Tutors Talk Books: Cary Stickney on Moby Dick and More

January 21, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis

Cary Stickney
Cary Stickney.

Cary Stickney (A75) has been a tutor on the Santa Fe campus since 1980, and he served as the director of the Graduate Institute from 1994-97. Mr. Stickney is also a longtime co-leader of “Tunes at Noon,” a weekly lunchtime folk/bluegrass/Americana jam session, at which he plays a rousing fiddle.

You’re reading Moby Dick right now; is it your first time?

My only recent memory of Moby Dick is from four or five years ago. I’m reading it now to prepare for a Summer Classics week that my longtime friend, Annapolis tutor Eric Salem, and I are teaching this summer. The book is over 600 pages long, so participants who sign up over the next months will be told to start reading now; don’t leave it until the night before!

I’ve had a habit over the years of taking on a long book at the end of the second semester. There’s so much a tutor needs to do at the end of the year: senior essay orals to attend, student evaluations to write, all kinds of celebrations—and one always feels a little bit like it’s just not possible to do all of this stuff. You don’t see how you could possibly meet all the obligations. Eva Brann, a great tutor of the Annapolis campus, said that the tutors look like ghosts at that time of year. So I developed a habit of just barely starting a big book in defiance of all that. Just to say, as I read one page sometime after midnight before my next overcrowded day, “I’m not completely consumed by my schedule!” So that was when I started Moby Dick last, about five years ago. It took most of the summer to get through, but it’s a good beach read.

What makes it a good beach read?

Melville’s narrative comprises really exciting descriptions of what it’s like to actually be on a little boat being dragged by the largest creature on the earth—many times larger than an elephant—through the water at the highest possible speed or to see one diving down so deep that you just hope you have enough rope because if your rope runs out, he’s going to pull your whole boat under. Very exciting stuff and all very lifelike. He goes from such chapters to the very opposite: he’ll sort of lean back and describe some of the people on board the ship, or the different parts of the whale, or some of the habits of the whale, in a wonderfully rambling and fanciful way.

Melville is interesting. He quit school before age 14, I think; his father died, and he had to help support his family. And though he briefly returned to formal education after that and even worked for a time as a country schoolmaster, most of the rest of his education was just his own reading; he read everything he could get his hands on. Lots of Shakespeare. He moved from New York state—where he was born and had grown up—to New England; he seems to have met Emerson and Thoreau to judge by the satirical portraits he gives of them in The Confidence Man. He was especially friends with Hawthorne, who I think was an inspiration to him. But at some point, he had to make a living, and he went to sea. He was in the South Seas more than once, and at least once on a whaler. I guess maybe he took up writing while he was at sea. It’s certainly a good place to read! A whaler might be gone for years and scarcely touch port during all that time.

He went around the globe chasing the whale, and came back and wrote a couple of bestsellers about his life as a sailor. He got a big advance from his publisher because his books sold well, and his next book was going to be all about whaling. He wrote Moby Dick after his own standards, maybe with less of a care to his audience. And so it’s a very odd book in a certain way, because he’ll pause for whole chapters and just talk about the natural history of the whale, or the history of whaling, and he falls into kind of satirical veins in which he’s partly quoting whatever authorities he’d been able to read up on about whaling and partly mocking them a little bit.

But at the center of the book, Melville has a kind of madman, Captain Ahab, who lost one leg to Moby Dick. Ahab is part owner of the ship, and he doesn’t let the other owners know that really all he lives for is revenge on Moby Dick. He’s kind of a King Lear-like figure; you can tell that Melville loved Shakespeare.

It seems you see that love of Shakespeare in Melville’s portrayal of drama between people.

Yes. There’s also a great entry in one of Hawthorne’s journals about when Hawthorne became the ambassador to England. He invited Melville to come visit him and they walked on the moors. Apparently Hawthorne wrote something like: “Out rambling on the moors all morning with Melville this morning. God again.” That’s an eloquent two word summary of a conversation.

In Moby Dick, Melville was always thinking: what is the world really? And was it made by love? Or is it a random kind of place? Maybe the descriptions of the natural history of the whale are a way of saying, “well, the oceans are vast, and they contain vast beings that we will never really understand, and we’re out of all scale to them or they to us.” There’s a sense of being lost in vastness that gives people a way of seeing where they are: namely far below God. But he’s definitely aware of the possibility that it’s all some strange, remarkable happenstance that we are in this seemingly beautiful and well-ordered world of nature, and that the longer you look at nature, the wilder she appears, and that maybe there’s no God at all.

I think one learns after a time at the college that reading some of these books is not so much about successfully figuring out exactly what the author thought about x, y, or z. After a while, you start to realize how big and hard these questions are, and that they haven’t been settled once and for all. Some days it looks one way to the authors, and some days it looks another—and even if they are professed believers, they have their dark nights of doubt.

And so Melville is thinking about philosophy and religion and science all the time. And there’s a certain way in which what Ahab hates is the thought that the universe is so utterly indifferent. It’s as though Moby Dick has stolen his life from him. And if Moby Dick only represents the indifferent and the accidental in the universe, then Ahab wants to strike it down. And if he represents the possibility that God himself could somehow have acquiesced to it happening, then Ahab wants to stand up and take revenge for that. And so right at the center of the book is someone who’s become somewhat warped by the question of whether life has meaning.

And Ishmael, Moby Dick’s narrator, also appears as a kind of outsider. But he’s much more open to the possibility that there’s something eternal in the soul, and something kind of unshakably orderly and beautiful in the world. But he’s not at all sure.

You mentioned that you’ve also been reading Alice Munro.

She’s wonderful. I’m mostly reading a book called Dear Life, which is a collection of short stories that came out maybe five years ago. Most of them are told from the point of view of women, and I find that interesting in itself. Also that she’s willing to confess that women experience fits of infidelity and passion—things that we’ve all been trained, maybe, to think are more likely to be the flaws and faults of men. Alice Munro is able to make it plausible. It doesn’t make her women villains, but it makes infidelity a possibility for them. And it’s written in really kind of exquisite prose; I think her tales are wonderful pieces of storytelling.

How did you come to her?

I saw that she won the Nobel Prize a few years ago, and then a friend sent us this particular collection at Christmas as a present. So I just settled right into reading it, and each story kind of pierces your heart in some way. It is a total delight to read. The stories are beautifully done.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about what you’ve been reading?

I acquired a new habit when I was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago. At various times, my anxiety about it goes up and down; there are quarterly checkups to see where you stand and if the cancer is recurring or how things look. So those are times when one grows a little more anxious about what the scan’s going to show. And so I’ve started to read books that somehow or other address hard times or disastrous situations. They put my own worries and troubles into perspective. I discovered the genre before I was diagnosed: wanting to know a little more about recent local history, I read Timothy Egan’s book The Worst Hard Time, about the Dust Bowl in the Southwest. Then, after my diagnosis I read John Barry’s Rising Tide about the great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Faulkner writes about it in Go Down, Moses, and again in The Wild Palms. Last summer I was reading Albert Camus’s The Plague, a strangely comforting fiction about a quarantined city in Algeria. And as I await my next scan in February I am reading Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, an account of a particular corner of the great Stalinist Gulag in which the prisoners lead somewhat more bearable lives than elsewhere, and are compared to Dante’s virtuous pagans in the first circle of the Inferno. One sees more of Dostoyevsky than of Dante in the book generally, but that is not a bad thing at all. If any of your readers are in tough situations I highly recommend this brand of escapist literature, and the above books in particular. One might call them “out of the frying pan and into the fire” books.