By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

12. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 396-428

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)The Marquis de Grandvin; Three "Jack Gentian" Sketches; John Marr; Daniel Orme
There are usually good reasons why the "unpublished" pieces by great writers are unpublished. And often good reasons why they should remain unpublished. "The Marquis de Grandvin" is one of those better dead and unread pieces, an eye-glazingly overwritten sketch that was meant to be published in conjunction with poems. It holds little interest except for students of nineteenth-century prose or of American attitudes toward France.

The "Jack Gentian" sketches, are slightly more interesting, even if they, too, are as Berthoff says, about "bachelorhood and wine-bibbing geniality, subjects on which even Melville can become tiresome." Gentian is a Civil War veteran and what used to be called a "clubbable" man -- today, we'd call him "a guy you'd like to have a beer with." There are a few passages of interest in these sketches, one of them a reflection on Gentian's occasional indulgence in profanity:
In short, a soldier's or sailor's oath, however shocking to ears polite, is, at least when the man is not actually engaged in tussle with the foe public or private, but an idiocratic form given to whatever meaning may lurk in Bless my soul! Thunder! Goodness gracious!
That's as nice a dismissal of language prudes and reflection on the emotive vs. the semantic content of language as you'll come across in a nineteenth-century writer.

The sketches were written in the 1880s, and students of post-Civil War America and of the failure of Reconstruction will find some of the era's characteristic sentimentalizing reconciliation with the South, particularly in the second sketch in which the speaker apotheosizes Gentian:
Though a soldier of the Civil War, and a gazetted one, thou at all times, even upon that legal holiday which has undesignedly become the annual commemoration of that war, refrainest from wearing on thy person any memorial thereof. And, ever since the Peace, even as during the entire military conflict, no superfluous syllable ever fell from thy lips touching the Southern half of thy country.
Not often dost thou discuss the tactics of thy Virginia campaigns, but what things thou hast told us of its byplay -- the scouting, the foraging, the riding up to lovely mansions garrisoned by a faithful old slave or two, servants to lovely damsels more terrible than Mars in their feminine indignation at the insolent invader; in other instances being coquettishly served at an improvised lunch on some broad old piazza by less implacable beauties reduced by the calamities to dispensing hospitalities for the enemy's greenbacks. 
The absence of a narrative line to pull the reader through these verbosities makes them all the more tedious. But in the two published pieces, "John Marr" and "Daniel Orme," Melville generates more interest by the pathos of his characterization. John Marr is a former seafarer who settles down in the land's equivalent of the ocean: a "frontier-prairie" town. He marries, but his wife and baby are carried off by a fever, and he lives out the rest of his life in loneliness. When he tries to engage his fellow frontier-dwellers with his tales of the sea, he gets the response, "Friend, we know nothing of that here." But he continues to look on the expanse of prairie as a corollary to the sea: "'It is the bed of a dried-up sea,' said the companionless sailor -- no geologist -- to himself." His loneliness deepens even as the frontier vanishes:
There was no reachable post-office as yet; not even the rude little receptive box with lid and leather hinges, set up at convenient intervals on a stout stake along some solitary green way, affording a perch for birds, and which, later in the unintermitting advance of the frontier, would perhaps decay into a mossy monument, attesting yet another successive overleaped limit of civilized life; a life which in America can to-day hardly be said to have any western bound but the ocean that washes Asia.... Luxuriant, this wilderness; but, to its denizen, a friend left behind anywhere in the world seemed not alone absent to sight, but an absentee from existence.
The sketch ends with a poem that calls up memories of his fellow sailors, so long lost to him:
Ye float around me, form and feature --
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man's simpler nature,
Unworldy servers of the world.
"John Marr" is almost enough to make us wish Melville had found a story to surround the sketch. So is the even briefer "Daniel Orme," about the lonely final years of a more rough-hewn seaman, "In stature, though bowed somewhat in the shoulders, akin to the champion of Gath. Hands heavy and hard; short nails like withered horn. A powerful head, and shaggy." Orme is found dead one day "on a height overlooking the seaward sweep of the great haven to whose shore, in his retirement from sea, he had moored." 

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