Marya: A Life - Back in Print
A Bloodsmoor Romance: back in print
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

"Then All Collapsed": Tragic Melville

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published as the introduction to the Signet Classic edition of Billy Budd and Other Tales by Herman Melville, 1998; reprinted in Where I've Been, And Where I'm Going

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, "The Fossil Whale"

Among the classic American writers of the nineteenth century who were his approximate contemporaries—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson (though Dickinson's poems would not be assembled and published until 1890, years after her death)—it is Herman Melville who has emerged as our tragic visionary. Author of one of the great novels in the English language, Moby-Dick (1851), published when Melville was only thirty-two, he strikes contemporary readers as uncannily prophetic in his dramatization of the (blind, adversarial, self-doomed) position of mankind in nature. Moby-Dick is a work of the writerly imagination at the very height of its powers, boldly exuberant, "rising and swelling" with its subject, a chronicle of nineteenth-century New England whaling, a compendium of wonder tales of the sea, an adventure story, a Shakespearean tragedy of heroic courage and blindness, a brilliantly lyric meditation upon the vicissitudes of life as seen by the young sailor Ishmael, who alone escapes the devastation wreaked upon the Pequod by the Great White Whale—bringing us, after the bountiful chapters that precede, to the stark, inevitable conclusion:

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

"Then all collapsed"—this succinct and ominous phrase might be kept in mind as a ground bass to Melville's writings post-Moby-Dick.

Though not of so high an achievement as Moby-Dick, several of Melville's shorter prose works—"Bartleby the Scrivener," "Benito Cereno," "The Encantadas, or The Enchanted Isles," "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartatus of Maids," and the posthumously published novella Billy Budd (written 1888-91, published 1924)—have become classics in their own right. With the notable exception of Billy Budd, these tales were written between the years 1852 and 1856, for magazine publication, and were gathered together as The Piazza Tales (1856), a misleading and inadequate title meant perhaps to suggest a writerly kinship with Nathaniel Hawthorne's exemplary Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), which had made a powerful impression upon Melville. (Hawthorne's influence upon Melville is incalculable. It was the younger writer's initial reading of Hawthorne that inspired him to recast his jovial "romance of the whale fisheries" Moby-Dick as a deeper, more meditative and tragic-prophetic work, and Hawthorne's characteristic mode of allegory is everywhere prevalent in Melville's writings after 1850.) In the shorter tales, as in his long, more ambitious, and increasingly difficult novels, Melville's themes are stark and intransigent: the helplessness of even the most assertive and defiant of human beings in confronting an unknowable, uncontrollable Nature ("The Encantadas," that rhapsodic prose poem of beauty and desolation in the Pacific); the inevitable sacrifice demanded by civilization of the Adam-like individual to the tyranny of the "strict adherence to usage" and "forms" ("With mankind, forms, measured forms, are everything," as Captain Vere declares in Billy Budd); the thwarting of individual (always male, and sometimes homoerotic) desire ("Bartleby the Scrivener," "Benito Cereno," "The Bell-Tower," Billy Budd); a deep and abiding, not very American distrust of mechanical/scientific progress ("The Bell-Tower," A Hawthornian parable of the risks of egoism; "The Lightning-Rod Man," a parable in a lighter vein, warning against those confidence men who would "drive a brave trade with the fears of man" by selling credulous Americans such pseudoscientific inventions as lightning rods). A predominant theme in Melville, so pervasive through his work as to be practically unnoted, is the curious isolation of his characters, who seem rootless, family-less, and itinerant, such as the brooding, sharp-eyed adventurer of "The Encantadas" (whose query "What outlandish beings are those?" speaks for Melville's essential vision) and the bold, doomed "great mechanician" Bannadonna, whose fate, perhaps presaging the age of invention itself, is to be bludgeoned to death by his own "magic metal," a kind of robot: "So the blind slave obeyed its blinder lord, but, in obedience, slew him. So the creator was killed by the creature. So the bell was too heavy for the tower. So the bell's main weakness was where man's blood had flawed it. And so pride went before the fall." ("The Bell-Tower") The most isolated of Melville's characters is mysterious Bartleby, who appears out of nowhere, has no family, no identity apart from his "copying" in a Wall Street law office, which he repudiates with the statement, maddening in its simplicity and stubbornness: "I would prefer not to." Is Bartleby a precursor of the cipher figures of Kafka, Beckett, Ionesco, undifferentiated as ants in a depersonalized, dehumanized twentieth-century urban civilization? Is Bartleby kin to the equally mysterious and unexplained isolatos of Hawthorne's parables—"Wakefield," "The Man of Adamant"? Is he afflicted with the instinct to self-injury and defeat explored by Poe in "The Imp of the Perverse"? Is he, perhaps, an alter ego of the narrator's, as of Melville himself, refusing to participate in the fixed, dull, routine, if inevitable rituals of a money-making society in which all are "copyists" and originality is discouraged? Even the symbolism of "Wall Street" suggests a tragic division between human beings who are walled in their own ego selves and walled out of the lives of others.

