Our Beloved Authors

Call it author irony, or the writer’s paradox, but at its root the phenomenon of the existence of great literary works whose creators have endured hard times, or met with tragic ends, is something marveling, if not deeply unsettling to comprehend. One of the greatest known examples of this kind would have to be the writing of Wuthering Heights (1847), and the subsequent passing of its ever-too-young authoress, Emily Brontë. It seems she had been put on this earth for the sole purpose of writing this novel, and yet her story stands among many others whose lives of writing fell under similar kinds of circumstances.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Because of the infancy in the field of medicine, Mary Shelley was beset by the loss of her children in life, with only one to survive into adulthood. She was lucky that she herself did not die giving birth, like that of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the famous feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), who died within days of giving birth to her. With praise that is, at this point, beyond calculation, Mary Shelley is famous for her opus magnum Frankenstein (1818/1831). Yet her efforts as an author are overshadowed by this masterstroke of genius, since she rarely receives credit due for her immense contribution to the field of writing and publishing in general. Yet it is primarily because of her cautionary tale, written with such terror and love for the craft, that she is truly one of literature’s beloved authors, which is why the end of her life seems so tragic. As the Victorian Web tells us, by the time she reached the eldest of her years, she had “lost her will to live” (Source).

Herman Melville (1847–1891)

Herman Melville was a thoughtful, thoughtful man, evidenced in his highly elaborate narrative technique. It seems each and every sentence he ever wrote was endowed with the power of extreme perception, all the more genius in the uncanny notion that he was able to write what he did without the help of a word processor. The creator of America’s greatest novel is another one of those authors of whom, their many other works are dwarfed by the power of their masterpiece, and yet we find melancholy and even sadness in how the man was hardly praised during his day. He looked for jobs like the rest of us, working as a customs inspector for many years to support his family. In spite of his literary output, and whatever contemporary critical acclaim he did manage to attain, his passing evoked but a “single obituary notice” (Source).

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616)

The powerhouse writer who produced Don Quixote (1605-1620) once served in the Spanish Navy Marines, but when he was captured by Ottoman pirates, it was his family who paid his ransom after five miserable years, not the Spanish government. It was later that this same government imprisoned him, though it was this very imprisonment which engendered the impetus to create what would go on to become — the novel of all novels. Sadly, “No graciousness descended on Cervantes’s domestic life” (Source). He faced hardship with his family, and though Don Quixote was a success as a publication, copyrights during the age did not work in his favor. The message that Cervantes sends to aspiring writers lay in the scale of his creative output, which began for him at the age of 57, serving to show that no matter the age, it’s never too late to get on the ball and get that novel written. What aspiring writers can also take from the life of Cervantes is that the life of a writer is not an easy one at all.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

My edition of the Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe feels like a brick when I hold it. And the font size is tiny. The man passed from this world at the age of 40, which is all to suggest that it was within this brief span of time that Poe produced literature to voluminous effect. We know that he paid to have his first works published, inspiration for Indie Publishers everywhere, but we also know that he struggled financially throughout most of his life. Poe was a gentle man who suffered loss after terrible loss, of the women he loved, and he died under conditions of poverty in the most abysmal of ways. To be simple-minded and non-intellectual in my commentary, I can only remark that it just doesn’t seem fair!

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

To say that Sylvia Plath was brilliant would be an understatement. Natural poetry and prose poured forth from her mind like pure water bubbles from a spring in the mountains. Her case is tragic because she was caught in a time when the odds were stacked against her. Simply speaking, she wanted to write creatively, and she did anything she could to that end, including the rejection of a scholarly career. Her husband left her with two children to care for, and it was at this point that she seemed on the verge of throwing her hands up about it, though we are lucky she did not do so before the writing of The Bell Jar (1963). Plath suffered from depression and her situation, living in London alone with her children, struggling to pay bills, pushed her to the limit. She had a passion for producing literature, but it was the inhospitable life of a writer that drove her to the end. We all feel that her suicide was unnecessary, but we are stuck with the reality of a bitter world and by proxy, the incapability of changing what happens in that world.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

What more can be said about the great Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway? Every writer who has ever lived wishes they could possess even a fraction of his talent. More so, his life stands at the pinnacle of author intrigue and excitement. He worked tirelessly as a journalist, saw the front lines in both world wars, traveled vastly, wrote seemingly until his fingers bled, and was published to great critical acclaim. His literary output is so impressive that to encapsulate it all within a series of blog posts would be a massive undertaking in and of itself. Which is why the downturn of his life is so inexplicable. After seeing so much, learning so much, experiencing so much, and influencing so much, the tragedy of Hemingway’s end is something that will never meet with a proper sense of understanding, and as mentioned elsewhere, it just doesn’t seem right.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Breaking ground, startling the modern world with a new “stream of consciousness” writing, Virginia Woolf lived the quintessential life of a writer. She started newspapers and literary clubs, ran publishing ventures and completed novels, all the while voicing pro-women’s rights during an age when the understanding of what civil rights even meant was an abstraction. It was an emotionally trying life, bolstered by complications of a sexual identity element and its association to public affairs. By virtue of the nightmarish international world of turbulence around her, Woolf came to connect “masculine symbols of authority with militarism and misogyny, an argument buttressed by notes from her clippings about aggression, fascism, and war” (Source), and with the English way of life under a direct Nazi threat, the turmoil took its toll. We want to imagine how strong people can become, the super men and women of whom we look up to, yet we sometimes fail to see the perplexing conundrum that is the often fragile nature of the human condition.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

