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.


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.


Francis Parkman, “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), Part Two

“The human race in this part of the world is separated into three divisions, arranged in the order of their merits: white men, Indians, and Mexicans; to the latter of whom the honorable title of ‘whites’ is by no means conceded.” (274–275)

I do not want to give the wrong idea. Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail is not a Social Darwinian text, creating an odious racial taxonomy of the “American” West. However, statements like this were hard to look away from as I was reading the second half of the book. Parkman was by no means an egalitarian. In his massive history France and England in North America, he explained the failure of the French empire in religious terms (blaming their Catholicism) and often exposed other prejudices. Late in life, he wrote a polemic against women’s suffrage. In fact, he was quite active in the anti-suffrage movement. Pretty much all of his historical works whitewash black Americans and slavery. We do see here, his intense interest in American Indian life, which runs through his historical scholarship. His first major work was a history of the Pontiac revolt. I do not want to say that this translated into respect or a belief in equality. He never backtracked from racial superiority in the writing of The Oregon Trail, but he does hover around an attitude of respect, even when making clear to his readers that the Indians of the plains are not the threat that they some believe them to be.

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman

Parkman’s real purpose of his Western travels, recorded in The Oregon Trail, was to experience the life of the Sioux (Ogillallah) first hand. He does this for a month or so before returning home. Readers hoping for a start to finish narrative of the Oregon trail itself will be disappointed, and despite the title of the original version (The California and Oregon Trail), he has nothing to say about the West coast destinations of the migrants.

His major conclusion about Indians, derived from his travels, was that they were fundamentally capricious and rather silly in their beliefs. “A grand scene of gambling was going forward with all the appropriate formalities. They players were staking on the chance issue of the game their ornaments, their horses, and as the excitement rose, their garments, and even their weapons; for desperate gambling is not confined to the halls of Paris. The men of the plains and the forests no less resort to it as a violent but grateful relief to the tedious monotony of their lives, which alternative between fierce excitement and listless inaction.” (208) He thinks this capriciousness leads to inaction and ineffectiveness in war and in interactions with whites. In his view, it was also evidence of a type of passivity, a disturbing acceptance of fate. He describes a fairly impressive war-party and goes through great pains describing how brave the warriors were, how they could suffer torture and death. But, “when suffering from a protracted disorder, an Indian will often abandon himself to his supposed destiny, pine away and die, the victim of his own imagination.” (214) To make the point clear, the chapter ends with a comment on the pathetic dismantling of the war-party after all the “fasting, dreaming, and calling upon the Great Spirit.” (214) Examples of this run throughout his reportage. He is amazed a battle where no one was hurt yet many bullets and arrows were expended. He reports on what he sees as irrational sloth, contributing to the debased and desolate environment.

When Parkman returns to his guides, and Fort Laramie, he returns to reporting on the more international population of migrants following the Santa Fe Trail. There are hints in the final hundred pages of The Oregon Trail of dark foreshadowing about just how horrible the consequences of this migrant would be for the environment and people of the West. They met one armed migrant who claimed that he had a mission during his travels of killing an Indian. Encounters like this convince us immediately that despite the often festive nature of both the migrants and the Indians along the trail, as well as the elaborate rules of the game described in the last post, there was always a brutal reality of violence and power below the surface. For what were these migrants, ultimately, if not the extension of white American power over the continent?

The hints of environmental devastation are just as strong. People slaughtering snakes and keeping trophies. The constant sounds of axes levelling forests. The slaughter of the buffalo. Bears being frightened and chased off by armed gangs of migrants. Parkman admits some of this impact openly. “We soon came in sight of [Bent’s Fort], for it is visible from a considerable distance, standing with its high clay walls in the midst of the scorching plains. It seemed as if a swarm of locusts had invaded the country. The grass for miles was cropped close by the hoses of General Kearney’s soldierly.” (276) As is well known, the buffalo hunts took on a festive atmosphere and were engaged in for sport, more than need. One of his companions challenged: “Do you see them buffalo? Now I bet any man I’ll go and kill one with my yager.” (325) Parkman contributed to the prejudice of the expanding white America over the nature of the West. Several times he refers to the animals of the region (buffalo and sheep are two examples I recall) as being stupid and strangely clannish and arbitrary. This is not so different from how he interpreted the Indians he encountered.



Not insignificantly, the final chapter of The Oregon Trail is called “The Settlement,” which describes both the return to St. Louis after Parkman’s frontier adventures but also the future of the West he toured, although he was not fully aware of it yet. “Little more than a hundred miles now separated us from the frontier settlements. The whole intervening country was a succession of verdant prairies, rising in broad swells and relived by trees clustering like an oasis around some spring, or following the course of a stream along some fertile hollow. These are the prairies of the poet and the novelist. We had left danger behind us. Nothing was to be feared from the Indians of this region, the Sacs and Foxes, the Kanzas, and the Osages.” (337) The reason for this comparative peace was that this land and these people were already consumed by the United States’ empire.

