That's him in the photo, next to another uncle, Andy Childs. Uncle Wayne is pointing with his cane (made from a tree in his yard that I regularly climbed with my cousins when I was young, eating green apples until we were sick). Surrounding my two uncles are my wife, sister-in-law, brother, cousin, and others that travel in a caravan each Memorial Day to family grave sites around Salt Lake City.
"You know, John's father, Gilbert Sutherland," Wayne told us, "was a harpooner on a whaling ship."
A harpooner on a whaling ship? One of my great grandfathers?
"Oh yes, he went to sea as a young boy."
Well, call me Ishmael. It sounds crazy, but I suddenly felt connected to my ancestor (about whom I know nothing but this one small fact) because of the many hours I have spent on the Pequod, vicariously, chasing Moby Dick. One of my great grandfathers was a harpooner on a whaling ship. Now, how cool is that?
Only it got better. Musing on this, I returned to Moby Dick and at random began reading in Chapter 27, "Knights and Squires." It's one of those descriptive chapters that Melville wrote in which Ishmael is characterizing many of the unique personalities among the crew of the Pequod:
No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outward bound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores. In like manner, the Greenland whalers sailing out of Hull or London, put in at the Shetland Islands, to receive the full complement of their crew.Wait! What the heck?! In the same breath Ishmael brings in the Azores and the Shetland Isles. As I said, my ancestors, John Sutherland and his father, Gilbert, were from the Shetland Isles. But the Azores, that beautiful set of islands in the middle of the Atlantic populated by the Portuguese -- that is the homeland of all my wife's four grandparents.
I've often talked about Karen this way, identifying her with her Portuguese questing for adventure. It's something I love about her. But I'd never felt this sense of common identity with her -- the fact that we both come from adventuring island peoples -- until Uncle Wayne connected me to a harpooning great grandfather, and until Herman Melville linked my ancestor's homeland (the Shetland Isles) to that of my wife (the Azores). And now that I think of it, I start to see myself even more as an islander-adventurer.
Melville's narrator, commenting about the many foreigners who filled the American whaling fleet in the 19th century, "They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod,
As I contemplate the relationship between literature and digital culture, I see literature as potentially isolating. Books certainly do isolate and separate people. Recently, after cautioning my children during a family home evening about the dangers of the Internet in detaching us from real people and relationships, one of my sons commented, "Isn't that what reading books does?" It made me pause for thought. How many years have I spent isolated from others behind the walls of printed pages? What real relationships have I gone without because I was immersed in the adventures of Ishmael or other fictional characters?
And yet, as I listened to my Uncle Wayne talk about my ancestors this Memorial Day, what was it that took me so forcefully back to my ancestors, my wife, and my parents? What was the binding glue that connected me to an identity I share with generations past and present?
Moby Dick -- a work of fiction.
Does literature connect us or does it isolate us? Does it keep us from setting forth in the world or from connecting with others, or does it propel us forth, taking us across the voids of time and place?
Does the Internet connect us or isolate us? Does it keep us locked into vicarious ruts, detached from people, or does it carry us across the voids of time and place?