Features November 1983
On society and loneliness in American literature.
What does a present-day Southern writer make of Melville? Strangely enough, what first comes to mind is not the greatness of Moby-Dick or the strange, flawed originality of Billy Budd, but rather a certain chagrin and a sort of melancholy wonder.
What did it feel like, one wonders, to have written Moby-Dick, an experience which Melville called being broiled in hellfire, and which was surely a triumphant taking-on of hell and coming through? It was surely akin to the sense of triumph Dante felt emerging from his own inferno. But to write Moby-Dick, publish it, sell a few hundred copies, see it drop dead and go out of print, disappear apparently forever, and then to spend the last twenty years of one’s life as a customs inspector on the New York docks, so obscure and forgotten that a British critic visiting America couldn’t even find you—what did it...
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