For the last two nights — ever since the most recent whitewash, this one in the case of Eric Garner — the skies above my neighborhood have been full of the maddening, monotonous thrum of hovering police helicopters. In one way, I suppose, it’s a good sign. It shows they’re scared of us. And well they may be. The sins of this guilty land, to borrow my man John Brown’s phrase, remain unexpiated. When the dam finally breaks — and oh my God, may I live to see it — the thin blue line will abandon its lethal toys and shed its uniforms and call out to the hills, Cover us!
I happened to pick up from my disorganized shelf an old tattered falling-apart copy of Moby-Dick tonight — I had carefully written the date on the flyleaf: May 1, 1977.
(I don’t do that anymore. Too many books have come and gone.)
It’s a very remarkable book, and if you haven’t read it lately, I recommend it. People talk about the Great American Novel, but it’s been written; case closed. There may be some doubt whether Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn is it; but one way or the other, no American writer is ever going to beat either of these, and in fact the sooner the category of ‘American writer’ becomes archaeological, the better.
Moby-Dick is a much better book than this guilty land deserves to have produced. Lit-crit thumbsuckers love to read it, somehow, as an allegory of the Amurrican project; but if it’s an allegory of anything, it’s an allegory of something much more important than this blighted slaveocracy’s lamentable history, the sooner done with and forgotten, the better.
On the other hand, it is, undeniably, a very Amurrican book. Only this country, in its early years, before the radical fatality became so obvious, could have produced it: back when the curse and the promise seemed to hang in the balance.
The curse won, of course. As we all now know, who have eyes to see.
A few hundred years hence, the only good thing posterity will be able to say about us is that we produced Herman Melville, and Mark Twain, and a few others. Edith Wharton, I’m sure, will still give the kind of pleasure Jane Austen gives; and John Singer Sargent will still delight.
Even the Visigoths did better; but let’s console ourselves as best we can. Our nation was a suppurating chancre on the face of the earth. But we weren’t all bad.