By Charles Matthews

Monday, November 1, 2010

10. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 316-354

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)Jimmy Rose; I and My Chimney
These two stories don't have a lot in common, though Berthoff likes to see an autobiographical element to them -- failures and false starts, which is what Melville was beginning to see his career becoming in the 1850s. But I'd point out something else they share: a fascination with setting, with detailed description of houses. Melville has a theatrical imagination, in that he likes to place his stories in precise settings -- think of the office in "Bartleby the Scrivener" or the slave ship in "Benito Cereno," both of them so meticulously detailed that you could almost draw a plan of them. But as a storyteller he is anti-theatrical, so concerned with the inner dilemmas and misconceptions of his characters that expository dialogue of the kind needed on stage is virtually impossible. Melville's "sets" are correlatives for the characters' states of mind: full of partitions and hidden chambers.

"Jimmy Rose," a kind of companion piece to "The Happy Failure," isn't much of a story, being mostly a character sketch. Jimmy is a society bon vivant with "a fine gift for finely saying fine things." Then he loses his fortune, and the refrain begins: "Ah! poor, poor Jimmy -- God guard us all -- poor Jimmy Rose!" Naturally, there is also some spite and schadenfreude among his erstwhile friends, one of whom complains "that he had lost the sum of seventy-five dollars and seventy-five cents indirectly through Jimmy's failure. And yet I dare say the share of the dinners he had eaten at Jimmy's might more than have balanced that sum, considering that he was something of a wine-bibber, and such wines as Jimmy imported cost a plum or two."

The narrator, whose name is given as William Ford, has inherited Jimmy's house, now run-down in a neighborhood that has lost its former elegance, its elegant French wallpaper now stained by a leaky roof. Jimmy, too, is a figure of faded elegance, "a promenading pauper in a thin, thread-bare, careful coat; a pauper with a wealth of polished words; a courteous, smiling, shivering gentleman." His former social equals now treat him "as an old eccentric, wandering in their parlors -- who once had known him richest of the rich and gayest of the gay." But he keeps up what appearances he can: "the most touching thing of all were those roses in his cheeks -- those ruddy roses in his nipping winter. How they bloomed; ... whether now he painted them; by what strange magic they were made to blossom so; no son of man might tell. But there they bloomed."

In the end, Jimmy repaid society for its meager kindness to him with his florid compliments. And Ford, hearing of Jimmy's death, looks at the mildewed French wallpaper, with "those festoons of perpetual roses, mid which the faded peacocks hang," and thinks "of those undying roses which bloomed in ruined Jimmy's cheek."

"I and My Chimney" is, as Berthoff characterizes it, an "extended monologue" of a man who occupies a house with "a huge, corpulent old Harry VIII of a chimney." The house is, in fact, built around the chimney, whose base in the cellar is one hundred forty-four square feet, though it tapers toward its top, which had once been higher but has been lopped off by a previous owner.
From the exact middle of the mansion it soars from the cellar, right up through each successive floor, till, four feet square, it breaks water from the ridgepole of the roof, like an anvil-headed whale, through the crest of the billow.
Okay, no mistaking the whale reference there, for the narrator is a kind of comic Ahab, one of Melville's stubborn obsessives. Not a demon like Ahab or a solipsist like Bartleby, but the narrator is passionately in love with his chimney. (Let's get the obvious Freudian interpretation out of the way first: the chimney as phallus. And as threatened phallus, already circumcised of its original top, and menaced by the women -- the narrator's wife and daughters -- who want to cut it down to size. Do with that symbolism whatever else you will.)

For the narrator, the chimney "is the king of the house" and he is "but a suffered and inferior subject." The king-chimney cramps their living space, forcing all sorts of architectural anomalies to accommodate its presence, including a dining room with nine doors that challenge visitors to choose the right one for the exit, and a staircase that winds about it uneasily. When his wife proposes that it be torn down and conventional chimneys be built on the outside of the house rather than square in its middle, the narrator protests: "To take out the backbone of anything, wife, is a hazardous affair. Spines out of backs, and chimneys out of houses, are not to be taken like frosted lead-pipes from the ground."

Even the argument of a mason -- "Sir, this house would appear to have been built simply for the accommodation of your chimney" -- won't sway him. Nor does his wife's ultimatum "that either she or the chimney must quit the house." Then the mason reports that his examination of the chimney has led him to believe "that somewhere concealed in your chimney is a reserved space, hermetically closed, in short, a secret chamber, or rather closet" and that he questions "whether it is Christian-like knowingly to reside in a house, hidden in which is a secret closet."

The speculation about the secret closet, and what it might contain, only further excites his wife's determination to destroy the chimney and uncover its secret. In the end, the narrator bribes the mason to draw up a certificate in which he affirms that the chimney is sound and contains no secret closet, but the wife remains unsatisfied and continues a kind of guerrilla war to persuade him to demolish it. And the story ends with the narrator never leaving the house, "standing guard over my mossy old chimney; for it is resolved between me and my chimney, that I and my chimney will never surrender."

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