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.
Jackson’s end comes on the return voyage when the ship is off Cape Cod. He orders “haul out to windward” and with a torrent of blood gushing from his lungs falls into the sea. Melville has imagined this ruined man with a visual and moral brilliance, shown his repellent body with an awful precision, and yet consider his concluding feelings about the miserable Jackson:
He was a Cain afloat, branded on his yellow brow with some inscrutable curse, and going about corrupting and searing every heart that beat near him. But there seemed even more woe than wickedness about the man; and his wickedness seemed to spring from his woe; and for all his hideousness, there was that in his eye at times, that was ineffa-bly pitiable and touching; and though there were moments when I almost hated this Jackson, yet I have pitied no man as I pitied him.
Jackson’s woe, Ahab’s “close-coiled woe,” and Melville’s woe in his youth. Redburn was written ten years after the first journey, after the publication of the three previous books. It is a return to his voyage on the St. Lawrence, but he has made Redburn a boy, a lad, a shabby waif even though when he himself set sail he was nineteen years old and there is no reason to believe he came on in tatters like the men prowling the waterfront, homeless, illiterate, and wasted. Still when Melville looked back he did so as a writer and magically created Redburn for the purposes of a kind of fiction and for his memories of Liverpool, his first foreign city. The personal accent of the opening pages of grief and forlornness are so striking that they may be read as a memory of the twelve-year-old Melville, the time of his father’s death. Redburn carries his father’s out-of-date guide to Liverpool and walks the streets in a mood of filial homage. “How differently my father must have appeared; perhaps in a blue coat, buff vest, and Hessian boots. And little did he think, that a son of his would ever visit Liverpool as a poor friendless sailor-boy.” What Melville’s eye perceives and how his intelligence judges it were quite apart from the conventional sightseeing of the charming dandy, his father. Instead, on a Liverpool street called Launcelott’s-Hey, among the dreary, dingy warehouses, Redburn hears a feeble wail that leads to a searing dirge.
In a cellar beneath the old warehouse, he sees a figure who “had been a woman.” On her livid breast there are “two shrunken things like children.” They have crawled into the space to die. The sailor inquires about the terrible sight, questions ragged, desperate old women in the alleys. The old beggarly people, destitute themselves, are contemptuous of the ghastly family group who have had nothing to eat for three days. A policeman shrugs; the lady at Redburn’s rooming house refuses help; the cook, when asked for food, “broke out in a storm of swearing.” Redburn snatches some bread and cheese and drops it down the vault. Frail hands grasped at the food but were too weak to catch hold. There is a murmuring sound asking “faintly [for] something like ‘water”‘ and Redburn runs to a tavern for a pitcher, refused unless he pays for it as he cannot. In his tarpaulin hat he draws water from Boodle Hydrants and returns to the vault.
The two girls drank out of the hat together; looking up at me with an unalterable, idiotic expression, that almost made me faint. The woman spoke not a word, and did not stir…. I tried to lift the woman’s head; but, feeble as she was, she seemed bent upon holding it down. Observing her arms still clasped upon her bosom, and that something seemed hidden under the rags there, a thought crossed my mind, which impelled me forcibly to withdraw her hands for a moment; when I caught a glimpse of a meager little babe, the lower part of its body thrust into an old bonnet. Its face was dazzlingly white, even in its squalor, but the closed eyes looked like balls of indigo. It must have been dead some hours….
When I went to dinner, I hurried into Launcelott’s-Hey, where I found that the vault was empty. In place of the woman and children, a heap of quick-lime was glistening.
The scene of tragic extremity is composed with a rhetorical brilliance: the dying children with “eyes, and lips, and ears like any queen,” with hearts which, “though they did not bound with blood, yet beat with a dull, dead ache that was their life”; and the dramatic insertion of pushing the mother’s arm aside to reveal yet another being, a dead baby; and the return the next day to find the hole filled with glistening quicklime. Here we have the last rites, a gravestone offered for a street burial, a requiem for a hole in Launcelott’s-Hey—the majestic reverence of Herman Melville.
