Born to Run: Herman Melville’s Great Escape
September 19, 1985
From within his commemorative stamp — dyed an appropriate nautical blue — the unlikely hero figure of American literature gazes blankly out. Melville’s shrines and monuments accumulate relentlessly, as if in atonement for past neglect: he becomes a plaque in the Poets’ Corner of St. John the Divine, a three-volume set (all the fiction, with the poetry still to come) from the Library of America, a museum in the Berkshires, a 90-minute movie full of beaches and sails and waves. Yet all our hagiolatry cannot force the stately mask to wink back at us. We want to make Melville “ours,” have him talk to us as a friend, but he withdraws irrevocably into a muteness like that of the Galapagos Islands, where “no voice, no low, no howl is heard.” It’s a curious communion his work offers: the deeper we wade in it, the more it seems a vast isolation, chill at the core yet capacious as a National Park. He’s our official literary wilderness, in whose clefts and shadows we come to lose ourselves and thereby find the world again. Where other writers proffer ideas or stories or companionable chat, Melville seems to promise the very stuff of existence: time, space, air. We don’t so much read him as inhale him.
His promise is the impossible promise of language. Melville was mad enough to believe that the groves and harbors the words make are real, that the imagined world opens into actual spaces. He entered those spaces, felt out their recesses — those “wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro” — with a blunt boldness that brought on catastrophe. The hazy shores and receding horizons which intoxicated his readers were not enough for him, and he made the fatal error of chasing them to their point of origin: the point where they fade back into the insubstantiality of language, and thought itself collapses inward. It’s a disappearing act mirrored outwardly in his disappearance as an author, the distance he gradually established between his writing and any possible reader. To an audience eager for the vibrant clamor of his palm fronds and tattooed bodies and sibilant Pacific bays, he could offer in the end only the silence of matter, the hard dead rock at the root of creation.
The first readers responded to freshness, a sea breeze, deliverance from civilized clutter. Typee proposed open spaces in which to relax: clearings, nakedness, calm lagoons, the visible absence of brickwork and machines and arithmetic. Melville’s secret lay in what he left out: families, courtships, marriages, wills and lawsuits, internecine politics and international diplomacy, the maddening knots of kinship and finance and social obligation — everything, in short, that provided material for all the other novelists. For Melville the great cities are dusty, depleting puppet-shows, the humming heart of Wall Street a tomb. As for the warm ties of home, the interweaving of the generations, the delicacies of flirtation: all that stifles him. The book must be a casting off. He’s stimulated most keenly by desertedness. The emptier the better: plunging into the implications of a word like “blank” or “dim” or “fissure,” he finds sprawling worlds. A flat sea generates infinite linguistic expression. The “contents” of that expression — ideas, literature, religions, political systems — are simply what a sailor invents to keep himself awake on night-watch, extrapolating them from the patterns made by swirling sea-scum.
He had passed up the chance to write a great realistic novel of life on land: the story of his family. Had Melville been able to write about his people as he wrote of his shipmates, we would know far more not only about him but about the America he venerated, fled, and finally detested. Both his grandfathers were heroes of the Revolution: Major Thomas Melvill flung tea into Boston Harbor and fought at Bunker Hill, while General Peter Gansevoort became legendary as “The Hero of Fort Stanwix,” savior of the Mohawk Valley. Born near the center of power and culture, connected through his uncles and cousins to the world of James Monroe, DeWitt Clinton, James Fenimore Cooper, Melville grew up swathed in an aura of inherited glory. His father, an importer of Parisian silks and gowns, criss-crossed the Atlantic on business and when at home entertained lavishly in a series of Manhattan mansions, while his mother vigilantly kept up the tone of the Hudson Valley aristocracy she came from.
He never wrote about that world of patrician ease and cosmopolitan brilliance, and the one time it starts to leak out — in Redburn — he cuts himself short: “But I must not think of those delightful days, before my father became a bankrupt, and died, and we removed from the city; for when I think of those days, something rises up in my throat and almost strangles me.” His father’s business failed suddenly and unexpectedly in 1830, when Melville was 11, and he learned at once that there was no sinecure for the descendants of patriotic heroes. The family slid into genteel penury, and two years later, following further financial reverses, Melville saw his father collapse into sickness, madness, and death. The mask was off the world. His schooling curtailed, he worked as a bank clerk, a hand on his uncle’s farm, a clerk in his brother’s store (before that too failed), a rural schoolteacher. After seven years of inconsequential labor — years during which his relations with his mother were by all accounts suffocatingly close — he went off to sea.
It was his single decisive gesture, to be repeated as needed: sever connections, withdraw from a complex and rather hopeless situation, take flight. For five years he was in constant motion: to Liverpool as a novice seaman; back home briefly, then some inland roaming along the Erie Canal and down the Mississippi by steamboat; off on a New Bedford whaler; jumped ship six months later, passed the time with cannibals for a few weeks; escaped to another whaler and, accused of mutiny along with the rest of the crew, was rather half-heartedly incarcerated in Tahiti; escaped, wandered around Tahiti, sailed on yet another whaler, wandered around Honolulu, and finally enlisted in the Navy in order to get passage home. He came back to precisely the same situation he had walked away from, and still had no idea what to do with himself. Logically enough he decided to write a book.
The public never got over that book, to Melville’s eventual sorrow. His image, misted over with adolescent nostalgia, would remain that of a bright-eyed rover, a companion in the reveries of youth. To his reading of Typee Jack London attributed “the wonder that was to lead me to many lands, and that still leads and never palls. The years passed, but Typee was not forgotten.” For Robert Louis Stevenson as well the discovery of Melville’s early books was a rite of initiation. By the time Melville died his books were mostly out of print, and all that lingered of his reputation was a faint after-image of coral reefs and coconuts. He was an artifact of popular culture, the man who had become an overnight star by bringing home a new flavor of fantasy. That erotic dream of Polynesia soaked into the American mind, ultimately finding its way into pop songs and pinball machines and B-movies like the one Allan Dwan extracted from Typee: Enchanted Island, with Jane Powell posed in sarong against the eternal Technicolor palm trees.
