Some New Waders and a Stringer Full of Fish Books

There’s just something about wading into a cold stream with a fly rod.  After many years away, I’d almost forgotten the feeling. Last spring, however, I started reading Vermont River by W. D. Wetherell.  It’s a memoir about fly-fishing, a kind of love story about a year in the life of a devout fishermen.  It was just the sort of book to rekindle my pursuit of trout waters. And about this time last year, I bought myself a new pair of waders.

Maybe I should mention that the only reason I picked up this book—actually, it was loaned to me—is because my friend and co-teacher suggested the title.  He’s an avid fisherman, gardener, and general lover of nature.  And sometimes we teach a story called “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant” by the same author.  It’s a great story about love and fishing, Wetherell weaving the two topics together, creating an internal conflict within the protagonist about his passion and priorities at a critical moment in his life.  So badly, I want to say more about the story.  It’s one of my favorites, but I don’t want to spoil any pleasure of reading this story for the first time.

As I said then, inspired by Wetherell’s writing, I made a few trips to Snake Creek, along Route 29 in Susquehanna County, searching for some holes that still might have some trout.  It was long after opening day, but I held out hope that I might catch something, but nothing ever materialized.  I was happy, however, just to be out in the water again.  And through the summer, I continued reading the sequels to Wetherell’s Vermont River called Upland River and One River More. I highly recommend them. If I wasn’t catching trout, at least I could read about it, from a writer I’ve really grown to admire.

In the fall, I picked up a book called Blues by John Hersey.  He’s famous for having written Hiroshima, the famous anti-nuclear tome that I often assign to my students for summer reading.  To say that Blues has a totally different feel from Hiroshima is a massive understatement. It’s about fishing for bluefish off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, and besides including fish recipes and poetry, too, the structure takes the form of a dialogue between a seasoned fishermen and a land-lubbing novice.  Another good read, although I enjoyed the books about trout more, probably because of my familiarity with the fish.

At this point, I figured why not tackle a book I always wanted to read: Cod by Mark Kurlansky.  I found a copy at the used bookstore down the street from my house, and at half price, I couldn’t resist and began my journey into the history of cod fishing.  I wasn’t disappointed by this story that chronicles the rise and fall of the cod fishing industry. Far and away, this book had me hooked with its mix of fine-storytelling and history.  It’s chapter after chapter of research into cod fishing, and I found myself enthralled with the details of a fish that used to be so plentiful, such a staple, that no one thought overfishing to be a danger to their very existence, and which as it turned out, destroyed the stock and industry. To be sure, it’s a cautionary tale.

That’s where all this fishy reading took me, by the end, I guess. Sustainability.  In my opinion, that’s the issue underlying all these stories about fishing.  Do we plunder nature or preserve her bounty?  How do we manage the resource?  Whether you’re out fishing in a trawler for a living or stepping into a stream with a fly-rod, it’s always about catching the next fish, the main two enemies seem to be destruction of habitat and overfishing, and better technology, according to Mark Kurlansky, has actually hastened these two problems.  But that’s the lesson of all these books, it seems to me. Fishing is about sustainability, and making sure that we don’t destroy the object of our pleasure. Indeed, our oceans and streams don’t support fish the way they used to so many years ago.

When I first fished Snake Creek over fifteen years ago, I often found trout late in the season, and on one particular day, I caught a beautiful brown trout in a deep hole along the stream. So many years later, I wish I had a picture of that fish, but it was before the proliferation of cell phones with cameras. I did find that hole again last summer, this time with my thirteen-year-old son, but we didn’t catch a thing. It seemed empty of life, although it’s more comforting, perhaps, to think that they simply weren’t on the bite.

I did read one more book after getting through Cod.  Another teacher at school, who’s also an avid fisherman, heard me talking about my recent reading list, and gave me a book called Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish by G. Bruce Knecht.  The book focuses on the Patagonian toothfish, also known more familiarly as Chilean bass, and the heart of the book is about a long chase of a pirate fish boat poaching in Australian waters.  Like Cod, it’s also about overfishing a species until there’s almost nothing left in the ocean, which makes the illegal poaching by this pirate ship so much more significant.  Ultimately, they catch the pirate ship, put them on trial, but in the end, it doesn’t turn out.  The pirates spend some time on the hook, but eventually thrown back to the sea.  And that’s where my reading about fishing came to a halt.

