By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

5. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 151-178

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)The Two Temples; Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs
These two moral fables are somewhat heavy-handed in comparison with Melville's more ambiguous tales. They are structured the same: first one scene, then a parallel but contrasting scene. But even though their moral lessons may seem obvious to us, they still have a bitter power that, as Berthoff observes, resembles Dickens in its disgust at complacent attitudes toward the poor. And, as Berthoff also notes, the first one was considered so controversial, partly because the church and churchwarden in it were identifiable, that Putnam's magazine rejected it. Berthoff also observes, "The remarkable thing about Melville's three-year career as a writer for the magazines is how free from censorship and the squeamishness of editors he appears to have been." I've already noted the double entendre in "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo," and there's a joke about the Prince Regent's sexual tastes in the second fable that surprised me, too.

Grace Church, Manhattan
The two "temples" are the church and the theater, and Melville boldly prefers the latter. In the section headed "Temple First," the narrator tries to attend services at the "marble-buttressed, stained-glassed, spic-and-span new temple" -- which Berthoff identifies as the Gothic-revival Grace Church on Broadway, which was consecrated in 1846 and swiftly became Manhattan's most fashionable place to be seen worshiping. But he is turned away by "the great, fat-paunched, beadle-faced" warden, "Just the same as if he'd said, they didn't entertain poor folks." But he finds that the door to the bell tower has been left unlocked, so he climbs it and finds a place where he can witness the services high above the congregation. When the services end, he descends, only to find the door locked. After a while, he decides the only way he can avoid spending the night locked in the tower is to attract attention by ringing the bell, which he does. He is arrested and brought before the magistrate the next day; "only after paying a round fine, and receiving a stinging reprimand, was I permitted to go at large, and pardoned for having humbly indulged myself in the luxury of public worship." 

William Charles Macready in Virginius, by Sheridan Knowles
By contrast, the narrator finds himself penniless in London, having accompanied a wealthy Philadelphia woman to England, but then summarily dismissed from his post as "private Aesculapius and knightly companion" when her plans change. It is Saturday night and he finds himself outside a theater where the "celebrated Macready" is about to perform in a play as Richelieu. [The play is apparently Richelieu; or The Conspiracy, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which is the source of the line "The pen is mightier than the sword."] The narrator so desperately wants to see the performance that he thinks of pawning his overcoat, one of the few belongings he has left. But then, instead of being turned away by a beadle-faced warden, he is offered a ticket by "a man who seemed to be some sort of working-man" and who says he has been "suddenly called home." For a moment, the narrator is embarrassed to be the object of charity, but the man has already disappeared, so he goes in.

He finds himself in the highest balcony as the orchestra "revived the memory of the organ-anthems I had heard while on the ladder of the tower at home," and for a moment he instinctively reaches for his prayer book. He is surrounded by working-men and their families who welcome him. Even Macready, playing the cardinal, reminds him of being in the church, where he had watch the minister change vestments before delivering the sermon. And when the play is over, he goes back to the lodgings -- whose landlady he has been dodging because he's behind in the rent -- and thinks "of the First Temple and the Second Temple; and how that, a stranger in a strange land, I found sterling charity in the one; and at home, in my own land, was thrust out from the other."

Like I said, heavy-handed. But perhaps, for devouter times, audacious.

"Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs" begins with the narrator in conversation with a "poet" named Blandmour, who sentimentalizes everything about poverty: Snow is "Poor Man's Manure" because it waters his crops, and "Poor Man's Eye-water," because melted snow is pure and therefore good as an eyewash. Rainwater, he claims, can be used as a substitute for eggs in some recipes, and is therefore the "Poor Man's Egg." Herbs can be gathered as the "Poor Man's Plaster" -- a poultice for wounds -- and Blandmour claims that it's so effective that even rich people use it. And then he sings the praises of "Poor Man's Pudding," the humble food of the poor, which he claims is "as relishable as a rich man's." The point of all this is, he asserts, that the poor make the best use of the simple things that nature provides them, free of charge.

