Herman Melville, “Moby Dick,” The 300th Lay

The first thirty-six chapters of Moby Dick do much more than just set up the plot.  It is true that it is not until the 36th chapter that we are introduced to Ahab’s monomaniacal mission to kill the “white whale.” We are also introduced to the multi-ethnic crew of the Pequod, enjoy some fascinating discussions on religious relativism and its role in community, the exploitative economics of 19th century whaling, and the narrator Ishmael’s motives.

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The novel opens with several pages of “extracts” revealing the evolution of interpretations about whales in Western culture.  The opening extracts, from Biblical and Classical texts suggest an evil or malevolent force, much like Ahab’s interpretation of the “white whale” as a “inscrutable malice.” (967)  Later extracts paint a picture of a whale as a scientifically-examined mystery or as a victim of industrial exploitation.  As whaling expanded, whales and whale products became a part of daily life, but it is still used as a symbol, suggesting the inability of humans to fully understand the whale, despite its role in society and centuries of scientific investigation.  Of course, over the course of the novel we will learn that whalers have a unique perspective on whales (going so far as to oppose the scientific designation of whales as mammals).  The transformation of the natural world into commodities to be studied, used, and discarded does nothing to improve our understanding of the plants and animals that share this planet with us.  Managers may spend much of their day around workers, but know little of their needs, desires, or lives.  Meat-eaters consume flesh from animals they are indifferent to and utterly ignorant of.  A butcher may have some additional knowledge, but likely little understanding.  There is no guarantee that a farmer will have a more spiritual or honorable relationship to the land than an city-dweller.  As in most things, the problem is one of power.  In five thousand years of science and technological progress we go from the Bible’s “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” to “he saw the distended jaws of a large Sperm Whale close to the head of the boat, threatening it with instant destruction.” (783, 792)

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The novel begins in some familiar territory, a worker (in this case a teacher) bored with his life and seeking a new adventure decides to go on a ship.  Reading only the first chapter, we recognize Ishmael as akin to Typee or Taji.  Redburn and “White-Jacket” were straight up workers, lacking some of these romantic journeying of the characters in the Pacific novels.  Nevertheless, we get a richer and more cynical picture of the human condition in the opening pages of Moby Dick.  Ishmael has no illusions about a better life at sea.  He even claims that all humanity is enslaved and slavery on a whaling ship is not worse than any other.  He addresses the “November in my soul” by becoming a worker.  There is no Typee for him, no Yillah to search for.  He is also resigned to “Fate.” “I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.” (799)  Ahad’s motives are, of course, different.  He is on a quest to destroy and evil and malevolent force.  Those on the top can always redirect the energies into hobbies.  Working folk are lucky if their labors affirm any of their values or pique their interests.

After introducing his motive, Melville introduces Ishmael to Queequeg, a Pacific Islander.  This is the first hint that the interracial, transnational working class community of the whaling ship will play a major role in Moby-Dick.  As in Typee, the narrator begins hesitant to interact with people he deemed a cannibal.  (The tattooing plays a similar role as a facade of savagery as it does in Typee).  Queequeg is not only a Pacific Islander, he is also a pagan, a fact that will test Ishmael’s solidarity and openness.  We are introduced to the rest of the crew in the two chapters titled “Knights and Squires.”  We are introduced to the officers first.  Starbuck is the pure reflection of American pragmatism and capitalistic logic.  Flask  reflects more of the adventuring spirit of the American frontiersman.  Stubbs is the epitome of American cheer and optimism.  These three “knights” had three squires: Queeqeug, Tashtego, and Daggoo.  Together they represent an international working class stretching from Africa to the South Pacific.  In Mardi, Melville took the world and recreated in as a series of islands.  In Moby-Dick, he takes the world with him as the crew of the Pequod.