This spring, though, I plan to fish some more, get out a little sooner on those trout waters.  Maybe go back to some of those places I used to fish so long ago, and I’m hoping to do a little better.  That’s the other thing about these stories, too, the irresistible pull of fishing. I just hope there continues to be something to catch, something to sustain in the growing threat to our natural resources.

A Deeper Look at Jason Isbell’s “Speed Trap Town”

In December, I had the opportunity to see Jason Isbell play an acoustic show at the Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. My wife and I have been huge fans since discovering him in the summer of 2015, and for the past five years, we’ve been obsessed. It was on the heels of his album Something More Than Free that we first started listening, and I remember watching a performance of Isbell (pronounced IsBULL, by those in the know) with his band recorded at KEXP radio station in Seattle, Washington. My wife and I were hooked, and just as our interest with another favorite of ours, Ryan Adams, had started to wan, Jason Isbell’s music permeated the empty space with something new and interesting.

Since that summer, we’ve seen him over ten times. We’ve traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to see him play in his home state. We stumbled upon his grandfather in Green Hill, talking for over an hour with him, and in that same incredible day, met both Jason and his wife, Amanda Shires. At this point, we’ve met everyone in the band, too. I’ve shared elevator rides with Sadler and Jimbo Hart, his bass player. We even bought Chad Gamble, the drummer, a drink after a show in New York City. Stella Artois! And in an amazing stretch, we saw Jason and the 400 Unit play four concerts within a week. It’s safe to say we’ve been obsessed.

Why? The simple answer is the music. But there’s more to it—he’s an artist with a compelling story. I couldn’t possibly do any justice within my time constraints, but here’s my quick take. He’s such a talented guitarist and songwriter, who like many people, has conquered some personal demons. On top of that, he seems down to earth and authentic. To me, he breathes this life into his songs.

For me and my wife, though, it’s also about place. We traveled to Jason’s home state of Alabama, in part, because we wanted to become acquainted with the places mentioned in his songs. We wanted to travel along those same roads, see those same stretches of land. Many of you who read my blog regularly know that I often write about issues of place in literature, and many of my favorite books deal directly with place like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s that sense of place in Isbell’s songwriting that takes precedence, and even though he’s living and working in Nashville, Tennessee, he’s not writing kitschy songs about trucks, beers, and girls. That’s not his style, and if it were, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be spending my evening writing about him.

Instead, I’ve noticed the way many of his songs weave together place with change. Just thinking through some of his songs, especially on Something More Than Free, I’m reminded immediately of “Children of Children” and “The Life You Chose.” From Southeastern, his songs such as “Different Days” and “Cover Me Up” easily hit that mark. Without dwelling on the details, I think there’s something about growing up in these songs, about coming into your own as a person, that speaks to me. It’s songs like these that address the topic of change, which we all inevitably do as we age, but Isbell brings this theme to such poignant culminations of self-understanding and identity.

In December, I was fortunate to hear “Speed Trap Town” played by Jason and Sadler. It’s one of my favorite songs from Something More Than Free, and one of the few songs by Isbell that I feel comfortable singing and playing on the guitar. There are a few songs I’m always waiting to hear when I see Jason play, and this evening, he held this one back until the encore. Indeed, it’s that kind of song. Jason plays some simple, delicate chords, and Sadler lends some nice lead flourishes, but everything’s rather reserved, which allows the lyrics to take precedence in the song. What’s left is a powerful story, maybe even tragic, about leaving the past behind.

Coincidentally, last summer, I started searching for some blog posts about his music and came across a little piece by Andrew Ferguson, who lives in Scotland. In his post, he writes about the story-telling quality of “Speed Trap Town,” recognizing many of the same details I love about this song. His writing inspired me to reach out to him, and I’ve been reading his blog regularly, which often deals with music among other things. Like me, he’s a writer and guitarist, and maybe that helps us appreciate Jason Isbell just a little more, too.

