• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Melville in Love

More elaboration from the new friend: embarked for Bombay as a midshipman in the East India service, claimed to have handled the masts, and was taken on board Redburn’s ship which was not due to leave for a few days. Together in the roadside inns, every fascination—more news about the companion and his friendship with the Marquis of Waterford and Lady Georgiana Theresa, “the noble daughter of an anonymous earl.”

Harry is stone-broke one moment, but darts away and will return with money which will provide for an astonishing trip to London. (There is no record of a trip from Liverpool to London during this early journey in 1839 nor by the time the book was published in 1849 when Melville sailed to London for the first time almost two weeks after the publication of Redburn.) When they alight in the city, Harry puts on a mustache and whiskers as a “precaution against being recognized by his own particular friends in London.” A feverish atmosphere of hysteria and panic falls upon poor Harry and is part of the chiaroscuro mastery with which his character and the club scene that follows are so brilliantly rendered. And fearlessly rendered in sexual images of decadence and privilege in an astonishing embrace.

The club is a “semi-public place of opulent entertainment” described in a mixture of subterranean images—Paris catacombs—and faux Farnese Palace decorations. In the first room entered, there is a fresco ceiling of elaborate detail. Under the gas lights it seems to the bewildered gaze of Redburn to have the glow of the “moon-lit garden of Portia at Belmont; and the gentle lovers, Lorenzo and Jessica, lurked somewhere among the vines.” There are obsequious waiters dashing about, under the direction of an old man “with snow-white hair and whiskers, and in a snow-white jacket—he looked like an almond tree in blossom….” In a conventional club manner, there are knots of gentlemen “with cut decanters and taper-waisted glasses, journals and cigars, before them.”

Redburn, throughout the scene, is curious and alarmed by Harry’s way of leaving him standing alone in this unaccountable atmosphere. They proceed to a more private room; so thick are the Persian carpets he feels he is sinking into “some reluctant, sedgy sea.” Oriental ottomans “wrought into plaited serpents” and pornographic pictures “Martial and Suetonius mention as being found in the private cabinet of the Emperor Tiberius.” A bust of an old man with a “mysteriously- wicked expression, and imposing silence by one thin finger over his lips. His marble mouth seemed tremulous with secrets.”

Harry in a frantic return to private business suddenly puts a letter into Redburn’s hand, which he is to post if Harry does not return by morning. And off he goes, but not before introducing Redburn to the attendant as young Lord Stormont. For the now terrified American, penniless son of a senator and so on, the place seemed “infected” as if “some eastern plague had been imported.” The door will partly open and there will be a “tall, frantic man, with clenched hands, wildly darting through the passage, toward the stairs.” On Redburn goes in images of fear and revulsion. “All the mirrors and marbles around me seemed crawling over with lizards; and I thought to myself, that though gilded and golden, the serpent of vice is a serpent still.” The macabre excursion with its slithering images passes as in a tormented dream and Harry returns to say, “I am off for America; the game is up.”

The relation between the two resumes its boyish pleasantries. Back on ship, Harry, in full maquillage, comes on deck in a “brocaded dressing-gown, embroidered slippers, and tasseled smoking-cap to stand his morning watch.” When ordered to climb the rigging, he falls into a faint and it becomes clear that his account of shipping to Bombay was another handy fabrication. Nevertheless, Redburn remains faithful in friendship, and they land in New York. The chapter heading is: “Redburn and Harry, Arm and Arm, in Harbor.” Redburn shows him around, introduces him to a friend in the hope of finding work, and then leaves him as he must, since he could hardly take the swain back to Lansingburgh. Years later he will learn that Harry Bolton had signed on another ship and fallen or jumped overboard.

In the novel there is another encounter, this of lyrical enthusiasm untainted by the infested London underworld. It is Carlo, “with thick clusters of tendril curls, half overhanging the brows and delicate ears.” His “naked leg was beautiful to behold as any lady’s arm, so soft and rounded, with infantile ease and grace.” He goes through life playing his hand organ in the streets for coins. Now, on the deck, Redburn sinks into a paroxysm of joy at the sound of the “humble” music:

Play on, play on, Italian boy!… Turn hither your pensive, morning eyes…let me gaze fathoms down into thy fathomless eye…. All this could Carlo do—make, unmake me;…and join me limb to limb…. And Carlo! ill betide the voice that ever greets thee, my Italian boy, with aught but kindness; cursed the slave who ever drives thy wondrous box of sights and sounds forth from a lordling’s door!

The scenes with Harry Bolton were not much admired; as an “intrusion,” contemporary critics seemed to rebuke them for structural defects rather than for the efflorescent adjectives, the swooning intimacy of feeling for male beauty of a classical androgynous perfection that will reach its transcendence in the innocent loveliness of Billy Budd, his heartbreaking death-bed vision.

Hershel Parker, the encyclopedic biographer and tireless Melville scholar, finds no charm in the “flaccid” Harry Bolton and has interesting thoughts on why Melville was so clearly dismissive of Redburn, a work of enduring interest. “What he thought he was doing in it, as a young married man and a new father, is an unanswered question.” And: “…Only a young and still naive man could have thought that he could write a kind of psychological autobiography…without suffering any consequences.” Parker suggests that Melville came to understand the folly of what he had written, came to acknowledge that he had revealed homosexual longings or even homosexual experience.

