Herman Melville, “Billy Budd” (published 1924): Farewell Melville

The text of Billy Budd was found among Herman Melville’s personal papers after he died. It was not complete and would not published until 1924 and then only after editing. Thus we have both a “reading text,” which was prepared by editors by filling in various gaps, and a “literal text,” which was what Melville left us. The Library of America gives us only the “reading text.” It seems to me that this text, like so much of Melville’s work, is ultimately about power and the relationship between the individual and the organizations that they find themselves in. It is there in all the major works, beginning with Typee, when the narrator fled a whaling ship due to poor conditions. With Moby-Dick this theme reaches its climax with the authoritarian Ahab and the diverse Pequod. As Melville aged and began working on this work, returning to prose after years of only publishing poetry, he returned to this theme. He was no less cynical about the nature of power and its desire and ability to crush the individual.

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This is maybe Melville’s leanest work in terms of not have anything that can be seen as excessive to the point. There are none of the long sidelooks at the nuances of sailing that plagued so many readers of his earlier works. It is also as if Melville was in a race against time to tell this tale and could only write down the most relevant material. The story begins with the impressment of Billy Budd into the British navy not long after the Great Mutiny forced the British to use this particularly vile form of conscription, during their wars with France after the French Revolution. After a while Billy Budd is approached by other impressed seamen for recruitment into a conspiracy of mutiny but he refuses. Eventually, the master at arms, Claggert, accuses Billy Budd of conspiring to mutiny. His stutter makes it difficult for him to defend himself so he strikes his accuser, accidently killing him. The captain, Vere, is conflicted. He knows that Billy Budd was innocent of the accusation, but he cannot allow a murder to go unpunished in the post-mutiny climate. Billy Budd is sentenced to death and executed. The final chapters look at Vere’s fate, shows how the news reports differed from the reality, and gives a hint of how the truth remained alive in the culture of the seamen.

The first act of the novella is an act of violence against liberty, as Billy Budd is conscripted from the aptly named merchant ship The Rights of Man. He is transferred to the Bellipotent. The dueling names suggest much: individual liberty against imperial authority. This was a phenomenon across the British Atlantic during wartime. Despite the pleas from the merchant ship master who testified to Billy Budd’s calming effect on his crew, the young “Handsome” sailor was brought into the Royal Navy. The power of the sailors battled with the power of the British state on different levels. Impressment was in part a response to the Great Mutiny, an earlier act of rebellion against British military discipline. In a sense, Billy Budd enters a military order already engaged in a Civil War. His good humor, trustfulness, and affability perhaps make him ill-suited for that position.

Here is a BBC presentation of the Britten opera based on Billy Budd.

Melville takes pains to describe the major characters in good terms, especially Billy Budd and Captain Vere. He is not interested in a polemic against the naval captain here. He is largely interested in the institution. It is the institutions (the sailor’s solidarity, the Navy, the British state) that drive the actors, not personal malevolence. Billy Budd is described as without “visible blemish . . . as with a lady.” (1362) His stutter is his only defect. Vere is practical, educated, fair-minded, and loyal, as well as an ally oof “peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” (1371)

What happened to Billy Budd was therefore the product of institutional forces. I was reminded while reading this of how much it thematically pairs with David Simon’s The Wire or Paths of Glory, which so influenced Simon. In all three of these works, good people make horrific decisions due to the logic of the institution rather than the logic of humanity. (Earlier in this blog I discussed some of these ideas.) Melville goes so far as to present the unlikely situation where Billy Budd is, if not happy with being impressed, affable enough to not face any difficulty in the transition to military life.

Billy Budd’s violence against Claggert, comes from his inability to speak, due to his stutter. It is important that after he kills Claggery, Billy Budd’s stutter goes away, suggesting that the institution has silenced Billy and that his act of resistance revived his voice, even if only in time for his execution. This is an important point, for this is the fate of most of the world’s working people, institutionally confined from speaking. In the workplace, we all have a stutter.

Vere was tormented by his decision, knowing that Claggery falsely accused Billy Budd of mutinous designs, but he was bound by the law and the new policies implemented in the Navy after the mutinies. His moral anxiety is authentic, but rather pointless since the logic of the institution will always win out. This is the dilemma of the middle-manager, who has to work closely with the people at the bottom but being responsible for the laws and regulations of the top. He could, of course, have opposed the law and suffered as a consequence but this would have been an unlikely heroism and is really only possible from someone like Captain Ahab or Jack London’s Wolf Larsen.

