something smaller, but to something there, intact, infinitely mysterious and important. I thought about the largeness of the whale in the largeness of the ocean and the drive toward the end, and about the smallness of the fetus in the waters of the womb, and the miracle of beginnings, and about how these different experiences are opposites that almost reach out and touch up. And I thought that as the world goes about its business on an ever larger and larger scale, as it runs ever closer to the risk of dead-ending once and for all, it is for women to say loudly and clearly what women may always have known: that caretaking, attention to the individual, maintenance, pleasure are important and perhaps the most difficult work for us to do, and that it is this kind of work, this kind of attention, this respect for the lives around us that the world now needs, this sustaining work that moves not always outward and outward, but that stays where it is and attends to what is.
The illusion of infinite resources has come up against its own end, but the largeness of the human experience does not go away. There can be no escape. But this does not mean that our reaction need be one of despair, for despair itself is another form of longing for escape, which will not come. We are where we are. We are here. And heroism is not meeting the vast unknown, but remaining where one is, meeting the everyday around us, all the time.
Eric and I walked to the car. We stopped to watch a sparrow fly up to the roof of Melville’s house, a twig in its mouth. Then we drove back to my parents’ house. As soon we opened the door, Gabriel turned toward us and his whole face lit up in a big smile. On his short legs, he came as close to running as he could, one foot in front of the other, until he fell, stumbling in his excitement to see us again. He lifted his face up from the ground, stunned, not sure whether he was hurt or not; for a moment, he looked unsure whether to laugh or to cry, and then started to laugh, a big open-mouthed laugh, showing his four new white teeth. Then, picking himself up from the ground, he ran into my arms. I held him until he held his arms out to Eric, and Eric held him and swung him around until Gabriel squirmed to get free, eager to show us a new game.