Woodworking column: Like it or not, Melville is a zzz
I just read in my "Literary Book of Days" that on this day in 1815, novelist Richard Henry Dana was born in 1815.
And that novelist Herman Melville was also born on this day in 1819.
I've had lots of experience with both those writers and I can only say, what IRONY! That these two American writers would share the same birthday.
I first ran into Richard Henry Dana when my Grandpa Wood presented me with a copy of "Two Years Before the Mast," a tale of seafaring in the 19th century. Grandpa said it was an important book, especially if you had any sympathy for the men who went down to the sea in in ships. Grandpa was always giving me the books he grew up with as a child, some of which were boring or out of date or both. Many of them, like Irving Bacheller's "A Man for the Ages," put me to sleep-z-z-z.
But this "Two Years Before the Mast" grabbed my attention.
Why? Because it was 1946 and I had just seen the movie at the Pix Theatre that was based on the novel, which told the story of hijacking unsuspecting seaport residents and putting them aboard ships without their permission and working them, sometimes to death. It was one helluva flick and starred little Alan Ladd as the spoiled Ivy Leaguer who got kidnapped and Howard Da Silva, who was magnificent as the cruel captain/kidnapper.
Movie critic Leonard Maltin gives it only 1.5 stars out of a possible 4, but in this 10-year-old's view it was aces all the way, co-starring Barry Fitzgerald as the drunken ship's doctor. How can you not like that?
But that wasn't the end of my relationship with Charles Henry Dana; 25 years later, I was hired to teach English at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. It was named Ball State after Muncie's Ball Brothers, the fruit jar manufacturers, who bought the once private college and named it after themselves and gave it to the state. They memorialized their generosity by planting a sculpture called "Beneficence" by none other than Charles Henry Dana, who was apparently a multi-tasker.
And so what about Herman Melville and his blockbuster novel "Moby Dick," known to the world as one of the great works of literature, so full of meaning it's bursting at the seams?
All I can say is z-z-z.
I realize that what I've just said will alienate me from 99 and 44/100 percent of the nation's English teachers, who have conspired to put Melville on every required reading list in the known world.
Over my many years as an English teacher, I have come to realize that there's no way to escape reading the Melville classic. And don't think you can get by just watching the several movies made based on the novel. Yes, several. The first is a silent, "The Sea Beast," starring John Barrymore as the deranged and one-legged Captain Ahab.
Apparently that was not enough for Barrymore because he remade the film in a talkie called "Moby Dick." He was followed by a 1956 version, starring Gregory Peck as Ahab the pursuer of the Great White Whale. That's called "Moby Dick." One reviewer suggested that it should have been renamed "Ahab in the Gray Flannel Suit." As if that weren't enough it was made again as a mini-series, starring the always offensive Patrick Stewart.
Back to the novels. So why do I like "Two Years Before the Mast" and detest "Moby Dick?"
Because the latter is so incredibly boring. Once Captain Ahab and his crew set sail, Melville stops the plot for a lengthy essay on cetology, which Noah Webster tells us is a branch of zoology that deals with dolphins and whales.
I first read this excruciating diversion in my sophomore English class at Eau Claire State. And worked hard to forget it as soon as classes ended. Sad to say another teacher assigned it the following semester in her 19th century American novel course. By this time, I had brains enough to merely scan the cetology lectures which pop up every time a plot passage threatens to become interesting.
On to graduate school. The first semester was great because my teachers were so eccentric they assigned stuff that I had never read. Would you believe William Caxton, Coventry Patmore and Edgar Watson Howe? You better believe it and that all three knocked it out of the park compared to Herman Melville, the moodiest symbolist of all time.
Alas, the next semester found me in an interminable course called Hawthorne and Melville, in which Hawthorne reads like a madcap romp through all kinds of fun in New England compared to Melville.
Years after graduation, I came across a copy of Mad magazine, whose editor said that "Moby Dick" is so boring that Madison Avenue has come up with a new cover design for the latest paperback reprint of the classic. It shows a startled big-bosomed Mrs.Ahab, awakened from a deep sleep to find that her beloved husband was tromping out of the bedroom on his peg leg. Under the picture is a blurb that reads: "He left her for something that was bigger than both of them."