Melville had kicked off that process with his visions of the nymph Fayaway. Several generations grew up imbued with the implications of phrases like “free pliant figure” and “the easy unstudied graces of a child of nature.” Typee contained all the necessary materials for a P.T. Barnum spectacle of the mind, cannibals and dancing girls parading past at a safe distance. Its subtitle — “A Peep at Polynesian Life” — suggests a picture of Melville narrating a magic lantern show; and indeed the book is very much a public performance. With a showman’s instincts he spins his yarn in a prose punctuated by sly winks, digs in the ribs, and appeals to warm fellow feeling. The cheerful young adventurer — a humorist, a bit of a scamp, at bottom an ordinary enough fellow — unpacks his sea chest, hauls out his South Seas trophies, and holds the listeners spellbound.
It was all so easy: easy to read, as the reviewers enthusiastically noted, and conceptually if not always technically easy for Melville to write. A delicious passivity informs the heart of Typee. Among the unexpectedly tender cannibals, Meville can lie back and be fed and fanned and caressed. In a land where sustenance falls from trees or is scooped from shallows, he indulges in the joy of making no effort whatsoever. Coming home, he finds it’s equally easy to hold his audience’s attention. He need only reiterate certain surefire images: “Naked houris — cannibal banquets — groves of cocanut — coral reefs — tatooed chiefs — and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with bread-fruit trees — carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters — savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols — heathenish rites and human sacrifices.” These, Melville informs us, were the images in his head before he arrived in the Marquesas; yet oddly they were also the images the average reader retained from Typee. Those who cared to look deeper found considerably more — but Melville made sure his mass audience got what it paid for. He was playing a double game, writing one book for himself, another for his readers: part of him was back with the Typees, happily bathing in sensual harmonies, while in another aspect he shrewdly gauged the responses of a flock of prurient Christians.
The contradiction didn’t trouble him yet. As the man in the middle, he could shuttle between worlds without committing himself to either. His very amiability, his effortless gratifying of the readers’ desires, gave him license to slip in all sorts of audacities. It fit his image: a man who had lived with cannibals was expected to have rough edges. There were limits, of course, and so the digs at missionaries had to be excised from the second edition. But otherwise Melville was free to let off steam about civilized evils: “the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life.” The audience sat willingly though the sermon in order to catch another glimpse of “the half-immersed figure of a beautiful girl, standing in the transparent water.”
An instinctive escape artist, Melville found a home in the tantalizingly shifting surfaces of language. Writing a book about his escape to the South Seas was a further escape, enabling him to postpone becoming indentured to a respectable profession or a fixed identity. Since the act of writing it had preserved his freedom, naturally the book became a celebration of freedom; and in Typee and its successor Omoo (a garrulous, often slapstick “road novel” of lazy days in the tropics), he hit upon technical tricks that gave him additional liberties. Facts, for one thing, could be altered. His three-week stay among the Typees not being impressive enough, he could expand it to six months. Every accidental event could be transformed into what it ought to have been. He also learned the uses of found material: to make his Polynesia more dense, it was simple enough to lift clumps of detail from another voyager’s account. Tearing a page from a botany text and pasting it in position was a way of incorporating the world into the book. If he couldn’t have actual moss and sand and seawater — and surely he would have loved to — he could at least interpolate ship’s logs and law documents and pedestrian guidebooks, crime stories from the newspapers and rough-hewn nonliterary memoirs like those of Owen Chase and Amasa Delano and Israel Potter. Such writing influenced him more than anything aside from Shakespeare and the Bible. To his private domain of language it imparted a distinctly democratic air, the polyglot jokes and curses of the foredeck jostling the kinglike speech of Ahab.
Prose, he discovers, is a wonderland he can populate as heterogeneously as he likes, meanwhile divesting himself of familial bonds and all the oppressive encroachments of the land-dwellers. Words perpetuate fleeting motions: the exhilarating leap, caught in midair between ship and shore, need never end in a disappointing arrival. In Redburn he recreates the moment when, on his first voyage, the ship left land behind: “About sunset we got fairly ‘outside,’ and well may it so be called; for I felt thrust out of the world.” Such is the transfixed Melvillean moment, wide awake and lonely and equally alienated from point of departure and ultimate destination. He wants — or wants to want — to live forever in that “outside,” to be permanently in transit, to be away. But language has its obligations as well as its freedoms; the same hooks he’s been avoiding in family and society lurk in words too. His imagined liberty has to contend with the structure of imagination itself. The restlessness that won’t let him stay in one place too long — not even the earthly paradise of the Marquesas — also steers his sentences away from any meaning too fixed or immutable. Language — as codified by polite literature and scholastic logic — frustrates him because it forces him toward undesired resolutions. In Typee he sometimes has difficulty completing sentences: caught up in cascading fragments of description”bold rock-bound coasts, with the surf beating high against the lofty cliffs, and broken here and there into deep inlets, which open to the view thickly-wooded valleys” — his energy runs down as the period approaches, as if grammatical closure were like a harbor he didn’t want to return to.
He’d rather go through language toward a condition of indefinable mineral ecstasy, a coral cuneiform suitable for transcribing what he reads in the waves: “a sort of wide heaving and swelling and sinking all over the ocean.” He wants, quite frankly, the impossible: to revel in the unimpeded delights of language while freeing himself, once and for all, of the relations that language unavoidably implies, the squidlike embrace of interconnectedness. Like the philosopher Babbalanja in Mardi, he exempts himself from linguistic rules in order to assert that “there is no place but the universe; no limit but the limitless; no bottom but the bottomless.”
