Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reflections on Billy Budd

The Melville, Pennsylvania Project, Book VIII

I’m at least as intrigued by the way Melville’s last published prose work, the novella Billy Budd, Sailor, came to be as I am by the story itself. For it was composed towards the very end of his life and literary career, after he had been working on poetry almost exclusively for the better part of three decades. When you consider the fact that the last work of prose writing to appear by Herman Melville had been published nearly thirty years before (The Confidence-Man, 1857), the fact that there is any Billy Budd to reflect on at all is pretty astonishing all by itself.

Although it wasn’t even published until well after Melville’s death (1924; Melville died in 1891), Billy Budd is still one of his best-known writings. Aside from Moby-Dick, it is the one story that most people I have asked have heard of before and can identify as belonging to Melville’s work. Many of my generation remember being assigned Billy Budd in high school English – my wife is one of these. I don’t remember ever being assigned anything Melville wrote, including Moby-Dick or the famous short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”.

(I never read anything I was assigned to in English class anyway though, so I’m the wrong person to ask. The only thing I can remember reading is maybe two chapters of Great Expectations, and the Cliff Notes for The Scarlet Letter. In my sophomore year of high school, I dropped from a 3.5 grade on a 4-point scale to a 1.0, or a “D”, in one marking period, chiefly because I didn’t read any of the books. That's an unbreakable record in my family.)

To address that elephant standing in the room, Billy Budd is also cited as “evidence”, for some, of at least a suppressed homo-erotic aspect to Herman Melville’s writings. There is a famous moment from the television show “The Sopranos” where the family engages in discussion of the book’s “gay” themes ( (kind of a funny scene really, or at least it is when Tony Soprano describes Billy as “the ship’s florist”!). I don’t know whether this book can be taken as proof of latent (or not) homosexuality on Melville’s part, nor am I all that interested in the subject. Although I am hopeful that one or both of the critical/biographical works I am planning to read in the next couple of months will at least help clarify the matter, for my own general understanding.

Certainly there are numerous references to Billy Budd’s great “beauty”, a word used often in the novella. He has a kind of angelic quality that Melville doesn’t really hold back on. But many have argued that Billy’s looks correspond to a religious subtext in the story, and the descriptions of the young man could be interpreted as being in the service of that. After all, Billy himself does end up dying a rather Christ-like death, fully turning the other cheek.

This subject, while not critical to understanding the whole story, does point in the direction of another question, which has to do with the overall intention of Billy Budd in the first place. Is it a character study, an expansion on the idea of a young, handsome sailor on a ship’s crew and how he may or may not get on with the rest of the men? In other words, is it strictly about men’s interactions, their relationships, their human concerns? Or, as some have speculated, is it really a kind of spiritual allegory, substituting Billy in the martyr’s role, willfully meeting death despite his youthful innocence? These are the questions that have driven the debate around this fascinating tale since the early 20th century.

For me, in general, Billy Budd was more difficult to latch on to than other short works by Melville I have read, or novels for that matter. I’ve spent several days trying to figure out why, and I still don’t really know. In addition to being well-known, it’s considered one of his finest writings by most critics. I can’t say exactly what it is about the novella that makes it more obscure and slightly more impenetrable to me than his other sea-stories, but I may be able to offer some theories.

There was a great deal of time and experience acquired by Melville between the years he wrote his other novella-length works, “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno”, and the time he was writing Billy Budd, and this naturally had a great effect on the final product. It’s my idea that as time went on, even as early as the later 1850s, when he was writing The Confidence-Man, Melville drifted away from the parameters of a more “conventional” story-telling style. After he concluded his last novel, and it received the usual half-hearted notices and public dismissal, Melville seemed more than ready to gravitate into other forms of writing – which he did, transforming himself into a poet almost overnight. For most of the next 30 years, as I said above, he wrote mostly poems, and some experimental poetry-prose mash-ups.