Redburn visits the noted sights of Liverpool, hears the Chartist soapbox orators, street singers, men selling verses on current murders and other happenings; pawn shops, the impoverished dredging the river for bits of rope, the rush of life that brings to mind Dickens and also Mayhew’s study of the obscure populace in London Labour and the London Poor. Throughout Melville’s writings there is a liberality of mind, a freedom from vulgar superstition, occasions again and again for an oratorical insertion of enlightened opinion. Note a side glance in Liverpool, written in the year 1849:
Three or four times, I encountered our black steward, dressed very handsomely, and walking arm in arm with a good-looking English woman. In New York, such a couple would have been mobbed in three minutes; and the steward would have been lucky to have escaped with whole limbs. Owing to the friendly reception extended to them, and the unwonted immunities they enjoy in Liverpool, the black cooks and stewards on American ships are very much attached to the place and like to make voyages to it…at first I was surprised that a colored man should be treated as he is in this town; but a little reflection showed that, after all, it was but recognizing his claims to humanity and normal equality; so that, in some things we Americans leave to other countries the carrying out of the principle that stands at the head of our Declaration of Independence.
Sentiment and agitation for the emancipation of the slaves was common enough in the Northeast at the time, but Melville’s “reflection” was a stretch of opinion to include the right of a black man and a white woman to mingle as they wished socially and, he seems to be saying, sexually. When the Civil War arrived, Melville followed it with some distress of spirit about the slaughter. Around the conflict he wrote, in Battle-Pieces, the finest of his poems.
In the docks Redburn observes the emigrants crowding into the ships to make their way to America. Again Melville speaks:
There was hardly any thing I witnessed in the docks that interested me more than the German emigrants who come on board the large New York ships several days before their sailing, to make everything comfortable ere starting…. And among these sober Germans, my country counts the most orderly and valuable of her foreign population…. There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled, that, in a noble breast, should forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes…. You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world…. Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world;…we are without father or mother.*
The last pages of Redburn introduce the ineffable Harry Bolton, a young Englishman met on the Liverpool docks. Bolton is perfectly formed, “with curling hair, and silken muscles…. His complexion was a mantling brunette, feminine as a girl’s; his feet were small; his hands were white; and his eyes were large, black, and womanly; and, poetry aside, his voice was as the sound of a harp.” A warm friendship develops and in the fiction Redburn and Bolton go from Liverpool to London for a curious bit of private tourism. In London there is a remarkable visit to a male brothel—a strange, fastidiously observed, rococo urban landscape unlike any other dramatic intrusion in Melville’s writings or in American literature at the time.
Some commentators speculate that Melville’s dislike of Redburn was owing to his subsequent realization that he had exposed his own homoerotic longings. Whatever his unconscious or privately acknowledged feelings may have been, Melville was innocent of the instinct for self-protection on the page. The readers of his own time, the publishers and booksellers do not seem to have paused before the enthusiastic and relishing adjectives surrounding male beauty. Hershel Parker’s monumental biography has gathered the reviews, and the complaint about the Harry Bolton pages is that they are an unsuitable “intrusion,” largely for reasons of fictional crafting. Parker quotes an odd mention of the alliance between Redburn and Harry Bolton: “A dash of romance thrown in amongst a cluster of familiar and homely incidents” is the quotation; impossible to parse except as an instance of the relaxed language and hasty reading of reviewers for the press.
In Redburn, the boat is in the Liverpool harbor and the crew is free to roam the city, and Melville is free to have his young hero meet the intriguing person named Harry Bolton. Bolton is lifelike as a certain type of frenzied, melodramatic young homosexual down on his luck and as such he is as embarrassing and interesting as life itself. Redburn, that is, Melville at his desk, is both accepting and suspicious of Harry, but there is everything about the encounter as told that seems to reveal either a striking innocence of heart and mind or a defiance in offering the scenes to the public. Nothing in the early parts of the novel would lead us to anticipate the extravagant, interesting, sudden dive into a richly decorated underworld.
The two meet on the streets of Liverpool and Redburn is immediately attracted. Harry is not a dumb, deadened fish in the human pool of the seamen; he is a friendly stranger, an English youth, fluent in self-creation. It is difficult to imagine how this handsome youth with the perfectly formed legs and so on, this “delicate exotic from the conservatories of some Regent-street,” came to the “potato-patches of Liverpool.” In a bar, Harry will be chatting about the possibility of going to America and thus the friendship with this “incontrovertible son of a gentleman” begins. Harry will tell his story: born in the old city of Bury St. Edmunds, orphaned, but heir to a fortune of five thousand pounds. Off to the city, where with gambling sportsmen and dandies his fortune is lost to the last sovereign.
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.
June 15, 2000
Philip Rahv, in a collection of essays, Discovery of Europe (Houghton Mifflin, 1947), reprints passages from Redburn and comments about the description of the German emigrants: “An extraordinarily moving celebration of the hopes lodged in the New World and one of the noblest pleas in our literature for the extinction of national hatreds and racial prejudice.” ↩