McDonald and the Missouri bachelor

This will certainly be my most spoilerific Butcher’s Crossing post, so, fair warning.

I mentioned earlier in the week that Will Andrews had gone out to Butcher’s Crossing because a family friend was based there, working in the hide trade. This man, McDonald, is a trader and outfitter of buffalo-hunting trips. Most of the hunters in the town work for him, and he pays them for their skins before sending them back East, where they are in demand.

McDonald makes another connection to Melville, and to the book cited in the epigraph—The Confidence-Man. My best overview of that novel is here, but I am most interested in a particular character: the Missouri bachelor, Pitch.

Seen in one light, the Missouri bachelor could be Miller. Possibly modelled on James Feminore Cooper, he is a man of the West (or at least the Midwest). He is cool and calculating, and recognizes that the forces of nature are more often arrayed against man than not. But these are, I think, superficial resemblances, and it is at the end of Butcher’s Crossing that McDonald comes to channel him most.

The Missouri bachelor enters the scene of Melville’s riverboat of the damned after witnessing the confidence-man, here and herb-doctor, sell an old man one of his remedies. “Yarbs and natur will cure your incurable cough, you think,” he sneers to the old man.

“Think it will cure me?” coughed the miser in echo; [165] “why shouldn’t it? The medicine is nat’ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me.”

“Because a thing is nat’ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?”

“Sure, you don’t think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?”

“Natur is good Queen Bess; but who’s responsible for the cholera?”

“But yarbs, yarbs; yarbs are good?”

“What’s deadly-nightshade? Yarb, ain’t it?”

“Oh, that a Christian man should speak agin natur and yarbs—ugh, ugh, ugh!—ain’t sick men sent out into the country; sent out to natur and grass?”

“Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore lungs, nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Wild Boy?”

(That last paragraph is Butcher’s Crossing‘s second epigraph.)

In The Confidence-Man, the Missouri bacherlor is condemned for his cynical view—for his lack of confidence, in this case, in nature. It is McDonald who delivers this message to Andrews, after the hunting party returns to a devastated town: McDonald is bankrupt, the bottom has fallen out of the hide trade, nearly everyone has left Butcher’s Crossing, and the hunting party failed tragically on their way back to town, losing their wagon and all the hides on it. More hides than they could carry remain piled up in their hidden Colorado valley, but these too are worthless. McDonald is a bit of an “I told you so,” but the learning experience he tries to impart to Andrews is not wrong—though it may be wasted on a man who can no longer receive it.

“Young people,” McDonald said. “Always wanting to start fro mscratch. I know. You never figured that someone else knew what you was trying to do, did you?”

“I never thought about it,” Andrews said. “Maybe because I didn’t know what I was trying to do myself.”

“Do you know now?”

Andrews moved restlessly.

“Young people,” McDonald said contemptuously. “You always think there’s something to find out.”

“Yes, sir,” Andrews said.

“Well, there’s nothing,” McDonald said. “You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you—that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else. Then you know you could of had the world, because you’re the only one that knows the secret; only then it’s too late. You’re too old.”

“No,” Andrews said. A vague terror crept from the darkness that surrounded them, and tighteend his voice. “That’s not the way it is.”

“You ain’t learned, then,” McDonald said.

If McDonald is hard on the young man, he is no less hard on himself. “I came out with nothing, too,” he says, but there’s a reason.

“Because I forgot what I learned a long time ago. I let the lies come back. I had a dream, too, and because it was different from yours and Miller’s, I let myself think it wasn’t a dream. But now I know, boy. And you don’t. And that makes all the difference.”

“What will you do now, Mr. McDonald?” Andrews asked; his voice was soft.

“Do?” McDonald straightened on the bed. “Why, I’m going to do what Miller said I should do; I’m going to get out of this country. I’m going back to St. Louis, maybe back to Boston, maybe even to New York. You can’t deal with this country as long as you’re in it; it’s too big, and empty, and it lets the lies come into you. You have to get away from it before you can handle it. And no more dreams; I take what I can get when I can get it, and worry about nothing else.”