In his perception, however, the most cloudily undefined is at one with the most meticulously concrete. His faculty for technical description — for the intricacies of riggings and top-gallants and capstans and cables — hinges on the ultimate abstractness of mechanical procedures. Every elaborate, impersonal, morally neutral process fascinates him: the fluxing of currents and tides, the slow accretion of coral islands, the interior functioning of whalers and men-of-war. Such systems share the complexity of language, but unlike language they don’t raise problems of identity or meaning. Melville can get lost in them as in the patterns of a Turkish rug.
He approaches writing in much the same a spirit, tinkering with clauses, running through possible modes of rhythmic organization in a sentence, slapping down oddly mixed bits of jargon and erudition. If the meanings to which language refers make Melville uneasy, its mechanics liberate him: he finds more freedom of action in grammar than in life. Whereas in life he must make irrevocable decisions — to settle down, get married and raise children, ultimately sacrifice his writing career for the family’s sake — in writing he can make an eternal refusal to commit himself. Everything can remain unfinished, indefinite, poised for a resolution which never quite arrives: “God keep me from ever completing anything,” he writes in Moby-Dick. “This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught.” Melville’s deliberate hesitation frees us to invent his books as we read them. No one provides more openings. As the second mate of the Pequod remarks, “You books must know your places. You’ll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.” In vaults piled high with commentary, each stray sentence of Melville’s has formed the basis for more or less arbitrary system-making. If words are seeds, his have engendered forests upon forests. The commentators, by and large, would like to pin the man down. Yet when we read through Melville, two phrases recur insistently: “sort of’ and “here and there.” They might be emblems of a profoundly fertile imprecision.
Randomness — the accidental quality of whatever the mind finds within itself — became his guiding principle. The shapes of his thoughts intrigued him much as strange fish slapping up against a ship’s sides. The ingratiating glibness of Typee and Omoo had no ulterior purpose; it sprang merely from his enjoyment in spinning out the tale. To resemble more truly a voyage, a book must move toward unknown waters: and so, careless of consequences, Melville made his first divergence from his audience. Sabotaging his own facility, he dismantled his expectations of what a book should be, or a sentence, or a thought, and called the result Mardi: an immense improvisation, the imagination of a private ocean in which — as in the last shot of Tarkovsky’s Solaris — ideas become islands. Melville stages a homemade creation myth, with language serving as his primordial mud.
He starts with a realistic, circumscribed set-up not unlike the beginning of Typee — a ship at sea, two discontented sailors absconding in an open boat — but with each link in the narrative chain gets further away from his premise. Every episode erases what went before. It becomes clear that we’ll never return to the starting point: we are just going to keep moving outward. The story is overtaken by its prose: the metaphors usurp control, becoming more powerful than what they represent. A calm at sea sets off apocalyptic resonances: “The stillness of the calm is awful. His voice begins to grow strange and portentous . . . His cranium is a dome full of reverberations. The hollows of his very bones are as whispering galleries.” Melville wallows in language with a more innocent exuberance than ever again, and lets the wispy narrative float where it will. The mysterious maiden Yillah, prisoner of an evil priest, is rescued by the hero Taji, only to vanish again. Accompanied by King Media of the island empire Mardi and three philosophical courtiers, Taji searches among Pacific wastes for the lost Yillah, while silent messengers from the sinister enchantress Hautia pelt him with symbolic flowers. The treatment is absurdly perfunctory: crucial plot turns occupy a few hasty paragraphs, while Taji and his quest disappear altogether for hundreds of pages at a stretch. Yet Mardi‘s fluid disordered structure casts up hundreds of small self-contained structures, like the secret residence of King Donjalolo: “The husk-inhusked meat in a nut; the innermost spark in a ruby; the juice-nested seed in a golden-rinded orange; the red royal stone in an effeminate peach; the insphered sphere of spheres.”
Melville just wants to write: the uncontrolled process hypnotizes him, and as he immerses himself in the “world of wonders insphered within the spontaneous consciousness,” strange things start happening. The philosopher Babbalanja, a marginal figure, imposes himself ever more insistently, evoking eons of imaginary geology, imaginary history, imaginary commentaries on imaginary literatures. In Babbalanja the notion of personal identity begins to come apart: “Though I have now been upon terms of close companionship with myself for nigh five hundred moons, I have not yet been able to decide who or what I am.” Unforeseen interiors heave into view. A demon named Azzageddi lives dormant in Babbalanja, a psyche within a psyche, sometimes speaking through him in wild prose cadenzas. Melville is drawn into progressively more schizoid involutions: “He is locked up in me. In a mask, he dodges me. He prowls about in me, hither and thither; he peers, and I stare . . . So present is he always, that I seem not so much to live of myself, as to be a mere apprehension of the unaccountable being that is in me. Yet all the time, this being is I, myself.” (Later, Ahab will urge: “Strike through the mask!”)
Toward the end, as if suddenly waking to the presence of an audience, Melville exclaims: “Oh, reader, list! I’ve chartless voyaged.” The readers had doubtless already reached the same conclusion about a book embracing florid dream sequences, whimsical paeans to wine and tobacco, labored political allegories, and metaphysical disquisitions modeled after Sir Thomas Browne, not to mention the first major literary treatment of surfing. Asked at one point for the meaning of his remarks, Babbalanja replies: “It is a polysensuum” — as good a description as any for Melville’s concoction. Even Mardi‘s doldrums are part of its effect, creating through boredom a sense of actual distance, actual duration. For the first but not last time, Melville broached the idea of unreadability as an aesthetic value. To treat of an ocean it wasn’t enough to say “and so forth”; the weight and volume of the waters had to be contained between the covers.