Indeed, Billy Budd, by all scholarly accounts, began as a poem entitled “Billy in the Darbies” – “darbies”, I have since learned, means irons or chains. The final version of the poem, that is only a couple of stanzas long, appears at the end of the novella. The volume I read which contained the final version of Billy Budd also, helpfully, contained early versions of the poem that led to the narrative story, which was originally longer. You can see how Melville initially planned to tell the story of a very handsome young sailor who was convicted for trying to generate a mutiny on board a whaling vessel, while remaining entirely innocent of the crime. Yet instead of attempting to defend himself against the charges in the impromptu court-martial, he fatally drops his accuser in one blow, then faces his own imprisonment and death with a Christ-like bravery and demeanor.

Looking to my own experience, being a terrible poet, I can’t say that I have ever come close to having a story develop out of a poem; I would think it would be easier to go the other way, and boil a story down to verse, but I can’t really say. I do know that given that provenance, it would seem impossible for Billy Budd to read the same way as the earlier stories that began as “normal” prose drafts and were refined and revised into the present versions. Is it too obvious to point out that the intellectual implements used to bring a poem into reality must be different from those used to draft a work of fiction?

Also, it seemed to me that even if Melville had not been writing poetry for all that time, he was clearly experimenting with narrative itself, and what it means to tell a story using a prose format. If you look at tales such as “The Two Temples” or “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”, those “stories”, while written in recognizable narrative prose, are not traditional fictions. As I have written here previously, they examine two similar situations with overlapping characters but in different physical settings. Sometimes described as “diptychs”, I am not sure what writings like this really accomplish, for lack of a better word – but I know for sure they don’t tell a gripping yarn. They’re simply not built for that. They’re more experimental.

Melville had proved more than once he could tell an exciting story. He was interested in different ways of employing his skills as an artist. Even earlier works such as the novel Mardi dabbled in experimental techniques by fusing poetry and prose in many segments, revealing that Melville was interested in such hybrid forms from an earlier point in his career. And clearly this desire to “mix it up”, to use current vernacular, remained alive in this vibrant and self-driven artist up through the very end of his writing life.

Billy Budd, in the final version, is closer to traditional story-telling than many of his other later works, but it doesn’t feel, to me anyway, like a traditional story. It is marked by Melville’s wandering intellect, vast body of experiences, and inclination towards uncharted literary territory. Perhaps this corresponds to his physical wanderlust as a younger man, characteristic of a brave soul who was always willing to discover new things, and to push himself into undiscovered intellectual and even spiritual challenges.

Even if I cannot say Billy Budd is my favorite among his works, my admiration for it as a final cannon blast from the deck of one of literature’s most intrepid man-of-wars is here given earnest, if imperfect, testimony.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Reports of My Death (or the Death of This Blog) Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Contrary to what some of you out there must be thinking, this blog is not only about the work of Herman Melville. Nor is it only a showcase for Mutt's talents as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction (click the links to check out his latest efforts in both). And, lastly, ol' Duke is not dead, I am happy to say. Just quiet on the blogosphere. Lately.

Now before I go any further, one thing I want to make clear: I am huge fan (obviously) of Mutt's writing, and I am personally grateful to him for pretty much single-handedly keeping this blog going for most of the past year. He has consistently generated interesting and creative content, and even if it's not your bag all the time, the man is working - and that's saying something, trust me, if you know anything about his ridiculous personal workload and schedule!!

As for me, I suppose there are a million lame excuses I could offer, but it all basically comes down to one thing: I really haven't figured out a way to organize what little free time I have (as a husband, father of four children and full-time worker) so that I can contribute consistently to these pages. In the beginning I was better at it, but as my family grew and my responsibilities along with it, I have found it harder and harder. But then that's obvious, I suppose, from my lack of posts lately. (And yes, lest you feel the need to point it out: I am aware of how much more lame these ramblings sound directly after praising Mutt for his prolific output at TST despite an incredibly intense schedule. Duly noted!)

The desire has always been there. Believe me, there is always something I want to be sharing through this forum about great books I've read, movies I've seen, music I've been listening to, fascinating articles you might have missed, and all that good stuff. I try to use my Twitter page to share some of that stuff, so if you're a Twitter user and share some common interests with Mutt and I, I enthusiastically invite you to follow me! I'm not promising a constant stream of profundities, but I do know through experience that sometimes Twitter is a great way to catch up with something that may have flown below your radar. I've been turned on to numerous great links and articles since I started using it. (I've also dutifully tweeted about most of Mutt's Melville entries, in the hopes that more folks might visit these pages and have their interest ignited in this amazing writer through Mutt's thoughtful and entertaining reflections.)