Talk about a man with no confidence! The West did not freeze to death any teamsters on the prairie, at least not this time, but its very vastness and wildness can’t help but bring false ideas about nature. These ideas infected Andrews when he was young, before he ever got out there, and presumably they infected McDonald like that too—otherwise he wouldn’t likely be in Butcher’s Crossing to begin with. He may not be as steady as the Missouri bachelor; after all, he forgot the lesson he had learned from the country. But after his latest tragedy he knows the only way is to flee the seductive untamedness of nature; he can’t trust it, and he can’t trust himself while he’s still in it. This nature that is supposed to cure, supposed to help men discover themselves and do great things they felt impossible back home, can be as deadly as nightshade, as bad for clarity of mind as any drug.

I have confidence in nature? I?,” asks the Missouri bachelor. “I say again there is nothing I am more suspicious of. I once lost ten thousand dollars by nature. Nature embezzled that amount from me; absconded with ten thousand dollars’ worth of my property; a plantation on this stream, swept clean away by one of those sudden shiftings of the banks in a freshet; ten thousand dollars’ worth of alluvion thrown broad off upon the waters.”

His interlocutor demands he have confidence that “by a reverse shifting that soil will come back after many days,” but the Missouri bachelor, like McDonald, believes no such foolishness. The confidence-man questions further: “Now, can you, who suspect nature, deny, that this same nature not only kindly brought you into being, but has faithfully nursed you to your present vigorous and independent condition? Is it not to nature that you are indebted for that robustness of mind which you so unhandsomely use to her scandal?” But is it not also just such a nature that drives men like Andrews into danger, that “robustness of mind” which is perhaps not robustness but a fantastic desire to find, at least in McDonald’s opinion, something that simply is not there?

Reading Pathways: Herman Melville

I couldn’t resist—not when my man is involved—and I’m entering Book Riot’s START HERE Write-In Giveaway to sell the uninitiated on a Melville reading path, with Moby-Dick as objective.

Like many others, I personally began my reading of Herman Melville with Moby-Dick. Unlike many others, I loved it from the first moment to the last, from sub-sub-librarians and etymologies to the final chase. After pretty quickly becoming one of my most re-read books, Melville’s epic of metaphysics and cetology inspired me to read all of his work—or at least, all of his prose fiction and most of his poetry. As a fanatic, it’s hard for me to accept that Moby-Dick itself is not universally loved, but nor do I think it makes sense to dive into such a powerful author with what is certainly a difficult book—not to mention a serious time commitment. Instead, let me suggest an alternative pathway into Melville, culminating, of course, in the quest for the great white whale.

Benito Cereno

Resting solidly in “novella” territory, Benito Cereno gives a strong taste of Melville, in particular of his sea writing, in a smaller dose—though the story itself is far from easily digestible. Based on a true account of a slave rebellion at sea, the story is frightening and compelling and contains many of the themes and devices that appear again and again in Melville’s larger body of work. The narrator, a somewhat naive and solidly American ship’s captain, proceeds in confusion and wariness, and the reader’s reliance on him is tested. The author’s extraordinary humanism, never afraid to confront the difficulties of understanding and reading one another, is on mature display, and the style is Melvillean without descending into the flights of philosophizing that readers may be quick to write off as tangential. And his confronting a story that is difficult and in many ways unpleasant to tell is also characteristic. A masterpiece in its own right, Benito Cereno gives a faithful taste of the author and bears any amount of re-reading.

“The Piazza”

The opening short story in the collection The Piazza Tales is very short, but a beautiful miniature Melville. Here we find him on land, perhaps an unexpected setting but not a terribly uncommon one. And here we have something of the fanciful Melville, a quality suppressed by the seriousness of Benito Cereno. The narrator is exuberant, full of joy at life and the beauty of nature. But this joy is tempered; Melville’s narrators are not often truly at peace. The prose is among his most gorgeous, though not affected or precious. There is both dark and light in “The Piazza,” as there is dark and light in all of Melville, a marriage that creates beautiful art even as it represents deep psychological difficulties for all us humans whom Melville cares so much about. Benito Cereno is dark, even grim; here we are fairly dazzled. And I think this combination makes for solid preparation for the next stage.


By now, if you don’t know Ishmael himself, you will surely know what kind of narrator he might be, and how Melville might use him. You may particularly recognize in him qualities of the narrator of “The Piazza,” and his relentless, loving humanism—always struggling with same—shines through from the first chapters, most famously in his fast friendship with Queequeg. If you liked the prose of the above works, you can at this point be confident of rewards here as well. And be not afraid of seeming digressions. Not only will lovers of the novel insist they are some of the most important parts of it, an open mind will make it clear that many of Melville’s thematic concerns were built and worked at over a lifetime: this is, arguably, their apotheosis. The darkness and the light is just one of these, and readers primed for the narrative will find many more developed here. And if you make it this far, I would almost dare you to stop. The ideas, problems, and themes will occur and recur throughout the rest of Melville’s oeuvre, and his testing of our ability to plumb those issues can seem irresistible.