At the same time, out in the real world, Melville was meshing after a fashion with the imperatives of his milieu: in 1847, just after the publication of Omoo, he married Elizabeth Shaw, and within 18 months the first of four children was born. Marriage would seem to be a turning outward; but considering that Elizabeth’s father, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts, had been the best friend of Melville’s father, and had passionately loved Melville’s aunt until her early death, the marriage begins to look like an acting out of someone else’s fantasy, a reassertion of the family bonds which Melville had never really been free of. That his mother and sisters were frequent boarders in the new household could only have reinforced that sense. In any event, the marriage was plainly not a happy one. We hear of uncontrolled rages, depressions, nervous ailments. Melville evidently felt trapped; what Elizabeth felt only rarely surfaces in her desperately cheerful letters. Whatever Melville may have expected from marriage and children, they became for him only the most intimate emblem of the world and its pressures.
Those pressures were mounting steadily. Mardi having predictably failed, he rushed out with a couple of realistic, eminently salable narratives more in keeping with the Melville brand name: Redburn, a thinly fictionalized account of his first voyage, and White-Jacket, a quasijournalistic retailing of his Navy stint. He was working at a killing pace, dashing off Redburn in a few months right on the heels of Mardi, and wrapping up White-Jacket some 14 weeks later. Yet it wasn’t only commercial necessity that kept him focused on his years at sea. They represented a magic zone of liberation, whose most ordinary details were charged with radiant energies. He worked determinedly to keep certain sense-impressions alive, as if through them he might effect an alchemical wedding between the terms “ocean” and “language.”
Life at sea is so much simpler. You have the ocean and you have the ship: clear boundaries. Not that a sailor’s existence is particularly blissful. Redburn mostly recapitulates bitter memories of “vulgar and brutal men lording it over me, as if I were an African in Alabama,” and White-Jacket‘s man-o-war, with its ritualistic discipline and routine floggings, its Acts of War whose penalty for every infraction is death, is even more violently repressive. For what, precisely, is Melville nostalgic? Does he aspire to the childlike condition of the sailor, who does what he is told and who, after enjoying on shore leave a brief destructive outburst of freedom, returns sheepishly to the parental care of his commander? Doubtless Melville himself puzzled over it. He took liberty as seriously as any American writer has done, and in White-Jacket wrote a precise, thoroughgoing condemnation of the naval mind and its innate authoritarian bias. He detested confinement, restriction of any kind; was anarchist enough to affirm only partly in jest that “a thief in jail is as honorable a personage as Gen. George Washington”; and in his own time at sea had successively enacted the roles of deserter, mutineer, jailbird, beachcomber.
On the other hand, a sailor has a few clear advantages. His work is cut out for him, and no one obstructs him from doing it. His intensely structured existence frees him in a curious way for the most abandoned meditations. He’s next to the elements, stripped down to his essence: “At sea . . . all men appear as they are . . . The contact of one man with another is too near and constant to favor deceit. You wear your character as loosely as your flowing trowsers.” It meant a great deal to Melville — a bookish lad, none too dexterous, and by his own account easily shocked — to win a degree of acceptance from his fellows on the Acushnet, the Lucy Ann, the Charles and Henry, and the United States. Certainly his own class, the aristocratic class he had so rudely fallen from, had done him little good. There lay his democratic touchstone: to treat officers as the enemy camp and take his stand resolutely on the foredeck. But on shipboard — barring mutiny — the will of the crew finds no concrete political expression. Instead it seeps wistfully into songs, tales, riotous festivities, half-inarticulate soul-to-soul conversations in the riggings. Melville, who could be cold-blooded when it came to religion and patriotism and law and family, reserved his sentimentality for the camaraderie of sailors.
Ultimately nothing counted more for him than a mate to whom he could tell everything, “mate” being a term male and nautical rather than female and domestic. All his adventures were undertaken in tandem: Typee with Toby, Omoo with the fantastical Doctor Long Ghost, Mardi with the stolid Norseman Jarl; Redburn with the adored Harry Bolting, whose “eyes were large, black, and womanly,” and whose voice “was as the sound of a harp”; White-Jacket with Jack Chase of the “clear open eye” and “fine broad brow,” who fought for Peru’s freedom and bellowed out stanzas of Camoens from the maintop. Eventually Melville kept himself going with the memory of such friendships. More importantly, his whole conception of what writing was for revolved increasingly around the hoped-for existence of an isolated sympathetic ear.
He found such an ear, appended to the person of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The moment was crucial. Melville, activated as he would never be again, had bought a property in the Berkshires and was trying his somewhat dilettantish hand at farming, while working resolutely on yet another potboiler, this one drawing on his whaling experiences. “I write these books of mine almost entirely for ‘lucre,’ — by the job, as a woodsawyer draws wood,” he confided to Richard Henry Dana. “It will be a strange sort of book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber, you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree.” His encounter with Hawthorne, at a neighborhood picnic, seems to have precipitated something like a religious experience. He had already been reading Mosses from an Old Manse, of which he wrote rhapsodically: “This Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further, and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.”
A new sense of urgent purpose animated Melville. Hauling back the whaling book for revision he ended up remaking it altogether: after 18 months — for Melville an unconscionably long period of composition — it emerged as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. He dedicated it to Hawthorne, in whom he had finally met a reader who could replace all other readers. He saw their friendship — a friendship finally wrecked by Melville’s over-demanding fervor — as the communion of two great souls: “Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s,” he wrote, in a letter whose mystical-erotic tenor could only have perturbed the emotionally restrained Hawthorne. “I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the supper, and that we are the pieces . . . Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.” He fantasized about having a paper mill in his house, unrolling an endless sheet of paper upon which “I should write a thousand-a million-billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter-to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds.”