The news report on the execution is significant because here we see the media taking the position of the state, not of Billy Budd (of course), but also not of the Captain. Now this may be because Vere had to report to his superiors in a way that minimized the ambiguity of the case. However, it happened the public report has Budd killing Claggery with a knife, being a foreigner, and having a central role in a mutinous plot. It also mentions how all mutiny was suppressed on the ship. We do not believe this anymore than we should believe the rest of the report. To borrow again from David Simon, it is like a big drug bust or high profile arrest being sold to the people as a great victory in the War on Drugs, when in fact the street market for drugs remains unaffected.

“Dope on the table” scene from The Wire:

In the final section we see that however false the official memory of the event may be, the brotherhood of sailors maintained a different message.  And with this, the sailor’s eulogy to Billy Budd, this blog will say goodbye to Melville, the man who inspired it major themes.

“Everything is for a term venerated in navies. Any tangible object associated with some striking incident of the service is converted into a monument. The spar from which the foretopman was suspended was for some years kept trace of by the bluejackets. Their knowledge followed it from ship to dockyard and again from dockyard to ship, still pursuing it seven when at last reduced to a mere dockyard boom. To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross. Ignorant through they were of the secret facts of the tragedy, and no thinking, but that the penalty was somehow unavoidable inflicted from the naval point of view, for all that, the instinctively felt that Billy was a sort of man as incapable of mutiny as of willful murder. They recalled the fresh young image of the Handsome Sailor, that face never deformed by a sneer or subtler vile freak of the heart within. This impression of him was doubtless deepened by the fact that he was gone, and in as measure mysteriously gone.” (1433-1434)

It is this deep memory that those who sustain authoritarian systems should most fear, for it is where we will find solidarity when those with wealth and gold demand of us mutual indifference.

Herman Melville, “Uncollected Prose”

“A miserable world! Who would take the trouble to make a foutune in it, when he knows not how long he can keep it, for the thousand villains and asses who have the management of railroads and steamboats, and innumerable other vital things in the world. If they would make me Dictator in North America a while, I’d string them up! And hang, draw, and quarter; fry, roast, and boil; stew, grill, and devil them, like so many turkey-legs—the rascally numskulls of stokers; I’d set them to stokering in Tartarus¬—I would.” (1204–1205)

Toward the end of the third volume of Herman Melville’s work, published by the Library of America, we find a rather hefty collection of his published writings. Unlike Hawthorne, who worked mostly in short-fiction and published many collections of his essays, Melville only put out The Piazza Tales, but in the 1850s he wrote several more stories. They are all included here, as are six of his book reviews.

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Of the book reviews, I will only highlight two, simply because they deal directly with texts this blog recently examined. Melville wrote a positive review of Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail. Melville was quite impressed with Parkman’s ability to turn his trip into a vibrant examination of frontier adventures. However, he was ambivalent about Parkman’s attitude toward Indians. He noticed (who could not) that Parkman harbored many prejudices toward Indians, which seemed to make it difficult for him to accurately describe the people he lived with. Melville’s point is well-taken here. All people were barbarians once, and most still are. “Why, among the very Thugs of India, or the bloody Dyaks of Borneo, exists the germ of all that is intellectually elevated and grand. We are all of us—Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks, and Indians—sprung from one head and made in one image. And if we reject this brotherhood now, we shall be forced to join hands hereafter. . . The savage is born a savage; and the civilized being but inherits his civilization, nothing more.” (1146). Next is “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” which is less of a book review than an attempt at finding a place for Hawthorne (who Melville clearly saw as America’s greatest voice) in world literature. Like others at the time, Melville was looking for the American voice in literature and seeking cultural independence from Europe. As he concludes: “Let him write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American. Let us away with this Bostonian leaven of literary flunkeyism towards England. If either must play the flunkey in this thing, let England do it, not us.” (1164) As we know, these two would become life-long admirers of each other.