Revisiting: Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

Benito Cereno, one of Melville’s Piazza Tales, is among my favorite of his work and probably my favorite novella-length item from him. My first post on it, from way back during my maritime lit project days, is still one of my favorites, and I still look forward to reading the real-life journals of Amasa Delano, the captain on whom the story is based.

Rereading the novella this week, I was struck by Melville’s language once again, and especially a few of his metaphors. The period of the Piazza Tales seems to be an interesting one for this: Melville has already soared to his peak of lyricism in Moby-Dick and here, on a smaller scale and with smaller-scale metaphysical concerns, he can be more controlled. But still himself. A bit strange, and therefore interesting. Here are two of the metaphors I liked best this time around.

Right at the beginning, the narrator describes the sea:

The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mold. The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms.

Sadly, I have never really written about “The Piazza,” but one of my favorite things about it is the way Melville uses sea metaphors to describe almost everything on the land. Here, we have the opposite. The smelter’s mold, the gray surtout, and certainly the swallows over meadows are all shore ideas. And they’re all very specific, which makes the line fresh and gives it so much more interest than to say something like, “the sea was the color of lead.” You won’t find that much in Melville.

The second brings the same shore ideas to the battle scene, when Delano’s men take over the Spanish ship.

[T]he half-repelled sailors, as yet unable to gain a footing, fighting as troopers in the saddle, one leg sideways flung over the bulwarks, and one without, plying their cutlasses like carters’ whips. But in vain. They were almost overborne, when, rallying themselves into a squad as one man, with a huzza, they sprang inboard; where, entangled, they involuntarily separated again. For a few breaths’ space there was a vague, muffled, inner sound as of submerged sword-fish rushing hither and thither through shoals of black-fish.

The sailors are like cavalry, just like in “The Piazza” the narrators horse is like a ship navigating a meadow. Then they change from troopers to carters, keeping the shore/horse part of the metaphor.

The sword-fish part of the description takes us back to the sea, but underwater. This feels like something out of Pierre, or Billy Budd, or perhaps Mardi—in other words, something straight out of Melville. The specificity, the sinister nature of the fish, the eerie quality that comes from the writer really, it seems, knowing about what fish do under the water. I like Bartleby, and I started revisiting it too, but haven’t been inspired to write much. Anyway, I like Bartleby, but I love the others, because I think Bartleby misses out on too much of this, weird as it often is.

Wrapping Up the Unstructured Clarel Readalong

I’m preparing this post in advance, so I suppose I run some risk of missing a late entry to the Unstructured Clarel Readalong, but let’s be real…

It’s the end of September, and that means it’s time for a wrap-up post for the Unstructured Clarel Readalong!

A readalong for two, but an excellent one, and I thank all my readers for their interest and support. I promise more such insanity in future.

Farewell, oh Great Melville Project

Well, I’ve come to the end! Let me state the usual for a project recap: I did not do as much as I wanted, and I still have lots more I want to read! (Even more Melville: I did not read every single poem or short story, and hardly any of his letters.)

But…I did pretty much read all of Melville’s work, in chronological order, between last Thanksgiving and now. So I will congratulate myself in a pretty serious way. Also, it was awesome, and all my readers were awesome for somehow liking it. I already did a recap of the first half of the adventure, from Typee through White-Jacket, so now for the second half:

Now, who’s next, and how many years until I do this one all over again? Because you know I will have to.

“a red light would flash forth from his eye like a spark from an anvil in a dusk smithy”

For a novella so heavy on the psychology, it should perhaps not be surprising that the narrator of Billy Budd spends a lot of time describing people’s eyes. The whole aspect of the three main characters and several of the minor ones is described in minute detail. This is another instance of Melville’s focus on faces. The big thing Melville has to accomplish in Billy Budd is to explain to the reader the psychology of the three main actors—an impossible task, perhaps? It seems the narrator is desperate to get across a sense of the precise character of the men, by painstakingly describing habits, actions, and appearances, and letting “every one…determine for himself by such light as this narrative may afford” the truth behind what he is able to superficially report or speculate on.

