Call me Gillis – Following Melville’s Footsteps

by gillis

Today I hiked up Monument Mountain with some of my fifth grade students. Monument Mountain sits across the street from my school and its claim to fame is that Hawthorne and Melville hiked it together and Melville came away from the experience inspired to write Moby Dick.(here’s a link if you want to learn more – ). While I enjoyed the gothic, nutty, and weirdly misogynistic Hawthorne short stories (I speak here of The Birthmark and Rappacini’s Daughter- both of which are forever burned into my psyche) in high school, I really hated Moby Dick. I’ve read the novel, I’ve read the graphic novel, I’ve cruised the Cliff Notes (youngsters, Cliff Notes were precursors to your Spark Notes. At least I can say my generation didn’t pretend there was any “spark” in our cheating), and I have even seen a theatrical production of Moby Dick. Thankfully it was not a musical (“Call me Ishmael, Call me Ish for short, call me anything you want, but -don’t -call -me -late -for -the -white— whale—-” sung to the tune of “Rain on My Parade”) but it was still quite quite painful. I think perhaps Moby Dick – and I know I’m stepping in it here – may resonate more strongly with the folks with the Y chromosomes. Not that many (any?) fellas will end up reading this post to corroborate my theory, but when I discuss seminal literary experiences with women, this book never comes up. It does, however, come up frequently with men. Especially men who write. I just don’t get it.

I have hiked Monument Mountain before and I have marveled at the beautiful views and the sweet air that I find there each time. It occurs to me that I have never found myself inspired to write an epic novel set at sea from this landlocked location. I decided this morning that I would spend some time thinking about how this experience may have set the wheels in motion for Melville to create this monstrosity, errr, I mean, masterpiece after this hike. As I traveled up the rugged terrain I noticed ferns, moss and a variety of lichen growing at various altitudes, I listened to several species of birds singing, and I felt a everything from a gentle breeze to a strong, biting wind pulling across my face. When I reached the summit, I scanned the horizon for any sign of something that might make me feel I needed to document my struggle with nature or even my own hubris in the face of nature’s glory. Nothing. So I opened my pack and ate my trail mix.

Then I began the descent. It was during the decline that I started to understand how one might choose to write about an epic struggle. With each step I felt gravity grinding on my knees and even into my right hip. By the end of the walk, my ankles were singing an ancient sea chanty of their own and I cursed my extra weight. Up until that point, I had been able to ignore the constant negative comments of two students hiking nearest me (I was, of course, The Sweep) who were complaining incessantly about this horrible outdoor experience we were forcing them to endure. They were relentless as I validated, praised, and cajoled them up that mountain. But on the way down as my knees began to scream at me, I had nothing left to give them. I began to understand how Ahab was willing to sacrifice his life and those of  most of his sailors to silence his inner white whale. I was contemplating a couple of sacrifices to the waterfall we passed just to silence my tormentors. Then I realized the pain was not coming from them, it was coming from within, so I popped a few three four ibuprofen into my mouth and swallowed them down with some lukewarm water. If only Ahab, and perhaps Melville himself, had access to modern analgesics things might have been different…