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.
How might Melville react to today's writers' conferences and creative writing workshops in which so many have no usable knowledge of literary tradition and are mostly mere weekend readers of in-vogue books? An untold number of Americans will finish a book manuscript this year, and the mind-numbing majority of them will be confected by nonreaders. How can a nonreader imagine himself an author, the creator of an artifact that he himself admittedly would have no interest in? Can you fathom an architect who's not fond of impressive buildings, or a violinist who has never listened to music? The erroneous assumption among the multitude is that writing doesn't demand specialized skills. In The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis offers this explanation why so many wish to “join in” the game of literature: “Because words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life: we all have a competence.”
The Austrian journalist Karl Kraus, an aphorist as scathingly accurate as Oscar Wilde and H.L. Mencken, once quipped: "So many people write because they lack the character not to." By "character" Kraus meant the good sense to know that not every story is worth telling; not everyone can muster the intellectual, emotional, and narrative equipment needed to succeed as a novelist. But the abracadabra of the internet has transformed us into a society of berserk scribblers; now anyone can have a public voice and spew his middling stories and thoughts at will. Forget that blog is just one letter away from bog, or that the passel of burgeoning “literary” websites is largely a harvest of inanity with only the most tenuous hold on actual literature. Our capacity for untamed, ceaseless communication has convinced us that we have something priceless to say. Amis maintains that “democratization” via the internet “has made one inalienable gain: equality of the sentiments.” He paraphrases Gore Vidal: “Nowadays, nobody’s feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else’s.” Our every precious notion must be broadcast for consumption, tweeted or emailed or posted for attention, otherwise the validity of our existence withers. See me, hear me, all the time.
But we Americans have once again confused the incessant with the important, and somewhere along the line millions of our citizens have taken the illogical leap from being able to sign their names and send an email to the belief that they can write novels, which is rather like deciding to swim the English Channel simply because you’re able to take a bath. They haven’t realized that just as a successful violinist must train her ear in Bach or Stéphane Grappelli, a successful novelist must spend decades training herself in canonical literature. When Samuel Johnson said that “the greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book,” he wasn’t exaggerating.
Everyone knows Flannery O’Connor’s barb against MFA programs — they cultivate the mediocre and banal — but less well-known is a line from her superb essay on the Southern grotesque: “The writer is initially set going by literature more than by life.” The great Allan Gurganus tells the story of his first days studying with John Cheever at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the mid-1970s, and how astounded he was to find that his fellow students hadn’t read Cheever’s imperishable work: “When I asked one kid what he thought of our teacher’s brilliant stories, the kid [. . .] replied, ‘I don’t want to be influenced.’ I longed to pat the back of his hand and say, ‘Risk it!’” Near the beginning of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Marriage Plot, one of his central characters says, “Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books.”
If potent writers are by nature a narcissistic lot — if, as Lionel Trilling asserted, referring to Mailer, Bellow, and Malamud, potent writers must “insist on being the center of their universe” — then novice writers who believe they have no need of canonical literature suffer from narcissism’s less effective family members: presumptuousness and self-satisfaction. Their contented delusions about the punch of their own unaided literary powers is a species of audacity with no corollary in other art forms. A ballet dancer who did not apprentice himself raw would never expect to perform in Carnegie Hall, and yet untrained, poorly read writers everywhere are scratching down novels with high hopes of triumph. The vainglorious enterprise of every writer warrants the humbling that first-rate reading provides — it tempers the strut and pomp of the ego’s brash aim.
If you’ve ever been to a writers’ conference for aspiring authors you might have noticed a ruck of attendees eyeing retirement and praying for a bestseller, or a contingent of troubled twenty-somethings who have been bamboozled by second-raters such as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and have arrived to molest you with spontaneous prose which ought to remain incarcerated inside their diaries. You might have glimpsed manuscripts choking on either the toxic stupidity of Tom Clancy or the vapid bathos of Nicholas Sparks. Manuscripts defaced by cliché — the end of the world, a summertime love affair, another young guy’s proud struggle with drugs — doodled by individuals who love Harry Potter and the belching of George R. R. Martin but can’t be bothered by anything more substantive or adult. Always sentences with the totter of a starved hobo. And always the same intimation of why these new writers will not have a relationship with the best literature: because quality reading is difficult, but writing is pleasurable.
Over the last several years, at conferences around the country — from Florida to Utah to New Jersey to Massachusetts to Maine — I’ve been repeatedly astonished by how many attendees genuinely enjoy the act of writing. For me the process has always been maddening at best and soul-strangling at worst. Those who don’t find writing a slow, excruciating endeavor aren't doing it right — like climbing K2, if it isn't difficult, someone's carrying you. Sheridan wrote, "Easy writing's curst hard reading," and Samuel Johnson believed that "what is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." Your sentences should be a constant source of disappointment and dread, a reminder of the regretful inadequacy of all language and how bloodily you must labor for emotional truth, intellectual assertion, and le mot juste. Joseph Epstein once wrote that “to be in the middle of composing a book is almost always to feel oneself in a state of confusion, doubt and mental imprisonment.”
When asked, Hemingway never failed to stress how anguished the writing process must be. The author of the most honest stories in the American canon knew that honesty in prose gets fought for in the trenches because the human being’s default mode is self-deception. From this knowledge came his memorable advice that every writer should "develop a built-in bullshit detector," one capable of catching boy wizards and other flagrant bromides. Barry Hannah once told some writing students that their ghastly work was not deserving of even “an elegant trash can.”