But back to eyes. The very first mention of Billy Budd describes him as “welkin-eyed,” a ridiculous, Melvillean thing to say (and he does so two times further). It was the following passage that really jumped out at me, describing Claggart just after he has charged Billy Budd with attempted mutiny:

Meanwhile the accuser’s eyes, removing not as yet from the blue dilated ones, underwent a phenomenal change, their wonted rich violet color blurring into a muddy purple. Those lights of human intelligence, losing human expression, were gelidly protruding like the alien eyes of certain uncatalogued creatures of the deep. The first mesmeristic glance was one of serpent fascination; the last was as the paralyzing lurch of the torpedo fish.

Where else have we seen extended metaphors about eyes and the deep with bizarre creepy images of fish again? Oh, right, in Pierre. “Gelidly” I think makes it, here.

Note that Claggart’s aspect undergoes a transformation there, right in front of Billy Budd. Captain Vere must cover his own face with his arm to effect its transformation, and after uncovering it, it “was as if the moon emerging from eclipse should reappear with quite another aspect than that which had gone into hiding. The father in him, manifested towards Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian.” All the way from Typee to here he’s been repeating how much can be read in the face—and how little.

Billy Budd—”one inly deliberating how best to put [his thoughts] to well-meaning men not intellectually mature”

After Clarel, Herman Melville published only two books of poetry, both privately, before his death in 1891, but he also worked on a piece of prose that would be found among his papers and remain unpublished until 1924, during his revival. Billy Budd was begun around 1886 and recalls much about Melville’s earlier work. The title character is a Handsome Sailor, not entirely unlike Jack Chase of White-Jacket, working on the merchant marine vessel The Rights of Man in the 1794. He is impressed by the English ship-of-the-line Bellipotent, gets in the bad books of the master-at-arms, and comes to a tragic end.

The exposition of the main action is secondary to extended psychological examinations of three major characters, Billy Budd, John Claggart, the master-at-arms, and Captain Vere. The narrator is not a party to the story but is also not quite omniscient. Superficially, there are many parallels with works like Redburn, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick, but in my reading Billy Budd seemed more in the vein of Pierre. In the same sense that Pierre follows up Moby-Dick in its exploration of early insanity in Pierre compared with late-stage monomania in Ahab, Billy Budd relies heavily on another, and a different, instance of mental aberration. Actually, maybe two.

John Claggart, in the words of Billy Budd’s Dansker friend, is “down on” Billy. But why? Just as Melville’s narrator has spent chapters trying desperately to get across to the reader the truest depiction of the personality of Billy Budd and the nature of the Handsome Sailor, he discusses at length the nature of Claggart’s antipathy. He describes Claggart as a sociopath. In fact his appreciation of the Handsome Sailor as a phenomenon simply makes him hate Billy more:

One person excepted, the master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic disdain, disdain of innocence—to be nothing more than innocent! Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it.

Claggart is complex, and the narrator’s portrait of him is intense. His descendence from Ahab is clear, with Melville describing “the monomania in the man—if that indeed it were—as involuntarily disclosed by starts…yet in general covered over by his self-contained and rational demeanor; this, like a subterranean fire, was eating its way deeper and deeper in him. Something decisive must come of it.”

Something decisive does come of it, and it brings into the action of the story Captain Vere—the “one person excepted” from the quote above, and the other possible victim of mental aberration. I found “Starry Vere,” as he is known in the navy, one of Melville’s more interesting characters. I would re-read Billy Budd on his account alone. Also for the narrator, who treats the characters and action with a knowingness but a tone of reportage rarely seen in his other work. How much do I love this scene, of Captain Vere pacing before the “drumhead court” he’s convened:

Turning, he to-and-fro paced the cabin athwart; in the returning ascent to windward climbing the slant deck in the ship’s lee roll, without knowing it symbolizing thus in his action a mind resolute to surmount difficulties even if against primitive instincts strong as the wind and the sea.

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I think you can tell that Billy Budd was a work in progress, not fully edited and prepared for publication. Melville wasn’t quite done tinkering it the way he’d tinkered with all his other novels. But at the same time there is a maturity in structure, style, and philosophy that makes me feel good about the place Melville was at as a writer late in his life.

New Bedford and other whaling sights

Last week during the great Unstructured Clarel Readalong, I was off having fun in and around New Bedford, MA, site of a national historical park devoted to whaling and a really good whaling museum well worth visiting. Continue reading New Bedford and other whaling sights

“Let us keep each other’s secrets.”

