In Memory: Of My Cruise part one By J. Peter Bergman
Herman Melville and I were sitting on the upper deck reading. I was reading Herman Melville and Melville, I am happy to report, was reading me. This hadn’t happened before. It was something quite new and original. When I first sat down there, torpid book clutched in humid hand, my impulse had been simple: sit, read, relax. But when I looked over the rim of the heavy tome in my grasp and saw Melville there, the slim, orange-covered volume of short stories I’d written a few years earlier in his own, I was overcome with curiosity. I knew him, you see. He was unmistakable. His deep-set Dutch eyes peering out from beside the broad, Dutch nose, all of them unencumbered by the full beard that was so familiar from the portraits. My own photograph adorning the book jacket was of a much younger man than me, although it was of me, but not of recent vintage. It was a photo taken in Stockbridge by an artist no longer alive. And come to that, Melville was no longer alive either. Melville, in fact, had been dead for one hundred and fifteen years.
I picked up the book again and opened it and started to read, although my excitement was such that I couldn’t quite understand the words on the page in front of me. Not that I’d ever found Melville easy to read, easy to retain. I’m not a quoter of great lines, even though I firmly believe in trying to write one every so often. A writer needs to believe in the words on the page, needs to believe in their strength to influence, their power to affirm. I was never one to limit what my words can wield. A day without words was, for me, a day without substance. I couldn’t live without them.
I knew that for Melville it had been much the same for a long, long while. He invested, as I did, in the future of his mind’s treasures. He built from below the level of the sea to great heights and I attempted to do the same thing from my own sea level, or ground level above the sea. I missed the sea for most of the year, living inland, in a mountainous community completely surrounded by land mass. Oh, yes, we have the lakes and the rivers, but no sea, no salt air, no humid spray with a stinging nature that calls to the basic instinct of even the most resigned of landlubbers. Curiously, it was the same place where Melville had taken refuge from the world of illness and confusion, where he had written his greatest sea-based masterpiece about the great white whale. Melville and me, companions in the Berkshire’s Pittsfield, had been meeting quietly on the side for a while, but I hadn’t expected him here, like this.
Although exactly why I was surprised by his presence I do not know. If this man loved one thing it was surely the ship at sea. We were nine days out on our sixteen day voyage and in the midst of our southern Atlantic crossing. The Cabo Verde islands were two days behind us and Recife, Brazil lay ahead tomorrow. The equator had slipped under the ship’s keel several hours earlier and the encroaching daylight had shifted from late autumn to mid-spring. It’s angle was different and its light more intense than even a single day earlier. There was a rumor that the water in the toilet bowl would now swirl in the opposite direction, but it was only a rumor. The only real surprise was the presence, in the next chair, of Melville.
He hadn’t been seen on board before this. Nine days and nights and I had not seen him anywhere. This morning light did make things look and feel different, but this was a bit extreme. I wasn’t reading any longer, clearly. I was thinking and, being afraid of thinking out loud, I decided to break his mythic hold on my imagination and say something.
“Nice weather,” I offered, kicking myself mentally and phsyically.
“Beg pardon?” he responded. Afraid I might say the same thing again I took control of my mind and my lips and said something else, something on purpose.
“Wet today,” I said.
“We’re at sea,” Melville told me. I nodded as though this was new news and went back to my book. Melville continued the chat.
“You’re reading Melville,” he said. Well, I thought to myself, his opening gambits aren’t any better than my own. That brightened me up a bit.
“Yes, I am,” I said to him, wishing instantly that I’d said something more. I knew he wouldn’t ask me if I liked what I reading. No author every wants to ask that question.
“Enjoying it?” he asked me proving me instantly wrong yet again.
“What’s your favorite bit?” He was pushing this envelope about as far as an envelope could be pushed.
“The part where...” I paused, smiled, nodded three times, “excuse me, but you’re Herman Melville, aren’t you?”
“Melville?” he responded.
“Yes, the author of this book. I should be asking you what’s your favorite part.”
“I’m not permitted favorite parts,” was all he said to that.
“But you are Melville?”
“Would that please you?” he asked me. I nodded and he smiled. His smile was warm and engaging.
“All right, then. I’ll be Melville.” The way he said it made me believe he was searching the deck for a steward or deck-hand to restrain me if I made any sudden Melville-fan moves. Realizing instantly that I was now in potential danger I changed the subject.
“How do you like the book you’re reading?” I asked him.
“This one?” He held up my book of short stories so I could see the cover, front and back. It was definitely mine. The cover and the photo were specifically the ones I remembered so well. “Why do you ask?”
I blushed as I spoke. “It’s mine,” I told Melville.
“I’m sorry,” he said instantly. “I found it in the ship’s library and assumed it was theirs. Allow me to return it to you,” he said holding out the copy of my book to me.
“No, no, that’s fine,” I said. “It’s not my property, only my stories. I’m the author.”
He turned the book around, glancing at the old photo on the book’s jacket. He stared at my picture for a minute, then slowly raised those dark, handsome eyes my way again. “This is you?” he asked.
“It doesn’t look like you.”
“It is, though. It’s an old photo.”
“And you’re an author. A pleasant surprise,” Melville said, extending his hand in my direction. I took it, shook it, held it for a time. We were staring at one another now, staring without stopping. I didn’t know what to say next, so I waited for him to say something more. The wait was a short one and I regretted it instantly.
“And you want to know my opinion of your work, is that it?”
“Well, I...that is if you...no, of course not, but...I’m so...this is embarrassing,” I said.
“I’ve only read half of it,” he told me then. “Hard to give an opinion on only half a book.”
“Of course some critics will do that. It makes their job easier.” There was just a stroke of bitterness buried in the genius of his comment. “Lightening their burden seems to be at the bottom of so much of what they attempt to do.”
“What do you mean? I asked him.
“Well, for example, a critic rarely writes a book. Their work is contained in short snippets, bits of creative work surrounding a great deal of opinion, opinion formed through the concentrated efforts of reading and comprehension. Many of them never apprehend the meaning of the things they read, and so their opinions are often formed merely from the suppositions they form based on their basic knowledge of others opinions of the work, or even other work- earlier work, by the author they are attempting to critique.” He took a deep breath and continued. “So, often, to lighten their load, offset their burden, they quote others like themselves rather than read for completeness or read for depth of meaning or read for even the joy of reading something new, difficult, startling.”
“I see,” I said.
“I have seen this first-hand,” he finished. I waited for a moment, but Melville said nothing more on the subject.
“It’s very interesting,” I added. “You’ve clearly given this a lot of thought.”
Melville nodded in agreement and I smiled, hoping he’d smile in return. He did. It was a toothsome smile, quite heartfelt, I thought. His eyes twinkled. I think his right ear twitched once and I know I giggled.