By Charles Matthews

Saturday, October 23, 2010

1. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 1-38

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)Introduction by Warner Berthoff; The Town-Ho's Story
What chiefly propels [Melville's antic humor] is, first, a sense of the special interest of those moments in life when, though the self-approving consciousness gives us one set of directions, the creaturely totality of our being mysteriously issues us an altogether different set that abruptly takes command and bends us this way and that, quite against our apparent will; and, second, the corollary sense that these are the moments when our moral history and destiny are really determined. 
Oh, dear. There are some useful insights in Warner Berthoff's introduction to this collection of Melville's short works, but too often you have to work your way through sentences like the one above. I can dimly glimpse what Berthoff is getting at there: something about narrative ambiguity and dramatic irony, I think.

But on to the useful insights. Berthoff begins by quoting from Melville's essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which Melville credits Hawthorne with dropping "germinous seeds into my soul," and, somewhat more suggestively saying that he "shoots his strong New England roots into the hot soil in my Southern soul." Berthoff doesn't go there -- he doesn't enter into the question of whether Melville was gay and had some sort of homosexual intimacy with Hawthorne. He just leaves it there, which is, given that our concept of same-sex relationships is vastly different from those prevalent in Melville's time, just as well. He does, however, reinforce it with a parenthetical remark several pages about "Melville's sexual metaphor" and its "further parallel with sexual logistics in the sense communicated in certain of Melville's own narratives." What Berthoff is getting at is the nature of storytelling itself, which as he says, "can be, temporarily at least, transporting and exhausting." I.e., like sex.

So much of Berthoff's introduction is about "storytelling as a social rite," about "the job of beguiling concrete audiences," about the "active sense of engagement and risk in the business of getting through his story." "Anyone," Berthoff says, "who passes an ordinary amount of time in the sociable exchange of gossip and anecdote knows how much depends -- for interest and belief, too -- on how things get said." And "to tell a tale is to gamble or wager for the reader's, the listener's, continuing acceptance."

The point is that we should be as conscious as Melville was about how the tale is told -- about those narrative basics such as voice and point of view. "Melville like to get things properly explained as well as build up symbolic hints and portents." And how many of us didn't experience Melville the other way around: encouraged to concentrate on the "symbolic hints" instead of the way things are "properly explained"? We were invited to concentrate on what the White Whale symbolizes more than on what it did as a whale. (My first reading of Moby-Dick was in an abridged version that left out all the chapters on cetology, the whaleness of the whale, as it were.)  

But on the other hand, Melville was conscious of the narrator's role as a moral teacher: "He, too, in his broad American way, was a Victorian 'sage,' who may be read for the wisdom in him." And his narratives are intentionally framed "as, among other things, tests of the validity of various great received propositions of religious and moral knowledge." Berthoff cites Eugenio Montale as recognizing that Billy Budd is can be read as "a tale of adventure crystallizing into a mystery play but also as a critical essay and Platonic dialogue." Whew.

"The Town-Ho's Story" is a stand-alone excerpt from Moby-Dick that appeared in Harper's Monthly a month before the novel was published. The narrator, as we know from the novel, but not from anything in the story itself, is Ishmael, who heard it from Tashtego, who heard it from the crew of the Town-Ho during a "gam," an at-sea encounter between two whaling ships. But Melville chooses to tell it at another remove still, by having Ishmael tell it "in the style in which I once narrated it at Lima, to a lounging circle of my Spanish friends, one saint's eve, smoking upon the thick-gilt tiled piazza of the Golden Inn." The framing helps Melville get in some digs at Roman Catholicism, which he does at the very outset by telling us that Tashtego had been told the story "with Romish injunctions of secrecy." (Tashtego, talking in his sleep, spilled enough of the story that he had to tell the rest to those who overheard him.)

