Thursday, April 23, 2009

Melville's evolving style - an experiment - I studied it every morning, like the multiplication table

Typee (1846), first sentence of Chapter 25:

"Although I had been unable during the late festival to obtain information on many interesting subjects which had much excited my curiosity, still that important event had not passed by without adding materially to my general knowledge of the islanders."

Omoo (1847), first sentence of Chapter 25:

"During the morning of the day which dawned upon the events just recounted, we remained a little to leeward of the harbour, waiting the appearance of the consul, who had promised the mate to come off in a shore boat for the purpose of seeing him."

Mardi (1849), ditto:

"A few days passed: the brigantine drifting hither and thither, and nothing in sight but the sea, when forth again on its stillness rung Annatoo's domestic alarum."

Redburn (1849), you get the idea:

"Though, for reasons hinted at above, they would not let me steer, I contented myself with learning the compass, a graphic facsimile of which I drew on a blank leaf of the "Wealth of Nations," and studied it every morning, like the multiplication table."

White Jacket, or the World on a Man-of-War (1850), first two sentences this time:

"Colder and colder; we are drawing nigh to the Cape. Now gregoes, pea jackets, monkey jackets reefing jackets, storm jackets, oiljackets, paint jackets, round jackets, short jackets, long jackets, and all manner of jackets, are the order of the day, not excepting the immortal white jacket, which begins to be sturdily buttoned up to the throat, and pulled down vigorously at the skirts, to bring them well over the loins."

Moby-Dick (1851), two sentences again, Chapter 25:

"In behalf of the dignity of whaling, I would fain advance naught but substantiated facts. But after embattling his facts, an advocate who should wholly suppress a not unreasonable surmise, which might tell eloquently upon his cause--such an advocate, would he not be blame-worthy?"

That's enough, and possibly too much. Note the publication dates - can't say Melville wasn't working hard, and there would be four more books in the next six years.

I have no doubt that picking a different chapter would give different results, but I think this choice (not quite random, but I didn't check them all ahead of time, and have never read Redburn or White Jacket) shows what I'm talking about.

The Typee and Omoo passages are relatively plain and dry (the Typee one too much so, much duller than most of the book). In Mardi, something has changed, even in a straightforward sentence like this one, free of Hecatic Spherula - "forth again on its stillness rung," the rhythm of the line has changed.

The line from Redburn is simply fantastic, and has me newly excited to read that book.

White Jacket features a list, a key tool for Melville and his descendents, the Pynchons and their kin. The lines from Moby-Dick don't seem that special, but they aren't plain, and they sound like Melville to me. The style, the voice, of Typee and Omoo sound much more generic.

Becca suggested in a comment that Virginia Woolf's voice followed a similar path, from not-Woolf to Woolf in a short period of time, and she has already convincingly explored the idea. Other nominees are welcome. Since one has to know a fair chunk of an author's work to play this game, it's a little tricky. I've come up with a few candidates only to think "How do you know?"

I feel that I have justified Mardi to myself more than I had expected. Whatever its problems, reading Mardi is a way to spend some time with an enormously creative and original artist while he thinks through some problems and plays with some ideas, even if his solutions are unworkable and his ideas are preposterous.

By coincidence, Anecdotal Kurp put up a post on Sir Thomas Browne this morning. If you want a taste of what Melville was reaching for, I recommend it. I recommend it, regardless.


  1. What an interesting analysis, and fun too. I love your post title btw!

  2. All credit for the title goes to H. Melville.

    I thought this would be the quickest way to make my point. Doesn't realy prove it, but it does show what I mean.

    I may have pushed past the threshold of most people's interest in reading fragmented quotations on a blog post, though.

  3. The quotations work well; it's like I've wandered into Melville's own home and seen his growth chart marked in pencil on the wall - year after year, notch after notch.

    My own writing reads very academically (for now...) and it's ENCOURAGING to *witness* writers I admire developing their own unmistakable styles.

    good stuff!

  4. This is maybe problem number one for a writer, isn't it, Becca, finding the voice. Maybe Melville is an extreme case, since he had no problem at all finding a subject. It was his style that took time, and work, a lot of work.

  5. I believe Fitzgerald goes through a similar transformation from This Side of Paradise to The Great Gatsby... though I haven't read either in years.

    I might try your approach - as both are sitting on my shelves begging to be reread.

  6. Fitzgerald should be a good example - it's only a few years from the irritating undergraduate jokiness of This Side of Paradise to Gatsby.

    With Fitzgerald, there should be enough of a short story paper trail that you could really see what's happening with his voice.