Personal History

The poet Donald Hall writes (in Personal History, Out The Window, The view in winter, The New Yorker, Jan 12, 2012) about his mother:

“My mother turned ninety in the Connecticut house where she had lived for almost sixty years, and spent her last decade looking out the window. For my mother’s birthday my wife and I arrived at her house early and at noon my children and grandchildren surprised Gramma Lucy with a visit. We hugged and laughed together, taking pictures, until I watched my mother’s gaiety collapse into exhaustion. … A few months later she had one of her attacks of congestive heart  failure …. An ambulance took her to Yale-New Haven Hospital. My wife Jane and I drove down from New Hampshire to care for her when she came home. … She knew she could no longer live alone, her pleasure and her pride. We moved her to a nursing home not far from us in New Hampshire.”

“She died a month short of ninetyone. Her brain was still good. A week before she died, she read ‘My Antonia’ for the tenth time. Willa Cather had always been a favorite. Most of the time in old age she read Agatha Christie. She said that one of the advantages of being ninety was that she could read a detective story again, only two weeks after she first read it, without any notion of which character was the villain. Even so her last months were mostly bleak.”

I’ll turn 80 this year and I’ve decided to cease reading the Western stories of Louis Lamour (of which during the past year or two I’ve read some 57) even though I’m pretty sure that I could go on and read the others and then all of them a second or third time, and that what I would experience would not be much different from the experience of Hall’s ninety year old mother when reading Christie a second or third time.

Lamour’s books would be, I’m sure, on a second reading, mostly new for me also, but I don’t want to go that route. The route of the old? I’d like to stay young even while growing old.

So instead I’m reading the classics, all books that I’ve read previously, and also that are mostly “new” to me now on reading them decades later. But, I tell myself, this is not the same thing. It’s not that I’m old and losing my memory. It’s that I’m seeing further now than I did at an earlier age and time. Or at least I’d like to believe it.

Regarding the classics there is simply much that I didn’t see during that first or even second reading years ago. The last time I read Moby Dick was in the 1980s when I set out first thing in the mornings to read the story out loud to the assembled students in our school. I never finished that particular reading even though we were reading Somerset Maugham’s abridged version, the one that comes without all the whaling information (information that is now certainly more readily available and more complete on Google).

Would Melville have written as he did, filling us in with everything he thought we should know about the whaling industry, if Google had been available? I don’t think so. The last time I completed the book, the whaling chapters and all, was in 1957, so another reading now would be more than appropriate.

A great book, of course, deserves multiple readings, and especially readings coming at different points in one’s life. Now this may also be true of skillfully written thrillers or adventures, such as those of Christie or Lamour, but much less so.

I sometimes wonder what that novel, one that Melville didn’t write, would have been like, if he had chosen the American West, and in particular the settling of the West, as the backdrop of his story, instead of the 19th century whaling industry.

One senses in Lamour’s thrilling and exciting tales that there is much there, and that Lamour himself is only touching the surface of the land and the people, and that the depths of the experiences he touches upon cry out to be heard and told by a greater writer.

What if instead of the some 100 or more tales Lamour tells, all of them telling much the same story, he had spent his writing years becoming that ‘greater writer’ and writing just one tale, one story (I think of the example of Cervantes’s Don Quixote which I’m rereading, this time an electronic version on my iPhone) one in which he tried to put it all down into just the one book, much as Melville tried and to great degree succeeded, in putting it all down about the 19th. century American whaling adventure?

Then we might have had, even more than Moby Dick, the great American novel, because the story of America is much more the story of the successive waves of immigrants moving West in search of riches than it is of the mad Ahab leading his ship and crew to a watery end in the far Pacific while bent on killing the white sperm whale that had cost him, Ahab, a leg.

For Ahab’s story, in spite of Melville’s attempt to make it so by symbols, by having most everything in his story be much more than it seems, is not the heart of the American story.

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