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Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

Small Island: An Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick

July 24, 2013 | by

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Nathaniel Philbrick has written six books on United States history, most of which take place on or by the sea. In 2000, his In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex—about the sunken whaleship that inspired a young Herman Melville—won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. He then wrote Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, followed by Mayflower: A Story of Community, Courage, and War, which was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History. Because of In the Heart of the Sea and his articles on the whaling industry, Philbrick and Melville have become something of a pair. Philbrick recently wrote the thin and ruminative Why Read Moby-Dick? and the introduction to the last Penguin Edition of Moby-Dick.

I had read In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower years ago, but it wasn’t until this past spring when a local bookseller handed me Philbrick’s first book, Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, that I decided to write him a letter. There’s a thrifty, poetic quality to the makeup of that book, a clear joy in the research alone. It’s rawer, not so carved by what reviewers have noted as Philbrick’s masterful use of narrative and perspective in his other books, and so shows his research instincts clearer. He includes a description of the spring day when early Nantucketers set a pit of snakes on fire, and the time in 1795 when robbers bent pewter spoons into keys to steal $20,000 in gold coins from Nantucket Bank. Farmers on the island used to fertilize fields by scaring sheep at night with burning coals, and whalers traded their pant cuffs for sex in the South Pacific Islands. I put my e-mail on the bottom of the letter and dropped it in the mail. He wrote back in June, offering lunch and a “ramble” around the island.

We met for chowder and beer down at Nantucket’s South Wharf, near the old ships chandlery. Centuries ago, scallop shanties were on the South Wharf, where “openers” shucked for hours under lantern light and pipe smoke. Philbrick had arrived on his bike and exactly on time, wearing wayfarer sunglasses. It was a sunny day; while transcribing the interview, I listened to wind and gulls behind his voice. He speaks energetically, smiles constantly and in a way that evokes Steve Carell, and, mostly, is humble. Later that evening, walking through his house with him and his beloved golden retriever Stella, I saw just one sign of his success: a tiny framed clipping of the July 9, 2000, New York Times best-seller list, in which Harry Potter is on the fiction side, and In the Heart of the Sea is on the other, at number two. He’s proud of his family and talks about them often. He showed me the marks on the wooden floor where his son had practiced cello, and the room full of his grandmother’s paintings, one of which might be of her good friend, Claude Monet’s daughter.

After lunch, we walked through downtown to visit the Nantucket Historical Association’s Research Library. On the way, he pointed in the direction of where Herman Melville visited and dined with Nathaniel Hawthorne the summer after the disastrous publication of Moby-Dick. As in his books, Philbrick resurrects the past with unexpected precision: “Hawthorne,” he said, “was handsome and shy.” When we arrived at the Research Library, an archivist greeted him by holding up a review of his newest book, Bunker Hill. “Did you see this?” she asked, pointing to a caricature of Philbrick dressed like a colonial. “Oh, jeez,” he said, and turned away bashfully. 

Weeks later, sitting in his patio, Stella panting behind us, I asked him why he keeps retelling stories that people already know. The Mayflower story. Bunker Hill. Custer’s Last Stand. “Yeah, sure,” he said, smiling. “Everybody knows about the Little Bighorn. But what do they really know about the Little Bighorn? I knew nothing. What I knew was three sentences that had nothing to do with what happened.” He continued, “In each book, I don’t know what I’m getting into. And if I did know what I was getting into, the book would be stale. There would be no crackle. For me, it’s the act of discovery gives the prose life. Otherwise, it would be dead.”

Why did you move to Nantucket?

We came to Nantucket in 1986. It was my wife’s job that brought us here. She’s an attorney. She grew up on Cape Cod. I’m from Pittsburgh. I love to sail, but I’m not from a maritime area. I had grandparents in West Falmouth—that’s how Melissa and I ended up meeting. We were living in a suburb of Boston before we moved out. She was the breadwinner. I was at home, writing, taking care of the kids. We had kids, one and four.

You were a young dad.

We had Jenny when we were twenty-five. We had made sort of a pact. I said, You’re going to make a lot more money than I will—I was a journalist for what’s now Sailing World, out of Newport.

Neither one of us had spent any time here. It sounded like a good concept—no commuting, everyone would be close. We arrived in September—probably the first people to move to Nantucket without ever having spent a summer here. It took me a while to connect with the community, because I was at home with the kids. But then I got interested in the history of the island, and began to hang out at the archives. Away Off Shore is a product of learning history on my own, of going alone to look around the archives. Read More »

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A Week in Culture: Rutu Modan, Cartoonist

June 27, 2013 | by

Sunday

I have no idea how this happened, but apparently I’ve agreed to give a talk to the entire pre-K and first grade at a local school. A total of seven classes.

