What does a present-day Southern writer make of Melville? Strangely enough, what first comes to mind is not the greatness of Moby-Dick or the strange, flawed originality of Billy Budd, but rather a certain chagrin and a sort of melancholy wonder.
What did it feel like, one wonders, to have written Moby-Dick, an experience which Melville called being broiled in hellfire, and which was surely a triumphant taking-on of hell and coming through? It was surely akin to the sense of triumph Dante felt emerging from his own inferno. But to write Moby-Dick, publish it, sell a few hundred copies, see it drop dead and go out of print, disappear apparently forever, and then to spend the last twenty years of one’s life as a customs inspector on the New York docks, so obscure and forgotten that a British critic visiting America couldn’t even find you—what did it feel like? And then at the end, to write Billy Budd again, as far as Melville was concerned, stillborn, unpublished, unread. What did that feel like? Was there a certain species of satisfaction in living the most ordinary life imaginable? Was it an exercise in obscurity like that of Bartleby the scrivener, riffling through the valises of rich folk returning from the grand tour and then going home to humble quarters?
But I confess to a certain chagrin. Why? Because there was not a single Melville—or anything close—in the entire antebellum South.
And where did Melville come from? A lapsed Calvinist from a middle-class New York family. My grandmother in Georgia might have said of the Melvilles, had she known them and been asked about them: “The Melvilles? Well, of course, you know, they were in trade.” That meant that they didn’t belong to the upper class of the professions—the doctors, lawyers, plantation owners, and people of leisure. It was the latter, presumably, who had the time and the wherewithal to write, read, cultivate the arts, and so forth. They had the libraries; and they often went to Europe for their education. But I confess to a certain chagrin. Why? Because there was not a single Melville—or anything close—in the entire antebellum South, from the Virginia Tidewater to the New Orleans Vieux Carre and the River Road. A huge country, with an extensive leisure class, close European connections, and plenty of Calvinists, lapsed and unlapsed. And plenty of people in trade. Why no Melville? The conventional wisdom has a ready answer: the slavery did you in.
Well, yes and no. The Greeks—Aeschylus and Sophocles, for instance—had slaves: it didn’t do them in. But the South got stuck with slavery because it was profitable. While the Melvilles were in the dry-goods business and didn’t stand to make a nickel on slaves, Southern writers, political and otherwise, were feeling guilty because they spent most of their time defending slavery. Now, defending slavery is a strange occupation and it takes a lot of energy. It’s impossible to imagine, for example, a South Carolina writer in the 1850s thinking about whales, Rousseau, and original sin. On the other hand, defending cannibals and making a case for an earthly paradise in the valley of the Typee is also a strange occupation for a writer. And being obsessed with the innocence of natural man is surely as pernicious an activity as defending slavery. But these flowerings of genius are mysterious affairs, and I'm not sure that even the critics know the answers. One might also ask: Where were the New England writers in the 1920s and ’30s, when the Nashville poets and the Mississippi novelists were getting on their way?
But there’s something else afoot in Melville’s case. It has to do with what the structuralists call intertextuality. Now, there is a lot of real goofiness in structuralist criticism. One can imagine a structuralist critique of Moby-Dick in the style of Levi-Strauss: a table of binary opposites listing right whales in one column and wrong whales in another, and the right whales are the sperm whales and the wrong whales are wrongly called right whales. One could, “deconstruct” Melville, too, discounting his authorial intention and putting forward the thesis that Moby-Dick is really about a homosexual relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. It has been done, in fact, and it may or may not be true; but it’s not really important because that’s not what excited Melville and it’s not what excites the reader.
But there is something interesting about the idea of Hawthorne as an intertext for Melville, or Melville as a countertext for Hawthorne, which is another way of saying that it is impossible to imagine Melville writing Moby-Dick without the somber figure of Hawthorne at his shoulder. The structuralists are right about intertextuality. But I believe it can be stated in ordinary language—without the jargon. There’s a strange paradox about writing novels. It is simply this: there’s no occupation in the universe that is lonelier and that at the same time depends more radically on a community, a commonwealth of other writers.