Without giving the whole song verbatim, I’d argue that this song is a masterpiece about place and change. And like most songs of this caliber, there is an element to the lyrics that remain sufficiently complex and even ambiguous. The song deserves more thought and interpretation than one might normally expect. The gist of the story is that the narrator’s father is dying a long slow death, one that keeps him in the hospital wasting away, and that secondly, the narrator is grappling with the fact that his dad wasn’t ideal, having been a cheating husband and an absent father, in a small town where everyone knows his history.

Eventually the narrator recognizes his need to escape, to not get stuck here in this so called speed trap town. In the second stanza, he really hammers that theme. He writes, “Well, it’s a Thursday night but there’s a high school game / Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name / These 5A bastards run a shallow cross / It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.” It’s such a clever metaphor here to use football to emphasize the story of changing identity. The fact that the narrator wants to forget himself in alcohol, to slip perhaps into some kind of anonymity where he forgets who he is. And although “shallow cross” refers to a football play, the diction makes one think of losing their faith, which gets even more emphasized when he refers to a “boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.” Yes, he’s talking about football, but I can’t help thinking that this also relates to his father. Children often idealize their parents, putting all their faith in them. As we mature and age, however, we begin to see their flaws, and our false impressions—our dreams of them—begin to crumble. It’s deep stuff.

Later in the song, more issues of faithlessness come to the surface as we learn that a decade earlier there was a “girl that wasn’t mama [who] caused his heart attack.” We know, therefore, that the narrator has been grappling with the flaws of his father, who was also a “tough state trooper” for a long time. Police officers are other figures we often tend to idealize as honorable and trustworthy people, but the narrator’s father doesn’t seem to represent that fidelity, because he’s “just pulling women over in a speed trap town.” At this point in the song, the narrator doesn’t seem to have any illusions about his father, but there seems to be a question of his own loyalty to his father, because he’s questioning his decision to stay in this small town.

And he doesn’t stick around. Instead, he decides to “sign my name and say my last goodbye,” which implies, at least to me, that he’s taking his father off life support. Concluding the verse, he then sings, “There’s nothing here that can’t be left behind.” This could be tragic, but in the last verse of the song, we find the narrator “a thousand miles away from that speed trap town.” And there’s something about his decision to leave his father that has cleared his conscience in a sense, for the imagery in that last verse of the song seems positive. He writes that the “sun came up” and he was able to sleep a “couple hours” and he’s drinking a “cup of coffee by an Indian mound.” Those last few lines are so cathartic, and they seem to betray a rebirth, a new start perhaps, where the past has been put to rest. I think of that especially with the “Indian mound,” because that imagery seems to suggest a buried past or a grave. The narrator has found some kind of peace with his past. He’s leaving the speed trap town behind after making a hard realization. He’s headed into something new, miles away from his old life.

It’s natural to wonder about the title, too. What is a speed trap town? To me, it’s a tiny town along the highway with a reduced speed limit—maybe going from 55 down to 25—for only a short distance. It’s easy then, when driving along through these towns, to just speed through them. They’re perfect places for speed traps. Of course, the larger metaphor is the idea of getting stuck in the same little place for a long time. Maybe even being held back, too, by those around us from moving on to something better. That might even be the very heart of this song, that simple realization that we can change our situation. He even says, “But it never did occur to me to leave ‘til tonight / When I realized he’ll never be all right.” To me, that suggests that the narrator had been holding on to the past, holding on to some illusory dreams, and that he’s finally made the decision to walk away from those things holding him “trapped” in this place. That’s scary for many people, because we often fear change. It’s much easier to continue on in difficult situations rather than forge new directions. We make excuses for ourselves. It’s our thinking, therefore, that often traps us, but recognizing these thoughts is a mark of maturity.

As for that show in December, I wasn’t disappointed. It felt like coming full circle, in a sense, because many of those first performances I watched several years ago included only Jason and Sadler playing acoustic. I’m always awed by their talent, always envious, wishing I could write or play guitar like them. And listening to “Speed Trap Town” that night only made me yearn for more. In the coming months, he’ll be releasing his latest album, Reunions. I can’t wait to see where he takes us this time around.