While I do, in fact, also illustrate children books, it’s really due to my interest in books and less to my interest in children. It’s not that I don’t like children—I’m quite fond of mine—but speaking to children is a bit scary. They don’t know they’re supposed to hide it if they’re bored.

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I show the kids books I’ve illustrated, share my work methods, and even throw in a professional secret: I can’t draw horses’ feet. During the Q&A, a curly-haired girl persistently raises her hand and when I call on her she says, “My mother looks much younger than you.” But all in all, I realize that between these kids and my students at the art academy there is no big difference in understanding. Read More »

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Crusoe in California

March 6, 2013 | by

1977anniehall3The September after I finished college, I moved to Orange County with my boyfriend. He was going to graduate school to study Shakespeare. I had decided to become a famous writer, though I had no idea how to go about it. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to be the kind of writer who gets shipwrecked on a South Sea island, and not the kind of writer who gets an M.F.A. in the Midwest. I belonged to the Melville school, I told myself. I was going to have a lot of adventures. Southern California didn’t seem particularly exciting, but it was closer to the South Sea than New York. At least, I thought so. I had a poor grasp of geography.

Unfortunately for me, I also belonged to the Alvy Singer school. (Would Melville and Alvy Singer get along?) I was a native Manhattanite who had rarely ventured west, and I soon found that Southern California didn’t suit me one bit. With no seasons, no job, and no driver’s license, I felt that I was going nowhere, both literally and metaphorically. Time seemed not to pass, and books were my only friends. Read More »

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The Indescribable Frankenstein: A Short History of the Spectacular Failure of Words

March 5, 2013 | by

frankenstein-jj-001Mrs. Chesser taught me that there is never any reason to use the word indescribable. Invoking the indescribability of something does no work except to tell everyone, quite explicitly, that you are incapable of describing. Indescribable is not a quality something can possess, only a failure that can overwhelm a writer. Even now, years later, I can practically hear Mrs. Chesser, her voice languid with existential weariness, pleading with all of us in third-period English: “For the love of God, ask ourselves why a thing is indescribable and then write that down. Never be so lazy as to just dash off, ‘It was indescribable.’ It’s a waste of everyone’s time.” I remember her making profound eye contact with me just as the words “waste of everyone’s time” escaped her lips. Chastened, and most likely the prime offender, I made a note to myself, much of it capitalized, and have since made all-out war on the indescribable in my life.

But the indescribable has a history, and a distinguished one at that. In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” or some version of it, twenty-one times. Of those twenty-one, fourteen are coupled with a negation. Which means that approximately 66 percent of the time Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” it is to describe how she, in fact, cannot describe something. “I cannot describe to you my sensations,” or, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe,” or, “I cannot pretend to describe what I then felt,” or, “a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe.” But these romantic, brain-feverish testimonies to descriptive incompetence are often immediately paired with very precise descriptions, as in, “Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe—gigantic stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions,” or when the explorer Robert Walton writes his sister, “I cannot describe to you my sensations on the near prospect of my undertaking. It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart.” What is that indescribable sensation? Well, trembling, half-pleasurable, half-fearful, which is actually quite descriptive. Read More »

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Literary Valentines

February 14, 2013 | by

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Timothy Leo Taranto is an illustrator of pictures and a writer of stories living in Brooklyn. He hails from the frozen reaches of Upstate New York.

 

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Book Shopping with the Best-Read Man in America

December 28, 2012 | by

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

I was dragging my five-year-old daughter through the musty stacks of my favorite used bookstore last spring when a middle-aged man, squatting in the Sci-Fi section next to a brimming cardboard box, caught my eye and reminded me of someone.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “are you a writer?”

“I am,” he said, standing up and straightening his glasses. His eyes were deep set and hard to read. He was bashful.

“Are you Michael Dirda?” I asked.

“I am.”

It was him: the book critic and author, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, known apocryphally as the best-read man in America, whose essays had enticed me to read everything from Little, Big to Three Men in a Boat—and here he was, squinting his way through the lowest shelves in the same crusty bargain dungeon I came to all the time.

“Amazing. Nina, this is the man who wrote that little letter that we have in your George and Martha,” I told my daughter. Nina was nonplussed.

“When I was eight, in 1992,” I explained, “I wrote a letter to the Washington Post when James Marshall died and you printed it in the Book World section and even wrote a sweet little response. And her grandpa put a photocopy of that letter in The Complete George and Martha for her.”

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