Parker provides another item in the atmosphere that surrounded the days and nights of the writer. At the time, there sprang up in America a group called the Come-Outers, a sect wishing to follow Paul’s exhortation in II Corinthians 6:17: “Wherefore come out from them, and be ye separate.” It was the object of the group to reveal information ordinarily held private. Parker’s research seems to indicate that Melville knew about the sect, but did not notice that he had “unwittingly joined the psychological equivalent of this new American religious sect; in mythological terms, he had opened Pandora’s box when he thought he was merely describing the lid.”

It is not clear whether the Come-Outers were, as in the present use of the term, to announce themselves as homosexual when such revelations were relevant. In the biblical text, Paul seems to be referring to Corinthians who were worshiping idols or pretending to virtues they did not practice, such as sorrow while rejoicing, pretending poverty while piling up riches.

However, if Melville rejected Redburn because he came to see it as an embarrassing and unworthy self-revelation, why did he open the pages of the subsequent Moby-Dick with the tender, loving union of Queequeg and Ishmael, a charming, unprecedented Mann und Weib? Another wonder about life and art: Where did Melville come upon the ornate and lascivious men’s club he described with feral acuteness in Redburn? There is no record found in the cinder and ashes of Melville’s jottings to bring the night journey into history. But does the blank forever erase the possibility that the extraordinary diversion actually took place? Harder to credit that Melville, in his imagination or from what is sometimes called his use and abuse of sources, was altogether free of the lush, disorienting opening of the door.

The presence of delicate, hardly seaworthy men, some in officer positions on the rigorously hierarchical sailing vessels, is an occupational puzzle that has the accent of reportage, or at least, of plausibility. In Omoo, Captain Guy, the commander of the ship, is not one of the usual, pipe-smoking tyrants, but an original being. He is “no more suited to sea-going than a hair-dresser.” In one astonishing scene, we find the captain coming from his quarters to investigate the noise of a fight. In perfect “camp” rhythm, Melville’s companion, called Doctor Long Ghost, cries out, “Ah! Miss Guy, is that you? Now, my dear, go right home, or you’ll get hurt.” Selvagee, in White Jacket, with his cologne-baths, lace-bordered handkerchiefs, cravats, and curling irons, although an inept sailor, is a lieutenant on a US naval ship.

Jack Chase, the educated, manly friend in White Jacket, was an actual shipmate never to be forgotten. A man of the world, a brave, respected seaman of the foretop who recites to the winds verses from Camoëns. Yet he is something of a misfit like most sailors; he drinks and wanders the world as he will. Chase stayed in the heart, forever cherished, the only unwavering, beyond the family, friendship of Melville’s life. In White Jacket he is addressed: “Wherever you may now be rolling over the blue billows, dear Jack! take my best love along with you, and God bless you, wherever you go!” The same sense of the beloved lost wanderer will forty years later illuminate the dedication to Billy Budd: “To Jack Chase, Englishman/Wherever that great heart may now be/Here on Earth or harbored in Paradise.”

The beautiful Billy Budd is a foretopman, ready to climb up the rigging. He is far from the pretty street hustler Harry Bolton, for whom work under sail is a mysterious and burdensome affliction. Billy is strong, free, and innocent; an illiterate, an orphan, reminding one of a freshly hatched, brilliantly colored bird. He has the body of a Greek Hercules, with a “lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face all but feminine in purity of natural complexion…the ear, small and shapely.” In the story, Claggart, the master-at-arms, takes a violent dislike, a raging enmity, to the popular young seaman. He will accuse Billy of wanting to bring the crew to mutiny and, in a confrontation in the captain’s cabin, an outraged Billy strikes a blow which kills Claggart. According to marine law, Billy must be hanged and his body cast into the sea.

Melville, in the careful examination of Claggart’s soul, inserts a very modern reflection that looks beneath an unnatural enmity and finds there a twisted, jealous, thwarted love.

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dogwatch,…that glance would follow the cheerful sea Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.

Thinking about the sharp stabs in the thicket of Claggart’s character, the critic F.O. Matthiessen writes: “…A writer to-day would be fully aware of what may have been only latent for Melville, the sexual element in Claggart’s ambivalence. Even if Melville did not have this consciously in mind, it emerges for the reader now with intense psychological accuracy.”

Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of Judge Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. They had four children, one of whom, the son Malcolm, put a gun to his head. The marriage was deeply troubled during the time Melville, in another riveting, iconographic biographical fact, was chained to his desk in the New York Custom House for nineteen years. A separation was considered but the couple persevered for forty-four years. Whether the fated meeting with Harry Bolton in Redburn opened a seam of private apostasy in Melville’s life is not known. There are no love letters, no uncovered affairs with male or female “arm-in-arm, in harbor.” The fair young men have a dreamlike quality that fades with the break of day and there we leave them.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print