Two years ago, while in the middle of working on my novel ‘Telemachus,’ I posted a piece called ‘On Difficult Writing’. There, I wrote about two of my favorite writers and their books – William Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and The Fury’ and James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. I felt a great affinity to these books, and I held them up as inspiration for my work.
Now it’s time for me to pay homage to writers with whose writing I hold a more adversarial relationship – Herman Melville and Henry James.
Melville is clearly pre-modern, and his style was born out of a world where the word was clearly the predominant method of communication, and a goodly portion of the population of that world was illiterate. Melville’s audience was thus better read and much narrower than those to be found in the 20th and 21st centuries. His was the searching voice of the newspaper class: avid readers who wished to keep up to date with literary fashions and conventions.
James is often lumped in with the moderns, but although his writing style encompasses elements such as stream-of-consciousness and complex sentence structure, his characters are subject to late 19th century morality. James’ forward-looking constructions masked a longing for a return to classic order.
My schooling emphasized the importance of both of these men. Melville was the bane of high-school sophisticates like me who learned to appreciate the seriousness of purpose of ‘Moby Dick’ but feigned to actually read the book from cover to cover. Melville’s sentences can turn into rabbit-holes. Take this one, plucked at random from ‘Billy Budd’:
With nothing of that literary taste which less heeds the thing conveyed than the vehicle, his bias was towards those books to which every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines: books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era – history, biography, and unconventional writers like Montaigne who, free from cant and convention, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophise upon realities.
Okay: seven subordinate phrases and one incomplete ellipsis in support of the stem ‘bias towards books’. I’m a great believer in the theorem that one should not have to read a sentence twice in order to understand it. This belief is difficult to uphold under these circumstances. Reading Melville is like driving down a rocky road at night: you are best to proceed very slowly and keep a sharp eye out for obstructions.
Henry James is usually plied upon the naïf college sophomore; just when you safely feel you have crossed the shoals of Hawthorne and Cooper in your American Literature class, your teacher throws you up again the sea-swell of ‘The Ambassadors’. To Melville’s subordinations, James adds a wallpaper pattern’s worth of curlicues of phrasing. This is the first paragraph from the above:
Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted. A telegram from him bespeaking a room “only if not noisy,” reply paid, was produced for the enquirer at the office, so that the understanding they should meet at Chester rather than at Liverpool remained to that extent sound. The same secret principle, however, that had prompted Strether not absolutely to desire Waymarsh’s presence at the dock, that had led him thus to postpone for a few hours his enjoyment of it, now operated to make him feel he could still wait without disappointment. They would dine together at the worst, and, with all respect to dear old Waymarsh—if not even, for that matter, to himself—there was little fear that in the sequel they shouldn’t see enough of each other.
The effect is cumulatively discombobulating. As opposed to Melville’s more immediate sense of being lost in a cave, you speed along through James’ prose until you get jammed up like a kid caught with his fingers in a jar of honey. All you can do to extricate yourself from the mess is wash your hands of it and move on.
Why, then, you might ask, do I submit myself to these small tortures? The simplest answer, and my most honest one, is ‘sensibility’. Despite evidence all around me of the decline and fall of the power of the printed word, I still believe in its efficacy and – more importantly – its beauty. To live in Herman Melville’s and Henry James’ world – to see the world through their mediated constructions – is how I teach myself the history I need to know to write the books I wish to write.
Masters, even failed or mad ones, are yet full of needful instruction. ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘The Ambassadors’ are mountains whose summit may be shrouded in mist, but I have found gleanings from their slopes as precious as diamonds. Morality did not die with modernity, and Melville and James help me to remember this.