St. Louis at the time of Parkman's travels

St. Louis at the time of Parkman’s travels

Francis Parkman, “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), Part One

“One morning, a piece of plank, standing upright on the summit of a grassy hill, attracted our notice, and riding up to it, we found the following words very roughly traced upon it, apparently by a red-hot piece of iron. MARY ELLIS, DIED MAY 7th, 1845, AGED TWO MONTHS. Such tokens were common occurrence. Nothing could speak more for the hardihood, or rather infatuation, of the adventurers, or the sufferings that await them upon the journey.” (56)


My apologies for beginning my look at Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail with this bit of pathos. Indeed, I am not particularly interested in stressing the hardship and suffering of the trail. Any high school text book can do this adequately. But this makeshift tomb did strike me as an impressive piece of Americana for another reason. The Oregon Trail was created by thousands of working people, from many different nations, men and women, adults and children, through interactions with local people. Sure, the government had a thin role through forts and the occasional army presence, but the trail was a vernacular creation. This tomb was just one of the small relics left behind by these people. Ah, forgive me, I feel I am still within the mythology of the American past: The rugged individual staking out, with courage, the settlement of the West. Is it possible to tell this story (especially through the mind of someone like Francis Parkman) without regurgitating these myths? Nevertheless, let me stand by this. The Oregon Trail, according to Parkman anyway, was created by a motley, international crew of settlers, some Romantic frontiersman, some practical patriarchs and matriarchs, some Indians who through the participation may have helped ensure the end of Indian autonomy in the West. The state seemed distant at best. Perhaps this is really a story of bottom-up vernacular creation. Maybe the myths are correct.


Francis Parkman, the great historian whose epic history of the British and French empires in North America I looked at earlier in the year, experienced the Oregon Trail in 1846, after graduating from law school. He did not go as a settler, but as a reporter. During his investigations he participated in a buffalo hunt with the Sioux. He returned and experienced a collapse in his health, something that would plague him for the rest of his life. Out of his experiences came The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, appearing first in serial formation in 1847 and in book form in 1849 (as The California and Oregon Trail, to profit off the gold rush). He had already hoped to work on Pontiac’s revolt, his first major historical work, and his reportage was a place holding work toward what he felt was a more important historical investigation.

Almost immediately the reader gets a sense of the transnational solidarities of the participants in the Oregon Trail. “The passengers on board the Radnor [the boat Parkman used to navigate the Missouri River before setting off on the land route] corresponded with her freight. In her cabin were Santa Fe traders, gamblers, speculators, and adventurers of various descriptions, and her steerage was crowded with Oregon emigrants, ‘mountain men,’ negroes and a party of Kanzas Indians, who has been on a visit to St. Louis.” (9–10) Some of the characters he describes meeting are almost out of film stereotypes of nineteenth century frontiersmen. Sorry to quote again, it is too lovely. “As I stood at the door of the tavern, I saw a remarkable looking person coming up the street. He had a ruddy face, garnished with the stumps of a bristly red bread and a moustache; on one side of his head was a round cap with a knob at the top, such as Scottish laborers sometimes wear: his coat was of a nondescript form, and made of a gray Scotch plaid, with the fringes hanging all about it; he wore pantaloons of coarse homespun, and hob-nailed shoes; and to complete his equipment, a little black pipe was struck in one corner of his mouth.” (11–12) Parkman’s early impressions seems to have been that the people he was surrounded by (did I mention a large group of Mormons?) were much more interesting than the rather dull environment.

I do not want to give too cheery a picture, however. Fear was real, and Parkman described in on the faces of some of the pioneers he encountered, whether bachelors or entire families. Difficult alliances were formed among groups for protection against Indians, forcing the creation of makeshift councils and decision-making structures.

The infamous conflicts with the Indians are here as well, but Parkman’s narrative shows them for a bit of a facade. He reports violence from time to time, but neither side dared open confrontation if it could be avoided. The Pawnee, for instance, looked upon the wagon trains as a source of income (and the train prepared for theft as simply part of the cost of doing business on the train). Shows of bravado and intimidation occurred, but avoidance of large confrontation was the rule. For example, when Parkman’s group was out hunting for buffalo they ran into a group of Pawnee. “The amazement and consternation were mutual. Having nothing but their bows and arrows, the Indians thought their hour had come, and the fate that they were no doubt conscious of richly deserving, about to overtake them. So they began, one and all, to shout forth the most cordial salutations of friendship, running up with extreme earnestness to shake hands with the Missourians, who were as much rejoined as they were to escape the expected conflict.” (63) On the next page we learn that Parkman bought the friendship of people from the same group with a half-pound of tobacco, while a neighboring group of emigrants lost one man to the Pawnee and were forced to huddle in camp for a day or two. I do not want to give these encounters, based on threats and sometimes violence, a too festive atmosphere, but I get the sense that what was happening was a bit of a game (perhaps like drug dealers and police) that often ensnared people tragically, but when carefully played, left both sides intact. Unfortunately, it seems too few of the emigrants fully understood the rules.

When examining power on the Oregon Trail, it seems there are four forces, but none of them dominate enough to control the other three. One center of power were the emigrants themselves, forming organizations to protect themselves and survive. They were armed, provisioned, and organized (to a degree). A second group was the United States government, but they were largely absent outside of visits to forts. Their power was not projected outward very much, at least not in 1846, when Parkman was there. A third group, more extensive than the government, were transnational corporations such as the American Fur Company (owned by a US citizen, but many of the employees were French-Canadians and Indians). As Parkman said of Fort Laramie, “Here their officials rule with an absolute sway; the arm of the United States has little force; for when we were there, the extreme outposts of her troops were about seven hundred miles to the eastward.” (97) The final group, were the Indians, who seemed—according to this account—more interested in securing a steady income from the emigrants than preventing the migrations entirely. It seems that there is a space here for taking seriously the vernacular organizations formed by the emigrant themselves, but I do not know of any scholarship that does this.

American Fur Compay's Fort Laramie

American Fur Compay’s Fort Laramie

Most of the rest of The Oregon Trail details Parkman’s time living with the Sioux. What we can learn about his attitudes about them and the nature of their society will be reserved for my second post on this excellent example of early American reportage.