By Charles Matthews

Thursday, October 28, 2010

6. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 179-201

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)The Happy Failure: A Story of the River Hudson; The Lightning-Rod Man; The Fiddler
These three short stories are animated by Melville's moral energy, which is to say that dialogue, characterization and plot make lesser contributions to them.

In "The Happy Failure," the narrator accompanies his uncle and a "grizzled old black man" on a journey up the Hudson, carrying a "huge, shabby, oblong box, hermetically sealed." (The black man, called Yorpy, speaks in a marvelously improbable mélange of stage black and stage Dutch: "'Duyvel take de pox!' muttered old Yorpy, who was a sort of Dutch African. 'De pox has been my cuss for de ten long 'ear.'" Melville is not above wrenching humor out of the confusion of "pox" and "box.")

The box, it turns out, contains the invention the narrator's uncle has been working on for the past ten years, the "Great Hydraulic-Hydrostatic apparatus for draining swamps and marshes." They labor their way upstream and wrestle the box out of the boat, opening it to reveal "a surprising multiplicity of convoluted metal pipes and syringes of all sorts and varieties, all sizes and calibres, inextricably inter-wreathed together in one gigantic coil. It looked like a huge nest of anacondas and adders." The uncle rejoices, "this is the hour which for ten long years has, in the prospect, sustained me through all my painstaking obscurity."

The thing is, of course, utterly ineffective, and the uncle angrily smashes it. But as they glide back downstream, he looks up at the narrator and proclaims, "Boy, take my advice and never try to invent anything but -- happiness." And he orders them to turn the boat around and retrieve the box and the destroyed invention: "It will make a good wood-box, boy. And faithful old Yorpy can sell the old iron for tobacco-money." Yorpy is delighted: "dat be very fust time in de ten long 'ear yoo hab mention kindly old Yorpy." The uncle then proclaims, "Boy, I'm glad I've failed. I say, boy, failure has made a good old man of me. It was horrible at first, but I'm glad I've failed. Praise be to God for the failure!"

It's not too hard to read the story, as Berthoff suggests, as autobiographical, as a reflection of Melville's sense of his own literary failure, and as a comment on the obsessiveness of the artist that isolates him from humanity. But that reading is complicated by the paradox of the uncle's exhortation, "never try to invent anything but -- happiness." For the uncle's goal, to drain swamps and reclaim land, was (at least in those ecologically more naive times) to invent happiness for the users of his invention, as well as for himself as a successful inventor. Would the world be happier if Melville hadn't given us Moby-Dick?

"The Lightning-Rod Man" is, again as Berthoff suggests, a parable about alarmists and do-gooders who want to intrude their fears and moralities on others. The narrator is peacefully enjoying the "grand irregular thunder" of a storm when a lightning-rod salesman knocks on his door. The salesman is as terrified of the lightning and thunder as the narrator is pleased by it. The narrator joshingly refers to the salesman holding his lightning rod as "that illustrious god, Jupiter Tonans." The jittery salesman urges him, "Call me not by that pagan name. You are profane in this time of terror." But he is full of his own superstitions: oak trees draw lightning and "Wet clothes are better conductors than the body; and so, if the lightning strike, it might pass down the wet clothes without touching the body."

But the narrator resists the salesman's fears and persuasions, and points out,
"See, the scroll of the storm is rolled back; the house is unharmed; and in the blue heavens I read in the rainbow, that the Deity will not, of purpose, make war on man's earth."

"Impious wretch!" foamed the stranger, blackening in the face as the rainbow beamed, "I will publish your infidel notions."
Whereupon the narrator breaks the salesman's lightning rod and kicks him out of the house. But he adds, "the Lightning-rod man still  dwells in the land; still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man."

Berthoff calls the story "a straightforward light satire against the new breed of huckstering salvation-salesmen spawned by the breakup of the old religious consensus," and it certainly grew out of, among other things, Melville's opposition to the missionaries he encountered in the South Seas. But it's equally applicable to today's anti-Muslim fearmongers.

Helmstone, the narrator of "The Fiddler," has just been crushed by the criticism his poem has received. On the street he meets his friend Standard, who introduces him to Hautboy, a man of forty with an uncommonly cheerful and youthful appearance. Together they go to a circus that features a famous clown. Helmstone isn't roused from the funk caused by the attack on his poem, but he sees that the audience is delighted by the clown, and Hautboy in particular "assumed a sort of divine and immortal air, like that of some forever youthful god of Greece."

Helmstone envies the effect the clown has, and reflects that if he had jumped into the ring and recited his poem, he wouldn't have been so welcomed by the audience. But then he recalls "the saying of the Athenian, who, when the people vociferously applauded in the forum, asked his friend in a whisper, what foolish thing had he said?" 

After the show, the three men go out together and Helmstone forms a good opinion of Hautboy: "In most of his remarks upon a variety of topics Hautboy seemed intuitively to hit the exact line between enthusiasm and apathy.... It was plain ... that his extraordinary cheerfulness did not arise either from deficiency of feeling or thought." After Hautboy leaves, he tells Standard that he admires Hautboy and wishes he could be like him, but that he assumes that Hautboy's good humor and good sense are the result of his lack of "sublime endowments" (i.e., of the kind that Helmstone prides himself on possessing). 

Standard replies, "You think he never had genius, quite too contented, and happy and fat for that -- ah? ... You admire his cheerfulness, while scorning his commonplace soul." Just that moment Hautboy returns and invites them to his place. Standard agrees, "If you will promise to fiddle for us." Which only ups Helmstone's scorn: "he's a jiggumbob fiddler, then?" But when he hears Hautboy play, Helmstone is enchanted.

When they leave, Helmstone asks Standard who Hautboy is, and Standard reveals that he was a famous prodigy: "Once, fortune poured showers of gold into his lap, as showers of laurel leaves upon his brow. To-day, from house to house he hies, teaching fiddling for a living. Crammed once with fame, he is now hilarious without it. With genius and without fame, he is happier than a king." And when he tells Helmstone Hautboy's real name, Helmstone is astonished to realize that he once "shouted [himself] hoarse applauding that very name in the theatre." Helmstone goes home, tears up his manuscripts, and starts taking lessons from Hautboy.

Again, the moral is that of "The Happy Failure" but the paradox remains.

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