Perhaps Hawthorne only half-guessed the occult role into which he had been thrust: that of spiritual brother to whom — and to no one else — Melville could impart the illuminations that were sweeping through him. The writing of Moby-Dick had made him feel his separateness. To his family he was already strange, sequestered in his chamber, refusing food from morning to night as he gave himself over to writing. Perhaps only with his imagined Hawthorne on the receiving end could Melville have transmitted that network of signals which was Moby-Dick. In any event he sensed the process would somehow kill him: “I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb,” he wrote to Hawthorne, “and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould.” He was only 31.
Each of his books had been literally a voyage, shaped by the movement it enacted, each sentence a smaller voyage mirroring the larger. In Mardi the canoe journey had already declared itself a psychic ritual, while in Redburn and White-Jacket the minutiae of nautical life — sea weather and navigation and the internal structure of sailing vessels — were laid out item by item like a language being readied for use. But despite that work of preparation, the making of Moby-Dick remains mysterious, like the eruption of one of those “wild talents” the parapsychologists like to talk about. It registers the shock of a sudden, only partly voluntary transformation, accompanied by the acquisition of new powers. All at once Melville knows that he cannot make a false step. The problem of meaning ceases to trouble him because he can mean everything at the same time. As if talking in tongues, he breaks into dozens of different voices, becomes a whole crew of “Feegeeans, Tongatabooans, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians.” Inanimate objects squirm with life, colors are magnified, tiny sounds grow thunderous.
A shaping force has seized hold of the book: an entirely novel sense of inevitability surges up under Melville’s relaxed randomness. The change arises precisely from Melville’s trust in language, his practice — cultivated in Mardi — of letting syntax simmer and swirl and hatch its multiform offspring. But what surfaces this time is something different in kind, an alien presence, dark and mute: not the whale, I mean, but Ahab. Here was the demon Azzegeddi made manifest: and Melville, who had shied from captains, finds himself ventriloquizing dreadful commands. The instant Ahab pops up into daylight the book’s chemistry changes: “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness.” Really he is already dead: an inert totem gone beyond responsiveness. But his very deadness catalyzes the vitality around him, calling up an atmosphere in which no pebble or syllable can be moved without cosmic consequences.
Although we can see what Ahab is made of — stances, props, adjectives, analogies, a smattering of grandiloquent cadences — nothing short of voodoo adequately explains his power. On the most obvious level we see a stagy figure thundering forth Elizabethanisms: “I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!” Ahab’s eeriness lies not in his outward behavior but in the secret influence he seems to exert over his creator. Like a demon issued fullblown from a hexed pentagram, overwhelming his invoker, the character starts telling the author what to do: and Melville, an obedient seaman, obeys his captain. Ahab, a Golem, a Frankenstein monster, uncannily feeds off the energy of mental projection, surviving in an unnatural half-life, not Ahab any longer but “what was Ahab”: “a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself.”
Yet to have given birth to Ahab was a profound liberation. The horrible dead old man was no longer within Melville but outside him, sharply etched against empty sky. The externalization of that “tormented spirit” effects an appeasement: like a decoy Ahab absorbs all dark forces, while Melville is freed to exercise his powers with a kind of divine license. Omnipresent, he dives to the bottom of the ocean, enters into whales, learns what it is “to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world.” He speaks with the tongue of Shakespeare and Solomon, and his book becomes a proclamation of its own expansive intentions: “Already we are boldly launched upon the deep, but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities.” Burnt-out Ahab bides his time below, a vacant silhouette, a black hole drawing the whole ship down with him.
In the “oceanic doom” genre — which encompasses The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Flying Dutchman and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym — there’s nothing unusual about a great gothic machine of a ship sailing into horror. But while for Coleridge and Poe the ocean mirrored their own paranoia, for Melville it’s a secret home, a slithery womb full of freshets and phosphorescent glimmers. His death-ship may glide ceremonially toward the abyss, heralded by signs and portents, but the ocean on which it floats brims with a slow and ancient bliss. How could it be otherwise, since the idea of ocean infallibly releases Melville’s power as a writer? It’s the harsh and impermeable Ahab who is the Other. The ocean, on the contrary, is that innermost resting place in whose depths, says Ishmael, “I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.” Moby Dick‘s vast body — mapped out chapter by chapter, in all the amplitude of its “thick walls, and . . . interior spaciousness,”— is analogous to the body of the book. It was in whale form, we are told, that Vishnu swam to “the bottom of the waters” to retrieve the sacred writings: and when Ishmael, momentarily separated from the Pequod, peers down into those same waters, it is to gaze entranced at the “dalliance and delight” of serenely copulating whales.
The impulse to freedom — which in Melville is a form of laziness — seeks the deeps, away from the hypnotic proto-Hitler Ahab, whose “sultanism” becomes “incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship” as he guides his crew toward death. By attaching himself to a single unambiguous meaning, Ahab sacrifices his freedom of action. His personality narrows down to a sentence: I will kill the whale. It becomes a political slogan: as master of the Pequod he imposes on the crew an ideology consisting of that sentence alone. The ship, locked into its rigid structure of meaning, sails on an ocean which is all swelling and heaving ambivalence, that “indefiniteness” of which the whale’s whiteness is emblematic. Whiteness appalls because it “shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation.” Yet the mind — Melville’s mind most particularly — keeps coming back to that brink, to “the white depths of the milky way” and the “dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows”: full, not of one specific meaning, but of all meanings blended, “a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.” Even as he shrinks from it, Melville is stirred by a counter-impulse of desire — or so the temblors of his prose assure us. If there is an eroticism of annihilation, the white whale embodies it.