I needn’t mention the half-dozen extraordinary writers and thinkers confined to a couple of small towns in Massachusetts. But there’s a difference between the mediated loneliness of a writer like Melville, for whom Hawthorne stood close by (whether actually present or not) and the absolute loneliness of a Southern writer of the 1840s or ’50s. For all I know, there were dozens of potential Hawthornes and Melvilles and Thoreaus in the Virginias and Carolinas of the 1840s. But there’s no such thing as a sovereign and underived text, except possibly for Faulkner, who came from God knows where.
It’s just that the post-Christianity and alienation of the Massachusetts writer took a hundred years to reach Mississippi.
Perhaps the South at that time was too big, too well off, the writers too scattered, too politicized, too full of hubris. Who needed to write? I like to imagine that what happened to literature in the South in the 1920s and ’30s was the same sort of thing that happened to New England a hundred years before. It’s just that the post-Christianity and alienation of the Massachusetts writer took a hundred years to reach Mississippi.
Try to imagine Melville today writing in New York about his obsession with the natural depravity of man and blaming God for it. He would be referred to an analyst. It is hard to say who would be more certifiable at Yale or Harvard now—Melville, who believed in the depravity of man and blamed God for it, or Dostoevsky, who believed in the depravity of man and looked to God to save him from it.
The common denominator, I think, between Southern writing of this century and Northeastern writing of the last is a certain relation of the writer to a shared body of belief. I don’t mean that a writer has to be informed by a belief like Dante’s. But surely there’s a certain dialectical relation to a shared belief that helps a writer, even if the relation is unbelief, as in the case of Euripides, who had no use for the gods and didn’t lose any sleep over it, or Melville, who had no use for God but could never get over it.
The vocabulary remains intact; there is a common universe of discourse. It is shared by believer and scoffer, even when the scoffer is like Melville or Joyce and cannot relax in his unbelief. Take these factors, a shared belief or a shared warfare against belief, a major talent like Melville’s, a community of one’s peers, and a common universe of discourse and you’ve got the makings of a major literature.
Moby-Dick was not only dedicated to Hawthorne, it was written at him. Written to the reader, yes, but always past Hawthorne, with an eye cocked for Hawthorne’s approval at the very least. At the most, it was written to amaze Hawthorne, out-Hawthorne Hawthorne. Not only Man is depraved, but God too. We know what Melville thought of Hawthorne. He ranked him with Shakespeare, but in a peculiar sense. By Melville’s own admission, it was Hawthorne’s great power of blackness that appealed to his Calvinist sense of innate depravity and original sin. We know how Melville felt after he wrote Moby-Dick, and he gave the book to Hawthorne. He said he had written a wicked book, broiled in hell-fire, and that he felt fine, as spotless as a lamb, happy, content. Here he used an expression, a strange expression—he referred to the “ineffable sociabilities” he felt in himself.
As lonely as is the craft of writing, it is the most social of vocations.
Surely this is the key to the paradox—the ineffable sociability in writing. Intertextuality, if you please. As lonely as is the craft of writing, it is the most social of vocations. No matter what the writer may say, the work is always written to someone, for someone, against someone. The happiness comes from the ineffable sociabilities, when they succeed, when the writing works and somebody knows it.
But this still doesn’t explain where Moby-Dick came from, and why Southern writers to this day are knocked out by it in a way they are not knocked out by Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, or even Hawthorne, and in a way Northern writers may not be. The Northern intellectual generally finds Moby-Dick comprehensible to the degree he can attach this or that symbol to it—hence the vague descriptions one is always reading about Moby-Dick being an allegory about evil.
Now, allegories are dull affairs. I’ve never read a readable one. And Moby-Dick is not dull. Melville had other fish to fry—if you will forgive the expression.
