“Old age is always wakeful;” Herman Melville once said, “as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death.” And indeed, for a man of his age, Melville keeps to a surprisingly energetic routine. When I managed to catch up with him in Venice last week, he was enjoying a hearty lunch off the boardwalk between his daily muscle-beach workout and his weekly Thai massage (“it is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation,” he explained, passing me a card). Nevertheless, he was gracious in accommodating a young writer all too thrilled to have landed an interview with one of America’s greatest (if not, of late, most prolific) writers.
Dressed in his customary black overcoat and bilious beard, he stands out against the distinctly bo-ho crowd at the shabby-chic, side-street oyster bar, Essex where he is a fixture and cantankerous local favorite. He hails me from his customary seat at the end of the polished-steel counter, and before I manage to sit down he has already ordered me two kinds of chowder—the house specialty. Melville has apparently already polished off a large bowl, but another soon arrives, and he bends over it happily, his face reddening slightly from the steam. “Chowder for breakfast, chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you begin to look for fishbones coming through your clothes,” he intones—apparently a private joke with the waiter, who smiles either in appreciation or indulgence.
A New Englander by extraction and temperament, Melville seems to have made himself at home in Southern California—even becoming so much a local as to decry the changing face of the beach towns.
“But look!” he exclaims, gesturing to a group of sarong-and-flip-flop-clad young women strutting out of the Starbuck’s next door and pastthe restaurant’s front window. “Here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite.”
All bitterness is expelled, however, by a mention of the legendary New England winter, which Melville, for all his tough-as-nails old-sailor’s demeanor, seems not to much miss.
“Such dreary streets!” he laughs, remembering Massachusetts. “Blocks of blackness, not houses, on either hand, and here and there a candle, like a candle moving about in a tomb.”
Melville is attacking his chowder with obvious gusto, but between spoonfuls , the conversation turns to the writing life—and to the illustrious author’s ongoing dry-period. Since the 1860’s— and on the heels of the critical lambasting that met the release of Pierre—Melville’s publishing has slowed to a trickle. Indeed, excepting the unauthorized, 1924 publication of Billy Budd, the great author has given his public not a word since before the turn of the last century. Guessing that Melville might be sensitive about his lack of new works, I try to introduce the subject carefully, expressing my appreciation of his 1891 collection Timoleon and wondering aloud if there might be others like it in the works.
“It is impossible to talk or to write without apparently throwing oneself helplessly open,” he says, growing suddenly pensive and scraping his spoon against the last scraps of clam adhering to his bowl. dismissive“I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever.”
Sensing that I may inadvertently have touched upon a sore subject, I assure Melville that even if he never writes another word, his legacy is ensured. That, he assures me, is not a thing he thinks much about.
“I am, as I am; whether hideous, or handsome, depends upon who is made judge.”
And all too soon, our time together is up. Melville is polite in excusing himself—if you find a good masseuse in this town, it’s inadvisable to keep her waiting. But seeing me gathering my things with half a bowl of clam chowder still cooling in front of me, Melville all but orders me to stay until my plate is clean.
“If you can get nothing better out of the world,” he says, by way of parting advice, “get a good dinner out of it, at least.”
by Emily Kiernan
a native of the decaying Pennsylvania steel town from the Billy Joel song, who writes about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, the West, and places that aren’t the way she remembered them