Although his alter ego Ishmael survives the wreck, it was as if Melville had in truth been swallowed by the whale. He had stumbled almost accidentally into writing, but once caught up in the process had been pulled ever deeper into the spiraling structures it generated. The timetables of the outside world must have begun to seem remote: he was out of sync. There was no money. His great prophetic utterance was received as a rather convoluted sea story. Even in Hawthorne he sensed a nervous withdrawal. As for his family, they were no longer merely worrying about his health, but openly questioning his sanity. Their correspondence shows the conclave of relatives sending emergency signals back and forth about Herman’s “condition.” His mother fears that “this constant working of the brain, and excitement of the imagination, is wearing Herman out”; his father-in-law concurs that Melville “overworks himself and brings on severe nervous afflictions.” All agree that, in sister Augusta’s words, “it is of the utmost importance that something should be done to prevent the necessity of Herman’s writing.” But Herman, closeted in his room like Ahab in his cabin, plunged straight into the next book as if afraid to stop.
That book — Pierre, or The Ambiguities — brought the crisis to a head: it was not only an abject failure, but a work of unbridled psychological aggression in which Melville undertook the symbolic destruction of his entire family. Until now he had been like a little boy playing in his room, making up stories about his imaginary boat: the world of his books was safely separated by vast tracts of ocean from his real life as son and husband and father. In Pierre the little boy crept into the rest of the house, poking among bedrooms and closets and attics and making some unpleasant discoveries. The old Melville household with its dominating mother, dead father, and oppressively legendary grandfather — was played back in the distorted light of reawakened childhood memory.
Pierre‘s plot resembles the garish fantasy of a morbidly precocious child: Noble young Pierre lives alone with his still beautiful mother, on whom he lavishes a “courteous lover-like adoration.” (Mother and son playfully “call each other brother and sister.”) Otherwise Pierre spends his time venerating a portrait of his father and strolling through gardens with his virginal fiancee Lucy. Into this petrified bower of bliss comes the dark Isabel, who reveals herself in secret to Pierre as his illegitimate half-sister. Horrified at this exposure of parental hypocrisy and determined to do the right thing by Isabel, Pierre abruptly burns his father’s portrait, vacates the family mansion, breaks off with Lucy, and unites — for, motives too complexly self-contradictory to explain — in a mock marriage with Isabel. His mother dies of grief; Lucy, in a bizarre fit of self-sacrifice, comes to live with Pierre and Isabel as their servant; and Glen, Pierre’s cousin (and, it is suggested, his onetime lover), publicly insults him, in response to which Pierre shoots him down in the street. Imprisoned, Pierre is joined by Lucy and Isabel, and all three — in a kind of small-scale Jonestown — expire together.
So much for Melville’s effort to write a commercial novel: now not only his relatives but the critics were calling him insane. Pierre hasn’t fared well with critics in our day either, having been variously described as a “disaster” (Charles Olson), “grindingly, ludicrously bad” (John Updike), and “one of the most painfully ill-conditioned books ever to be produced by a first-rate mind” (Newton Arvin). It is indeed a suicidal book, undermining its own structure, choking off the emotions to which it appeals, and exploding into arbitrary violence which shatters any remaining framework of sympathy. Melville cannibalizes himself: in the same way that he had turned his sea voyages into books, he attempts to patch his rawest traumas and rages into a gothic romance. Charged with the residue of Moby-Dick‘s energies, he directs them against his own precarious sense of wholeness, with bloody results. Small wonder that many have recoiled from a book where, in a typical instance, the hero angrily smashes his head against a wall and falls down “dabbling in the vomit of his loathed identity.”
Yet in its way Pierre is as ambitious and original as Moby-Dick. The whole first half is a sustained trance in which, against the droning background created by the repetition of “dim” and “vague” and “mysterious” and “indefinite,” Melville lets shadows leak into the cozy family nest. The process by which familiar associations turn menacing, as the hero’s consciousness gives way to engulfment, is described with obsessive precision: “He felt that what he had always before considered the solid land of veritable reality, was now being audaciously encroached upon by bannered armies of hooded phantoms, disembarking in his soul, as from flotillas of specter-boats.” In short lurid bursts, Pierre’s states of mind are lit up like cavernous Thomas Cole landscapes. These sudden vistas of mental recesses jangle with voluptuous negativity: meanings deny themselves and coil inward to reveal further meanings likewise receding into shadow. An anguished unresolved probing extends itself in tortuously prolonged sentences, like the one in which Pierre contemplates his dead father’s portrait, “ever watching the strangely concealed lights of the meanings that so mysteriously moved to and fro within . . . unconsciously throwing himself open to all those ineffable hints and ambiguities, and undefined half-suggestions, which now and then people the soul’s atmosphere, as thickly as in a soft, steady snow-storm, the snow-flakes people the air.”
In Moby-Dick Melville had written that “those far mysteries we dream of,” if pursued, “either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.” His trail had led him into a maze poisonous with “dark persuadings” and “horrible haunting toads and scorpions,” and his companion this time was no hearty fellow sailor but the spectral sickly Isabel, Melville’s feminine twin at last bodied forth. Her speeches have a hollow, somnolent ring, like an emanation at a seance. In that alien voice we seem to hear the controlling spirit of Melville’s writing speaking for itself: “I never affect any thoughts, and I never adulterate any thoughts; but when I speak, think forth from the tongue, speech being sometimes before the thought; so, often, my own tongue teaches me new things.” If Pierre starts to cave in somewhere past its midpoint, it’s perhaps because Melville, suddenly aware of what he was perpetrating, tried to escape from the process he had initiated. Living in poverty with Isabel, Pierre writes a book — a book plainly identical to the one we are reading. Pierre’s book collapses too: he is overwhelmed by “the primitive elementalizing of the strange stuff, which in the act of attempting that book, has upheaved and upgushed in his soul.” Finally there’s no way out but a murderous showdown: so in 1852, by default, Melville invented the genre of James Cain’s Serenade and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.
