Correspondences: Melville, Olson, Charters.
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it. --Herman Melville, Moby-Dick I am willing to ride Melville's image of man, whale and ocean to find in him prophecies, lessons he himself would not have spelled out. --Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael He explains in a letter. --Ann Charters, Olson/Melville: A Study in Affinity At what point did you realize the connections between Melville and your theories of projective space? (First letter to Olson, Jan 7, 1968) --Ann Charters, Evidence of What Is Said
At first sight, Herman Melville or Charles Olson might well seem to reside more than a few sea-miles outside the Beat ambit of Ann Charters. But if her scholarship in Beat Studies has been longstanding, a necessary benchmark, it has not precluded the readiest sweep of yet other accompanying literary and cultural interests. That Melville and Olson belong in the mix could not be more apposite or be of surprise to anyone even partway familiar with her work. Since academic launch-time at Berkeley and Columbia, and throughout her University of Connecticut career, she has displayed a repeatedly proven talent for tackling widths of authorship, art, and music both from within America and overseas.
It was Carl Van Doren, writing for the New York Bookman in April 1924. who in a nice overlap of phrase observed of Melville, "He writes with the energy of a man who is tirelessly alert" (224). No less holds for Olson. The "projective verse" and "breath-measure" poet of Archeologist of Morning (1979) and The Maximus Poems (1953,1963, post. 1983), Black Mountain luminary and polymath, he stands literally as well as figuratively tall as indefatigable pioneer in mapping the roots, the nutriments, of Melville's imagination both in Moby-Dick and much of the other oeuvre through to Billy Budd (1888-91, post. 1922). Olson's Call Me Ishmael, published in 1947, had its origins and explorations in the 1930s with the discovery of books actually owned by Melville and drawing brilliantly on the scribbled annotations Olson found in the author's multi-volume Shakespeare.
Here was Moby-Dick given bold mythographic interpretation and pitched in expressive style to match:
Space and time were not abstraction but the body of Melville's experience, and he cast the struggle in their dimension. The White Whale became the biggest single creature a man had been pitted against and Ahab's rage and hate is scaled like Satan's... (Call Me 84) (1)
To be sure, there had been prior myth-inflected charts of American literature, few more consequential than D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) and William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain (1925). Both read full of pronouncement, expansive contour, a regard for lineages of consciousness as much as for any supposed cause-and-effect linearity. Lawrence, especially, might have been laying the very groundwork for Olson on Melville when he writes, "Melville is master of violent, chaotic physical motion... He is as perfect at creating stillness" (ch. 12).
Even so, Olson carves a path uniquely his own. This is the Melville caught up in topographical "spatial" history ("I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America," avers the celebrated opening to Call Me Ishmael), which is to say that Melville is resistant, in Olson's formulation, to "Euclidean" or geometric history. "Logic and classification had led civilization towards man away from space. Melville went to space to find and probe man," he says early in the text (14). Relatedly this is the Melville who, in Moby-Dick, composed his own "immense" sea-version of King Lear with suitable admixtures from As You Like It, Titus Andronicus, and The Tempest (97). "To MAGNIFY is the mark of Moby-Dick" summarizes Olson (71). The effect, whether one buys into the whole epistemology or not, could not be called less than bracing, its own intrepid call to alertness.
Enter Ann Charters, writing in the late '60s from her then-home in Brooklyn Heights to Olson in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he lived close to the Atlantic in his apartment, one floor up in a worn clapboard house. Her letter of January 7, 1968, not only inaugurates the live relationship between them, but it also gives context, time, and circumstance to the book Olson/Melville: A Study in Affinity (1968), which she had under way. "At what point did you realize the connection between Melville and your theories of projective space?" she asks (Evidence 39). Her study, with its close exegesis of how Olson positions Melville as a particular kind of "spatial" American seer and its inter alia citations from their 1968-69 exchange of letters, can now be supplemented through the full unfolding correspondence given in Evidence of What Is Said, published in 2015. It is hard to resist the impression, amid Charters's keenly focused queries about Olson's prescient turn to Melville and his replies about poetics and American history, that their exchanges approach less than literary-intellectual romance.
As the correspondence develops, with a first and then occasional follow-up visits to Gloucester, Olson, himself leviathanic at six-feet-eight, behaves with near punctilious affection for her and her family. His generosity of spirit towards her is as notable as it was to most other writers. Those in the number include Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, John Wieners, Ed Dorn, and Allen Ginsberg, but to a slightly lesser degree, Jack Kerouac. At the time living in nearby Lowell, Kerouac came around to boozily celebrate the publication of Vanity of Duluoz, for which Olson had little if any regard.