Anyway, back to that desire of mine: because it's still burning strong (despite all evidence to the contrary), and because I believe that great books and one's interior life are still among the things most urgent to be writing and thinking about, this blog shall soldier on. There's so much of the good, the true and the beautiful out there left to explore... we have not even barely scratched the surface in this enterprise... "the world is charged with the grandeur of God... it gathers to a greatness," as Gerard Manley Hopkins so famously (and magnificently) put it. We cannot not continue this project, because as my man G. K. Chesterton once said, "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

So then, in the spirit of "doing it badly" (as opposed to not doing it at all!), here are some items worth sharing:
  • I've finally added another quick film recommendation to the left-hand margin... Waltz With Bashir is an incredible movie and all, but really it was high time to move on to something else, don't you think??
  • I recently finished reading Ron Hansen's latest novel Exiles, and for my money it's yet another in a long string of underappreciated works from one of America's most overlooked and talented writers. I think part of the reason Hansen is not more widely read is his refusal to write about conventional or "hot button" subjects. Imagine being in the offices of whoever his publisher is when he told them he was working on a novel about the inner life of Gerard Manley Hopkins (two mentions, one post!) and the real-life sea tragedy behind his famous poem, "The Wreck of the Deutschland." I can practically hear the sustained, awkward silence... and yet somehow, against all odds and expectations, this is both a gripping account of a disaster at sea (some written scenes will powerfully remind you of some of the better moments of James Cameron's Titanic) AND a penetrating, profound exploration of a poet/priest struggling with the difficult question of how to best use his creative gifts and yet live out his calling as a servant of God. A combination like that makes this a book unlike 95% of novels ever written, and the clear, elegant prose also sets it apart. Hansen is a gifted and insightful writer who deserves to be better known. If you want to learn more about the book, I recommend Mutt's concise review, "Suffering the Storm," from earlier on this blog.
  • This week the New York Times published an illuminating article about the archives of John Updike, which I would recommend to anyone interested in the craft of writing. Of particular note is the way it reveals his revision practices, and how he went about editing and improving his own prose. I'm nowhere near the biggest Updike fan in the world (though I do admire many of his short stories, especially earlier ones such as "You'll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You"), but his productivity and precision as a writer are the stuff of legend, and it's fascinating to get a glimpse of his development and practices over the decades of a celebrated career.
  • Utterly random item of the day: you know what the symbols for the U.S. dollar, the euro, the English pound and the Japanese yen are... what about the Indian rupee? Give up? That's because there's never been one! But that's about to change, interestingly... what does this have to do with books, you ask? Absolutely nothing, but I thought it was mildly interesting.
  • I'm just about to finish Arthur Koestler's chilling novel Darkness at Noon, which may be the single most effective rendering of the brutality and cold logic of totalitarianism ever put to the printed page... and, book nerd that I am, I noticed recently that it means that I will have read all but one of the top 10 novels in the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of All Time list. How many of them have you taken on? (The one I haven't gotten to yet? Joseph Heller's Catch-22.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Hen, A Lion, A Passenger, & A Pachyderm

A tale of imagination by Mutt Ploughman.

ALTHOUGH I have lived in a number of other places, my life began in the city of Chicago, in the shadow of elevated trains. My family left there when I was still young, and I have not often returned, so it feels inauthentic to identify myself as a Chicagoan. Yet, though a tree’s branches may sprawl out high and far, its roots stay put. So perhaps my trunk still remains, cooling in that same shadow.
Also, both of my parents were raised there. Their answer to the question Where are you from? has less ambiguity than mine. They were married in 1965 and set themselves up in an apartment on the west side in 1966, just as my big sister Sandra was born. I came along in 1970. Then we moved away, in 1977.
So, am I from Chicago or not? Beats me. But the question seems important, because Chicago, as I have seen, and as this story will show, is not a typical American city. It sits over another place, a kind of reservoir, like the mossy stones of an ancient well. I want to know if I can claim some of that magic history for my own. Perhaps telling the story now, as I have done only once before, will reveal the answer.


