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Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

Fraud, Fraud, More Fraud, and Other News

March 19, 2015 | by


An illustration by A. Burnham Shute for Melville’s Typee, 1892.

  • Melville’s first book, Typee, is, like most literary memoirs, a fraud: though he certainly ventured to Polynesia, many of the events in the book are clearly created out of whole cloth—and they suggest how little we really know about the events of Melville’s life. “There is no reason to believe that Melville didn’t witness clothmaking and woodcarving. However, the scene in which his friend Kory-Kory rubs a six-foot pole between his hands, as his back arches and muscles tense, until it bursts into flame, is most likely a metaphoric rendering of a different act (no record exists attesting to whether Thoreau tried this method at Walden).”
  • While we’re talking fraud, Arthur Conan Doyle was set up—by the Staffordshire fuzz, no less. “Newly discovered documents show that the Staffordshire police fabricated evidence to try to discredit Arthur Conan Doyle’s investigation into the curious case of George Edalji, a Birmingham solicitor accused of maiming horses and sending poison-pen letters at the turn of the twentieth century.”
  • Amazon’s Kindle Scout program— a “reader-powered” publishing platform in which authors submit their work and readers vote on it—is perpetrating a kind of fraud, too. It’s become “a murderously deft purveyor of books seemingly designed only to be inhaled like so many bibliographic nachos.” Is it the new center of reading as a camp experience? Or is it just shit? “The bigger problem with so-bad-they’re-good novels is that sometimes they’re just so bad they’re … bad. For every camp triumph on Kindle Scout, every daft splendor of weaponized pit bulls, you’ll find three corresponding duds.”
  • Everyone loves a good art heist. The trick isn’t so much stealing a painting, though, as managing to sell it again when it’s known to have been stolen. “The misappropriation of masterpieces continues to have a distinctive hold on the public imagination, even as it becomes a type of criminal activity that’s both misunderstood and increasingly hard to pull off.”
  • Among the fake self-help books hidden on shelves in an LA Bookstore: The Beginner’s Guide to Human Sacrifice, Learn to … Dress Yourself!, and So Your Son Is a Centaur: Coping with Your Child’s Confusing Life Choices.

Going Aboard

December 16, 2014 | by

Retracing Moby-Dick on a nineteenth-century whaler.

photo 1

Photo: Ben Shattuck

­­­When Herman Melville was twenty-one, he embarked on the whaleship Acushnet, out of New Bedford. We all know what that led to. This past summer, Mystic Seaport finished their five-year, 7.5-million-dollar restoration of the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, the sister ship to the Acushnet. The Morgan is in many ways identical to Melville’s fictional Pequod, save that sperm whale jawbone tiller and a few other sinister touches. Mystic Seaport celebrated the completion by sailing the Morgan around New England for a couple months. I went aboard for a night and a day, intent on following in Ishmael’s footsteps, hoping to breathe a little life into my idea of the distant, literary ship. Below are passages from Moby-Dick that involve the Pequod, followed by my own accounts.
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September 2, 2014 | by


Photo: Walter Smalling Jr., 1980

Late this morning, the pipes of my toilet began to make a noise that I can only describe as haunting. How to explain it? Loud, very loud. Sad, very sad. A sort of melancholy lowing, a primal moan expressing things seen and unseen. One could imagine ancient peoples hearing such things and looking to the supernatural for answers. If they had plumbing, I mean.

It went on and on. It was beautiful. I had been distracted, blue, depressed by the unrelenting humidity of an urban Tuesday on the day after a long weekend. And then I heard the mysterious sound and it calmed me. For the first time, I began to understand the New Agey penchant for whale songs.

I thought I had better look up “toilet groaning” on the Internet and see if it was something I could manage myself. I’m no plumber, but I grew up in a house with very uncertain old pipes, and in such cases you learn to do what you can. It’s very satisfying when you learn to do these things yourself, if you do. And I know an air vent malfunction when I hear it.

But somehow on my way to the computer, I found myself going to the bookshelf, and picking up Moby-Dick, and paging through it, and then, twenty minutes later, there I was, sitting on the floor, reading.

Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

It was at this point that things started gurgling, and of course then the toilet overflowed. I turned off the water source, mopped up, and notified the super.

Cordelia Bleats, and Other News

July 4, 2014 | by

king lear sheep

A production photo from King Lear with Sheep, via Modern Farmer.

  • Edmund Wilson on the Fourth of July circa 1925: “The last random pops and shots of the Fourth—the effortful spluttering and chugging up a hill—the last wild ride with hilarious yells on its way back to New York. Then the long even silence of summer that stretches darkness from sun to sun.”
  • And here’s a handbook for firework design from 1785. (Note: The Paris Review does not endorse the unsupervised construction or detonation of homemade pyrotechnical devices from any era, past or present—unless you’re reasonably sure you know what you’re doing, in which case, have at it.)
  • Forget King Lear with people—that’s old-fashioned. What you want is King Lear with Sheep. “The actors are actually incapable of acting or even recognizing that something is expected of them.” (Because they’re sheep.)
  • “Here’s the problem for someone trying to give Pride and Prejudice a contemporary twist … Jane and Lizzy Bennet are twenty-two and twenty years old, respectively. This means that, in the novel’s world, the two are pretty much teetering on the edge of spinsterhood. The whole twenty-three-year-old-spinster idea will not resonate, of course, with contemporary readers.”
  • Is Moby-Dick something of a roman à clef?


Your Likeness in Cheese, and Other News

January 28, 2014 | by


Vincenzo Campi, The Ricotta Eaters, 1580. Via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Gift idea: cheese portraits. The medium is the message here—this cheese is made with bacteria cultivated from your mouth or toes. It’s you, indubitably, microbially. The artist adds, “The bacteria that you find in-between the toes is actually very similar to the bacteria that makes cheese smell like toes.” You don’t say.
  • Amazon has purchased another block of Seattle. A technofortress, no doubt, soon to be swarming with drones.
  • The Sims is the bestselling PC game of all time. It also has—no mean feat—the most poetic, surreal software-update notifications of all time. “Sims will no longer walk on water to view paintings placed on swimming pool walls.”
  • Presenting the Daphne, an award for the best book to have been published fifty years ago.
  • Melville the prognosticator: Moby-Dick, Benito Cereno, and modern-day imperialism.



Or, the Whale

October 18, 2013 | by

COMIC classics illustrated moby dicklarge

On this day in 1851, Moby-Dick was published. In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne shortly afterward, Melville wrote,

… for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory—the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity.

Needless to say, recognition did indeed come, albeit posthumously.