Yet, though imbued with a tragic vision as elevated as that of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Herman Melville was paradoxically a writer of romance, and not "realism," as the nineteenth-century sensibility would have comprehended it. (Note Melville's defensive disavowal of "romance" in the second chapter of Billy Budd on the basis of his having given the Handsome Sailor one small imperfection—an inclination to stutter in times of stress.) The romantic-Gothic sensibility, coupled with the habit of a somewhat didactic and discursive allegorizing, has made Melville difficult of access to many contemporary readers. ("Benito Cereno" and Billy Budd in particular might be helpfully read in the light of Hawthorne's remarks on romance in his famous preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851).)

That air of the strange, the uncanny, the dreamlike "not-real" in Melville, even as the author goes ro great pains to set down historical facts and dates (a technique carried to daunting extremes in Moby-Dick, with its elaborately detailed "whale" chapters), is purposeful; for Melville's imagination is always fixed to universals, and not particulars. The Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd, is a type, not an individual; the rebellious "slaves" of Benito Cereno's drifting ship San Dominick are granted virtually no humanity, still less sympathy from their white oppressors, but crudely designated as "negro"; the carousing bachelors and exploited virgins of "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" have no identities apart from the biologically determined sexual; Bartleby the Scrivener is more idea than man, though an inspired idea, whose abrupt elevation at the conclusion of that tale seems appropriate: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"

Herman Melville was born in 1819 at a time of westward expansion and a spirit of pioneer adventure in the United States; he died in 1891, after decades of writerly silence, at a time of enormous industrial growth, concentrated wealth, and increasing Populist unrest. He would seem to have been, in the rapidly ascending, and rapidly descending, trajectory of his career, a child of the earlier era at odds with and estranged from the later: a writer of romance in a world in which realism was more valued. His career is considered among the most tragic of classic American writers, nearly as plagued by disappointmenr as that of Poe, our martyred genius.

Like the career, Melville's personal life divides into two seemingly antipathetic and unequal parts, as if lived by different individuals. His youth was nomadic, adventuresome, and "masculine" in the most elemental sense of the word; his maturity and middle and old age were sedentary, burdened by family and financial responsibilities ("Dollars damn me," Melville famously lamented to his friend Hawthorne), and increasingly isolated and embittered. As a young voyager/writer he struck it rich with his first books, the best-sellers Typee; A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo (1847), swiftly though passionately written following his discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1844; as a mature writer, realizing his idiosyncratic, uncompromising genius in such difficult works as Mardi (1849), White-]acket (1850), Moby-Dick (1851), Pierre (1852), and The Confidence-Man (1857), he suffered the indignity of both critical censure and crushing commercial failure. Like the stricken Captain Vere of Billy Budd, having lost the love and vigor of his youth, Melville seems to us "[a] spirit that spite its philosophic austerity may yet have indulged in the most secret of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fullness of fame." As a writer and thinker, Melville was an iconoclast of whom it might have been said, as he'd said so admiringly of Hawthorne:

There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes lie; and all men who say no—why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travelers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpetbag—that is to say, the Ego.

How strange to us, living a century and a half following the publication of Moby-Dick, the greatest American novel of the nineteenth century, to realize that its author died in such obscurity that his few obituaries identified him as the author of Typee and Omoo, a man who'd lived among cannibals, and that the literary world took virtually no notice of his passing; that his career as a writer of prose fiction ended with the publication of The Confidence-Man, when Melville was only thirty-eight years old. His fate would seem to have been eerily prefigured in the figure of Bartleby, a former clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, whose defeated nature confounds the pity of the most sympathetic observer; Bartleby dies of inanition in the Tombs (the New York "Halls of Justice"): "Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, [lay] the wasted Bartleby."

Melville's failure has numerous explanations. His sedentary, house-bound life in New England allowed him no replenishment of the rich, exciting adventures of his young manhood; he seems to have had few firsthand experiences after the approximate age of twenty-five that could stimulate his imagination. Yet, ironically, it was only after this period that Melville believed his deeper life had begun:

Until I was 25 I had no development at all. From my 25th year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between now [1850] and then, that I have not unfolded within myself.

