Discover more from Words & Music by John Hamilton
I would prefer not to, working the Gift Shop, don't read "Moby Dick" until you're 25, here comes Billy.
This being mid-November, I thought a few words from Herman Melville might be in order:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; 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; and especially whenever my hypos* get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off …
Now that is funny, something for which few people give Melville credit. Really, read it closely.
During the tourist season, I work in the Gift Shop at Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s home, on Monday afternoons. I do this as a volunteer which, I hope, covers at least a few of the mistakes I make at the register.
Melville lived here from 1850-1863. “Moby Dick” was written in one of the upstairs rooms.
When I’m not trying to ring up a Moby Dick Tee gray XX Large with blue logo (the register is tied to inventory so the hundreds of items in the shop have to be individually entered), I get to talk with visitors.
People come to Arrowhead from all over the country, all over the world. It is, for some, a pilgrimage. (For others, it is a guide book attraction and consequently a source of confusion: “It says some writer supposedly lived here?”)
This season, in addition to Floridians, Texans, Californians, etc., I met people from Germany, England, Norway, and even Australia. (I mean also Australia; it’s not like they don’t read down under.)
This flow of pilgrims would, no doubt, amuse Melville. After a remarkable start as a young author—successful, lauded, sold a lot of books, he began a spectacular career downslide starting with—yes—Moby Dick. It didn’t sell. It got bad reviews. After his initial success, it should have been his Sgt. Peppers; instead, it ended up his Yellow Submarine.
High schoolers will think: Could have told you that, bro. Book sucks. And it’s too long.
And to a high schooler, that’s probably true. No high schooler should be forced to read Moby Dick. It takes some rattling of preconceptions, some jostling by life, a few well-placed slings and arrows into the heart, and not a little post-adolescent humor to appreciate what Moby Dick is about. Which is: everything.
Since I don’t have a chance to go into everything right now, let me … ah, mention one of the best-selling items in the shop!
It is the tee-shirt that says “I Would Prefer Not To.”
This line is from “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” a short story Melville wrote a few years after Moby Dick.
Strange thing: many people, a majority I would say, ask me where this line is from. This is while they are buying the tee-shirt. When I answer “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” I sometimes get a vague “Oh, right,” and other times “Did Melville write that?”
Obviously, this line taps into some deep place, finds a deep resonance within the human predicament. Which is: All our lives, we bounce like a pinball from one flipper of responsibility to another. There is always something to do. The urge to say: “I would prefer not to” is so tantalizing, seems so sweet, and yet who among us dares to say it? A brave few, I suppose. But the rest of us just grit our teeth, mutter under our breath and do what we think we’re supposed to do.
This gives but one, very incomplete side of the character of Bartleby. But I think it is testament to Melville’s genius that, even knowing his career was probably over, he still reached up and wrestled this phrase from the gods. One hundred and sixty-seven years later, people are buying tee shirts to wear around towns all over America (and Australia) saying: “I Would Prefer Not To.”
Melville did it again, near the end of this life. He somehow found the strength to write “Billy Budd” (100th anniversary of publication next year. See me at the Gift Shop for signed copies. Signed by me, that is.) “Billy Budd,” in its struggle to wrest the meaning of right and wrong from an incomprehensible universe, is as searing today as it was when Melville wrote it.
So, tip one back for Herman this week. In my humble opinion, “Moby Dick” is the Great American novel. Written by a tortured, inscrutable, thirty-year old genius.
Have a different opinion?
I’d prefer not to hear it.
Shameless plug: Arrowhead is well worth the visit, even if I’m not in the Gift Shop. The surroundings are exquisite, the property is well-maintained, and the tour guides are bubbling fountains of information. Find out more here.
And a song:
I mention Herman Melville in the very first line of this song:
Thank you for reading! Apologies in advance for typos. (I am a dyslexic proofreader!)
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