The Olson of these letters emerges as also the poet at times irritated with visitors, politics like the "whole police state" Democratic Convention of 1968 in Chicago, and the coastal New England winter. His life subsequent to Black Mountain in the 1950s encompasses various college teaching stints (Buffalo, 1963-65, University of Connecticut, 1969), his unreciprocated love for the Swedish painter Inga Loven, and the completion of Maximus IV, V and VI, together with Charters's assembling of his various lectures and papers. In this latter respect, theirs is ever the hands-on working relationship, allowing for growing mutual affection--her gifts of Cutty Sark, his Western Union telegrams about book publication and Christmas--right through to his heavy smoking and alcoholic death of liver cancer at the New York Hospital of Manhattan in January 1970.
"Olson's research was a milestone in Melville studies," Charters writes in Olson/Melville (7). Indeed so. The judgment, like others in Olson/Melville, is not only apt but receives detailed illustration from Charters, the more impressively so when she demurs at some of his argument. It also serves to remind just what Call Me Ishmael continues to signify. Olson's manner of re-staging the story of the Essex, the Nantucket whaler stove in by a huge sperm whale amid the Pacific Ocean in 1820 and the first mate Owen Chase's survival and subsequent narrative--all of which Melville filters into Moby-Dick, gives matters a rare articulacy. His conjoining of the Ahab-Pip and Lear-Fool relationships as pivotal to Moby-Dick, together with accompanying insights into the impact of other Shakespeare texts on Melville, especially those mentioned earlier, continues to illuminate. The same holds for his account of "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Melville's "shock of recognition" at what he perceived to be the Shakespearean-American and subtly Manichean and transgressive vision behind Mosses from an Old Manse. Perhaps less persuasive is Olson's concluding perspective on Moses, Christ, and Noah in the overall forming of Moby-Dick.
Charters is not alone in believing Call Me Ishmael a poetic text in its own right, with coordinates given by Olson himself. "The three great creations of Melville and Moby-Dick," runs his synopsis, "are Ahab, the Pacific, and the White Whale" (119). These each come under his poet's eye for excavation and framing. Charters duly cites Olson's self-nomination as a skald, the Viking-era term for poet, with the footfall of his Swedish family roots. At the same time, she does not stint in exploring his debts to Freud on myth, Eisenstein on film technique, Einstein on relativity, Heisenberg on the uncertainty principle, and his great friend Edward Dahlberg on the workmanship of writing. She also underlines, in turn, the Shakespeare contributions to his Harvard teacher, F.O. Matthiessen, whose American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941) now serves as a canonical landmark. Her gloss observes, "As a poetwhose subject is Melville, Olson's study is auniquely animated blend of fact and interpretation" (Olson/Melville 60). The virtue of Olson/Melville: A Study in Affinity is to have carefully acted on this and linking cues, the research, the sources, the very fashioning of Call Me Ishmael.
Charters's sharpness, moreover, rarely dims. The apercus come thick and fast. Olson was "held fast by the prophetic vision of Herman Melville" (Olson/Melville 11). Like Melville, he "reads to write" (17). If post-modern, as she hyphenates it, Olson at the same time shares with Dahlberg the conviction that criticism is "an act of creative faith" (24). Olson's language, accordingly, is "vivid, poetic," especially so given that in kind with Melville, he writes as a poete d'espace (48). Charters is at her best when pulling the threads together, whether pursuing Olson's own chapter divisions of Fact and Sources, or his "projective" schema for Moby-Dick, or the role as he sees it of ocean and continental topologies in Melville's visionary imagining and their connection to America's overall spatial history.
She rightly takes up Olson's focus in this regard. "Like Emerson and Thoreau, Olson is fiercely involved in the uniqueness of the American experience" (Olson/Melville 17). She sees Olson using Moby-Dick as a kind of reflecting mirror of America, the idealism and yet the greed, the "future" and yet the destructiveness in its making (63). America's continental space, and the Atlantic and Pacific as its ocean corridors, may well call out a special quality of ambition, a depth and width of dream. But that does not discount its darker aspect, the ruthlessness and what at one point Olson calls its cannibalism. Charters sees Olson's Ishmael as speaking for Melville to this end, oceanic vistas born of topography and beyond any one religion, yet always the risk of overweening and calamity.
The flavor of her portrait is met in the following:
[Olson] writes as a dogmatist, lecturing in the manner of a Yankee original, theorizing independent of the academy. He is a bookish man, with a wildly diverse taste for books (his writing often seems an immediate, direct response to something he has just read, but he remains at heart an enthusiast, a poet-preacher rather than a professor. (Olson/Melville 17)
This is a profile that admires yet nicely keeps its distance, responsive to, yet not overwhelmed by, Olson's grand intensity.