The reason for the secrecy of the story -- which the crew of the Pequod carefully keeps from the ears of Captain Ahab -- is that it concerns a threatened mutiny aboard the Town-Ho, a "Sperm Whaler of Nantucket." The ship has sprung a slow leak -- "They supposed a sword-fish had stabbed her" -- which has to be constantly pumped out. It's not so serious, however, that it endangers their sailing to a port where the leak can be plugged, except for "the brutal overbearing of Radney, the mate, a Vineyarder, and bitterly provoked vengeance of Steelkilt, a Lakeman and desperado from Buffalo." Ishmael pauses her to explain to his Spanish audience that a Lakeman is someone who sails the Great Lakes and that Buffalo is on the eastern shore of Lake Erie.

The problem arises from what Ishmael describes as a common situation in human relationships: "when a person placed in command over his fellow-men finds one of them to be very significantly his superior in general pride of manhood, straightway against that man he conceives an unconquerable dislike and bitterness." So Radney, "ugly as a mule," comes to resent Steelkilt, "a tall and noble animal with a head like a Roman, and a flowing golden beard like the tasseled housings of your last viceroy's snorting charger; and a brain, and a heart, and a soul in him, gentlemen, which had made Steelkilt Charlemagne, had he been born son to Charlemagne's father." And if you don't think ahead to Claggart and Budd, you probably haven't read the story or seen the movie or the opera.

Steelkilt is, however, a good deal more proud and assertive than Billy Budd, and one day, taking his turn on the pump, he mocks Radney, asserting that one reason the mate is having them work so hard at the pump is that he owns a share in the Town-Ho. Radney pretends he doesn't hear this, but when Steelkilt ends his turn at the pump, Radney orders the exhausted sailor to sweep the deck and shovel up the droppings of the ship's pig. Steelkilt takes this as an insult, which is what Radney intended it to be. Steelkilt refuses, although he does so calmly, pointing out that the boys who usually clean the decks are standing around idle. Radney picks up a hammer and threatens Steelkilt, who stands his ground until the hammer is an inch from his face. "Steelkilt, clenching his right hand behind him and creepingly drawing it back, told his persecutor that if the hammer but grazed his cheek, he (Steelkilt) would murder him." The hammer does touch his cheek, and Steelkilt slugs Radney in the jaw.

Steelkilt joins two of his comrades, both of whom are "Canallers," which puzzles Ishmael's listeners, one of whom, he alleges, says, "hereabouts in this dull, warm, most lazy, and hereditary land, we know but little of your vigorous North." (Melville does tongue-in-cheek almost as well as Twain.) So Ishmael has to tell them about the Erie Canal and the "continual stream of Venetianly corrupt and often lawless life" that flows along it. Or as he notes, "sinners, gentlemen, most abound in holiest vicinities," which allows one of his listeners to make a sly reference to a passing friar and the other to comment, "Well for our northern friend, Dame Isabella's Inquisition wanes in Lima." As for Canallers, Ishmael tells them, one of them "would make a fine dramatic hero, so abundantly and picturesquely wicked is he."

The captain calls on the crew to seize Steelkilt, but he and the Canallers and other sailors who have joined them barricade themselves behind some casks on the forecastle deck. Steelkilt defies the captain's orders to come out, and retorts that his "death would be the signal for a murderous mutiny on the part of all hands." To the captain's repeated orders to "turn to," Steelkilt replies that they'll do so only if the captain promises they won't be flogged: "we won't lift a hand against ye unless ye attack us; but till you say the word about not flogging us, we don't do a hand's turn." The captain makes no promises, however, and orders them down below in the forecastle. Steelkilt complies, but as they descend and the captain orders the hatch padlocked, "opening the slide a little, the captain whispered something down the crack, closed it, and turned the key upon them -- ten in number."

So what did the captain whisper? We never find out.