The wit of Oscar Wilde is only paralleled by the way it tends to mirror what it reveals in ourselves. Wilde’s seemingly cavalier way of drawing out the nature of self-truth, the abyss no one dares to look into, means that we owe him a debt for revealing it for us. In spite of it all, I like to think of Wilde as having utterly and completely refined the linguistic style of the Victorian Era. To read Wilde is like the partaking of a filet mignon with fine red wine at a five star restaurant. Wilde shows us that reading can be both pleasurable and didactic at the same time. “However, due to his sexuality, he suffered the indignity and shame of imprisonment. For a long time, his name was synonymous with scandal and intrigue” (Source). It is harrowing to imagine that he was exiled. He came to wander the streets of Paris alone where, after having written with such impressive prowess for so many years, he died a broken man.

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Moby Dick (1851)

Moby Dick

Before I decided to perform an official reading of Herman Melville’s magnum opus, my previous experience with Moby Dick entailed that in which the novel was given to me as a gift, in hardback form. It was a big, thick book. I didn’t know what to do with it. Since I didn’t immediately dive into it, the person who gave it to me decided to give it a go. I distinctly remember the hours she spent on the bed, in a seeming state of torture, the cuss words emerging from her lips at times, before she ultimately tossed the book aside three-quarters of the way through. From that point the book became an item to chew on for her half-pug/half-chihuahua dog. In taking note of the teeth marks, ultimately I opted to donate the fabled tome to charity without ever once perusing a single page. That was ten years ago.

The novel reemerged in my life when I performed miserably on the GRE subject test. Ishmael? Queequeg? Who were these guys? Of course I knew about Captain Ahab, and something about a whale, but after completing my thesis and deciding to retake the GRE, I decided it was time to simply sit down and read the darn thing. My oh my, what an experience this has been.

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Since I chose to work my way through in one series of sittings, I felt like the book owned me. I couldn’t get on with the other things in my life. And a feeling developed in which I felt as though I, too, were at sea, only my world was an ocean of words and concepts, philosophies and religions, characters and, of course, whales. As I read, I had to do much referencing to understand the material and invariably, I stumbled across not only a myriad of critical essays regarding the piece, but a few opinions as well.

I tend to agree with those who felt the work was tedious and disproportionate. Having an understanding of a well-structured, plot-sequenced novel, I was keenly aware of the disrupted flow of the story. I was drawn in by the Ishmael/Queequeg character developments only to realize, as everyone else who’s read Moby Dick, that I was being seriously sidetracked by an immense amount of seemingly irrelevant details about whaling. I understand, now, that everyone knows this, and that I have simply arrived late to the party.

One opinion piece, however, felt he’d been short-changed by the ending, and on this point, I couldn’t agree. I felt the power of language and I felt the Shakespearean undercurrent. I felt the power of the story and accordingly, I felt purpose in Melville’s many digressions as they seemed to converge to render the ending entirely appropriate. I sense that modern day editors would skewer the book, try and whittle it down to a standard 75,000 word narrative pronounced with the absurd mandate most notoriously known throughout post-modern publishing — that everything must be SHOWN and not told. And in light of this fact, I am glad the novel is just the way it is. Without the detours and side-shifting of the narrative perspective, the novel would not be renowned as a unique American classic.

Captain Ahab, of course, occupies the centrality of the story. Wherever a critique is found about him, the aspect of his “monomania” is pervasive. But what is monomania? The Free Dictionary defines it as a “pathological obsession with one idea or subject” or “intent concentration on or exaggerated enthusiasm for a single subject or idea.” Undoubtedly, this figures into Ahab’s fixation on the whale, but the term denotes a negativity that is hard to avoid.

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I agree with the idea that Ahab was fixated, but I didn’t view it quite as negatively as maybe I should have. I saw his need to get Moby Dick as a representation of the need to set goals and achieve them. Ahab was determined to succeed in his goal, and I don’t believe he intended to harm others in his endeavor. He had no idea that The Pequod was going to sink, and his affection for Pip displays a sense of humanity that lies within him. And because the venture included the capture of other whales, I didn’t view Ahab’s orders as wholly authoritarian. They traveled east, caught some whales, and towards the end of the novel, they got on to Moby Dick’s trail. Ahab wanted to control matters, but the voyage seemed not altogether abnormal; and I don’t get the sense that he wanted to kill people needlessly.

