Herman Melville died in 1891 at the age of seventy-two. He was buried next to his son Malcolm in a cemetery in the Bronx. His death was marked negatively, as it were, by an absence of public ceremony; just another burial of an obscure New Yorker. This obscurity, or neglect, was to become part of the dramaturgy of Melville’s image, even for those who hadn’t read him in the past, as well as for those, more than a few, who haven’t read him in the present. The man and his work—nine novels, brilliant shorter fictions, poems, and his departing gift to American literature, the beautiful Billy Budd, published after his death—were unearthed in the 1920s and the whole skeleton given a voluptuous rebirth.
Melville was not a gifted angel winging up from the streets, the slums of the great metropolis, Manhattan. His father, Allan, came from a good merchant family of Boston who could claim the sort of heraldic honor that to this day, two centuries later, keeps the prideful busy with the genealogists; that is, service in the American Revolution. Allan’s father, Thomas Melville, was among the young men who, in 1773, boarded the ships of the East India Company and dumped their tea in the water. A felicitous bit of patriotic vandalism which the family could claim like a coat-of-arms to hang with noble diggings in their Scottish ancestry. Melville’s mother was Maria Gansevoort of Albany, prominent Dutch early settlers. Her father was also a hero of the Revolution, fighting at Fort Stanwix against Indian and Tory troops.
When Melville was twelve years old, his father, Allan, died of what seems to have been a virulent pneumonia. He died as he had lived, in debt, a condition for which the Melvilles may be said to have had an almost genetic liability. (Dollars damn me! the author, Herman, could honestly announce. His life after the financially advantageous marriage to the daughter of Judge Lemuel Shaw of Boston was ever to be punctuated by “on loan from Judge Shaw” and “paid for by Judge Shaw.”) The father’s business in imported luxury goods had led him to move the family from Boston to New York, where the son, Herman, was born in 1819 on Pearl Street. Matters did not go as profitably as the beleaguered entrepreneur had hoped and so it was to be a move to Albany, the principality of the much more prudent Gansevoorts. However, the radiance of these solid patroons did not cast its beams of solvency and, with the death of the father, creditors were in scowling pursuit.
In Albany, unremitting black weather for the Melville household. The widow and her children were forced to sell much of their furniture and other effects and to escape in ignominy to a cheaper town, Lansingburgh, nearby. Herman for a period taught school, took an engineering diploma at Lansingburgh Academy, failed to get a position, wrote some youthful sketches which were published in the local paper—and then, and then perhaps we can say his true life began. However, the life he left behind, the losses, the grief, the instability, the helpless love of a helpless young man in a damaged family marked his sensibility quite as much as the wanderlust, the strong grip of the sea, so often claimed as the defining aspect of his nature. In 1839, he signed on as a common seaman on the St. Lawrence, a merchant ship bound for a four-month trip to Liverpool. He was soon to be twenty years old.
Melville’s state of mind is revealed some years later with a purity of expressiveness in the novel Redburn, one of his most appealing and certainly the most personal of his works. He is said to have more or less disowned the book, more rather than less, since he claimed it was only written for tobacco. Whether this is a serious misjudgment of his own work or a withdrawal, after the fact, from having shown his early experience of life without his notable reserve and distance is, of course, not clear. For a contemporary reader, Redburn, the grief-stricken youth, cast among the vicious, ruined men on the ship, walking the streets of Liverpool in the late 1830s, even meeting with the homosexual hustler Harry Bolton might have more interest than Typee‘s breadfruit and coconut island and the nymph, Fayaway. But it is only pertinent to think of Redburn on its own: a novel written after Typee, Omoo, and Mardi in the year 1849, ten years after he left Lansingburgh to go on his first voyage.
“Cold, bitter cold as December, and bleak as its blasts, seemed the world then to me; there is no misanthrope like a boy disappointed; and such was I, with the warm soul of me flogged out by adversity.” Melville was not a boy when he joined the St. Lawrence, but the remembrance of his father and the lost years seem in detail to represent his actual thoughts at the time. Despair, rooted in experience, in love of family, and a young son’s defenseless anxiety amidst the tides of misfortune leave their mark on his character and on his view of life. The opening pages are a profoundly moving poem to his dead father, to the memory of evenings in New York, talk around the fireside of the cities and sights of Europe, the treasures Allan brought home from his business travels to Paris. There was a large bookcase filled with books, many in French, paintings and prints, furniture, pictures from natural history, including a whale “big as a ship, stuck full of harpoons, and three boats sailing after it as fast as they could fly.”
