Let’s just say I am a 64-year-old Melville scholar and leave it at that.
I’ve read Melville, and taught Melville for forty years, and written about his writing, and, truth told, I am writing a full and I hope readable biography of Melville. But none of these years of reading and writing has prepared me, exactly, for my next “Melvillean” project. On July 14, I will be joining a dozen or so fellow humans, known to me only as names and email correspondents, and almost as many crew members to sail on board the Charles W. Morgan, a whaling ship built in 1841, normally docked at Mystic Seaport museum but now recently fitted for its 38th Voyage at sea. For the first time in my life I will be under sail, on the Atlantic, out of sight of land.
I am a bit frightened.
True, I grew up on the Pacific coast, in San Diego, perched on a sunny cliff at the end of a street called (oddly enough it now seems) Narragansett, and listened to the muted roar of waves as I fell asleep each night: a boy of eight or so. And true I have sailed on New York’s Lake George, with a neighbor, once or twice; and true, I have canoed on numerous ponds and up numerous streams in the Adirondacks. And true, too, I once “sailed” from France to Ireland, over night on a massive hotel-like ferry and woke in the middle of the night to see a full moon rising, white disk, straight line horizon, silver streak, framed by a circular porthole. So I can claim some relation to the sea. But true, as well, I have never been under real canvas sails, with masts and spars and “ropes,” on a big sailing craft, out at sea.
But I am about to rectify that on July 14.
I don’t think I have to do this. And part of me—that part we landlubbers call Reason—tells me that just because I am writing a biography of Melville and just because Melville went whaling does not mean I too must go to sea, for even a night and a day. “Melville” is a text. He is a particular set of written words. That text is what I study, and the life in the text is all the life I need to focus on in writing my biography.
But nobody believes that. I must get to sea to feel underfoot what Melville first felt when he, too, first went to sea.
I believe that is true, and maybe you believe me, too, when I say it. But it is not the real reason. By no means. I also need to get to sea because its immensity frightens me, and, like you, I have few years left.