The narrator doesn't argue the point, but instead visits the home of a poor wood-cutter named Coulter, whose wife he interrupts as she is going through back-breaking chores. Her husband will be coming home for his midday meal and she invites him to stay for it:
"I do not know how you will like our pudding. It is only rice, milk, and salt boiled together."

"Ah, what they call 'Poor Man's Pudding,' I suppose you mean."

A quick flush, half resentful, passed over her face.

"We do not call it so, sir," she said, and was silent. 
William, her husband, arrives home after a long walk through the woods, and she serves them "last year's pork," which the narrator observes "had a yellowish crust all round it, and was rather rankish, I thought, to the taste." But William has time for only a few mouthfuls of the pudding before he has to return to work -- "the Squire sits in his sitting-room window, looking far out across the fields. His time-piece is true."

After he leaves, his wife tells the narrator about the children they had who died. "The mouthful of pudding now touched my palate, and touched it with a mouldy, briny taste. The rice, I knew, was of that damaged sort sold cheap; and the salt from last year's pork barrel.... Bitter and mouldy is the 'Poor Man's Pudding,' groaned I to myself, half choked with but one little mouthful of it, which would hardly go down."

And then comes a remarkable reflection about the peculiar character of American poverty:
The native American poor never lose their delicacy or pride; hence, though unreduced to the physical degradation of the European pauper, they yet suffer more in mind than the poor of any other people in the world. Those peculiar social sensibilities nourished by our own peculiar political principles, while they enhance the true dignity of a prosperous American, do but minister to the added wretchedness of the unfortunate, first by prohibiting their acceptance of what little random relief charity may offer; and, second, by furnishing them with the keenest appreciation of the smarting distinction between their ideal of universal equality and their grindstone experience of the practical misery and infamy of poverty -- a misery which is, ever has been, and ever will be, precisely the same in India, England, and America. 
And he concludes with a denunciation "of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed." It's a conscience-twisting lesson that America, with its scorn for "welfare queens" and "illegal aliens," seems never to have learned.

The counterpoint scene takes place a year later, in 1814 and in Regency London, where an acquaintance purports to show him the superiority of British charity. The "great Guildhall Banquet to the princes" has just taken place, served on "solid silver and gold plate" and with an "expenditure of meats, wines, attendance and upholstery, etc." he estimates as not less than "125,000 of your hard cash." And today, he says, there will be a charitable event.

The event consists of opening the doors of the Guildhall to a mob of poor, starving Londoners, who are allowed to feast on the leftovers of the banquet, "the cold victuals and crumbs of kings." The narrator watches as a boy in a torn shirt picks at the bones of a pheasant.
"Yes, who knows!" said my guide, "his Royal Highness the Prince Regent might have eaten of that identical pheasant."

"I don't doubt it," murmured I, "he is said to be uncommonly fond of the breast." 
The narrator goes on to question whether tossing the scraps of rich delicacies to the poor really amounts the best charity: "Would not plain beef and bread, with something to do, and be paid for, be better?" His guide misses the point: "But plain beef and bread were not eaten here. Emperors, and prince-regents, and kings, and field-marshals don't often dine on plain beef and bread."

Then the humiliating moment comes when the narrator, who has been so jostled by the mob that his clothes are awry and stained, is mistaken for a poor man. The guide rescues him but, ashamed to be seen with him on the street, puts him in a hack and sends him home, telling the driver "this is a gentleman you carry. He is just from the Guildhall Charity, which accounts for his appearance." And the narrator utters a prayer, "Heaven save me from the 'Poor Man's Pudding' and the 'Rich Man's Crumbs.'"

[A note on William Charles Macready: He was best known to Melville's readers for the infamous Astor Place riot of 1849, when partisans of the American actor Edwin Forrest battled with Macready's partisans over which was the better actor. Twenty-five people died and more than a hundred were injured. The fact that both actors were scheduled to play Macbeth has added to the theatrical superstition that the play is cursed. "The Two Temples," incidentally, is dedicated to the playwright Sheridan Knowles, who wrote several plays specifically for Macready.] 

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