Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Call Me Ishmael

I've been reading Iain Sinclair's American Smoke and enjoying his anecdotes while on the trail of the Beats.  His favorite is Charles Olson, the unofficial bard of Gloucester, MA, whose major work was The Maximus Poems, published posthumously in 1983.  But, what attracted me was his study of Melville's Moby-Dick, simply titled Call Me Ishmael, first published in 1947.

Olson was apparently the first to recognize there were two books, the pre-Shakespeare and the post-Shakespeare  Moby-Dick.  In the first telling Ahab had a mostly incidental role, but upon reading King Lear Melville recast his Ahab as a latter-day Lear, obsessed with vengeance at the cost of everything else around him.  Other scholars have since bolstered this idea, noting the profound influence Shakepseare had on Melville.

The essay had first appeared  as Lear and Moby-Dick in 1938, but Olson worked on it continuously over a 10 year span, incorporating his ideas on "Empire," which he felt Melville strongly alluded to in his novel.  This allowed Olson to parallel Moby-Dick with the Cold War, which had begun shortly after WWII.

Charles Olson at work
American Smoke is well worth reading, especially as Sinclair delves into persons who were outside our usual understanding of the Beats, yet had a powerful influence on literature.  As Sinclair tells it, Kerouac met up with Olson once but was apparently too drunk to really engage with him.  One of those lost opportunities.

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