Reading all of a writer’s work is super awesome and rewarding not just for the insight into a writer’s “project” or even the excellent reading experience itself, but also for the “Easter eggs,” I’ll call them—the unexpected shiny objects that glint back at you only if you’ve been exploring. Melville recycles so much he’s really wonderful for this, and there are not only many familiar motifs but also reappearing details throughout his work, including in Clarel.

But here my favorite source of such a glint was an allusion to another writer’s work—something else Melville does in abundance, of course. And it was an allusion to something I wrote about on this very blog, something that made me reconsider Hawthorne all on its own, even before I knew he was so respected by Melville:

For Vine, from that unchristened earth
Bits he picked up of porous stone,
And crushed in fist: or one by one,
Through the dull void of desert air,
He tossed them into valley down;
Or pelted his own shadow there (3.5)

In “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore,” by Hawthorne, the model for Vine:

There lies my shadow in the departing sunshine with its head upon the sea. I will pelt it with pebbles. A hit! A hit!

And this story of Hawthorne seems strangely relevant, if not to the most central themes of Clarel than to many of the ideas in its orbit. Hawthorne’s narrator and his “we” “have been, what few can be, sufficient to our own pastime—yes, say the word outright!—self-sufficient to our own happiness.” As is Vine—and so few others—in Clarel.

And thus ends my portion of the Unstructured Clarel readalong! I feel like I should thank those still reading for bearing with it, if anything, but I do hope it was a positive experience. It was for me. Now, for the Big Question: will she read it again? While reading it, I would have said no. In fact, I did say several times, aloud, things to the effect of, “Man, I’m not re-reading this one.” But now I would have to say, someday—probably.

Title of this post taken from “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore.”

“Innocent be the heart and true—Howe’er it feed on bitter bread…”

If anyone else had ever read Clarel, I would ask you to guess which of the many characters, major and secondary, I liked best. I think you would get it right, but since Clarel is, if not unreadable, certainly unread, I will tell you that it is Mortmain, the Swede who never “relaxes in his state of rigorous gloom.”

He is lovely and dark and a major focus of the middle part of the poem. A former revolutionary, he has come to the Holy Land after becoming disenchanted. I say Mortmain was my favorite, but the psychological depth of Clarel leaves me feeling I barely know him. I do know that he becomes just one of the vehicles Melville uses to comment on politics and war, however, subjects he seems to have become more and more concerned with as he matured as writer. These ideas make their first real appearance in Mardi, but grew, especially with the approach, horror, and aftermath of the American Civil War.

One thing I haven’t mentioned about Clarel, by the way, is that it was Melville’s Centennial poem. As in Israel Potter, but much more dark and serious, there is a lot of material about the success or failure of the American project.

Mortmain is partly Melville’s dark, misanthropic side:

“Man’s vicious: snaffle him with kings;
Or, if kings cease to curb, devise
Severer bit. This garden brings
Such lesson. Heed it, and be wise
In thoughts not new.” (2.3)

“This garden” is Gethsemane.

But like in The Confidence-Man, misanthropy and distrust are not always so wrong. Mortmain is certainly harsh in the next canto, and cynical, but wrong?

“Wouldst meddle with the state? Well, mount
Thy guns; how many men dost count?
Besides, there’s more that here belongs:
Be many questionable wrongs:
By yet more questionable war,
Prophet of peace, these wouldst thou bar?
The world’s not new, nor new thy plea.
Tho’ even shouldst thou triumph, see,
Prose overtakes the victor’s songs:
Victorious right may need redress:
No failure like a harsh success.” (2.4)

And in his own way, he is a humanist as well. He is against war. And it’s the very harshness of success he decries. He is obsessed with the “unutterable” depths of sin and the evil of the world. But so, so cynical, not something Melville likes.

Now that I’ve written this post committing myself to Mortmain forever, all I can think is how much I liked so many others—Vine, who was modeled on Hawthorne, Agath, Rolfe, Margoth… Not Clarel though, so much. He seems almost ephemeral compared to the rest, more like a sponge sometimes than a man of his own. That’s not fair; he manages to have his own arguments and discussions. But he’s on this pilgrimage among men to become a man, and his companions unquestionably have more forceful, fully-formed personalities. In many ways Clarel plays the part of the reader who would, like me, choose among them.