Unread dopes become wealthy, semi-famous authors — the bestseller list has testified to this from the start. And swarms of the uninitiated are taking stabs at their own books because each Sunday afternoon they curl up with lobotomized bestsellers that make writing a book seem as effortless as linking paperclips. Sit down with Middlemarch and The Sound and the Fury instead of Jodi Picoult or Dan Brown and you’ll see you have quite the mountain path to hike before your own words are ready for the world.
Despite their absurd private yearning for fortune and a fan club, people want to write books for the same reason they want to have children: to be remembered, to contribute a shard of themselves to the swirling madness of the world. But that impact and remembrance won’t happen unless their books are aesthetically meaningful and tightly made, unless they consist of Keatsian beauty and truth. Anemic novels written without anguished toil will vanish into the abyss because time has a reliable knack for promoting what matters and forgetting what doesn’t. And the only way to have any hope of birthing a novel that matters is through an abiding dialogue with literature, an unflagging religious immersion in the great books—not reading as another distraction or emotional indulgence, but reading as formal study, as intellectual nourishment. If you see in Keats only ejaculation of emotion and not the perfection of craft then you aren’t really seeing Keats at all.
“The true artist,” Wilde wrote, “is known by what he annexes, and he annexes everything.” One of the most naturally gifted intellects of the 19th century, Wilde nevertheless had the modesty to know that without a commitment to literature his genius would always be an adolescent. If Melville depended upon the Western epics to augment his adventure and provide the language-stimulus for his own literature, Wilde, like Emily Dickinson, seems to have needed no adventure at all, only reading. Many novice old-timers get ensnared in that fallacy, confusing their having had a full life with their ability to write a fully functional novel, while whippersnappers of every ilk spend a summer in the Orient because they believe that being in an interesting place will make them interesting people. Think of all those dippy authors’ bios which proudly declare that X has held dozens of jobs, from the esoteric (circus clown and train conductor) to the painfully quotidian (bartender and construction worker), as if having worked at peculiar and menial labor — or, worse, as if simply living in Brooklyn — ipso facto deems him a skilled writer. It does not.
Francis Bacon hit upon this idea of fullness as far back as 1625, in an essay called “Of Studies.” He wrote: “Reading maketh a full man [...] and writing an exact man.” That formulation from reading to writing is vital: one goes from full to exact, not the reverse. Exactitude cannot be achieved without fullness first, and fullness for the writer means an education in literature, not a Hemingway-inspired romp through the African bush. Followers of the Hemingway model conveniently ignore that in addition to being an adventurer he was also one of the best-read writers of his generation; he understood that he needed to grapple with Turgenev and Tolstoy to come into his own and fashion art for the ages — he understood that his own personal story, his own mere experience, wasn’t enough.
In his 1940 essay called “The Cult of Experience,” Philip Rahv memorably dispatched that genus of American writer who promiscuously indulges in his own experience without recourse “to ideas generally, to theories of value, to the wit of the speculative and problematical, and to that new-fashioned sense of irony which at once expresses and modulates the conflicts in modern belief.” In other words: moral, social, and spiritual imagination is sacrificed to the precious immersion in one’s own biography. Rahv goes on to prefer Henry James’s “expansion of life beyond its primitive needs” to Hemingway’s “bedazzlement by sheer experience,” but does acknowledge that writers “less gifted” than Hemingway “have come to grief through this same creative psychology” — the inadequate creative psychology that says your own life story is all you’ll ever need to write important books. Writers who believe this, says Rahv, “have produced work so limited to the recording of the unmistakably and recurrently real that it can truly be said of them that their art ends exactly where it should properly begin.”
Art must pass through art to realize itself and endure. What is Harold Bloom’s notorious theory of “the anxiety of influence” if not a command that we become wiser readers, wiser lovers of poetic tradition, Sherlock-Holmesian text detectives? For Bloom, every "strong" poet is engaged in psychic “agon” with a strong poet who came before because every strong poet unconsciously knows he is "belated," too late to be original. "Without Tennyson's reading of Keats,” Bloom writes, “we would have almost no Tennyson.” As on Darwin’s battlefield, agon leads to evolution. An animal’s struggle for survival eventually builds a better beast. A writer’s struggle with classics eventually builds a better book.
Critic Harry Levin wrote this in 1957: “The novelist must begin by playing the sedulous ape, assimilating the craft of his predecessors; but he does not master his own form until he has somehow exposed and surpassed them.” To master and surpass: this is the purpose, the pursuit of every novelist. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot believed the same: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance . . . is the appreciation of his relationship to the dead poets and artists.” So if you’re preparing to author the next great social novel and you haven’t studied Stendhal, James, and Austen’s half-dozen, you might have better luck with badminton.
Would Cervantes and Shakespeare have made their masterworks if they hadn’t been devoted readers? Perhaps. But I hope it goes without saying that the rest of us aren’t Cervantes and Shakespeare. Try to imagine a teenager who never read an important book and yet produced a novel as permanent as Middlemarch. It cannot be done. Literature isn’t music or painting; there are no idiot savants in literature. Of course quality reading never assures success on your own pages. Judging from his latest insult to trees, Dan Brown has apparently tried to read Dante, and yet his sentences are still stacked like so many corpses. Still, quality reading is the only chance born writers have of succeeding in the creation of art.
Out at sea for many perilous months at a time, holed up in cramped quarters, Melville took with him on those voyages only the necessities. And among those necessities were always scores of books, the deathless classics of Western literature that were as critical to him as the rations and water that would keep him healthy. So put down your pen awhile. Pick up Moby Dick.
William Giraldi's most recent piece for LARB was on rotten reviews.