Perhaps the most self-evident explanation for Melville's failure with his contemporaries is the unremitting bleakness of his vision, which was certainly at odds with the predominant Christianity of the time and with the extroverted American faith in "progress" of all kinds. And there is Melville's notorious stylistic difficulty, his lengthy and frequently graceless sentences and his predilection for asides that impede narrative momentum (as in "The Town Ho's Story," in which continuous interruptions and confusing flashforwards mar the suspenseful tale of Steelkilt and Radney; and Billy Budd, in which all action, even the climactic, is subordinated to analysis, summary, and philosophical rhetoric). These aesthetic problems arise, at least in part, from Melville's conception of the art of fiction as primarily moralizing allegory, in which the author (or the author's conversational persona, unnamed) tells the reader what to think, as a father might explain a parable to a child. After the early seafaring and adventure novels, Melville seems to have had no intention of conveying experience to his readers, still less of allowing them to participate in experience, and to make their own discoveries about his characters; he is very different from, for instance, Edgar Allan Poe, whose Gothic romances are usually constructed along lines of suspense, and whose most famous tales ("The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," "The Fall of the House of Usher") strike us, for all their archaic diction, as unnervingly modern in effect. Melville, by contrast, is basically an essayist for whom drama is not an end in itself, but the mere pretext for speculation. The terms of his allegories are generally free of ambiguity, "good" and "evil" explicitly assigned (as in Billy Budd, in which the Christly Billy is traduced by the Luciferian Claggart, and sacrificed by his "starry" father Captain Vere to death by hanging); contemporary readers may be puzzled by the apparent lack of inner lives of such characters as Billy, who are described minutely from without. Only once did Melville attempt anything resembling a novel (in which psychologically motivated men and women interact in a purportedly realistic social setting), in Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852), an emotional autobiography charting the author's hurt and disillusionment after the critical and commercial failute of his masterpiece Moby-Dick: Pierre is an ambitious, angrily pessimistic work fatally marred by a prose style that, for all its sporadic brilliance, chokes on its own venom. It, too, met with a dismal reception from both reviewers and the public, and Melville's reputation, within the space of only a few years, was, in effect, destroyed for the remainder of his lifetime.

Interest in Melville was revived in the 1920s, following the publication of The Collected Works of Herman Melville, edited by Raymond Weaver, an edition that included the previously unpublished novella Billy Budd. It would have confirmed Melville's cosmic pessimism and ironic humor to learn that, decades after he'd poured his heart and soul into his writing, only to be repeatedly rebuffed, he was now to be enshrined, posthumously of course, as a major American writer. By the 1950s, with the publication of numerous critical studies by such Melville scholars as Richard Chase, Lawrence Thompson, Milton R. Stern, and the poet Charles Olson, Melville's reputation had become unassailable, as secure as that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he'd so admired.

To enter Herman Melville's unique world, we must recognize it as difficult of access to readers shaped by contemporary expectations. Though Melville writes in our language, it is a significantly altered language: elevated, ponderous, didactic, at times rather static, as if disdaining the very principles of "storytelling." With the exception of Melville's deliberately light, whimsical pieces (represented in this volume by "The Piazza" and "The Lightning-Rod Man") and the wonderfully narrated "Bartleby the Scrivener," a tour de force of bleak Hawthornian parable in an affable Melvillian voice, his prose pieces are most helpfully approached as constructs of language, not awkward replications of the "real" world. We should interpret his characters not as flat, two-dimensional, and occasionally stereotypical, but as representations of ideas. It was Melville's assumption that he was writing for an audience of reasonably educated, affluent Caucasian males like himself, not an audience of women (though he'd hoped to seduce female readers, for whom he had contempt, with his "rural bowl of milk" Pierre), still less persons of color, whose eventual participation in American democracy and culture would have astonished the creator of Benito Cereno's Babo. The direction of Melville's imagination after the debacle of The Confidence-Man lay in verse journals and verse narratives (Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, 1866; Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, 1876), and poetry of a formal, nostalgic nature (John Marr and Other Sailors, 1888), so perhaps it is as a poet rather than a dramatist that Melville is most helpfully approached, a maker of language and images.

Of Melville's shorter tales "Benito Cereno" is the most haunting and mysterious. Contemporary readers may well find it the most controversial. Drawn directly from a historical source, Captain Amasa Delano's Voyages, and packed with documentary detail, including a court deposition said to have been almost literally transcribed into the manuscript by Melville, the novella begins as a Gothic romance set aboard ship: The role of the virginal female confronted by erotic mystery is played by the young, excessively naive American Captain Delano, of the sealer Bachelor's Delight, confronted with the enigma of the exotic, elegantly attired but strangely sickly young Spanish gentleman Captain Benito Cereno, of the slave-bearing, storm-battered old European vessel San Dominick. Delano is fascinated as much by the mysterious young Captain Cereno as he is by the drifting ruin of the ship, where virtually no whites remain (where are the rest of the ship's officers? where, in particular, its "police force"?) but, oddly, black Africans move freely about. Sphinx-like elder Negroes are contemplating Delano and his men as they board the ship to offer aid; others are briskly sharpening rusty hatchets; Cereno's attentive manservant, the "dog-like" Babo, never leaves his master's side, inspiring the myopic Delano to exclaim: "Faithful fellow! ... Don Benito, I envy you such a friend; slave I cannot call him." The irony of the remark is unintended by Delano: Babo is in fact not a "slave" but a Negro in revolt against his white captors.