My mother used to take my sister and I on walks through the neighborhood around where we lived, west of the city. I know all those streets in my memory. They were arranged in perfect squares, lined with sidewalks, street lamps of gothic black metal, and huge oak and elm trees along either side that were old enough for their boughs to form church-like ribs over the cars that processed underneath.
Indeed, the whole neighborhood has a cathedral-like feel to me in retrospect. The sun would lance in downward shafts through those branches in bursts of illumination, as through stained glass. And each time you rounded a corner to walk up another straight-edged avenue it felt as though you were approaching a mystery.
She’d spent her entire life there, my mother, and she loved those streets with all her heart, all her mind, and all her soul. But even then I think she knew that she would soon depart from them and not return again but as a visitor. This may explain why it seems in my memory as though we were walking every single day, the three of us, but that can’t be true. Sandra would have been in school a lot of the time for one, being four years older than me. Plus for 50% of the year the weather wouldn’t have allowed it. Yet it seems like there were thousands of those walks – like it was all we did. I found out later that for a long time we only had one family car, so that could account for some of it.
Of course I have a father, but didn’t see him much: he was at work all the time in those days. I knew by then that he was a scientist. I remember being so proud of that, without even fully grasping what it meant. I knew he had to make heavy use of his brain, and I knew it was funny to mention that because the human brain was what he was studying. You have to use your brain to learn about your brain, he would say to me. What I had absolutely zero notion of at the time, of course, but found out decades later, was that he was a research chemist, and during those very years he was involved in a massive grant-funded study. The subject? The effects of L.S.D. on human cognitive processes.
He worked at the University of Chicago. The word I would use to describe him during that time is not Tall or Warm or Stern or even Intimidating. The word I would use is Gone.


Autumn, 1975. I think all we needed that day was milk. Or that’s all I can really remember, anyway. I don’t think it was a Saturday, yet Sandra was with us, so who knows. It might have been Columbus Day. It might have been one of those ‘teacher meetings’ days, where the parent doesn’t realize it’s coming up, in spite of repeated warnings, and finds themselves at home with all their children and no plan. On days like that, one way or another, you gotta get out of the house.
Either way my mother had resolved to take a walk with the two of us, and my father was customarily absent. Within walking distance of our house was a corner convenience store, and it was towards this destination that we embarked. It wasn’t a cold day, but in Chicago, autumn afternoons are chilly and windy enough to require some sort of parka. I didn’t need a lot of encouragement to wear my Bears jacket with the hood – my favorite item of clothing in the world. I never paid much attention to Sandra, but for whatever reason I remember that day she had two barrettes in her long and straight brown hair, parted down the middle; the barrettes had these red ribbons with colorful beads on them hanging down on either side. I can also see my mother as vividly in my mind’s eye as any of the other sights that have remained with me from that particular day.
She had thick, brown hair, wavy, cut to about shoulder length at the time. She had always been slight of frame, short, but her body seemed to exude energy; she was one of those rather small women that seem to compensate for their lack of physical presence with superhuman tirelessness and a form that was rarely at rest. She flounced along those concrete sidewalks at a clip I couldn’t keep up with.
The one thing I can visualize most clearly in hindsight is the poncho she wore. She kept it for years and years, but at that time it was new. My father had gone on a business trip to Mexico that year, and he had brought her home this handmade garment that she really seemed to adore. It had Technicolor autumn tones – red, brown, orange, yellow – in a wild tangle of crooked stripes. The poncho seemed wonderfully suited for that time of the year, draped over my mother’s frame to repel the strafing winds. It was like she had the season itself thrown protectively over her shoulders.
We set off briskly, and I settled into my well-worn retinue of hurdling the cracks in the sidewalk, beaning the lampposts with small stones, and picking up sticks in an infinite quest to locate the perfect sword. Sandra ambled ahead, at pains to put space between herself and her pipsqueak brother, lest she be spotted by one of her friends or even a remote acquaintance from school. My mother was jabbering, asking questions.
She spent a great deal of time with us already, but these walks seemed to be the times when she would make a concentrated effort to genuinely connect with us. Of course, at that time, it wasn’t her I longed to connect with, it was my father. She seemed to know that this wouldn’t happen, and perhaps the conversation she was always trying to engage us in came from her feelings about that.
What are you going to do with it when you find it? she asked that day.
Find what?
The right stick.
I’m not looking for the right stick. I’m looking for a sword.
When you find the right sword, then. What will you do with it?
Stab me, probably, Sandra offered from ahead.
I dunno. Cut things. It’s just a game I like to play sometimes.
How are things going with Miss Richlick? She shifted the subject, agonizingly, to my kindergarten teacher.
Do you like her?
Yeah. She’s nice.
Do you still like the reading unit?
Yeah. I got in trouble for reading ahead two chapters.
Well, not every child in the class reads as well as you do.
I know. I just wanted to know what would happen next.
Don’t we all.