Two of the stories collected here are the most notable it seems to me. “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!” (from which the opening quote derives) and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” due to their commentary on progress and inequality. The later story (really two combined sketches) is easier to see in this light for we are given a clear picture of the global division of labor. The “paradise for bachelors” is the urban professional, educated young men in London. “It was the very perfection of quite absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling, and good talk. We were a band of brothers.” (1264) The second part of the story takes us into a horrible paper factory in New England worked by emaciated and pale young women. In this factory, the line between human and machine is blurred. “Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low, steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery—that vaunted slave of humanity—here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringely as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.” (1271) Said now, after a century of scientific management, this may seem trite, but it is hard not be to be in awe of his prescience. Combined with the first part of the story it works as a model of the exploitation of the periphery. Something to keep in mind during the so-called “holiday season.”

“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” is a much more bizarre story. It begins with a polemic against progress. “Great improvements of the age! What! To call the facilitation and of death and murder an improvement! Who wants to travel so fast! My grandfather did not, and he was no fool.” (1205) We can juxtapose this to the previous story and see their relationship, although the remainder of the story is a sometimes baffling account of men’s observations and judgments on the cowing of a cock named Trumpet. Driven to desperation, I search around for some interpretations and found it seems to have much to do with Melville’s relationship to Wordsworth, and by extension English literature itself. It seems to be a polemic for national cultural independence, but I fail to see it. I will take from it, the very convincing questioning of the absolute valuing of everything simple because it is “progress.” One character, who refused to put a price on his cock, take everyone aback. I rather enjoyed that part.

Today's Tartarus of Maids

Today’s Tartarus of Maids

“The Fiddler” is a nice story on talent, genius, criticism, and the artist. Melville’s frustrations over the commercial failings of his works come out strongly in this tale. Hautboy was a brilliant fiddler who enjoyed fame as a youth, but found happiness in obscurity. “Once fortune poured showers of gold into his lap, as shows of laurel leaves upon his brow. To-day, from house to house, he hies, teaching fiddling for a living. Crammed one with fame, he is now hilarious without it. With genius and without fame, he is happier than a king.” (1202) I suppose this was partly Melville coming to terms with the fact that he would never enjoy success as a writer. I wonder if he believed it, however. Was he truly happier in the custom’s house?

Many of these stories and even the book reviews carried with them dualisms. America or Europe. Poor man’s pudding or rich man’s crumbs. Savage or civilized. Paradise or hell. Genius or the fancies of critics. As a believer that justice can be located and measured. We need to remember that the prosperity of the rich people of the world comes at the expense of the poor. This was never far from the surface of Melville’s writings.

Herman Melville, “The Confidence-Man” (1857)

“If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life. As elsewhere, experience is the only guide here; but as no one man’s experience can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every case to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.” (914)

Well, this is the world we live in to some degree, in constant war with our intellect and education. In The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade Herman Melville dreams up an incredible host of characters on a riverboat on their way South. Some of them certainly do not fit our taxonomy of life—such as the white man posing as a black man—, but they are all rendered so as to appear from life. This novel was Melville’s farewell to the world of publishing. Facing failure after failure since he wrote Redburn, he gave up on the public. He made some money from lecturing but eventually took to simply working at the New York customs office until he retired. His only outlet to the public was a few works of poetry. I still do not know for sure if Melville has spoken his peace or if he had more to say but lost faith in his listeners. As a farewell, The Confidence-Man does not disappoint. It is a brilliant tale and is endless quotable. As I am already prone to over quoting, I will try to avoid the temptation to go overboard.

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What makes this novel work is the cast of characters, each of whom has a story, an agenda, or a scheme. In this way, it is a microcosm of mid-nineteenth century democratic America. But in the mixture of people trying to take advantage of each other, sell their scheme or idea, there is a shared solidarity that Melville touched on previously in regards to the ship and its crew, but not seems to come from the shared experiences of all sorts of people. As the narrator points out, the riverboat is a great place to explore the full diversity of humanity because at every stop people get on and others get off. The population is steady but always changing. Perhaps more darkly we could read this as a story of liquidity. As soon as someone bores us we can take comfort in the fact that they will be gone and someone different will be talking to us in a few minutes. Reflecting this impatience, The Confidence-Man never dwells long on one person. Even the styles shift, with short chapters devoted to tangential points of philosophy. The narrator seems to be in the position of someone in a bar, drinking all day, eavesdropping on every conversation. (Maybe the narrator is a bee moving amongst the riverboat.) Whatever the narrator is, it is always able to learn something from the interactions, even to the point of offering commentary.