Pay on the Pequod and other whaling ships was determined by a fraction of the total profits of the voyage, known as “lays.”  Ishmael had hoped his experience in the merchant service would have provided for him a 200th lay, that is 1/200 of the profits.  In one of the most memorable parts of the early sections of this book, we encounter two of the major owners of the ship, Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad, arguing about how severely to exploit Ishmael.  Ishmael, already having decided to sign onto a whaling ship, has little bargaining power.  At worst, he figured a 275th lay would have paid for his clothes.  Bildad wanted to pay Ishmael the 777th lay and Peleg countered with the 300th lay, the amount he eventually agreed to.  The much more valuable harpooner, Queequeg, received the 90th lay.

The same class distinctions that divided the crew of the Neversink in White-Jacket affect the Pequod, particularly in the contrast between the ordered hierarchy on the top and chaotic democracy among the workers.  “Now, Ahab and his three mates formed what may be called the first table in the Pequod’s cabin.  After their departure, taking place in inverted order to their arrival, the canvas cloth was cleared, or rather was restored to some hurried order by the pallid steward. . . . In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain’s table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooneers.  While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their good with such a relish that there was a report to it.” (953)

There you have it.  In these early chapters of Moby-Dick, Melville describes the dynamics of global capitalism in terms of power, the make-up of the working class, exploitation, and environmental destruction.  This is the setting of his epic.

Herman Melville, “White-Jacket”: Power and Work

Like Redburn, White-jacket considers the working-class experience in America.  Through Redburn, Melville tells us about the diversity of the American working-class, its potential for solidarity and cooperation, its strong internal culture, and the trauma of someone moving out of the world of childhood into the world of work.  The internal workplace culture does not lack in oppression, particularly for the uninformed newcomer, but it also provides a source of strength and commonality in the face of the oppressions of capital.  The leaders of this system remain far away and vague.  Their use of power is limited.  Indeed, in Redburn, it was a fellow worker much more than the captain that Redburn feared.  White-Jacket gives us this window into the workings of power.  By setting the novel in an over-crowded military ship, Melville is able to explore with more intensity, brutality, and anger the uses of power by the ruling class and its consequences for working people.

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I do not doubt that the novel portrays with some accuracy life on a man-0f-war.  Melville served on one for months as part of his life at sea.  The casual reader may be easily overwhelmed by the details of naval life.  Let me start by suggesting that this is not without its use, even if it lacks in efficiency.  Melville presents us with a microcosm of the division of labor in modern capitalism.  This division of labor divided the crew as well as dividing the labor.  Different jobs translated into slightly (and often radically) different lives.  Some crewmembers had the job of ideological control (the chaplain).  Power and status, it goes without saying, divided the crew into different lifestyles.  Even different eating schedules.   Normal crewmembers had to eat three meals within one watch, while officers eat normally, throughout the day.  This division is real and for the broader economy no less true in Melville’s day than in ours.

The crew’s hatred for the soldiers was one of the sharpest divides on the ship, only matched by class hierarchies of officers and crew.  This animosity seems to come from the soldier’s job as guard on the sailors, and their immunity from the normal work schedule.  “Surely, the crowd of sailors, who besides having so many sea-officers over them, are thus additionally guarded by soldiers, even when they quench their thirst — surely these man-of-war’s-men must be desperadoes indeed; or else the naval service must be so tyrannical that the worst is feared from their possible insubordination.  . . . But the mutual contempt, and even hatred, subsisting between these two bodies of men–both clinging to one keel, both lodged in one household — is held by most Navy officers as the height of the perfection of Navy discipline.  It is regarded as the button that caps the uttermost point on their main-thrust.” (742)  This division is also reflected in the attitude of the crew toward rumors of war.  For the officers and soldiers, it is a chance for glory.  For the crew, it bodes only death and sacrifice.