It was called The White Hen. I never knew why, and didn’t become aware until sometime later that it was a chain and that more of them existed elsewhere. I thought there was only one, and that the name was a tangled mystery for me personally to unravel. But I never did.
I can see that white silhouetted figure on the lit up sign rising high above the corner, like some kind of sentry at the gates of the world of wild fowl. It was painted in profile, facing towards its left, my right, over the top of the store towards the back. It seemed to point the visitor towards the door. Who knew a hen could look so dignified? Weren’t they girls? This one struck me as a proud hen, and otherwise I never would have had much occasion to consider whether a hen had anything to be proud about. In fact I would never have taken hens into any consideration whatsoever, not being from a rural area. I hadn’t even known what a hen was before we started going to that store.
The White Hen faced a busy avenue, congested with heavy traffic no matter what time of day. But behind it was a different story. There was a small parking lot with a dumpster, and behind that, my all-time favorite outdoor spot: a playground. These days I get the feeling that every park is an elaborately engineered, exorbitant affair – with six or seven big lakes, a fitness trail, volleyball and tennis courts, lawn bowling lanes, parking for pregnant mothers, a place to land a helicopter, and so on. Back in the 70s, they seemed to be stuffed in wherever they would fit, no matter how illogical the spot. All you really needed was a set of monkey bars, a couple of swings, and a slide or two.
This park, which I considered my own personal stomping grounds – even though it was always overrun with kids, sometimes tough ones – had those things, as well as a tether ball pole, some of those metal horses mounted on thick springs that you could buck back and forth on, a see-saw, a steel merry-go-round that creaked agreeably as you rode it in circles, and a drinking fountain. I’ll get to that last item.
I can’t bring this park back from the annals of my memory without mentioning the steep grass hill behind it, the kind you could roll or sled down, as long as you didn’t climb all the way to the top. Because what was positioned on top of the hill was most definitely off-limits for children. My father had told me once to stay away from the tracks of the El train because of something he called ‘the third rail’. If you stepped on that particular rail you would get zapped by a massive bolt of electricity, like lightning, and probably die. This is why as long as we had been coming to this park I never really went close to the top of the hill. But I knew it was a stop on the El, because you could see and hear, of course, the trains speeding by as you rambled through the park below. Like most small boys, I never got tired of the spectacle of big metal cars whizzing by at dangerous speeds. They were a large part of why I loved that park in the first place.
I never knew what she did in there, aside from buying whatever it was we’d come for. Meet a neighbor? Talk to the guy behind the counter? Read the newspaper? Maybe even smoke a cigarette? But my mother always gave me time to play. Parental oversight, even though we were living on the outskirts of the third largest city in America, was a little more relaxed than it is today. When my sister was with us she would keep an eye on me, in an extremely half-ass manner, until my mom came back. Even if we didn’t have Sandra, my mom still sent me back there to run around. It wasn’t fenced in or anything, and God only knows who was coming through that park or what transactions were taking place. And yet, nothing untoward ever happened. To me, it was just a place for kids to play, with an El train stop on top of the hill.
From time to time a train would come to a screeching halt and disgorge a stream of weary-looking passengers, men and women with shopping bags and briefcases, dressed in nursing outfits, hard hats, suits and ties. They all seemed to get off in a hangdog manner and trudge off towards their separate homes without saying anything to one another. It seemed to me like the exact opposite of the way in which my friends and I disembarked from the school bus. It came across as a none-too-subtle discouragement from ever reaching the age of adulthood.
On the particular day I’m talking about – and in one sense, it’s the only one from my Chicago days worth remembering – we were dispatched to the back of the store as usual, and Sandra, none too pleased with anything happening that day and especially with the prospect of baby-sitting for me, grabbed my hood, yanked my neck and head back abusively, and growled, Don’t. Go. Anywhere. Meaning, stay in the park. I wriggled free from her grasp.
Release me, tyrant! I shouted, using a line I had come across in a book. Hadn’t she figured out yet that there was nowhere else I wanted to go? Sometimes Sandra was just plain dumb.
She then set out to separate herself from me, showing me her back, her long hair, and the clicking beads. I watched her go without misgivings. She’d post herself on a bench somewhere if she couldn’t find kids her age, and I was free to explore whatever I wanted.
I’ll admit that I was, and still am, a bit of a loner. Being by myself has never been troublesome. I ignored the other kids that were hanging around in that park whenever I visited. They usually seemed iffy anyway, as I alluded to earlier, and as far as I was concerned, there were better things to do than to get amoeba’d into one of those globules of city kids.
The reason why I loved going to that park behind The White Hen in the first place, though of course I would not have explained it this way at the time, was that it was an ideal grounds for both my body and my mind to run around simultaneously. Even back then, I loved having the space and time to let both of them romp around uninhibited. The playground seemed to provide the right backdrop for creativity and imagination to take over the helm of my existence, and I loved that about it.
There were countless props and triggers in the park that could generate make-believe scenarios. The monkey bars were a castle; the metal horses my cavalry; the tetherball tower a monolith; the sloping grass hill the untamed landscape that fell within my realm; the El train a cosmic transport, or a huge metal serpent, or a dragon; the disembarking passengers invading hordes.
And then there was the lion.


