New Connections at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
It's funny what working in a library does for you. There are all the
obvious advantages, of course, the primary one being the collection
itself. The world's thoughts, memories, and dreams stand all around
you-tall, quiet, unassuming and sure. It's as if you lived in
civilization's brain: walk over here, touch that shelf, and a new set
of synapses regarding, say, Tibetan Buddhism blaze into existence;
walk across the room, touch another shelf, and Chaucer's Canterbury
pilgrims once more march merrily across the fourteenth century. Pick
up the one book, return to the first shelf, and an entire raft of
synaptic connections never before made by—who knows?—maybe anyone,
light up your skull's nighttime sky.
But just as often it is the community that uses our library that sends
new bridges swiveling through my cerebral cortex. Four or five years
ago, I was asked to represent the library on the Frederick Douglass
Day Planning Committee. That chance assignment led to what is
beginning to look like a lifelong fascination with Talbot County's
most famous native son. Then, just this past year, one of our
patrons' enthusiasm for Moby Dick convinced me to give Melville's
tale one more try before I went off to that big library in the sky.
And now that I've read both Douglass's famous Narrative and
Melville's famous novel, my mind can make an unexpected leap from one
to the other, forming an image of a time in American history that,
heretofore, had been pretty hazy.
Herman Melville was born in 1819; Frederick Douglass believed he was
born in 1818—so they were true contemporaries. Douglass escaped
slavery in 1838, at the age of twenty. Melville first went to sea in
1839, also at the age of twenty—so much of Douglass's famous work,
while written in the 1840s, in fact describes events that took place
in the late '30s and early '40s … as does Melville's.
Yet the worlds described in the two books could not be more different.
The first person narrator we meet in Douglass's autobiography is
utterly constrained by the rules of his society: he can go only where
he is told to go, can do only what he is told to do. But the first
person narrator we meet at the beginning of Melville's
semi-autobiographical work is not only free to move about and do as he
pleases, he is something of an itinerant philosopher, trying his hand
at whaling not because it promises great fortune but because it
provides an opportunity to muse upon the meaning of existence.
The world we encounter in Melville's novel is one characterized by
individual initiative and industry: the owners of the Pequod, the ship
Ishmael will sail on, speak with him as an equal; they are not
aristocrats but common Quaker seamen who have worked their way up
through the ranks. The deck of the Pequod turns out to be a
surprisingly cosmopolitan and egalitarian place. The ship's
complement of harpooneers—positions so important they sleep aft with
the officers—consists of a Polynesian, a Native American, and an
African. Regardless of ethnicity, every man on the Pequod, holding
shares in the voyage's outcome, takes pride in his work, undertaking
it with little or no direction from his superiors. Ropes, pulleys,
and teamwork allow small numbers of men to accomplish feats of
strength and daring hard to imagine in our world of robots, computers,
and nuclear power.
In Douglass's Narrative, on the other hand, we find ourselves in a
world of inherited wealth, a place characterized by white privilege
and circumscribed by the violence employed to maintain that privilege.
Melville's seamen perform their duties knowing their pay depends upon
the outcome of their work; Douglass and his fellow slaves perform
theirs under threat of being whipped … or worse. In Moby Dick, the
world is our oyster, we fly where we will in a vessel that exemplifies
Yankee ingenuity and thrift; in Douglass's Narrative we are confined
to a few dusty farms, a set of dangerous docks, and the staid, stale
parlors of the antebellum South. It's hard to believe that both
worlds were, in fact, one: America, circa 1840.
Late in 1840, Herman Melville went to New Bedford with the intention
of trying his hand at whaling. Having escaped slavery in 1838,
Frederick Douglass had arrived in that fabled port in 1839, and was
now trying to make a living as a caulker. I would like to think they
might have met, that their two worlds, so utterly different, might
finally have found a sort of reconciliation in that meeting. At the
very least, such a reconciliation has now taken place in my mind …
thanks to the Talbot County Free Library.