Thursday, January 22, 2015

Response to an e-mail from Pat Bohnet in Niagara Falls, NY

Who asked me (referring to the very brief excerpt from "The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff" I had posted on New Year's Eve) why Olson was so desperate, and also asking (referring to the previous post): Why is "Moby Dick" so important. What follows is my edited response to her queries.

Olson imagined Frances Boldereff to be the great love of his life (though in my opinion, if they had gotten together for more than the very occasional fling it may not have worked (she wanted it to at first, but he wouldn't leave his wife).  Olson was quite lonely the last years of his life after his second wife  (both common law marriages) died in a car accident outside of Wyoming, N.Y. (about 40 miles from Buffalo) where they were living.  Some think it was suicide, but there is no evidence of that.  He was fortunate enough to have one child from each of the marriages, but after the death of Betty, his second wife, he was not able to look after them and they went to live with relatives.  He was never "himself" so to speak after 1965, and pretty much lived alone in his apartment at Stage Fort in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a working-class district of that city.  2 volumes of letters to Frances, the 1st volume embarrassing and does his reputation no good at all - just sentimental wallowing, but the later letters are much better, when he realized they were never going to get together (though she was a bit of a tease).  But simply he was very lonely.  "Charles Olson in Connecticut" by the late scholar Charles Boer, deals with some of Olson's compulsive behavior during a few of these latter years.

re: Melville.  Although Moby Dick can be boring and hard slog, it is more a work of philosphy and cosmology than it is a novel, really.  I recommend you buy Olson's "Call Me Ishmael" and only read Moby Dick when you have the psychological time and space, preferably on or looking at an ocean, though Niagara Falls will do nicely.  I'm sure you have read Billy Budd.  It is worth reading the best exegesis I know on Budd, a chapter in Andrew Del Banco's biography of Melville, which you can get at your library.  An excellent good read, but he skims over much too lightly Melville's quite formative years in the South Seas.

There is what I think is a major vision change in his writing after Moby Dick to a very dark pessimsim after he realized (as I too have realized in my own life - though I am not in any way comparing myself except in this respect) he would never be able to return to the South Seas.  In fact his wife wanted to commit him to an insane asylum and went so far as to ask Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., to sign the commitment papers. Melville took off for the Middle East ("The Holy Land" as he put it) and except for Budd, wrote only poetry the last decades of his life.  In Moby Dick, the only Polynesian character is Queequeg, whereas in his first three books, Typee, Omoo (set mainly on Moorea then called Aimeo), and Mardi, there is Polynesian Romance to the nth degree.  

I would put Moby Dick favorably up against any other text, the Russian novelists, Marquez, even Shakespeare.  Melville was the greatest writer America has produced, and Moby Dick is his masterwork.   

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