‘Pent Up in Lath and Plaster’

I had occasion over the weekend to open the front cover of “Moby Dick.” (One of many secret shames: I’ve never read it through.) But Kate had suggested that there was a section there we might share with some friends with whom we were going to have a poetry-reading evening. The very beginning of the book carried me away with its description of city dwellers tending toward the sea:

  Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs — commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward. What do you see? — Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster — tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

(Here’s a decent online annotation of the text for some of the references above, including “hypos,” short for “hypochondria,” which back in Melville’s time meant depression or melancholy.)

1 Comment

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One Response to ‘Pent Up in Lath and Plaster’

  1. jb

    That opening (to Moby Dick)is great. It hooked me and I did finish the book, but it was quite the read. I just had to get into the flow of the book which did take something like 200 pages. I do like the description of the antebellum Manhattan Island. I could picture all those places quite vividly. Also his descriptions of the Cape Cod region and Nantucket as well as the South Pacific resonated with me. I had to reflect on Melville’s epic when, in 1999, I was on Norfolk Island where I came across the grave a young American sailor from Nantucket who had succumbed to some disease or injury while on a whaling voyage. His grave stone dated from the 1830’s. I remember thinking…”you are a long way from home.”

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