By staging these sharp divides (between the diverse crew and homogenous officers, between the libertarian tendencies of the crew and the guards assign to reign them in) Melville is describing the ongoing conflict between democracy and tyranny in capitalist societies.  The narrator takes to describing the crew as “the people.”  Every one of his numerous critiques of life in the U.S. Navy charged the military with its failure to sustain the democratic values of the nation, everything from enforced religion to punishment without a trial.  Freedom gives way for the need of the state and the requirements of work.  Whatever concessions that the officers give are merely to satisfy the needs of their power.  “Whenever, in the internals of mild benevolence, or yielding to mere politic dictates, Kings and Commanders relax the yoke of servitude, they should see to it well that the concession seem not too sudden or unqualified; for, the commoner’s estimation, that might argue feebleness or fear.” (584)

Melville advances a version of the Peter Principle in his critique of the ship hierarchy.  The “Peter Principle” suggests that in any institution people will be promoted until they are incompetent, but no further.   This is a result of nepotism and favoritism, also challenges to the principles of equality enshrined in the democratic republic of the early 19th century.

Other forms of control include the use of foreign laborers and the encouragement of internal spies.

Although we get pages of insight into the covert means for maintaining power on the naval ship, ultimately the system is sustained with brutal force.  White-Jacket is remembered most for its criticism of flogging.  The novel seems to have played a role in ending the practice.  When the chaplain, the jingoism, the force of tradition and authority all failed, even with the subtle threats from the armed guards failed, the commanders still had the ability to use force to bring the man to submission.  When flogging failed there was still “flogging throughout the fleet” and “keel-hauling” – the passing of a sailor under the ship’s hull.

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With Redburn and White-Jacket, Melville moves from describing the world as it should be (as he does in his Pacific novels) to describing life as it is for the vast majority of people in industrial society.

Herman Melville, “Redburn”: Workplace Cultures

Melville named Typee and Mardi after the places that the narrator ran to from the ship.  Omoo simply refers to the “wanderers.”  These three earlier novels talk about searching, discontent, and mobility.  Reburn (and later White-jacket) is named after the narrator.  Redburn is not about escape but about a young man coming to terms with disciplinary regimens, alien workplace cultures, and brutal indifference in a foreign land.  With Reburn, Melville stops discussing the libertarian urge for autonomy and about the real world that most of us live in – a life of work, crushing authority, discipline and alienation.  In this world, evil is not an exceptional event but it is intertwined in the structures of everyday life.  To quote C. L. R. James, Melville is beginning to describe “the World We Live In.”   With this post, I am beginning the second volume of the Library of America‘s collection of Melville’s work, containing RedburnWhite-jacket, and Moby-Dick.

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Background and Summary
Redburn emerged from Melville’s frustration with the poor reception of Mardi.  It did not sell and Melville needed money since he was now married with a son.  The novel was written quickly and drew heavily on his own experiences.  Redburn tells the story of Wellingborough Redburn on his first voyage on the merchant ship.  He sails to Liverpool, experiences that industrial city, and is spirited away to London for a night by a bit of a vagrant who be befriends.  He returns to the ship and sails home to New York, where he is denied a salary due to his “escape.”  The vast majority of the novel focuses on Redburn’s naivety  and his failure to come to terms with the workplace culture, his observations of the crew, his horror at what he sees in Liverpool, and his attempts to gain the respect of the officers of the crew.  It is a coming of age tale, and one in which maturity is the result of repeated failures.

Workplace culture
Redburn’s first struggle is to enter the workplace culture of the ship.  Entering the ship as a “boy” Redburn is not respected by either officers or crew.  He did not understand any of the unwritten rules of ship life: the proper way to interact with officers, the meaning of workplace slang, the use of tobacco and drink (Redburn starts the novel as an advocate of temperance, which he abandons by the end of the novel), and even the proper, “manly,” ways to deal with fear.  Through his failures, the narrator describes the tension between individualism and culture.  Although naive, Redburn starts as a fairly self-assured individual, confidently sailing on a ship, a strong believer in temperance, and with a plan to gain the friendship of the captain, within the first few chapters the failures of this individualism is apparent.  It fails because it did not account for the way the world of the ship actually functioned.  Without these unwritten rules, beliefs and practices, the ship could not have functioned.  He only earns some baseline respect from the crew when he learns to integrate himself into this culture.