The publication of Evidence of What Is Said constitutes a small coup de theatre. The opening memoir gives circumstantial particulars and datelines: first approach by letter, initial visit, the course of their exchanges. The 18 months or so of correspondence ensues. There follows a text and image photo-essay of Olson, and of Gloucester, and nearby Dogtown, with its legends of witchery and its inscribed rocks. Charters's Melville in the Berkshires, her tributary vignette to the author in Arrowhead, his Pittsfield farmhouse with Mount Greylock in the skyline, rounds out the volume. She subtly interweaves Melville's own "The Piazza," his greatly ingenious "Preface to Piazza Tales" (1856) which he called "my inland voyage to fairy-land" and which echoes Midsummer Night's Dream, into her diary-essay of travelling the Berkshires terrain in hopes of capturing the spirit of the Melville, who wrote most of Moby-Dick there. Her account invokes the Berkshires weather, the Arrowhead farm, and the country tracks and mountains, and Melville neighbors such as Sarah Morehead. The upshot is a prose poetry of her own, the latter-day quester in pursuit of Melville at once author, family man, and landlocked ex-mariner.
A little over pocketbook-size, handsomely printed, Evidence of What Is Said not only helps situate Call Me Ishmael as an object of study, but also recognizes it as a mainstay in Olson's overall "projective" writing. Intrinsically, and of necessity, the letters open also into various dimensions of Melville as the magnet for both Charters and Olson. The upshot is a cross-perspective onMoby-Dick and the linking authorships of Melville and Olson given engaging epistolary couture.
In the interval between Charters's opening letter ("Robert Hawley of Oyez has asked me to write an essay about your work on Melville... ") and her last of September 29, 1969, with its reference to looking for a copy of Gaston Bachelard's highly relevant La Poetique de l'espace (1958), the opening "Dear Charles Olson" has become the signing-off of "Love, Annie" (Evidence 127, 126). Between these exchanges and their transition from formal bowing-in to warm, personal familiarity lies a trove of Olson on Melville. Charters probes. He answers. The focus may well be Call Me Ishmael and the other Melville essays, but the letters touch upon the bookish as well as the ex-oceanic Melville, the Maximus poems, historiography such as Olson's "A Special View of History" (published in book form by Oyez shortly after Olson's death in 1970), and even the spatial human future implied by the Apollo moonwalk of July 1969.
The menu grows and tilts as suits the best writer-correspondence, be it early on about the authoring of the medieval snippet that opens Call Me Ishmael (Olson himself it turns out) or the "non-Euclidean" layout of the book (Olson cites H.S.M. Coexter's Projective Geometry  as a main template.). These written conversations, as it were, on the design as much as the substance of Call Me Ishmael feed directly into Olson/Melville, the "affinities" of Charters's own subtitle. One meets Olson foraying into Crazy Horse and Native American legacy, John Adams and the Revolution, Cooper's frontier novels, and not least Spengler, as presences in his view of how best to understand the spatial making not just of the United States but the Americas at large (He maintained a strong interest in the Mayans.).
"It has been a pleasure, and as well fun, to have you ask me these questions just at this time, and I come on so gabbily!" Olson writes on February 14, 1968, from his home at 28 Fort Square, Gloucester (Evidence 47). The comment has every justification. The compass of the letters is wide, both academic and layered in evolving affection. For her part, Charters is generous to a fault with her time and attention, including to be sure not only her queries about the Melville delineated in Call Me Ishmael, but also her typical willingness to edit work such as the Black Mountain essays and have them transpose into a single tome. Beat Studies owes her a long-overdue debt. Equally, however, she has every claim to have exercised her lien much beyond this, and not least in her exemplary rendering both of Olson's Melville and Melville's Olson.
The occasion for this essay is both the publication of Evidence of What is Said: The Correspondence Between Ann Charters and Charles Olson About History and Herman Melville (2015) and the dedication of this volume of the Journal of Beat Studies to Ann Charters. (Editors' note.)
(1) All page references are to the City Lights edition. For the fuller range of Olson's criticism, see Charles Olson, Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, U of California P, 1997.
Bachelard, Gaston. La Poetique de l'espace. Presses Universitaires de France, 1957.
Charters, Ann. Evidence of What Is Said: The Correspondence between Ann Charters and Charles Olson about History and Herman Melville. Tavern Books, 2015.
--. Olson/Melville: A Study in Affinity. Oyez, 1968.
Coexter, H.S.M. Projective Geometry. Blaisdell, 1964.
Lawrence, D.H. Studies in Classic American Literature. T. Seltzer, 1923.
Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Oxford UP, 1941.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Northwestern UP and The Newberry Library, 1988.
--. Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860. Northwestern UP and The Newberry Library, 1987.
Olson, Charles. The Maximus Poems. U of California P, 1983.
--. Archeologist of Morning. Cape Goliard, 1970.
--. Call Me Ishmael. City Lights, 1966. Originally published by Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947.
Van Doren, Carl. "Mr. Melville's Moby-Dick." Herman Melville: Critical Assessments, edited by A. Robert Lee, Vol. 1, Helm Information, 2000. Originally published in Bookman, April 1924, New York.
Williams, William Carlos. In the American Grain. A. & C. Boni, 1925.
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|Title Annotation:||Ann Charters, Charles Olson and Herman Melville|
|Author:||Lee, A. Robert|
|Publication:||Journal of Beat Studies|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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