“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is, I believe, normally taken as something of a story against the mindless drudgery of work, especially rote office-work done as an employee rather than one’s own boss. Bartleby, the clerk who refuses to work with his constant refrain of “I would prefer not to,” is something of a hero who sacrifices himself on the altar of capitalism—one of the many slaves in this man-of-war world of ours that Melville is always bringing up.
On my re-reading of “Bartleby” along with the rest of The Piazza Tales, I found what may be a “creative misreading” of the story unfolding in front of me. I had always been sympathetic to the narrator, the man in charge of the law office who hires Bartleby, and taken his description of himself as “safe” as self-effacing and humorous rather than heavy and serious. But this time that impression was even stronger and my ideas about Bartleby himself and the narrator’s relation to him coalesced further—that safeness is not to be scorned, and Bartleby is in fact dangerous through his refusal to play by the rules.
One problem with reading Bartleby as a noble man unwilling to compromise his ideals for lowly copying work is that Bartleby hires himself out as a copyist. He shows up at the law office door when the narrator needs help and accepts a job. He works, seemingly assiduously, for a while, until it comes time to check his copies against their originals. He has made quadruplicates of a single document, and the narrator contrives to read the original aloud himself while his three clerks and one office boy check each of the copies individually—with the whole office working together as a group to help Bartleby in his own work, just as each would do for
Continue reading “when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it”
I hadn’t been looking forward to re-reading The Piazza Tales as much as I had Moby-Dick, because the time since my last read was much shorter. That was silly, though, because this has some of my favorite of Melville’s writing (isn’t it almost all my favorite at this point?), and the good was even better this time around. The middling, on the other hand, was still middling—for me at least.
The stories in the collection, aside from “The Piazza” itself, which was written specially for the volume, were all previously published in Putnam’s magazine, where, along with Harper’s, Melville had taken to publishing short fiction after the dreadful failure of Pierre. The stories published in both magazines were much more successful than his later longer works, and The Piazza Tales in its collected form once again garnered favorable reviews. I can understand that many readers might like to take the mature Melville in smaller doses, and besides, these stories are first-rate.
“The Piazza” is my favorite, but I have trouble writing about it. It’s short; you should all read it. I plan to do so many more times and maybe someday I’ll actually have something to say about it. I like “Bartleby, the Scrivener” well enough, mostly because I’m a big fan of its narrator; more on that tomorrow.
“Benito Cereno” benefitted most from a re-read. I had been impressed with it previously, but this time was able to appreciate much more of Melville’s slippery narrative technique, which drifts in and out of free indirect discourse and contributes to the eerie atmosphere of the ship it is set on. I also came to it now with a much fuller knowledge of Melville’s writings on slavery and race, and a better awareness of how important a concern
Continue reading The Piazza Tales by Herman Melville
You will notice that Israel Potter is one of these characters who, by pure happenstance and dumb luck, participated in some key historical events. He fought the British at Bunker Hill, heard John Paul Jones proclaim he had not yet begun to fight the Serapis, smuggled secrets to Benjamin Franklin in Paris’s Latin Quarter, and convinced an English king that he was, at least, an honest rebel.
Throughout all this he proclaims a love for the land of his nativity, hardly yet a nation or a country—and a place he has never yet lived since its independence. But American he is, as apple pie—or at least, as hunters, trappers, farmers, and whalers.
But he has hardly an inkling of the events that actually go on around him. He heads to Boston to fight only after he’s finished plowing his field. He ends up a sailor on an American fighting ship simply because he’s been to sea before. He finds himself smuggling intelligence but never cares to find out what it is. He has no idea what Benjamin Franklin is doing in Paris, nor who John Paul Jones is at all until that man makes his fame and import very clear. When actually adventuring with Jones, Israel still has no idea how this fits into the larger picture of the war; after all, Jones is simply plying around the British Isles, harrying the coasts and dependent entirely on favorable winds and chance. None of these activities are placed within the context of the Revolution, which, as a larger historical event, doesn’t seem to particularly concern Israel.
He’s most concerned with it ending, so he can get home—he can’t sail from England otherwise. By the time he can, he has other ties to England, and remains there for many more years.
Continue reading “His scars were his only medals”—Israel Potter, American hero
The best parts of Israel Potter occur when Potter comes into contact with Important Historical Personages. The first such encounter, setting aside Potter’s fighting at Bunker Hill under General Israel Putnam’s instruction to wait to shoot until seeing the whites of the enemies’ eyes, is with none other than King George III. Israel is working temporarily in Kew Gardens and meets the King out on a stroll. He admits to being an American and tells George that he has no king.
Later, during his spying days, Israel meets Benjamin Franklin. Melville’s sketch of Franklin is hilarious. The aged doctor is decadent, hypocritical, persnickety, and one of the biggest know-it-alls around. He has a whole store of down-home, plain folk truths to share with Israel, whom he must keep waiting alone while Franklin is on other business. “But you must not be idle,” he tells Israel. “Here is Poor Richard’s Almanac, which in view of our late conversation, I commend to your earnest perusal.”