Sizing Up Walt Whitman & Friends

It’s about this time that I’m usually wrapping up my teaching of American Romanticism. We’ve made it through Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we’re just about done with my favorite, Henry David Thoreau. Over the years, I’ve made deletions and additions to the scope and sequence, hoping to keep the material fresh for me and my students. I’m always sizing up the material and my time. And sometimes things are placed aside for a while, like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which I haven’t assigned to my students to read this year.

I’m always discovering something new about these writers, too, as I dig further into their biographies. For instance, I recently learned that Henry David Thoreau and I were about the same height, 5 feet and 7 inches, which struck me as strange because I always imagined him as a tall, brooding man—Lincolnesque so to speak. But not so, which makes sense. His little house on Walden Pond measured only 10 x 15 feet, and I’d probably feel comfortable there, writing and posting my blog.

Walt Whitman, one of the biggest personalities of the time period, measured four inches taller than Thoreau. 5’ 11”. Not enormous, but a little larger, and perhaps that extra height made him a little bolder, choosing to break the rules by writing in free verse about taboo subjects that labeled him indecent by many of his contemporaries. Over the course of the past year, I’ve been reading Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan, and I learned that Whitman was fired from a government clerk position while living in Washington, D.C., because his superior discovered a manuscript version of Leaves of Grass while rooting through his desk. Not to be daunted, Whitman always stood tall against critics and naysayers, despite repeated requests to tone down the language in the book.

And like his writing, his actions were bold, too. As I teach my students, and as many people familiar with his biography may already know, Whitman hoped to stake out some territory in the literary world by publishing a private correspondence from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which lauded great praise upon Whitman’s poetry, in his second edition of Leaves of Grass. To put this into context, I often tell my students to think of Emerson as the Oprah Winfrey of the time, and with that kind of reputation and renown, you can’t just appropriate his words for your profit without permission. Indeed, much has been made about this episode in Whitman’s biography.

The proportions of Emerson’s anger are not to be underestimated. Kaplan writes, “Friends who visited Emerson when the blazoned second edition [of Leaves of Grass] arrived in the mail claimed that until that moment they had never seen him truly angry.” It wasn’t until I read that sentence and the account in Kaplan’s book that I really appreciated the kind of rage Emerson must have felt after discovering his words had been snatched away from him. Surely, Whitman must have known that his actions were unethical, realizing that something like this could stain his reputation, but Whitman never shied away from taking chances with his poetry. If he needed positive reviews for his book, he often wrote them, published them anonymously, or asked someone else to sign their name.

Nevertheless, Emerson’s interest in Whitman waned over time. Kaplan writes about Emerson visiting him in New York on more than one occasion, despite his anger about publishing the private letter, but years later, Emerson seems to have regarded Whitman more as a curiosity rather than the great American poet, which Whitman aspired to become. In fact, I read that Emerson edited a definitive collection of poetry near the end of his life, but Whitman doesn’t have a single poem included there. He felt spurned, even recanting some of his earlier love for the man he so revered, but perhaps, Emerson was still feeling some of that anger about the unauthorized use of his words. Whatever the case, years after Leaves of Grass came on the scene, Whitman was still working to validate his poetry, even among the greatest intellectuals of America.

From what I can find, Ralph Waldo Emerson measured 6 feet tall—only an inch taller than Whitman, but he was a giant compared with Whitman at the end of his life. Well-respected and comfortably snug as “The Sage of Concord,” he suffered a long decline until his eventual death and burial among the other famous writers in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Whitman, too, suffered in his later years, having survived two strokes and living in near poverty. It’s certainly not the ending I imagined. In my mind, I’d like to think of the two sharing pleasant conversation while the sun sets over a distant horizon, maybe at Walden Pond, both of them secure in their success, having risen to such a height that neither would be forgotten in American literature.