Needless to say, this workplace culture is authoritarian.   It demanded more from Redburn than the disciplinary structure of the ship.  Resisting or reforming this workplace culture is not possible for someone in Redburn’s position.  This brings us to Redburn’s antagonist in the novel: Jackson.

Jackson
Jackson is one force on the ship that isolates Redburn more than any other.  He has a forceful personality and if in a position of command reminds us of Ahab or Wolf Larsen from Jack London’s Sea-Wolf.  He understands the pyschology of others and willfully manipulates his knowledge.  His dislike for Redburn helped enforce the narrator’s isolation and account for many of his frustrations and anxieties.  “He was a great bully, and being the best seaman on board, and very overbearing every way, all the men were afraid of him, and durst not contradict him, or cross his path in any thing.  And what made this more wonderful was, that he was the weakest man, bodily, of the whole crew; and I have no doubt that young and small as I was then, compared to what I am now, I could have thrown him down.  But he had such an over-awing way with him; such a deal of brass and impudence, such an unflinching face, and withal was such a hideous looking mortal, that Satan himself would have run from him.  And besides all this, it was quite plain, that he was by nature a marvelously clever, cunning man, though without education; and understood human nature to a kink, and well knew whom he had to deal with; and then, one glance of his squinting eye, was as good as a knock-down, for it was the most deep, subtle, infernal looking eye, that I ever saw lodged in a human head.”  (67)  According to C. L. R. James, for Melville, Jackson is the product of a brutal working class culture.  “Jackson is a worker whose evil character Melville attributes to the suffering and misery which society imposes upon the class to which he belonged. . . . Melville knew workers and workers are not people who in revenge wish to destroy the world.” (James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, 76-77).  The problem in the workplace is not so unlike the problem in intentional communities.  While it can be a place of worker self-management, it is also easily dominated by people of strong personalities.  Perhaps Jackson is reflecting the authority structure of the ship.  Melville has much more to say about the impact of authoritarian structures on the sailors in White Jacket.

Europe
Redburn sees in Liverpool harsh inequalities.  If he is speaking for Melville, then Melville is continuing the old American critique of Europe, in particular England, as a realm of inequality, decadence, poverty, and oppression.  As nasty as the ship is for Redburn, the poverty and indifference in Liverpool are a shock.  That the return “cargo” is made up of emigrants to America is not a coincidence.  It is Melville’s celebration of the relative democracy and equality of America (even if not always actualized on the ship).  Redburn witnesses the making of America as a multinational republic.  The U.S. imperialism dominating so much of Melville’s, Pacific writing disappears as he engages in a bit of American myth-making.  “You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own.  We are heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance.”

The only hope for Europe is found in the figure of Harry Bolton, a reckless liar and gambler.  It is him who is responsible for Redburn losing his wages, by whisking him off to London for a night (this was the justification for the captain withholding his wages).  He also lies about his maritime experience.  This lie will eventually  cost him his life when he dies on a whaling voyage, he was likely unprepared for.  Harry Bolton is Redburn’s friend and returns his meager wages to Captain Riga in response to Redburn’s being withheld.  This act of solidarity in the face of a duplicitous captain can be contrasted with the way the police of Liverpool deal with the poor and starving.

In one of the most memorable parts of Redburn, the narrator comes across a family starving to death in a cellar.  Redburn smuggles them food, but also informs the local police and some other local people about the dire condition of this family.  Redburn’s generosity is not enough to save the family, who died some days after he begins aiding them.

In a related event, even the impoverished sailors aid a wounded naval veteran who begs for coin on the docks.  This contrast teaches us that, as oppressive as the workplace culture can be to young sailors like Redburn, it is the working poor who can sustain real empathy.