Retiring to his own room, Israel does pick up the book, but the Real American, the farmboy with the guerrilla-style marksmanship, the jack-of-all-trades who is constitutionally incapable of uttering the words “Sir John” in front of a man’s last name, is not impressed.
“Oh confound all this wisdom! It’s a sort of insulting to talk wisdom to a man like me. It’s wisdom that’s cheap, and it’s fortune that’s dear. That ain’t in Poor Richard; but it ought to be,” concluded Israel, suddenly slamming down the pamphlet.
It’s much more fun when we get to John Paul Jones. Any reader of Moby-Dick will find immediate similarities, as if Melville is playing a joke on himself. They meet in Doctor Franklin’s apartments, where both must spend the night in hiding. “Why not sleep together,” said Israel, “see, it
Continue reading Israel’s Queequeg
One Melvillean concern that I don’t think I’ve mentioned too much before—except in the context of White-Jacket—has to do with clothing. In that novel, the narrator’s white jacket seems to determine nearly all that befalls him and multiple times nearly costs him his life. In Redburn, also, clothing is important. Redburn takes great care choosing his clothes, but they are all wrong for his life as a sailor and determine how he is treated on board ship. Later, when he befriends a wealthy young man, Redburn wears his clothes and is temporarily transformed into a man about town rather than a penniless sailor. The motif occurs elsewhere, and seems closely related to issues like tattooing in both Typee and Moby-Dick.
Israel Potter abounds in costume changes, and whenever Israel dons a new set of clothes he is transformed. The first such transformation occurs during his escape from the British authorities; he exchanges his sailors’ clothes with a pauper. The pauper has only rags but Israel needs a disguise no matter what.
Israel looked suddenly metamorphosed from youth to old age; just like an old man of eighty he looked. But indeed, dull dreary adversity was now in store for him; and adversity, come it at eighteen or eighty, is the true old age of man. The dress befitted the fate.
Israel becomes a pauper, now, hiding from the authorities, sleeping in haylofts, going with hardly any food. He finds himself a job in the garden of a benevolent knight, but is too weak to work very hard until the knight takes pity, feeds him, and gives him a new set of cast-off clothes.
Later Israel will receive a very special article of clothing: shoes with false heels, to enable him to transport secret documents from sympathizers in England to Benjamin
Continue reading Clothing and mutability in Melville
Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, was the next novel published by Melville after Pierre, and it is a far cry from its predecessor. Melville made heavy use of a source text, The Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter, published in 1824, to provide the basis of his serialized 1854–1855 novel. Melville’s work, dedicated to “his Highness, the Bunker-Hill Monument,” claims that “with the exception of some expansions, and additions of historic and personal details, and one or two shiftings of scene, may, perhaps, be not unfitly regarded something in the light of a dilapidated old tombstone retouched.” He specifically notes that he “forbore anywhere to mitigate the hard fortunes of my hero…[and] durst not substitute for the allotment of Providence any artistic recompense of poetical justice….”
Those hard fortunes start out mildly enough, in the years prior to the American Revolution, when Israel Potter, son of a Western Massachusetts farmer, sets out on his own after his father disapproves of the girl he wants to woo. Israel heads north, to the frontier, and as a hunter and trapper learns the marksmanship that will serve him later at Bunker Hill. He makes his fortune trading with Indians and helping survey the land, improving his own stake each summer and securing more pelts each winter. Returning to his family to find the object of his love still out of reach, he takes to the sea and to whaling.
After passing through all available modes of pre-Revolutionary economic activity, Potter joins the Minutemen just in time for the outbreak of hostilities. He soon finds himself captured by the British and brought back to Portsmouth, imprisoned in a hulk. Thus begin his fifty years of exile, an exile in which he will make many fantastical escapes, be pathetically recaptured,
Continue reading Israel Potter by Herman Melville
It’s been a lovely weekend over here, complete with a delightful birthday outing for the consumption partner. A bit late for Sunday Salon, but I thought since I’ve now completed my week of Pierre, I’d share some links.
I haven’t (yet?) watched Pola X, a 1999 film inspired by Pierre. It’s title is short for the French “Pierre, ou les ambiguités.” I don’t really think I’ll be adding it to the Netflix Queue, but stranger things have happened. Paul Maher wrote about the novel in PopMatters back in May, comparing Moby-Dick “confounding labyrinth” with Pierre‘s “true mind fuck,” and focusing on some of the political interpretations of the novel. Mutt Ploughman, who seems to be doing a Melville project not dissimilar to my own, begins by comparing Pierre to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, surely unique in the realm of Pierre criticism (and, as it happens, I very nearly watched that movie today!). His response to Pierre also seems not dissimilar from my own:
Indeed, it is impossible for me to look upon Pierre as a terrible book that serves no purpose and is revolting or even offensive. But having said that, after reading it, it is easy to see why very few people enjoyed it or even bothered to read it. Pierre strenuously resists an agreeable reception.