Another Bartleby Surprise

Last year around this time, I launched The White Whale with a post not about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but rather his short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” It’s such a curious story, and when I had written about it before, I had been obsessing about John Jacob Astor, a name mentioned by the narrator at the beginning of the story, which to my surprise, I had spotted on the façade of New York’s Public Library on a trip about a year ago now. As my family knows, I have a habit of repeating words or phrases that sound interesting to me, and just like the narrator in “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I found myself compelled to reiterate that name, John Jacob Astor, many times to the irritation of my wife and children. Much of Bartleby was out my system, however, by this December, when another surprise fell into my lap.

As a high school teacher, I don’t receive many Christmas gifts from students, the routine usually having been dropped by the time I see them. This year, however, one of my students gifted me the graphic novel Crown of Horns from the Bone series by Jeff Smith. Seemed rather unusual, at first, but I realized her thoughtfulness since I had steered her toward graphic novels to help meet her requirement for independent reading. When I thanked her, I told her I’d make sure to read it over break so I could talk to her about it when we returned to school. As it turned out, it was the first book I read in the new year.

Here’s the surprise, which I would never have encountered, if it weren’t for the circumstances and the kindness of my student: I found another character named Bartleby. Yes sir! Bartleby! Bartleby! Bartleby! The name rolls off the tongue just like John Jacob Astor, and this new Bartleby is just as much a vagary as Melville’s Bartleby.

From what I can tell, Bartleby is a baby “rat creature” who Fone Bone, one of the main characters in the Bone series, has adopted. The rat creatures are monsters who attack the protagonists, but for whatever reason, this baby ran away from the others and joined the Bones. He’s also unusual, because as I’ve learned, rat creatures usually have their tails and ears cropped at some point, and although Bartleby lost his tail, he still has his big, fluffy ears. He’s rather cute, although baby rat creature doesn’t seem like a very attractive classification.

Picture of Bartleby from Crown of Horns
Bartleby, a defiant little rat creature from Jeff Smith’s book, Crown of Horns

More importantly, he’s a nonconformist, perhaps the reason for his name. Melville’s Bartleby is considered by many to be literature’s ultimate nonconformist, who instead of doing as he’s told, simply states again and again, “I would prefer not to.” Along with the opening of Moby-Dick, this is probably Melville’s most famous line. It’s also the thing that marks Bartleby as a symbol for breaking the rules, which obviously relates to Jeff Smith’s Bartleby. Not only has he broken away from all the other monsters, leaving the great herd behind, but he looks different from them. It’s a great name to emphasize his nonconformity. It’s interesting to note, too, that Bartleby was a name invented by Melville, at least according to some sources I’ve read. I don’t know if that’s been verified by scholars, but it does add even more individuality to the character by having a name that’s never been heard before. And undoubtedly, when I came across the name in this graphic novel, the allusion to Melville’s Bartleby was instantaneous.

Of course, now I wanted to know more about the author, Jeff Smith. Turns out, he’s a graduate of the Ohio State University just like me. He started writing comic strips while attending Ohio State, having published pieces with some of the same characters from the Bone series in the school’s newspaper. In fact, he cites Moby-Dick as his favorite book, according to his Wikipedia page, which presents even more evidence for Smith choosing the name Bartleby with Melville’s story in mind. I’ve read that Bone also has many references to Moby-Dick, something I would have never imagined.

Besides just another great example of serendipity, which always intrigues me, this experience serves as a great reminder to keep an open mind about the world. There’s little chance I would have ever picked up the Bone series on my own. Sure, I’ve read a few graphic novels. I’ve enjoyed them, but if it weren’t for the thoughtfulness, and kindness, of one of my students, I would have never found this book. And maybe that’s the ultimate takeaway, that I should always try to lean into new things, because who knows what may come. It’s not a bad lesson to take with me into a new year and a new decade.

Poetry About Small Town Life in Pennsylvania

Back at the end of October, my friend, Edward Luecke, began putting together a video to promote my collection of poetry about Montrose, Pennsylvania, called Public Avenue. On a Wednesday night at The Susquehanna County Historical Society, we shot about an hour of video with a series of questions that explained the project and my writing process. Ultimately, we both knew the video would only be about five minutes, and from that footage, we decided to focus on my decision to write about Montrose as well as the subject matter of some of the specific poems.