He would never let himself go like that again. After Pierre he reined in the spontaneity which had led him so wildly astray. A new mistrust surfaces in his prose: he masks himself. The scrupulous impersonality of “Benito Cereno” extends even to its weather patterns: “Everything was mute and calm; everything gray.” Structurally a detective story, “Benito Cereno” shares that genre’s flatness of characterization. Its companion piece, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” eliminates characterization altogether in its portrait of a human degree zero, defined exclusively in negative terms. Beyond the rotted lushness of Pierre we emerge into a bone-white dessication, perfect and empty: “I placed his desk close up to a small side-window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erection, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light.” Having advanced so far into the nonhuman, he even wrote a novella-like set of sketches, “The Encantadas,” whose “characters” are clumps of volcanic rock and huge primeval tortoises, and where such humans as appear function as bits of rubble littering the landscape. In the desolation of those lava slopes, in the barrenness of the Chilean coast off which “Benito Cereno” unfolds, in the blankness of Bartleby, Melville found his new field of action: the desert. But if his ocean had been full of noises, his desert was to be mostly silent.
Israel Potter, the miserably unlucky hero of Bunker Hill, was condemned by fate to 50 years of beggarly exile. Melville’s own exile was internal: a separation from language as he had loved it, primordial and generous, and in its place a hair-splitting intellectual paranoia, a remorseless jabbing at words to find out their hidden enmities. Pierre had already revealed to him “the universal lurking insincerity of even the greatest and purest written thoughts,” and The Confidence-Man, that queasiest of books, states the case to the point of exhaustion. The enthusiastic, hyperbolic language which had once been Melville’s now belongs to the Confidence-Man, grinning emissary of the great American bilking machine, chameleonic trickster and archetypal glad-hander, with his bluff cries of “Good fellowship forever!” and his ravenous eye for human vulnerability. Like any salesman his implicit motto is: “If you don’t trust me, there must be something wrong with you.”
For us, with its impeccable foreshadowing of the style and methodology of a Spiro Agnew or Jerry Falwell, The Confidence Man looks prophetic: and like many another prophetic book, it borders on the unreadable. As airless and badly lit as the Mississippi steamer aboard which it’s set, the novel pits a faceless malevolent presence — we recognize him only by the insinuating thrust of his discourse — against a series of lumpish grotesques, ultimate materialists characterized solely by the clothes they wear and the money they spend: “From an old buckskin pouch, tremulously dragged forth, ten hoarded eagles, tarnished into the appearance of ten old horn-buttons, were taken, and half-eagerly, half-reluctantly, offered.” All affirmations being suspect, Melville undercuts his own writing: the words recoil from themselves, and the book trails off into a choking darkness. With a cryptic gesture of farewell ± “Something further may follow of this Masquerade” — the novelist steals away into silence.
He published no more prose. In 1856, just after finishing The Confidence-Man, he went — or was packed off — across the ocean again, at his father-in-law’s expense: a haggard convalescent on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Stopping off in England he paid his respects to Hawthorne, talking endlessly of religion and the life after death, and acknowledging that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated.” The sacred places of Jerusalem and Judea, dutifully though he wrote them up in his notebook, imparted no spiritual healing. He seems to have come home resigned to a muffled, depleted existence. Admitting that he was finished as a professional writer, he lectured unsuccessfully for a few seasons on topics like “Roman Statuary” and “Travel: Its Pleasures, Pains, and Profits”; made vain efforts to parlay his family’s Democratic connections into a diplomatic appointment; and in 1866 — having by now sold the farm and settled into an apartment on East 26th Street — he accepted a job as Inspector of Customs, at $4 a day, on the New York docks. He remained there until his retirement 20 years later.
The record of those years is a round of barren drudgery and family occasions. Melville evolved into a diffident functionary, notoriously honest amid a nest of bureaucratic corruption, who in off hours indulged his taste for books and fine prints while complying dutifully with the rituals of domestic life. A few blinding tragedies interrupted the surface monotony. Soon after Melville went to work in the customs office, his teenaged son Malcolm — who slept with a gun under his pillow and had often quarreled with his father — blew his brains out for no clear reason. A year later the other son, Stanwix, set sail for China to begin a downward spiral of indecisive drifting, modeled perhaps on Typee and Omoo, and terminated by an early death in far-off California. Melville himself disappeared from literary society, and by the mid-’80s was being written of in these terms: “Herman Melville exemplifies the transiency of literary reputation . . . Although his early works are still popular, the author is generally supposed to be dead.”
In fact he had not even stopped writing; he had simply stopped addressing an audience. Melville’s particular silence took the form of poetry. He may have nursed a brief hope that the Civil War poems of Battle-Pieces would elevate him to the rank of public bard; but no one noticed and few would have appreciated his subtle modification of military rhetoric through images of “the parched ones stretched in pain” or “the rusted gun,/Green shoes full of bones, the mouldering coat/And cuddled-up skeleton.” Battle-Pieces is Melville’s least personal book (his own tumult for once subsides into a larger civic solemnity) and the mode of formal recitative in which it’s cast has become remote to us. It does contain at least one idiosyncratic masterpiece, “The House-‘Top,” a “night piece” registering in Jacobean tones the shock of New York’s draft riots:
No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain-a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades, Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya.
Melville’s democratic enthusiasm curdles, confronted with an anarchy in which “All civil charms/And priestly spells which late held hearts in sway/. . . like a dream dissolve,/ And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.” It feels like a poem of the next century, and the poet’s grim applause for the forces of martial law is only too premonitory: “Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll/ Of black artillery.”