Melville makes it clear that we are dealing with America in all its diversity and energy. “As pine, beech, birch, ash, hackmatack, hemlock, spruce, bass-wood, maple, interweave their foliage in the natural wood, so these varieties of mortals blended their varieties of visage and garb. A Tartar-like picturesqueness; a sort of pagan abandonment and assurance. Here reigned the dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide.” (848) The stories these varied people told revealed many aspects of American life, turning the novel into something closer to an American version of The Canterbury Tales.

The people on the riverboat are more or less equal (in part because there seems to be no end to the masks that people are wearing and no one can know the real status or condition of others). Despite this equality—or maybe because of it—there is a constant give and take as people try to recruit others into their various schemes. One person invented the “Protean easy-chair” during “odd intervals stolen from meals and sleep.” (881) But that is not the limit of his inventiveness. He has also come up with a scheme to reduce poverty in the world by imposing a global progressive income tax that would produce almost one billion dollars a year. (Notice that this plan is not so different from the proposal of Peter Singer to reduce poverty with a 1% voluntary tax on the wealthy people of the world.) It is not a spur of the moment idea, this particular character through long and hard about this scheme. But it exists only in the realm of ideas. He lacks, of course, the power to implement it. The entire thing may be (actually probably is) a scheme. For all the machinations, because no one has power over any of the others, it comes off as a bit of a game. And the concept of “confidence” (required by any schemer) runs through the story as a type of common vocabulary.

Other subplots revealed during this single day on a riverboat reveal a darker side to the American experience. We meet an Indian hater, for instance, who spends considerable time discussing his life-consuming ambition to slaughter Indians in revenge for the murder of his family (a crime for which was already avenged earlier in his life). As is so common in Melville’s work, the dark undercurrent of American democracy and diversity comes in the form of brutal violence and authoritarian sentiments.

“Well, there is sorrow in the world, but goodness too; and goodness is not greenness, either, no more than sorrow is.” (865)

Herman Melville, “The Piazza Tales” (1856): “I would prefer not to”

Herman Melville’s The Piazza Tales, collecting five short stories and an introductory tale, include two stunning stories of resistance and their limits: “Bartleby, The Scrinvner” and “Benito Cereno.” The are often put in the same category as Melville’s greatest prose works, so it is notable that they both have at the core an act of seemingly successful rebellion. The Piazza Tales came out in 1856, collecting five of the pieces he wrote in the previous two years for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. 

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“Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” is endlessly fascinating and can be re-read for new meaning almost every time. The narrator is an employer at a law office, who hires a small group of copyists (scriveners), whose job it is to copy and double-check the accuracy of various of the copies. We have a mini-example of the Pequod here, with a diverse (but much smaller group) of workers, that accomplish their task with little oversight. The profession has rules that its members know. The boss, lacking any bold scheme like an Ahad, is simply content to manage the smooth-working office. Bartleby enters as the workload of the office increases. He is a diligent worker, who comes in every day and does his job, apparently without major defect. He does not seem to eat much except nuts and eventually takes to sleeping in the office. However, he also develops a strange habit of refusing requests from his employer. To all requests he responds: “I would prefer not to,” or some variation of. It is not that he does not do his work. His refusal is only when asked by the boss. This torments the narrator who has authority but is not used to using it. He seems to prefer an office well running without the need to apply authority.

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This probably describes most middle managers in office settings, always careful to assert their authority, but afraid to undermine the harmony of the office with a too authoritarian intervention. Having recently worked in an office, I can attest that most of the time discipline was enforced morally. “Don’t you want to help your co-workers?” “Do work that you can be proud of.” Explicit threats of being fired were not there. In this context, Bartleby’s resistance to the authority — and the banality — of office life is quite effective. Bartleby is brilliantly calling the employers’ bluff but forcing him to use more explicit uses of power.  In response to a refusal to cooperative, the narrator responds: “I am seriously displeased. I am pained, Bartleby I had thought better of you.” (660) That power beings as moral pleading, expressions of concern, threats of firing, and eventually the introduction of state authorities. Only the state is able to finally remove him from the office (an act the narrator cannot bear to witness although he precipitated it). Eventually Bartleby dies of starvation, literally bored to death from his job. His strategy may be the ultimate form of resistance and the exact way to challenge the power of the petty tyrants in offices around the world. Instead of refusing to work, one works but refuses to listen to the silly preachings and time-wasting dictates of those with a slightest bit of authority.