I like to imagine that Moby-Dick came to pass in the following way. Like many great works of literature, it was a consequence not merely of great gifts, but also of great good luck. Perhaps one could even speak of Providence or grace. But here is where the luck comes in. One sets out to make up a story, spin a yarn, probably for money. After all, that’s how one makes one’s living. Perhaps one has fought in a war, bummed around Europe, had six wives, signed up on a whaler out of Nantucket, jumped ship in the South Seas, lived with cannibals. One has become famous writing about it. One has become a sort of Louis L’Amour of the South Seas, and gets in a few licks at the missionaries for good measure. So, what to do, the writer? You start another whaling yarn. Why not? But then, something untoward, extraordinary happens. As the narrative unfolds, one becomes aware that in its very telling something else is being told, a ghostly narrative of great import told by a ghostly self, perhaps one’s own shadow self.
This is not to say that at the beginning one might not have had some species of allegory in mind, especially when one has named the chief characters Ishmael and Ahab—the one after a Biblical character kicked out into the desert with God’s permission, the other after a bad king God had assured would end by having his blood licked by dogs. An allegory is a dreary business. What is not dreary is a narrative that unfolds not merely itself, but oneself and others’ selves. There’s no straining for a symbol of truth. The narrative is the thing.
That is why Moby-Dick is so good and The Confidence Man is so boring. The happiness of Melville in Moby-Dick is the happiness of the artist discovering, breaking through into the freedom of his art. Through no particular virtue of his own, he hit on a mother lode. The novel—the freedom of its form often paralyzing to the novelist—suddenly finds itself being shaped by a larger unity which cannot be violated. Everything works. One kills six birds with every stone. One can even write a treatise on cetology, which comes off as a kind of theology.
Objective correlatives are easy pickings, lying around like Sutter’s gold nuggets.
Objective correlatives are easy pickings, lying around like Sutter’s gold nuggets. One describes as simple a thing as a wooden crutch, a wire-shaped piece of wood which holds a harpoon, and it turns into a theory of literature. One describes the try-pots, the hellish fire, and the heat amidships of the Pequod at full sail through the night, and it becomes one’s very soul, both damned and freed.
The freedom and happiness of the artist is attested by his playfulness, his tricks, his malice, his underhandedness, his naughtiness, his hoodwinking the reader. So happy is the metaphorical distance between the novelist and his narrative that he’s free to cover his tracks at will. Not only do I not have to strive to mean such-and-such, he seems to say, but I deny that I mean it. I might mean the opposite, because with the Pequod under full sail through the night with its try-pots blazing I don’t have to worry about a thing. The great whale is as sportive as the Pequod; nothing can stop the one but the other. No wonder Melville told Hawthorne: I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome’s pantheon.
To the Southerner, then, here’s the luck of Melville: that the novelists’s terrible loneliness has somehow stumbled into the ineffable sociability Melville spoke of. Melville impresses Southern writers for the same reason Dostoevsky impresses Southerners. Neither was afraid to deal with ultimate questions. It may be that the South, which has been called a Christ-haunted place, is something like New England a hundred years ago.
Melville is Dostoevsky turned inside out. Both men saw the depravity of man. One saw it as the occasion of his salvation, the other blamed it on God. Melville is perhaps the lesser writer, not because one might disagree with his theology and philosophy, but because in the end both are perhaps incoherent.
Dostoevsky would never have put up with the Rousseauean nonsense that Melville swallowed hook, line, and sinker. In the end, Melville ends up with the eminently readable science fiction of Billy Budd, a queer mishmash of Schopenhauer and Rousseau. One hears that Billy Budd is about innocence and evil. It’s both a lot better and a lot worse than that. The evil is the last vestige of Melville’s Calvinism—man’s depravity.
In Melville, the only believable part of Judeo-Christianity (as Schopenhauer put it)—the innocence—comes not from human nature but from outer space. Billy Budd is man before the Fall, man exempted from the Fall, a creature dragged in from some loony planet invented by Melville and Rousseau, who neither understands evil nor needs salvation from it. Dostoevsky would have laughed out loud. Billy Budd, in Dostoevsky’s hands, would have turned out to be a child molester.
And therefore, a good deal more believable. But Melville was not afraid to address such matters, and that’s why he means so much to us.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 3, on page 39
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