A Little Literary Diversion

Compare and contrast is the name of the game today.

Openings are vital to a novel and maybe any writing. I was reading an older text, and it reminded me of another beautiful opening from an even older work. I thought I’d share short portions above the fold, to whet your appetite. Larger excerpts are below the fold for those who wish to see the full passages and revel in the glory of great writing. (For fun, you might try and guess the sources).

1st passage:
All the world was before me and every day was a holiday, so it did not seem important to which one of the world’s wildernesses I first should wander.

2nd passage:
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.


Here are the larger passages. The authors and titles are listed at the end.

1st passage: (1912)
When I set out on the long excursion that finally led to California I wandered afoot and alone, from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, with a plant-press on my back, holding a generally southward course, like the birds when they are going from summer to winter. From the west coast of Florida I crossed the gulf to Cuba, enjoyed the rich tropical flora there for a few months, intending to go thence to the north end of South America, make my way through the woods to the headwaters of the Amazon, and float down that grand river to the ocean. But I was unable to find a ship bound for South America–fortunately perhaps, for I had incredibly little money for so long a trip and had not yet fully recovered from a fever caught in the Florida swamps. Therefore I decided to visit California for a year or two to see its wonderful flora and the famous Yosemite Valley. All the world was before me and every day was a holiday, so it did not seem important to which one of the world’s wildernesses I first should wander.

Arriving by the Panama steamer, I stopped one day in San Francisco and then inquired for the nearest way out of town. “But where do you want to go?” asked the man to whom I had applied for this important information.

“To any place that is wild,” I said. This reply startled him. He seemed to fear I might be crazy and therefore the sooner I was out of town the better, so he directed me to the Oakland ferry.

Source here

2nd Passage (1851):
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.

Source here

By now you probably know the second passage is from Moby Dick. The first passage is from John Muir’s The Yosemite.

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4 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    If you like tales of wandering, please try the novellas of Colombian writer Alvaro Mutis, collected in The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. To mention that most are set on pathetically rusty tramp steamers in Mediterranean or tropical locales might mislead you into thinking they’re ripping yarns, when they’re more often about disappointed plans. They manage to be lyrical, comical and melancholy even in translation. The seven stories are more or less free-standing, though with recurring characters; so you can read them all at once or stretch out the pleasure, by reading only one or two at a time.

  2. Ken says:

    Aren’t we Americans astonishingly lucky that John Muir’s family decided to emigrate here from Scotland when he was eleven? Truly an excellent example of the Butterfly Effect.

  3. Sean says:

    I first read Moby Dick in my late twenties. I picked it up from the library, thinking it was something I ought to already have read. I was a little daunted by the size, but the opening paragraphs were so readable and charming I was hooked from then on. Melville really could write!

  4. Deven says:

    A.J., thanks as always for the tip. And, to all, thanks for the thoughts. I, of course, am most pleased that both are wrote and love their prose.