After the critical failure of Battle-Pieces, Melville was free to be indifferent. The applause, rewards, laurel wreaths and honorary appointments would be distributed elsewhere: he was left as his own audience of one. Out of that solitude he constructed Clarel, an immensely long poem drawing on his trip to Palestine. Apparently begun in the wake of his son’s suicide, it was published 10 years later at his uncle’s expense, and was greeted — as might be anticipated — with dead silence. Melville later cavalierly described Clarel as “eminently adapted for unpopularity”; yet his wife provides a more anguished glimpse of what it meant to him: “Herman, poor fellow, is in such a frightfully nervous state . . . that I am actually afraid to have any one here for fear that he will be upset. entirely . . . If ever this dreadful incubus of a book (I call it so because it has undermined all our happiness) gets off Herman’s shoulders I do hope he may be in better mental health.”
Clarel has almost the air of a self-imposed penance, as Melville meticulously reconstructs his failure to find any trace of God in the Holy Land. This 18,000-line work, with its dozens of characters and dense layers of Bible lore and Orientalia, was the most labored, the most consciously artistic thing Melville ever did: yet its very elaboration seems designed to stave off an overwhelming feeling of hollowness. The narrative line is stark: An American divinity student has undergone a crisis of faith. Hoping for spiritual renewal he wanders through Jerusalem and across the Judean desert to Bethlehem, in company with a band of pilgrims representing every shade of credence: sincere piety, fanaticism, modern liberalism, scientific scepticism, with a few taciturn Moslems and Druses thrown in for contrast. The debate moves back and forth, while in counterpoint the sacred sites roll by. We might be in the midst of one of those 19th century paintings depicting a group of travelers dwarfed by the surrounding crags and ruins. Young Clarel wavers from one side to another, only to sink deeper in uncertainty and self-doubt: and, returning to Jerusalem to find his chaste beloved dead of fever, he slumps into a perhaps unredeemable despair. Melville systematically frustrates the desire for a transcendent resolution. Despite the formality of its trappings — a ceremonial ordering of calendrical and geographic components, a constricting metrical scheme (rhymed tetrameters), a Dantean interweaving of symbols — Clarel remains stubbornly open-ended, dislocated, a monument to unappeasable vacillation. It prays for meaning and no meaning appears.
Had Melville’s skill at versification been equal to a work of such length, Clarel would be the great poem which it obliquely implies but only fitfully becomes. The technical constraints too often weigh him down, and we feel trapped in the thudding movements of some monstrously cumbersome machine. Yet Clarel has its fascinations. The meter’s choked, clotted gait induces claustrophobia. Amid incessant images of aridity and death, the poem’s dry and abstract talk mirrors the desert’s barrenness: ” ‘Tis horror absolute — severe,/ Dead, livid, honeycombed, dumb, fell — / A caked depopulated hell.”
Suffocating as it often is, Clarel works beautifully as concrete poetry. The short lines, unrolling like a scroll through empty space, heighten the physical presence of Melville’s heterogeneous, always surprising vocabulary; the placement of words on the page is often more significant than symbolic patterns or intellectual arguments. The layout’s dizzying verticality, combined with a persistent staccato of enjambment, establishes a jagged topography:
Overlooked, the houses sloped from him —
Terraced or domed, unchimnied, gray,
All stone — a moor of roofs. No play
Of life; no smoke went up, no sound
Except low hum, and that half drowned.
Clarel might be described as a symbolic poem about the failure of symbolism. The great unifying Biblical images are reduced to empty forms: just a hill, just a rock, just a tomb. The result of “that vast eclipse” is to make all actions arbitrary. The randomness which once delighted Melville now horrifies him: “No shape astir/Except at whiles a shadow falls/Athwart the way, and key in hand/Noiseless applies it, enters so/And vanishes.” The world is all mask, a grainy surface crisscrossed by accidental comings and goings.
In Clarel, that cipher of a hero, Melville had come to rest in an image of ultimate passivity. Tormented by religious doubt, by premonitions of political cataclysm, by nagging sexual uncertainties, the student withdraws from action altogether. Like Clarel, Melville had never really decided which sex he was drawn to, or whether he didn’t prefer a solitary asceticism; as for what kind of government to support, or what God to believe or not believe in, his judgments fluttered and plunged and reared up with remorseless unpredictability. Writing served as a refuge from that crisis, as Melville discovered how contradictory possibilities could be fused together in imaginary linguistic structures. In that paradise he could defer what were for him impossible decisions. Moments of flight or procrastination or dead calm — when a ship cannot move even if it wants to — became pockets of eternity.
Perhaps in the end he felt that all his choices had been forced upon him. His last poems brim with nostalgia for a life only half lived: he conjures up the ghosts of dead sailors (“Where’s Commander All-a-Tanto?/ Where’s Orlop Bob singing up from below?/ Where’s Rhyming Ned? has he spun his last canto?/ Where’s Jewsharp Jim? Where’s Rigadoon Joe?”) and recalls “The Typee-truants under stars/Unknown to Shakespeare’s Midsummer-Night.” The final years seem to have been more tranquil than what went before. He could even write: “Healed of my hurt, I laud the inhuman sea.” The best of these late poems, “Billy in the Darbies,” formed the seed of his last story, the almost-finished Billy Budd. There a whole drama of wrongful hurt, and warped desire turned hateful, dissolved into a reconciliation between the condemned innocent and the father-figure who must kill him. The scene is bathed in a resolutely unrevealing luminosity: “There is no telling the sacrament . . . wherever under circumstances at all akin to those here attempted to be set forth two of great Nature’s nobler order embrace. There is privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor; the holy oblivion, the sequel to each diviner magnanimity, providentially covers all at last.” The desire to particularize at last surrenders to the desire to sink, to be embraced, to submit to the disciplinary prerogatives of silence: “I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.” ■