Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.23 (Charles Olson)

Call Me Ishmael by Michael_Kelleher
Call Me Ishmael, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
Call Me Ishmael


Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books. This is one of the most read books in my library. I have probably read it three times, and sections of it many more times than that. This is partly because I was writing the first chapter of my dissertation on it, partly because it's one of my all time favorite books. Personally, I think it is one of the single most significant contributions to the scholarship of American Literature. Ever. Right up there with American Renaissance, My Emily Dickinson, Studies in Classic American Literature and In The American Grain. In my humble opinion.

In this particular copy, which I don't think is the first I owned (or perhaps not the first I read -- I may have taken it out from the library), I find a bookmark between pages 64 & 65, at the beginning of the chapter called, "Shakespeare Concluded." The bookmark comes from a multilingual bookstore in Quito, Ecuador, which I frequented when I lived there. It was called, appropriately, Libri Mundi. I am not sure how it survived all these years to end up in this book. I haven't picked up this book in eight or nine years -- and even then it still would have to have survived in my library, including several moves, for an additional seven or eight years before it landed where it did.

I can remember buying a UK Penguin edition of John Dos Passos' USA trilogy at Libri Mundi. I had seen individual titles in the U.S., but there wasn't an edition of all three works in print at the time in the U.S., so I was very excited when I found it. I paid some ungodly amount of money for it because this was, after all, the only English language bookstore in Quito. I think it cost thirty dollars for a cheap Penguin Classics paperback. And this in 1994!

My clearest memory of the book is a satirical passage on the Presidency of Theodore Rosevelt, in which the phrase, "Bully for him!" is repeated ad nauseum. I spent the whole of the winter months reading through trilogy. The book even made it back to the states with me. I later loaned it to a friend in New York, who then moved to Austin, then Boston, then Austin then Cincinnati, then Oneonta, then Los Angeles, marrying twice and divorcing once along the way. He's now married with a child. I wonder if he still has my book.

from Call Me Ishmael
I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave until now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first America story (Parkman's): exploration.

Something else than a stretch of earth–seas on both sides, no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western man was becoming in Columbus' day. That made Melville's story (part of it).

PLUS a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikan, a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood.

The fulcrum of America is the Plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man's job to square the circle.


Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it, Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.


American's still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.

To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby-dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.

1 comment:

we're watching said...

"we can dig ahab attacking the great white beast" a. baraka - one of olson's former students

i can't hear that 1st line w/out thinking of vonnegut's "cat's cradle" - call me jonah