“Benito Cereno” is about a ship master who comes across another ship that had just experienced a mutiny by slaves. The transatlantic slave trade had already ended, banned by Congress in 1808, but the threat of slave revolt was still very alive in the minds of many Americans, Nat Turner’s revolt taking place in 1830. The story (really a short novel) is told through two sides. First from the perspective of a fictionalized Amasa Delano and then through an official report. The mutiny actually took place prior to Delano’s arrival, but the enslaved men and women kept the captain, Benito Cereno, alive in order to sail back to Africa. Delano is actually walking into a “world turned upside down” but does not know it. Cereno is commanded by the leader of the mutiny, a former slave called Bado. The reality of the situation is revealed at the end the mutiny is suppressed and Bado executed. This leads to the death of Cereno who is grief stricken by Bado’s death, turning on its head the cliché of the loyal slave.

In some ways, this suggests the fragility of power on the ship, in which captains really do keep their authority with the consent of the crew and the (at times) backing of external state powers. More broadly, the story speaks to the reality of empire in the 19th century. They were apparently ruled by whites, but really functioned through the labor and efforts of the enslaved.

“The Encantadas” reminded me of Mardi in how they toured a series of mystical islands. Lacking a narrative, the story is really more of a tourist guide to these various locations, some with hierarchical states, some left to nature, and yet others as libertarian realms for runaway sailors and slaves. While life if brutal there: full of institutions of power such as jails and gravestones testifying to unspoken horrors. In this sense it parallels the reality of the Atlantic world. Sketch seven of the story even has an example of a war between a colonial state (which proclaimed itself a republic) and a population of creole rebels. “Nay, it was no democracy at all, but a permanent Riotocracy, which gloried in having no law but lawlessness.” (791) As other sketches show, slavery is worked into the dynamics of life on the Encantadas.

However, like the Atlantic world system itself–and the emerging global capitalism that Melville knew about first hand–there are built in wild spaces where freedom can be secured and tyranny contested.  The section on runaways shows this. But by and large we see, in the Encantadas, the brutal extremes that authority will go to assert itself. “Nor have there been wanting instances where in inhumanity of some captains has led them to wreak a secure revenge upon seamen who have given their caprice or pride some singular offense. Thrust ashore upon the scorching marl, such mariners are abandoned to perish outright, unless by solitary labors they succeed in discovering some precious dribblets of moisture oozing from a rock or stagnant in a mountain pool.” (816) It seems to me that “The Encantadas” should be read as a likely description of a world of unrestrained capitalism.

The reality of the Enchantadas

The reality of the Enchantadas

slavery2floggingThis is the world that capitalism created. Melville was genius at describing it in almost all of his works. Much of his significance for us is in how he exposed the violence of empire and commerce. With this in mind, I think we should learn from Bartleby and “prefer not to” cooperate a bit more often.

 

Herman Melville, “Israel Potter: His Fifty Years in Exile” (1855)

“In view of this battle one may well ask—What separates the enlightened man from the savage? Is civilization a thing distinct, or is it an advanced stage of barbarism?” (573)

After the failure of Pierre, or the Ambiguities, Herman Melville entered a troubled period in his life. Most of his works had been commercial failures. He faced depression and poverty. His family tried to get him appointed a consul without any luck. He published works in magazines over the next few years, including the serialization of Israel Potter and the works that would be included in the Piazza Tales. Melville, by the way, is 36 at this time. Melville was not a fan of Israel Potter and deemed it a money-making effort.

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The book is apparently based on a real story from a pamphlet that Melville acquired about a Revolutionary War soldier, captured at sea, and exiled to Europe for fifty years. The novel that results is full of clichés and dubious encounters. In the course of his travels Potter meets King George III, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones. Apparently some of these encounters were real, according to the original autobiography. Dramatized, they take on the character of American jingoism, hitting home—again and again—the belief that America was young, free, and practical while Europe was corrupted by excess, wealth, privilege, and aristocratic hierarchies. Just a few of these examples include Potter working for a knight who accepts that he will never get the American to address him as “Sir,” Benjamin Franklin praising Potter’s wisdom at not knowing what cologne is and reciting some of his maxims on thrift, and the King of England learning he will be unable to defeat the United States just by looking at the rebel Potter. Much of it seems wasted coming from the pen of Melville.