About a week and half ago, I posted the finished video on my blog’s Facebook page. The response has been tremendous, the video having been shared over fifty times and reaching a greater audience than any of my previous posts over the past year. It’s a great way to bring this year’s writing to a close.

Indeed, I have learned so much over the past year while bringing this project to completion, not only about my own writing process but also about the history of my hometown, assembling and hand-binding books, and promoting my work. I’m so grateful to those involved, and although I already acknowledged some of the people who helped along the way, I’d like to thank them again and include some of the many others for whom I’m grateful.

So many thanks to my wife, Brenda, for being a great first reader and always challenging me to do better with my writing; Edward Luecke, for his camera work, editing, and patience; Tracey Gass Ranze, for providing such great detailed feedback, kind words at the right time, and inspiration to publish; Michael Czarnecki, whose little book of poems, Drinking Wine, Chanting Poems, fell into my lap so many years and provided a template for constructing my book; Lisa Gruver from The Susquehanna County Historical Society, for scanning the cover image from an old postcard in their collections; also Louise Sammon and Betty Smith, from the Historical Society for their kindness and expertise over the past few months while I completed research, and especially Betty, for allowing us to film after hours for much longer than I ever imagined; Betty Bryden and Alice Mischke at The Butternut Gallery & Second Story Books, for my inclusion in the exhibit The Making of Books: Illustrations, Installations, and Words and for their continued support of my book and poetry; Ellen Stone, the first poet in the family, for providing feedback on the poems and more inspiration; Diana Lombardi, for fielding lots of questions as I explored possibilities for the cover artwork and for taking the time to teach my creative writing class how to create and bind books; George Barbolish, for providing more feedback on the cover artwork; Lydia, my daughter, for letting me raid her brush pens that made such a great difference in the many versions of the hand-drawn and painted covers of the book; for Beverly DeGroat and Mark Terry, for sending me the photos of Jim Olin’s barber shop; and Ann Stone, my mother-in-law, for trusting me with your books and clippings about Montrose, which provided such a wealth of information about our small town. So many, many thanks for your help with this project.

A Poe(m) for Thanksgiving

The Turkey

Once upon an empty plate, while I pondered, long and late
Over many a quaint and curious cookbook of delicious delight,
While I simmered the onions and butter, suddenly there came a flutter
As of a gobble gobble at my door, a quiet gobbling at my door,
‘Tis my imagination, thought I, playing tricks at this dark hour.
                                                    Only this, and nothing more.

Ah, distinctly I remember, it was late in a cold November,
When all the pilgrims gave much praise for plenty of meat and stores of maize,
And the natives, too, had gathered round to celebrate with joyful sound;
From far away they made the trip, on ol’ Mayflower, their only ship.
And then I heard the noise once more and looked about the kitchen door.
                                                   Nothing there, just the floor.

And the onions cooking, sizzling slow, the celery sliced and diced so nice,
Thrilled me—filled me with disastrous memories of Thanksgivings past
So that now I thought, to quiet my heart, I stood repeating
‘Tis only a visitor I hear out there come to have a taste,
‘Tis only a visitor I hear out there, too soon, of course,
                                                     For tomorrow I baste”

But in then strolled a fattened fowl, the biggest baddest turkey of all,
Not a feather flew or dropped he; no, this big bird he never stopped,
‘Til up he popped upon the top of the stainless steel refrigerator.
Much I marveled this Tom turkey that you might think that I’d gone crazy,
No, I hadn’t even uncorked the wine, and the bird spoke, too, so clear and fine,
                                                       These three words, “Why not ham?”

And then he said, I’ll never forget, “Hey, tomorrow’s not here yet.
And you’ll have cranberry sauce and green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy,
Maybe butternut squash and muffins, and, of course, that wonderful splendid stuffing,
Maybe some creamed corn on the side, and for dessert, there’s plenty of pies.
Man, I can’t barely wait for all these plates, but tell me, please, it’s not too late,”
                                                        Quoth the turkey, “Why not ham?” 

Reflections on Moby-Dick and The White Whale

Last week, a friend sent along a message about November 14, noting that this day marked the publication of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. That would have been back in 1851, making the book 168 years old. He also said that makes November 14, White Whale Day, too, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect upon a few things related to my blog.

