The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia
IN THE GENERAL RARE BOOKS COLLECTION at Princeton University Library sits a stunning two-volume edition of John Milton that once belonged to Herman Melville. Melville's tremendous debt to Milton — and to Homer, Virgil, the Bible, and Shakespeare — might be evident to anyone who has wrestled with the moral and intellectual complexity that lends Moby Dick its immortal heft, but to see Melville's marginalia in his 1836 Poetical Works of John Milton is to understand just how intimately the author of the great American novel engaged with the author of the greatest poem in English. Checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs reveal the passages in Paradise Lost and other poems that would have such a determining effect on Melville's own work.
Captain Ahab, that vengeful seeker puffed with "fatal pride," simply could not have been imagined without Milton's Satan, paragon of seditiousness and the heroic sublime. Both tragic heroes are solipsists and madmen who believe that God is an ill-mannered lunatic undeserving of his reign, and yet both evoke our best sympathy in their epic struggles. Ahab knows he is as "proud as Lucifer" and "damned in the midst of Paradise," and he shares Satan's mytho-maniacal poeticism: "I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass."
Like Shelley and Blake, Melville was charmed by the individualism and heroic striving of Milton's Satan, and he imbued Ahab with the same sense of outsized self-mythologizing. His rereading of Paradise Lost during the composition of Moby Dick significantly altered the novel's meaning and mythic scope. The extraordinary fact is that as late as 1849 (Moby Dick was published in 1851), Melville had yet to conceive of Captain Ahab and was focused instead on the non-epic bildungsroman of a shipmate called Ishmael. Take Milton’s Satan away from Melville and you can forget about the earthshaking achievement of Moby Dick.
In his biography of Melville, Andrew Delbanco contends that Melville's "immersion” in great writers at this time “lifted him to a new level of epic ambition." Delbanco gives particular attention not only to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein but to Dryden's seminal translation of Virgil's Aeneid, which Melville also reread during the writing of Moby Dick. After that "encounter" with the Aeneid, Delbanco writes, Melville "found himself recapitulating Virgil's story of a haunted mariner voyaging out to avenge a grievous loss." In other words: a vigorous rereading of epics vivified his creation of the most compelling quester in the American canon.
Delbanco's use of "recapitulate" stresses the reality that Moby Dick was not born in a vacuum, that Melville's genius, his far-reaching metaphysical vision, required the verbal and allegorical acumen of the great books. He was incapable of reading one classic without relating it to another — in his edition of Chapman's Homer he scrawled lines he preferred from Pope's Homer — or else contemplating how he himself would render the same material. Immersed in Virgil, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton, he recreated those myths and human truths for 19th century America, and in doing so, made them his own. As Hershel Parker emphasizes in his meticulous two-volume biography, "Melville was not reading in order to acquire knowledge for its own sake," but rather, "his evident purpose in reading epics of Western civilization was to learn how to write."
Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.