Moby and Me

Howard Vincent, author of two books about Herman Melville, The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick (1949) and The Tailoring of Melville’s White Jacket (1970), was my favorite professor at Kent State University. He had, in my memory, an elfin appearance: white of hair, bushy of brow, red of cheek. Quintessentially professorial, he wasn’t imposing, at only about five and a half feet tall, or handsome; by the time I knew him–in the 1970s, in his seventies–no college girl would have had a romantic crush on him, but some of us were infatuated nonetheless. He was charismatic. He was articulate and funny, and, most of all, inspiring. A Howard Vincent groupie, I took every course he offered as he neared retirement, and I hung on his every word. My friends made fun of me for loving him so much and taking, first, his Melville course, then his Transcendentalism course, then his course called The Creative Process. I was smitten, and he still influences my reading and my thinking.

An English Ship in a Gale Trying to Claw off a Lee Shore by Willem Van De Velde The Younger

Dr. Vincent (or “Moby,” as we called him among ourselves) is on my mind these days, as I’m rereading Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, a lovely novel published late last year about a college baseball team. It centers on a shortstop phenom named Henry–who develops the yips and just can’t play baseball for awhile–along with teammates and friends who undergo their own crises. The college president, a Melville scholar, reminds me of Howard Vincent. The book, as it happens, is also about Moby-Dick and choices and friendship and reading and recovering after grief and hardship.

Dr. Vincent taught me that writers are nearly always writing about writing. That’s the theme of his own books, as well as most of his lectures. He said that in Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville’s somber late novella, Melville was saying, “I’m not going to write popular whaling sagas anymore. I would prefer not to.” Full of Melville allusions both whimsical and trenchant, The Art of Fielding is also about the art of writing. Like Harbach’s characters, a writer sets out into unknown, scary waters. He or she fails, often, and has to wait out the storm or dark, depressing doldrums and, sometimes, fight through them. A writer is often alone.

In 1974 or so, I wrote a paper for Dr. Vincent based on “The Lee Shore,” the famous brief chapter in Moby-Dick, which happens to underlie The Art of Fielding. I was nearing the end of my time in graduate school and sick to death of writing papers and grading freshman papers. I felt debilitated by my students’ often tame and tedious efforts–shaped within the safe borders of the five-paragraph essay. One I remember chose as her subject the three types of dorm rooms at Kent State University. I was equally tired of my own papers, churned out to please somebody else, only infrequently concerning a topic I cared about.

So I wrote something that didn’t fit Dr. Vincent’s assignment, your standard fifteen-page, end-of-the-semester term paper. My opus was only about five pages long, and it was about teaching freshman composition and writing papers. I said I wanted my students to push off from the lee shore–to head off into deeper, scarier waters, in Melville’s formulation. And I wrote that in my little way, I was trying to step off the shore and try something different in this assignment, knowing that my professor would be well within his rights to give me an “F.”

True to his unconventional habits, Dr. Vincent gave me an “A,” probably mostly for effort, with a wry comment that he hoped at least I had read all the assigned works by Melville. I admire Chad Harbach for his more intrepid effort, daring to use Moby-Dick (Moby-Dick!!) as a referent for his first novel. I love that “The Lee Shore” served as a metaphor for his characters’ embarking out of safety into adulthood and, more subtly, for his own writing–launching into the landlessness of deep, earnest thinking.

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6 Responses to Moby and Me

  1. Pingback: Kathy Ewing › The Kindness of Strangers

  2. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    Never read Billy Budd, but saw the movie lots of times–thought it was pretty good. Hmmm, might actually try the book now that I don’t have to.

  3. Kathy says:

    I’m reading a lovely book now (very short!) called Why Read Moby-Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick. It might inspire you but is worthwhile on its own. Billy Budd is also great and less onerous than Moby.

  4. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    Kathy, I love this post! And that Harbach did, too. How cool is that! (BTW: Dan Chaon never answered my e-mail.)I haven’t read much Melville, though visited his house last summer. I read Moby-Dick under duress, and Bartleby because I wanted to.

  5. Kathy says:

    Thanks, Lisa!

  6. Lisa Marin says:

    Kathy, this is a great post, one worthy of multiple re-readings! Moby Dick & I go back nearly 60 years when I myself launched “into the landlessness” of maybe not deep, but certainly earnest, thinking. Thanks for reminding me to keep trying to step off the shore.

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