Potter engages in various schemes pushed forward by Franklin and Jones. He even serves under Jones for a while, giving the tale a some of the feel of the sea fiction that Melville is known for. Most of the later half of the novel is spent at sea, with Potter serving under Jones.Through this, he is able to play pivotal roles in the Revolution despite being far from the frontline battles that he started with (and even farther from the fields he left to engage the British at Bunker Hill). He even meets Ethan Allen during Allen’s imprisonment in England, which turns into another attempt by Melville to juxtapose the solidarity, patriotism, and equality of America with the pretension of England. The period after the Revolution is rushed. Most of Potter’s life is crammed into one chapter titled “Forty-Five Years.” He spends that wandering about London, pining for home and dwelling on the decadence of the world he was stuck in. “And so, Israel, now an old man, was bewitched by the mirage of vapors; he had dreamed himself home into the mists of the Housatonic mountains; the flat, apathetic, dead, London fog had not seemed from those agile mists, which goat-like, climbed the purple peaks, or in routed armies of phantoms, broke down, pell-mell, dispersed in flight upon the plain. . . . all kinds of labor were overstocked. Beggars, too, lighted on the walls like locusts.” (610) The first chapter foreshadows the mists of London as a sharp contrast to the mists of New England. Eventually he returns home to die.

One message is that Potter was able to sustain his American patriotism and, more importantly, his American identity remains despite his long period of exile. Melville is also revisiting some of his ideas from Omoo about the relationship between wandering and freedom. While Potter would was nothing better than to return home, making him quite different from the deserting soldiers who seem to not have a clear goal in their wanderings except to avoid cruel masters or poor conditions, he becomes a wanderer. His name is highlighted here. While born of Puritan stock and named out of Puritan religious commitments, he ends his life closer to the Wandering Jew (right from the text, page 610). Was it this wandering and rootlessness that was the true reason he was able to hold onto his Americanism. Had he been settled onto land, married into an English family, and raised English children would he have remained the patriot to his death? It does not seem likely to me. Is this a tragic component of American identity? They are constantly on the move, constantly discontent, but always longing for a home.

If this was the fate of Americans at the time of Melville’s writing, the entire world has been Americanized now. Not in the silly cultural symbols—indeed universal around the world now—but in the frustrating liquidity of life. The most tragic part of the tale comes when Potter returns to his beloved home to find everything different and decayed. It is not a Rip Van Winkle story. He does not return to a world of industry. He finds instead a burnt out homestead. “Ere long, on the mountain side, he passed into an ancient natural wood, which seemed some way familiar, and midway in it, paused to contemplate a strange mouldy pile, resting at one end against a sturdy beech. Though wherever touched by his staff, however lightly, this pile would crumble, yet here and there, even in powder, it preserved the exact look, each irregularly defined line, of what it has originally been.” (614) The conclusion is not how things have changed or how boldly America progressed. It was the much more pathetic “[f]ew things remain.” With this, Melville predicted the real horror of late capitalism’s endless projections into the future as it clamors for immortality. It can no longer leave much of value behind.

Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part Two. Pierre in Revolt

“If a frontier man be seized by wild Indians, and carried far and deep into the wilderness, and there held a captive, with no slightest probability of eventual deliverance; then the wisest thing for that man is to exclude from his memory by every possible method, the least images of those beloved objects now forever reft from him. For the most delicious they were to him in the now departed possession, so much the more agonizing shall the be in the present recalling” (357)

I included this from Pierre only because of my inability to take Melville’s advice here, and I suffer daily from it.

As I left things at the mid-way point in Herman Melville’s Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Pierre Glendinning learned of his long-lost half-sister and married her after learning of her past. In the process, he alienated his mother, the woman who has hitherto dominated his life and controlled his future. He also left his fiancé, Lucy. Not insignificantly, at this point Pierre began a series of revolts that would dramatically change the course of his life. If Isabel, his sister, truly reflects the more primal and democratic and free America (leaving Pierre to symbolize the old aristocratic culture), then we can read the novel as the triumph of the democratic over the aristocratic. This may seem to be fighting old battles, but we must remember that the United States did not fully free itself from aristocratic influences with the Revolution. The aristocrat remained in the landed elite, in the slaveholder, and in the various anti-democratic forces not so easily undone.