Ahab offers the doubloon as a reward to manipulate his crew into his service, and even though this a mental maneuver, I think it stands as an attribute of his ability to think critically. It is a diplomatic tactic that helps him move towards completion. And that he has his harpoon baptized in the blood of his mates who have opted to help him, I see this, along with the doubloon offering, as symbolic of the teamwork that is often required to achieve goals. Captain Ahab is fanatical and ritualistic about it, but such behaviors reinforce the framework of his strategy to reach the level that is accomplishment.

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At this point it is important to understand that I am not out to produce a critical essay on Moby Dick; I save that for my 18th Century studies. With that being said, I can understand that casting a positive light on Ahab’s obsession to catch the white whale may seem unorthodox. It’s just that as I was reading, I could not help but feel the valiance of the man and his mission. Captain Ahab was determined to succeed, and this determination in an American novel reflects the determination ingrained in the spirit of America and its citizens. The tragedy that is Ahab’s story, that he lost everything and the whale got away, does not sum up Melville’s novel from my perspective. Ahab’s attitude of perseverance, the ongoing meditations outside his cabin, his willingness to give up addiction (when he tosses the pipe), the continuous rhetoric and psychological tactics he employed, these all lead me to believe that Captain Ahab and the spirit of America is not one of quitting or shying away from a challenge, but one of the willingness and the drive to succeed.

Melville

 

Bartleby, the Scrivener

In Bartleby, the Scrivener, business sections of a city are unoccupied on the weekends, where ghosts seem to linger in the absence of thriving people, and stone prison walls surround the grounds of lush green grass. Crowds jeer and bosses become perplexed. Trips are taken and periods of time are spent sleeping nearly homeless, and cakes made of ginger spice are delivered during office hours. Most of the time jobs are getting done, and days are filled with the minutiae of men living out their lives according to the era by which they are governed.

But who is Herman Melville’s Bartleby? By the people who are near him on a daily basis, he is known as a strange man. By his boss, he was once profitable to have around, but eventually becomes useless. He has nowhere to live, nowhere to go, and retains the capability of standing in one place for hours. His behavior is ghostly, frightening even, resembling the symptoms of catatonic schizophrenia, yet when Bartleby is addressed, he’s able to provide coherent responses as necessary. Bartleby seems thunderstruck, but he is worse; he is uninterested. His coworker wants to punch him and his boss wants to get rid of him, but neither can fulfill their wishes.

The mundane scene of Bartleby’s new job reflects all too much the end of a destined path. Skylights in the ceiling illuminate blank walls and windows that once looked upon the backyards of the city are walled off by the red bricks of newly constructed buildings. Work desks piled with documents appropriately occupy the spaces of Bartleby’s job, the only real decoration being a “pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero,” but this commercial zone, inhospitable and unhomely as it is, is also where Bartleby takes up his residence. He might not understand the institution of family because he does not seem to care, and should someone ask him if he would like to have a family someday, he would probably say that he “would prefer not to.”

Bartleby is a frail man without any sense of purpose. Whatever purpose that may have driven him in the past has faded from him. His only thoughts rest with his inclination to have his new boss tolerate him for the duration of his life. His boss is disturbed by the matter, reflecting on the relationship he has with Bartleby with a vast perplexity that eventually dissipates to a state of melancholy despair. Bartlbeby is not a hostile man, but his increasing lack of drive represents a sort of  passive hostility. His boss cannot deal with the mental strain that Bartleby’s presence evokes, and he tries with great effort to separate himself from him. Yet Bartleby is a man, thus his inability to create a life for himself, and his need to rely on his boss for a place to inhabit, represents a symbol of humanity’s need. When these opposing forces clash, the secure boss with the insecure human, aspects of gentle humanity are beneath the surface, passively hostile.

The process of this maudlin activity leads to the inevitable. Sequence after sequence, Bartleby’s boss, with as much benignity of craft he can muster, terminates the relationship with his derelict employee. However, the guilt that haunts the realm of human consciousness, that which scours the essence of the soul for ways to eat at the heart, breaks the disconcerted boss down. It seems, after society has been forced to deal with Bartleby, his brute passivity failing to win favor with anyone, his boss is compelled to visit the man who has found his way into a prison. At first he feels inclined to help Bartleby through bribes to a prison cook, but the effort fails. Bartleby, coherent as he’s ever been, understands precisely where he is and proceeds to abstain from eating. A return visit presents the wide-eyed Bartleby lying motionless at the base of a prison yard wall.

Bartleby’s boss has not procured a victory for anyone, yet “the silent man” Bartleby has seemingly lost the game. His death is his only statement, the only thing that appears he would prefer to do, but this does not make anyone feel good, nor does it shed light on morality. The vapid soul that was Bartleby is now a specter of questions rising into the atmosphere of which no one among those who claim to be humane can answer.