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Baltimore’s role in reviving Herman Melville (and his whale of a tale)

Aug. 1 is Herman Melville’s 200th birthday, an occasion likely to spark less excitement than we “Moby-Dick” fans might want, but perhaps plenty for those who find the book impenetrable (assuming they’ve actually tried it).

Whatever your view of Melville, Baltimore can take pride in helping rescue his reputation from near-obscurity a century ago. While we’ll always associate Melville with New York and New England, it was a Baltimore native who, on assignment for The Nation magazine, ignited the “Melville Revival” of the 1920s and prodded many of us eventually to consider him America’s greatest writer.

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UNSPECIFIED - AUGUST 13: Herman Melville (1819-1891) american writer, c. 1865 (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - AUGUST 13: Herman Melville (1819-1891) american writer, c. 1865 (Photo by Apic/Getty Images) (Apic / Getty Images)

Raymond Melbourne Weaver, born in Baltimore in 1888, led a life that in some ways mirrored Melville’s. His yearning for adventure and sailing led him to a job teaching English in Japan, and he later became a well-regarded writer of fiction and literary criticism.

As a faculty member at Columbia University, Weaver met Carl Van Doren, then editor of The Nation. Impressed by Weaver’s work, Van Doren asked him to write a magazine piece on Melville’s upcoming 100th birthday.

Weaver apparently thought the task would be quick and easy. But he was surprised to find little biographical information on Melville. He focused his article on “Moby-Dick,” saying it was "born in hell-fire, and baptized in an unspeakable name.” It “reads like a great opium dream,” he wrote, and contains “some of the most finished comedy in the language.”

Weaver realized Melville deserved a full biography, and in 1921 he published “Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic.” The book captured Melville’s brilliance, eccentricities and ultimate disappointments. “His whole history is the record of an attempt to escape from an inexorable and intolerable world of reality,” Weaver wrote.

What’s so strange and tragic about Melville is that his literary career originally thrived, convincing him he could support his family with his writing. After his first books, “Typee” and “Omoo,” were well-received, Melville poured his greatest energies and vision into his tale of Ahab, Ishmael and the great white whale. Weaver called “Moby-Dick,” published in 1851, an “amazing masterpiece.” But reviewers trashed it and readers ignored it. It sold fewer than 4,000 copies in Melville’s lifetime and started his long, slow slide toward being forgotten.

Melville spent 19 years working as a lowly customs inspector and died in 1891, at age 72. A few days later, the New York Times noted the passing of “a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines.”

Things didn’t change much for three decades. That’s when Weaver’s influential (if not entirely accurate) biography helped fuel a widespread reevaluation of Melville’s work, especially “Moby-Dick.”

I readily admit the novel isn’t easy. I managed only a few chapters the first three times I tried it. But the fourth go captivated me, pulling me along awestruck, mystified and often laughing out loud. (Only Mark Twain tops Melville in American literary humor).

I’ve re-read the book several times over the years, not always from the start. It’s like the Bible: once you know the basic story, you can open to any page and start rolling.

In his article for The Nation, Weaver summarized Melville’s astonishing ambition. “It was Melville’s abiding craving,” he wrote, “to achieve some total and undivined possession of the very heart of reality.”

Perhaps D.H. Lawrence put it best. “Moby-Dick,” he wrote, “commands a stillness in the soul, an awe. [It is] one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world.”

So, Baltimore, let’s wish Herman Melville happy birthday and give a sailor’s cheer to native son Raymond Weaver, who helped resuscitate the legacy of one of the most fascinating artists our shores ever produced.

Charles Babington (clbabington@gmail.com) is a writer based in Hyattsville.

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