I launched The White Whale in January with a post about “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” another story written by Melville, and its connection to a recent trip to NYC. Since then I have published fifteen blog posts, and I’ve done a tremendous amount of personal writing, I’d venture to say more than I’ve done at any other point in my life. My audience has grown over the course of the year, and as of today, there are 204 likes on my Facebook page, which may not seem like much, but I’m content, especially when I compare that figure with other blogs. My most popular blog post, so far, has been about the first Fourth of July in Montrose, Pennsylvania, the small town where I have lived for over fifteen years.

Along with the theme here of celebrating the birthday of Melville’s Moby-Dick, I’d like to say that I intended to reread the novel in the past year, tackling at least a page a day, but that fell by the wayside. I really do enjoy Melville’s writing, though, and in the past few years, I’ve stuck by my decision to have my students read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” but I couldn’t get beyond the first few chapters of Moby-Dick. I was in graduate school the last time I read through the novel, and the book was on the oral exam list for my master’s degree. They asked me about the “shark sermon” delivered by the cook, Fleece, in Chapter 64, and I believe that at some point during my response, they decided he’s wriggled enough with an attempt to answer this question, let’s move on to something else. They had found my Achilles’s heel.

Cover of Moby-Dick (1930, Random House)
Cover of Moby-Dick published in 1930 by Random House

For those of you interested in reading Moby-Dick, or anyone that might also need a refresher, I’ve discovered that The New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts stages an annual marathon reading of the novel in January. For those who can’t make the trip, there’s a live stream available. This year the event is scheduled for the first weekend in January, and according to their website, the reading takes 25 hours. I’m hoping to hear the shark sermon, once again, as I continue to wrestle with that demon from my past.

I’d also like to say a few words about the thumbnail image I’ve been using for the past year. The illustration of Moby Dick rising out of the water, clutching a rowboat with panicked sailors, is well-known, as any internet search quickly reveals. The image appears on page 510 of the 1896 edition of Moby-Dick. From what I’ve gathered from a blog post about Moby-Dick’s artwork at Apollo, there had been several illustrated editions of Melville’s novels by this point, but it wasn’t until this edition that Moby-Dick had been published with illustrations, probably because of its mediocre sales. Enter Augustus Burnham Shute, who completed four illustrations for this edition.

Intrigued by his work, I’ve been ever slow to discover much information about A. Burnham Shute, as he signed his illustrations. According to another website, Shute is also credited with illustrations for Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. Two illustrators were hired at first, but as the publishers worried about meeting the book’s deadline, they brought on Shute to complete drawings for some of the chapters at the end of the book. What’s interesting, however, is that looking through copies of this book, Shute doesn’t sign his name to any of these illustrations whereas signatures of the other two illustrators are clearly identified with their pieces. I’m left wondering if the publishers wanted to disguise that Shute had been hired to ensure the project’s finish. Nevertheless, Shute is given recognition in modern editions, at least in the book’s credits, even if his name doesn’t appear alongside the artwork.

As I’m wont to do here at The White Whale, though, I started chasing something deeper about A. Burnham Shute, but there’s really very little to be found about him. No Wikipedia page. No biographies. Even my Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick includes no information on Shute’s biography or drawings. Many of his drawings are collected at the Wikimedia Commons, but in terms of biographical information, I couldn’t find anything.

It wasn’t until I searched newspapers for his obituary that I found anything specific about his life. According to the notice in The Boston Globe, which only runs a few paragraphs, Shute worked right up to his death on March 16, 1906, which lately had included book illustrations. The article states, however, that Shute first gained recognition as a newspaper artist, suggesting that Shute may have been the first artist to have his drawings published in The Boston Globe. Beyond his professional life, there’s almost nothing mentioned, so that remains a mystery, something to be chased on another day. Maybe the next time November 14 comes around I’ll have more to share about his life.

For now, I’d like to say thanks to my friend, John, for inspiring this post. Sometimes all it takes is a few words of encouragement, and I’ve found a new topic that interests me enough to do some research and writing. And likewise, thanks to all my readers over the past year as we continue to plumb the depths.