The sea, the traveler’s passionate curiosity and longing, “foreign associations, bred in me a vague prophetic thought, that I was fated, one day or other, to be a great voyager; and that just as my father used to entertain strange gentlemen over their wine after dinner, I would hereafter be telling my own adventures to an eager auditory.” Most vivid in his memory was an intricately made glass ship brought home from Hamburg. The figurehead of the magical ship “fell from his perch the very day I left home to go to sea on this my first voyage.” Things are fragile and subject to spots and stains, the rude damages of family life, but the shattering of the familiar glass beauty, named La Reine, adds another mournful accent, symbolic if you like, to the breakage in Melville’s early life, if we consider these pages to be a recapitulation of the past feeling as they appear to be.
Nothing in Melville is more beautifully expressed than the mood of early sorrow in the forlorn passage at the opening of Redburn. It brings to mind the extraordinarily affecting last word in Moby-Dick. The word is orphan.
I had learned to think much and bitterly before my time…. Talk not of the bitterness of middle-age and after life; a boy can feel all that, and much more, when upon his young soul the mildew has fallen; and the fruit, which with others is only blasted after ripeness, with him is nipped in the first blossom and bud. And never again can such blights be made good; they strike in too deep, and leave such a scar that the air of Paradise might not erase it.
“Such blights that can never be made good,” the chastening of experience, the deathbed struggle of his father, his mother an improvident widow, his own straggling lack of a future occupation; all of these burdens formed Melville’s early sense of the ambiguity, the chaos of life quite as much as the Dutch Reform Calvinism of his mother and underlined his surpassing sympathy for the pagan, the ignorant, even the evil. The black-comedy subtitle of Redburn is “Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service.” A friend, seeing off the young recruit, tells the captain to take good care of him since his uncle is a senator and the boy’s father had crossed the ocean many times on important business. On shore the captain appeared to take this information in an agreeable manner, but once at sea he violently spurns the boy’s misbegotten idea of paying a friendly visit to his cabin. In the midst of young Redburn’s good manners and proper upbringing, his being the son of a Melville and a Gansevoort is a grotesque irrelevance; the truth of his life as others see it is his abject pennilessness, his humbling ragged clothes.
He will be homesick and yet the anonymity, the nakedness of background are not unwelcome. The ocean is an escape and not a practical decision, not a job from which a young man could send money home to honor a struggling family. It is common in Melville’s seagoing stories to find that once back in port the crew will be robbed of its miserable wages by the inspired accounting chicanery of the captain and the owners. Melville’s first voyage did nothing to deflect the furtive position of his family when the importunate grocer, landlord, or dressmaker knocked on the door.
Going to sea gave Melville his art, but it also set him apart by drastic experience from most of those who surrounded him. He sat at his desk dressed in a shirt and tie and went about as a gentleman, if a somewhat shabby one in the matter of clean linen as Hawthorne noted some years later. Of his seventy-two years, Melville was an active seaman for only about three and a half, but he returned from those years with an imagination peopled with the ferociously unstable, the demonic, the miserable, the flogged and the floggers, the bestiality in the crowded befouled quarters on a US Navy ship as well as on the whalers. Hawthorne, whom he met in the Berkshires, had spent his youth at Bowdoin College where his friends were Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, later to be president. Melville’s years at sea, along with perhaps troubling sexual yearnings, left him a man shaded, at heart a stranger hiking about country trails, bearing children, drinking brandy and smoking cigars with those who knew the outcast as only a phantom on the streets or locked up in asylums.
The first voyage: In Redburn, on board the Highlander, as the fictional ship is named, there is a man named Jackson, one of the most loathsome portraits in Melville’s fiction. About him, a descriptive vocabulary of depravity is summoned with a special intensity. Yellow as gamboge, bald except for hair behind his ears that looked like a worn-out shoe-brush, nose broken down the middle, a squinting eye, the foul lees and dregs of a man. Jackson is wasting away from his “infamous vices,” venereal disease, and yet he is or was the best seaman on board, a bully feared by all the men, this “wolf, or starved tiger,” with his “deep, subtle, infernal looking eye.” He had been at sea since the age of eight and “had passed through every kind of dissipation and abandonment in the worst parts of the world.” He told “with relish” of having crewed on a slave ship where the slaves were “stowed, hue and point, like logs, and the suffocated and dead were unmanacled” and thrown overboard.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Elizabeth Hardwick