I finally read Moby Dick start to finish. I started it a decade ago but, obviously, was not ready for it. At 35, I picked it up again and could not have done this any sooner than now, regrettably true as that is. But age is just a number; a point of departure; an index.
I’m one day old in Moby Dick years.
In reading this I learned there are whole islands submerged within the human experience, just beneath the visible surface, which may as well be a mile, for I cannot see them without assistance. Not yet anyhow.
Books like Moby Dick uncover, reveal, and shed light on something beneath the tide of information I always confuse with intelligence. It’s a sea rescue without shipping out—the rescuer asking no fee, only my participation.
But completing a great story, greatly told, is the beginning of a mystery, not the end of one. The creations of Melville’s mind which he first conceived and then wrote about, are fathomless. Somewhere in the book, just before you lose it again, you realize what he’s on to, then it’s gone; always fleeting, never found. I think I’ll start all over again.
A great writer, and admirer of Melville, said that once you know where a writer is going you can study how he got there by rereading the work.
That was Shelby Foote.
He Did It His Way
Foote did it his way—like the way he did his military time. First, he joined the Army, was then asked to leave, and then joined the Marines where he found a better fit. But the war ended before he could get into it and so he went to college.
He skipped class in his own way too. He wasn’t sleeping in. He was in the library reading and studying literature of his choice; Proust, Shakespeare, Faulkner. He knew what he liked, saw that it wasn’t hurting anyone and, so, did more of those things.
As a professional writer, he rarely got dressed for the day, aside from wearing pajamas all day long—you can go to medical school for the better part of a decade to exercise this privilege. But, like those people, he was hard at work.
He wrote books the way he wanted to. The facts, he said, aren’t truths until you love them. We can love a story, but never a fact.
When Google became a thing, he avoided it as best he could. Instead, he’d find books as close to the topic as possible and begin reading. He believed the discoveries sought were the ones he didn’t know he was seeking. They were hidden within the journey rather than the destination.
That’s how he wrote his million-word, three volume series on the American Civil War. He read 300 books on his chosen subject. He also visited the battlefields on the anniversaries of the battles fought on them.
He’d have to tell you why he did that.
It’s What He Loved
He didn’t just write, he made writing the study of his life.
I was eight years old in 1990, the year I first saw Shelby Foote on Ken Burn’s documentary the Civil War, where he made over 80 cameo appearances. The made for TV series “Lonesome Dove” also aired for America around that time.
Those are deep, cultural events imprinted on me—like the novel I just finished. Why? Because, the truth sticks with you.
Truth is art and vice versa. Art has value and is therefore elusive; scarce in forms fit for human consumption—though surrounding us always.
The internet, we are finding, is a fact machine rather than a truth machine. Google is a great tool but a terrible master.
The Writer’s Search For Truth
As a pep talk to himself Hemingway would say “all you have to do is write one true sentence…write the truest sentence that you know…a true simple declarative sentence.” But he’s writing fiction, I think to myself. What does he mean?
I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll find out. But you feel it when you see it. It means the same thing as Robert Duval’s performance as Gus McCrae. When the feeling is there it rings true. And truth, when encountered, sticks.
Writing is dangerous work, if you will. Dangerous to the psyche of the creator. Foote has his critics, some of them harsh, and they have understandable grievances. His chosen topic was America’s very own crucible. The Civil War, he said, made an adult of America where before she’d been an adolescent.
When a work reaches an epic status, as his did, the parts left out feel unheard, as if the defining version of truth, omitted their story. But no version is definitive.
If he failed to capture truth perfectly, he is human. If he captured it at all he is an artist. The facts he searched for, the books he wrote, were mere azimuths set by the wandering traveler vaguely aware of his reason for traveling, aside from the air in his lungs. He wrote because it was his joy to write.
The Price Of Wisdom
The longest he ever followed one of those azimuths was 20 years—the time it took him to write his epic three volume series. When someone noted how it took him five times as long to write The Civil War as it took the participants to fight it he pointed out “that were a good many more of them than there was of me.”
His bliss was in the journey. He was in no hurry.
What lovely weather and beautiful surroundings they had on days devoted to the wild slaughter of their brothers. This is what he would have seen and felt in his battlefield visits. This is what he tried, and succeeded, in recording.
He said that the writer’s final summit was plot. I imagine all professions have a summit and if you’ve been in it long enough you know what it is.
To him this was the ability to “[weave] the diplomatic, political, and military situations all into a narrative,”—what he called plot. He was vividly aware of the power of story alongside fact; the human element.
I didn’t have to give away anything, there was no data exchange. I received something from thin air; nature’s bounty. But I had to participate, and almost wrestle with myself, at times, in reading that novel. A snippet, perhaps, of what it must have been to write it.
It seems impossible when you view the work in its entirety. But then you remember he was just a man, who wrote it. Somewhere in between those two lie faith.
I remember Joseph Campbell saying that’s what poets do. Create doors rather than explanations or walls. That’s what Melville did for me; one small step.