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The largest revolt Pierre pursues is his entrance into the city. He sees evidence everywhere of the more democratic and diverse climate. In a humorous exchange with a coach driver, he finds that his aristocratic bellowings have little impact on the driver, mocking his dictatorial pretentions with “though to be sure, I don’t know nothing of the city where I was born and bred all my life—no I know nothing at all about it.” (271) But it went beyond the attitude of a single cab driver. Pierre feels he is surrounded by the dregs of society, none of whom respected his name and station. “Day-dozers and sluggards on their lazy boxes in the sunlight, and felinely wakeful and cat-eyed in the dark; most habituated to midnight streets, only trod by sneaking burglars, wantons, and debauchees; often in actual pandering league with the most abhorrent stinks. . . this hideous tribe of ogres.” (271)

He attempts to make his living by writing, maintaining faith in his earlier aptitudes. He did not quite understand how little his talent for poetry would fetch him in the urban American city. The “fine social position and noble patrimony of Pierre” was worth less than nothing on the streets of the city. In an interesting passage, Pierre finds himself contemplating what it will take to survive and the requirement that he learns a trade. His arrogance and overblown self-esteem convinces him that he could learn and adapt to any useful trade. He even makes the mistake that the mind and body are essentially detachable in the workplace. This is a common capitalist ploy, to pretend that they work regimens they impose on workers is less odious than it is. “But not only could Pierre in some sort, do that; he could do the other; and letting his body stay lazily at home, send off his soul to labor, and his soul would come faithfully back and pay his body her wages.” As if to strike home his point Melville adds. “So, some unprofessional gentlemen of the aristocratic South, who happen to own slaves, give those slaves liberty to go and seek work, and every night return with their wages, which constitute those idle gentlemen’s labor.” (304) This just goes to show that a simple relocation is not enough to create a democratic spirit in the individual. In any case, his pondering about manual labor are not that important as he settles in for a life of writing.

New York in the 1850s

New York in the 1850s

Another point of Melville’s, it seems, is the utter violence of such breaks. They are perhaps necessary for liberty, but they do often cause harm. This is seen in the return of Lucy to the story in the final acts. But rather than resist her fate, she seems to accept it, but in the process is pulled along with Pierre into his dramatic transition to urban, democratic life. The result, although not lurid, was perhaps scandalous. A menage-a-tois results, with the three dwelling together in the city. Pierre is unable to produce for the low-brow marketplace of the city. His book is rejected by publishers. He is sued for the advances he received because the pages he was sending the publisher were not seen as suitable for the market. His publishers call him a “swindler.” (I wonder if Melville ever heard those very words?) Driven beyond the bend he murders the new heir to his estate (and Lucy’s new finance), is taken to jail. Lucy dies when unable to come to terms with the reality of his relationship with Isabel (wife and sister).

It is difficult to get beyond the silliness of the plot and even as a Melville admirer I found the book to be a bit of a burden. Of course, the book is a mess and not Melville’s finest. I do think there is something powerful in the story about the changing American scenery. Pierre certainly moved from the aristocracy to where he would need to assert himself by his own merits, but that environment he entered was dominated by capitalist print culture. In a sense, he merely found out that in democratic culture, he is required to service another master: the market. How freedom can exist in the market has never been fully explained to me by the capitalist apologists.

Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part One. Old America, Young America

“Love was first begot by Mirth and Peace, in Eden, when the world was young. The man oppressed with cares, he cannot love; the man of gloom finds not the god. So, as youth, for the most part, has no cares, and knows no gloom, therefore, ever since time did begin, youth belongs to love. Love may end in grief and age, and pain and need, and all other modes of human mournfulness; but love begins in joy. Love’s first sign is never breathed, till after love hath laughed. Love laughs first, and then sighs after. Love has not hands, but cymbals; Love’s mouth is chambered like a bugle, and the instinctive breathings of his life breathe jubilee notes of joy!” (41–42)