The San Dominick is a place of "enchantment "—"enthrallment." A form of the haunted or accursed castle of Gothic legend, seemingly controlled by the nobleman-heir, the fated Benito Cereno, the ship is in fact in the control of "primitive" (that is, non-Caucasian) forces; not a mere commercial vessel hauling kidnapped African "slaves" to the New World but the very image of decadent, impotent Europe. "The ship seems unreal; these strange costumes, gestures, and faces are but a shadowy tableau just emerged from the deep, which directly must receive back what it gave." Melville dwells obsessively upon the imagery of Gothic nightmare-romance, which accounts for the novella's slow and repetitious narrative movement, for the theme of "Benito Cereno" is enchantment itself: the not-knowing and not-naming of Delano's erotic attraction for Cereno, with its analogue in the not-knowing and not-naming of Captain Vere's attraction for the Handsome Sailor Billy Budd. Cereno is a Gothic doomed hero, heir to a ship, or a castle, he is no longer able to command, like Poe's Roderick Usher, whom he physically resembles; so intense is Delano's interest in him, so heightened his fascination, that "Benito Cereno" is fueled by a subtext paradoxically at odds with its surface story, of a failed Negro revolt on the high sea and its judicial aftermath. This is why we wait in vain for Melville to suggest that the revolt of the enslaved Africans might be in some way fully justified: Are these kidnapped human beings not fighting for their lives? Is not "rebellion" against tyranny, seizing one's rights by force and violence, in a distinctly American tradition? Readers of color will react with particular revulsion against a text that so casually aligns the "negro" with evil, in this famous exchange at the tale's conclusion:

"You are saved," cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?"
"The negro."
There was silence, while the moody [Benito Cereno] sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.

Yet, subtextually, "Benito Cereno" is thematically resolved, in the tender, even intimate conversation between the American and the Spaniard, who each credit the other with having saved his life; how poignant it is that Cereno, after his ordeal, should speak of Captain Delano as "my best friend." If we see "Benito Cereno" as moving toward this moment of recognition, however fleeting, we see the solution to the mystery Melville has laid before us in such poetic, incantatory detail, perhaps unacknowledged, even unrecognized, by the author himself.

Billy Budd (An Inside Narrative) was not published until 1924. The text we have is teasingly incomplete, very likely interlarded with inaccuracies, since the manuscript found among Melville's papers was written in Melville's difficult hand, with many emendations and insertions, and not successively paginated. It is a writer's nightmare to contemplate the publication of a work not only unrevised, but unfinished; there is evidence that Melville worked on the tragedy for years, from 1888 until the very spring of his death in 1891, seeking but failing to find, in his own estimation, its ideal "symmetrical" form. The prose style of Billy Budd is ponderous and arthritic, burdened by excessive analysis; depictions of crucial dramatic scenes, particularly the scene in which Billy with a single unintended blow of his hand kills Claggart, are sketchy and underwritten; parts of early chapters containing overly explicit descriptions of Billy, Claggart, and Vere suggest the notes an author writes to himself in a work-in-progress, to be judiciously excised when his manuscript is revised and polished. Yet the wish to make of Billy Budd a great work to set beside Moby-Dick, the valedictory gesture of an American genius so ill-served by America, is totally comprehensible. And we can see, in the text at hand, the glimmerings of a brilliant and heart-stopping work: the sacrifice of a heroic, Christ-like young man to assure the "strict adherence to usage" demanded by the military. (Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd may in fact be this work, the most aesthetically powerful realization of the material.) Even in its incomplete state, this dreamlike, mythic work has been recognized as central to an understanding of Melville's tragic vision, and compared to such classics of sacrifice as Sophocles' Antigone and Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. The poignancy of its subtextual romance, in which Billy Budd ("The Handsome Sailor"—"Baby Budd"—"Beauty"—"all but feminine in purity"—"a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled into his company") is the unacknowledged beloved of both Captain Vere and the monomaniacal Master-of-Arms Claggart, adds to the novella's emotional power, as if, for once, allegory's bland, generalized face bore the face of a living individual: the aging, infirm, yet starry-minded Herman Melville himself.