When “Moby Dick” sank me.

I take a back seat to no former English major when it comes to confidently talking about literature that I’ve largely forgotten. Thus it was that at a pre-Chistmas gathering of my wife’s family year before last that I trotted out one of my stock comments. We all have them, stock comments, waiting for the perfect moment. But sometimes the moment lies in wait with ambush on its mind. (Yes it’s true: a noun that means a brief period of time can lose its grammatical way and become a sentient entity with dastardly intent. In such cases, a pronoun rescues the situation by taking over the noun’s shirked duties.)

We were sitting at this long table enjoying our meal of casseroles of a similar hue, i.e., beige, when the subject of Moby Dick came up. My stock-comment switch flipped and I said, “What I want to know is this: What makes ‘Call me Ishmael’ such a great opening sentence to a novel?”

As good as one’s memory might be of Gregory Peck’s 1956 performance as Ahab, it does not serve the onetime English major when crossing literary swords with a newly minted one.

“I can tell you,” said a lovely English accent to my left.

The speaker was Nishani Rose Anam Cadwallender, my wife’s nephew’s girlfriend, who goes by the nickname Shani. (The entire family is grateful.) She and said nephew Thomas CHEWNING Jones (capitalization penance for getting his middle name wrong once) were visiting from England. Shani was a recent graduate of Cambridge University. She has that refined English accent that American ears perk up at. That can make one feel his stock comment landed in the stockyard next to the slaughterhouse.

“You can, huh?” I might have said with bravado, had I not left it at home. Who needs bravado at a family gathering? I’ve never felt the need.

“Oh?” I said. Adding “shit” would’ve been inappropriate; we were eating.

A brief American Lit seminar followed on how the opening sentence to Moby Dick was endowed with a peculiarly American sense of self-determination and confidence. Ishmael was an old name laden with connotations. As Shani ran through them, I tried to recall what I’d learned about the novel decades before. My brain offered up the cover of the comic book of the 1956 movie with Gregory Peck as Ahab. Ahab then morphed into Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. There was a lot of turkey in the turkey tetrazzini, and all that sleep-enducing tryptophan was probably getting a carbohydrate boost from the noodles.

George R. would ask little boys if they’d like to see a spider and then show them the spider-shaped scar on his chest from a bullet wound at the battle of Chancellorsville. I got my sense of humor from him.

I’m not the first man in my family to have said something that got him in trouble. Even keeping one’s mouth shut has been known to cause a Tisdale man problems. Take great grandfather George Renison Tisdale of the 21st Virginia Infantry, for whom the unfortunate term “The Tisdale Temper” may have been coined. George R. had a obstinate streak as wide as a country road of his time. At the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse, George R. simply refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States. (I would’ve sung it a cappella if they’d asked.) Some Union officer must have said, “Fine. We’ll let you think on it,” and off George R. went to The Prison for Hardheaded Confederates, which may have had a different name, but I know for certain was in Norfolk. Six months later he said, “You win!” as if he were an approval-board of one certifying the war’s outcome, said the oath, and set off on his hundred-plus mile hike home. If there had been walkathons in 1865, George R. might have raised some serious money.

Henceforth, I’m going to be a bit more circumspect about whipping out stock phrases. Besides, I’m a writer. I should whip out a diminutive Moleskine notebook and pen something original on the spot.

 

12 Comments

  1. Haha, funny stuff. You are a great writer.

    Write more frequently and longer.

    Use Disqus comment software on your blog. It is much easier to use and will provoke more conversations.

    Cheers!

  2. Jeff, I’d love to post more frequently but this blog pays zero cents a word. (I’d complain, but to whom?) As for your Disqus mention, I know what’s going on when a civil engineer gets technical on me: “I know this sort of stuff and you don’t! Hah! Ha!” Uh huh. Well let me tell you something, BR. I have a web developer guy and he knows this crap so I don’t have to! Yeah! And I’m asking him about Disqus, so there.

    • OK, George, here is a secret. The engineers know no more about the Internet and social media than the English majors and sometimes even less. I have become a student of social media and the Internet because I am just a cutting edge kind of guy and I love screwing with the young folks minds when they find out I know more than they do — not bloody often. Write some stuff, BR.

  3. George–I believe you and I were in the same George Roth section where we read M-D–I still have my copy, heavily underlined and covered in the 1907s version of WTF? in the margins. I read it about every five years and have taught it several times. With Anna Karenina, it is my favorite book. If I were ever to start a religion, I would use it as the text–a whale at the center and Ahab and Ishmael as different prophets. You should reread it–though the Classics Illustrated is (almost) as good–when I taught it at West Point one year, I toured all the NYC sites associated with Melville–from his grave to his birthplace–you’d be pleased to know there’s a Starbuck’s next to his birthplace near the Battery. I’ve also spent a pleasant morning touring his home, Arrowhead, in the Berkshires–a good reason for another literary roadtrip for you–alas, no cats, like Hemingway’s house.

    • I’m sure I’ll reread Moby Dick one day. At the moment, I’m dealing with my usual reading problem: I’ve bought more books than I can read and the unread ones are stacked in full view and silent reproach. (I know of no other inanimate object that can lay a guilt trip, but an unread book can. Hardbacks are the worst, too.) I read War and Peace and then dove into Anna Karenina in a fit of Tolstoy-reading passion. Halfway through I had to stop and read a novel about a giant Japanese soldier with a giant samurai sword who’d never surrendered at the end of WWII and would come out of the jungle on a South Pacific island to hew people in two. After he was dispatched, I returned to finish Anna Karenina and finished it to much enjoyment. Of course, as a contemporary writer (as opposed to, I guess, a ghostwriter who’s actually a ghost) writing a contemporary novel, I favor contemporary writing for what it can teach me about contemporary writing. One of those teachings may be to never use “contemporary” four times in a sentence. Haven’t come across it, though.

  4. OK, but the point is your great grandfather, after six months of prison camp deprivation, SURVIVED the 100 mile on foot trek home- so you see his stubbornness really was a virtue- maybe not a smart one but ultimately useful.
    Diane

    • I take your point, Diane. While I’ve never said so before now, I have no compunction whatsoever to say with heartfelt emotion and honesty that I’m glad George R. made it home to sire George Mabry Tisdale, or Pa, as he was called.

  5. Your novel. Please, George — where is your novel? If it is half as funny as your blog posts, it will be a runaway NY Times bestseller. Stop blogging and get that novel done!! No, wait — don’t stop blogging. I know this pays zilch. But come on — you can do it. You can blog and support a family AND get your novel done… I know you can. All that determination passed down from George R…? Feel the power, baby.

    • Is there a high school annual in your house with a picture of you in a cheerleader’s outfit?

      • Now for my real reply. Where am I on my novel? To be specific, I’ve just about finished chapter 24. Yep, that’s where I am. And next up is? Chapter 25! Yes! As for that bestseller talk, oh stop it. If you feel you must. In the end, it’s up to you. OK, that’s all I’ve got. Except to say that you’re an especially nice friend.

    • Yes, George, feel the power…maybe you need a spider shaped bullet in the chest to feel it (perhaps a tatoo from the University of Richmond would suffice?) Get on with the novel! Loving the family names too!

      • UR? You realize I didn’t go there (fine school though it is)? As for the novel, I’m a-getting on with it I assure you. Thanks for stopping by.

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