It has been almost a year since I started my series on Melville, but I abandoned it after completing my reading of Moby-Dick. One of my goals this year is to roll up all these lose threads and starting looking at authors in complete sets. (We will see about Henry James—fourteen volumes—when we get there.) The third volume of the Library of America collection of Herman Melville includes his final three novels (Pierre, Israel Potter, and The Confidence-Man), the short-story collection The Piazza Tales, various prose writing—including some of his awesome stories and reviews—, and finally the posthumously published Billy Budd. Only the final work represents a return to sea fiction. Notice with me that Melville produced his six works of sea fiction between 1846 and 1851 (ponder that G.R.R. Martin). Pierre came out a year later in 1852. He had another period of rapid production between 1855 and 1857. During the rest of his life—he died in 1891, over twenty years after his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne died—he published only poems and some small pieces. Reviewers and his family thought Melville insane during this period. In order to meet expenses, Melville took a job from 1866 until 1885 as customs inspector for New York, following Hawthorne’s path. But while the position served as a temporary measure for Hawthorne before he produced his great novels, the customs house would be were America’s greatest writer would spend the rest of his days. He made only $10,400 from the sales of his books. How many great works are lost to us because of that job in the custom house?

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Pierre, or the Ambiguities begins with Melville’s praise for the “Majesty” of the Berkshires, followed almost immediately with the genealogical history of the tale’s protagonist Pierre Glendinning, rooted in an aristocratic family. The contrast between the monarchical and aristocratic England with the democratic America is one of the major tensions through the story. While in Hawthorne we see the endurance of family traditions, in Melville’s America these legacies are more distant and seem to have less hold, or at least are overwhelmed by the tide of democracy. In the first chapter is the quite political statement: “In our cities families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile acid among us; forever producing new things by corroding the old.” (13) A few pages later, he makes clear that the American elite migrate to the cities and build houses, while in Europe they would build country estates. Pierre was of the European type¬¬—a country aristocrat—in urbanizing America. What is left of Pierre’s family maintains the symbols of aristocracy, but are truly a family in decline. The past generations are even taller, with more grand careers, and more “majesty.” Moby-Dick thrust us right into the multiple, democratic world of the whaling whip. Pierre starts us someplace more static but moves us into the city, transforming the young Pierre Glendinning in the processes.

As the novel opens he is slated to marry Lucy. Soon enough Pierre learns that he has a half-sister Isabel, announced in the form of a letter. She announces her desire to see him and the deep connection she shares with him. The letter has a profound impact on Pierre who wants to seek out his sister rather than pursue the marriage with Luck. “Well may this head hang on my breast,—it holds too much; well may my heart knock at my ribs,—prisoner impatient of his iron bars. Oh, men are jailers all; jailers of themselves; and in Opinion’s world ignorantly hold their noblest part a captive to their vilest.” (110) With his commitment to seek out his sister, Melville shifts to telling the back story of Isabel. Unlike Pierre, who was raised by a matriarch intensely interested in dynasty and family reputation, Isabel was thrust into the world detached and in the wild. “Pierre, the lips that do now speak to thee, never touched a woman’s breast; I seem not of women born. My first dim life-thoughts cluster round an old, half-ruinous house in some region, for which I now have no chart to seek it out. . . . It was a wild, dark house, planted in the midst of a round, cleared, deeply-sloping space, scooped out in the middle of deep stunted pine woods.” (137)
Isabel seems to be a metaphor for America. In her early years, her only company were “an old man and woman,” both all but silent toward her and only mumble about her to each other. Like Europe looking on the infant America. Isabel began to speak her own polyglot, language (again, like America). Isabel is eventually taken in by a woman, who educates her, especially in music. She still lacked any ties to her heritage, but her father was sending money in support.

In many ways, Pierre and Isabel seem to represent two sides of America. Isabel is longer in the wilderness, primal, free, musical, lacking the need for guidance of adults, liberated. Pierre is younger but closer to the mythical traditions of his family, more obedient to his family, and more civilized, growing up under relatively strict guidance. There is the America that could not entirely break free of European traditions of hierarchy, obedience and power: the side of America that was never quite comfortable with freedom.

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After hearing the story of Isabel, Pierre decides to redeem her place in the family, which is attempts by marrying her. By telling her story, Isabel is able to pull Pierre away from his family and lead him on a path to rebellion.