Patell and Waterman’s History of New York focuses on the novel’s amazing discripton of the Church of the Apostles, a bohemian hangout in New York.
And now, on to Israel Potter!
So far I haven’t had much good to say about Pierre, but of course there is good to say, and I did in fact like it. Lest that be misunderstood, I’ll wrap up with a rundown of what were, for me, some of the novel’s positive aspects.
First is the setting. Melville takes as his inspiration both upstate New York and Western Massachusetts, and the first half of Pierre has the stamp of an English village novel set in rural early America. The depiction of the early American aristocracy of families like the Glendinnings, whose ancestors included a famous general is interesting from the perspecive of American literary development, and many of the Romantic passages about the mountains recall Washington Irving’s myth-making. Later, when Pierre brings Isabel to the city, Melville traces the American population’s urbanization and contrasts the softness of village life, where community norms are all that’s necessary for society to function, with the hardness of the city, where vast numbers of anonymous people come together only through the more regulated means of policing.
The characters are also excellent. They are not, of course, realistic, but they are wonderful tragic types. Pierre is Romeo, and Hamlet. And Melville’s psychological exploration into his madness is gripping. Again, I would compare him to Ahab, and people love Ahab’s monomania.
The novel also deals much more directly with love than any of Melville’s other work, and while some of it is strange, some is lovely. Here is love, filtered through some very Melvillean prose about gliding and the sea:
No Cornwall miner ever sunk so deep a shaft beneath the sea, as Love will sink beneath the floatings of the eyes. Love sees ten million fathoms down, till dazzled by the floor of pearls. The eye is Love’s own magic glass,
Continue reading Reconsidering Pierre
Yesterday I mentioned that in addition to the style of Pierre, its perceived message was also a problem for early readers. At a structural turning point in the novel, when Pierre is traveling with his new “wife” Isabel from country to city, he finds a fragment of a pamphlet based on the philosophy of one Plotinus Plinlimmon, on “chronometricals and horologicals.” The fragment is of course inserted into the narrative.
Briefly, the pamphlet outlines advice for ethical conduct. It uses the analogy of chronometers and horologes: chronometers are completely reliable, and can be carried across the sea from England to China, still faithfully telling the time in Greenwich when the bearer is in Shanghai. But, critically, that time is not the true time in Shanghai, as true as it may be for far-distant Greenwich. Perfect Christian virtue in the imitation of the divine is like a chronometer. Trying to follow such a virtuous course would be telling the right time for heaven, not for earth, where such a course of action might even be absurd. Men must instead follow horological time, leading a generally good and ethical life but recognizing the impossibility of complete sinlessness, and deeming the attempt foolish. “And thus, though the earthly widsom of man be heavenly folly to God; so also, conversely, is the heavenly wisdom of God an earthly folly to man. Literally speaking, this is so.”
Pierre reads this at a juncture in his life where he has just decided to follow a heavenly chronometer rather than conduct himself in the manner of normal men of average virtue. He believes he has made great sacrifices in favor of both Isabel and his mother, and to some extent also for his father. He believes that by following the clear course of God and godliness, he
Continue reading On chronometricals and horologicals
Yesterday I mentioned Melville’s possible “intentions” about Pierre, but I don’t like to pretend I know them. Interpretations of Pierre typically have, though. His contemporary critics, who almost universally eviscerated the novel, seem to have taken it unironically. They were certainly not pleased with Melville’s prose style, and several complained of his “inventing” words (especially by adding the suffix “-ness” to just about anything). They also bristled at the themes of incest, and even more so at a perceived denunciation of Virtue in favor of sinful complacency.
Those readers, mostly later, who did think Melville’s writing was any good here tended to regard it as parodying popular novels and purposely over-the-top. Later readers also began to appreciate the effect of the unrealistic dialogue, which pulls the characters out of any definite time or place, the mysteries, which evoke a Gothic atmosphere appropriate to the dark psychological themes, and the psychology itself. Pierre can easily be seen as a younger Ahab, an Ahab before he went mad, in the process of losing his mind.
There is also the question of how autobiographical the novel is.
I fell into the more ironic reading of Pierre, and I can also see, as is pointed out in the Historical Note to my Northwestern-Newberry edition (by Leon Howard and Hershel Parker, and the source of the historical information above), that there is a split midway through the novel where Melville seems to have begun to treat his subject more darkly. And I would entirely disagree with the premise of the reviewer from the Athenaeum, quoted in that Historical Note as follows:
We take up novels to be amused—not bewildered,—in search of pleasure for the mind—not in pursuit of cloudy metaphysics; and it is no refreshment after the daily toils and troubles of life, for
Continue reading “One long brain-muddling, soul-bewildering ambiguity (to borrow Mr. Melville’s style)”