Three days pass, with some water and biscuits being tossed below to the prisoners, and on the fourth day four men surrender. Three more follow on the fifth. Finally, Steelkilt persuades the two remaining with him to charge out the next time the hatch is opened and to follow him, prepared "for anything in short but a surrender." But each of the other two is planning to be the first to break out, so he can surrender first in hopes of getting clemency. So when Steelkilt falls asleep, they bind and gag him, then call out to be released. When the hatch is opened, they thrust out Steelkilt, claiming "the honor of securing a man who had been fully ripe for murder." Instead, they are all three hung up "in the mizen rigging, ike three quarters of meat, and there they hung till morning." And just in case you don't get the biblical image, Melville lets it be noted that "the two traitors ... lifelessly hung their heads sideways, as the two crucified thieves are drawn."

Steelkilt's companions are both flogged, but when it comes his turn, he tells the captain, "if you flog me, I murder you!" When the captain refuses to take the warning and starts to strike, Steelkilt hisses, "Best not." The captain draws back again to strike.
Steelkilt here hissed out something, inaudible to all but the captain; who, to the amazement of all hands, started back, paced the deck rapidly two or three times, and then suddenly throwing down his rope, said, "I won't do it -- let him to -- cut him down: d'ye hear?" 
Then Radney appears, his head bandaged, and snatches the rope from the captain. Once again Steelkilt hisses something, and Radney stops. The three men are cut down and work resumes on the ship.

The two traitors are ostracized by the crew and kept separate from them. And Steelkilt persuades the rest of the crew to peacefully obey all orders until they can reach a port and desert. "But in order to insure the speediest end to the voyage, they all agreed to another thing -- namely, not to sing out for whales, in case any should be discovered." Steelkilt also insisted on remaining on Radney's watch, despite the captain's advice otherwise. He would take the helm "in the morning of the third day from that in which he had been betrayed." (Too easy?) Meanwhile, he spends his time braiding something, even borrowing some twine from Radney himself to finish his project, which also involved "an iron ball, closely netted," that was spotted in Steelkilt's pocket.

But the revenge Steelkilt is plotting doesn't happen the way he plans. For on the second morning, a sailor breaks the agreement against singing out for whales when he spots Moby Dick. Here one of the listeners allows Ishmael to explain that Moby Dick is "A very white, and famous, and most deadly immortal monster." The crew rushes forth to view "the appalling beauty of the vast milky mass, that lit up by a horizontal spangling sun, shifted and glistened like a living opal in the blue morning sea." 

So Steelkilt and Radney find themselves together in one boat, which is swamped by the whale, Steelkilt falling to one side of it, Radney to the other. Radney tries to swim away but "the whale rushed round in a sudden maelstrom; seized the swimmer between his jaws; and rearing high up with him, plunged headlong again, and went down." Steelkilt cuts the line between the boat and the whale, and "at some distance, Moby Dick rose again, with some tatters of Radney's red woolen shirt, caught in the teeth that had destroyed him."

The Town-Ho reaches a port where Steelkilt and all but six of the crew desert, find a double canoe, and set out for another island. The captain takes a whaleboat and sails off for Tahiti, five hundred miles away, to recruit another crew. Four days later, they come across Steelkilt's canoes, and Steelkilt asks for permission to come aboard. He makes the captain promise "to beach this boat on yonder island, and remain there six days. If I do not, may lightnings strike me!" And Steelkilt sails on to Tahiti, where he and his men find work on two ships on their way to France. The captain of the Town-Ho arrives ten days after the French ships have sailed, hires a Tahitian crew, and resumes his ship's travels. No one knows where Steelkilt is now, Ishmael says, but Radney's widow "still in dreams sees the awful White Whale that destroyed him."

When the Spanish listeners question if the story is true, Ishmael has them find a Bible he can swear on and vows, "I have seen and talked with Steelkilt since the death of Radney."

It's a story as delicious in its enigmas -- including the mysterious connection between Steelkilt and the captain, the portentous whispers, and the magnificent cameo by Moby Dick himself -- as the novel in which it belongs.

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