I never knew what it was about it, but I knew in the very bottom of my gut, from the first moment I set eyes on it, that there was something else to it. It wasn’t only an artificial lion, and it certainly wasn’t just a drinking fountain. Over the years since this well-remembered day I have wondered whose brainchild it was to make a large plastic or fiberglass lion’s head, paint it red for some reason with a brown mane and yellow eyes, and plop it over the top of a standard-issue city drinking fountain. So that in order to take a drink you had to approach the thing, stomp on a foot pedal sticking out from the base of the lion’s neck like an arrow, and then shove your head straight into the beast’s jaws. Oh, and if you were going to do it at all, you may as well make it the fiercest, meanest-looking fake lion imaginable, with oversized white teeth bearing down on the vulnerable flesh of a young child’s neck, and an aspect of eternal malice on its painted face.
Because today I happen to have small children myself, I know that at the age of five, or thereabouts, they’re getting big enough to read and explore and go to kindergarten and all of that, but they’re still young enough to have unrestrained terrors of certain things. The lion in that playground, for me, was such a terror. It was located to one side, fortunately, isolated in a kind of imaginary ring of doom, as though it had wandered in off of some killing plain in the realm I’d created and decided to station itself there to watch. One day, I was sure that the thing would simply come alive and attack, even though it was only a head and neck; it would attack disembodied, thereby making the inevitable about ten times scarier in my imagination.
Sandra released me from her clawed grip and wandered off, and I kept to the right side, avoiding the beast on my far left. I didn’t want to even look at it unless I had to. Eventually it might come to the point where I would require a drink, but I found that if I didn’t go too crazy in the time I had, especially during the fall, I could get by without one.
I don’t entirely remember what I did first. In my memory I see only a smattering of other kids there. Sandra, near the swings, had engaged in conversation with three boys that seemed to be older, but she was on her own on that score. Surely she would not want me to interfere, to start hacking protectively at the boys with that stick/sword I had never found……I think I sat for a while on the creaky merry-go-round, the cold metal no doubt freezing my buttcheeks right through the corduroys. But unless you have a grownup there or a bigger kid to set the thing to spinning, all you can really do is sit there, or maybe alter your position slightly with one of your feet. You may as well sit on one of the benches, or somewhere else……
Owing to that semi-contemplative side that I brought up before, I was capable of occupying myself longer than most kids simply by finding a quiet but interesting place to sit and mull things over. I don’t know if this made me an introvert or anti-social or what; if you put those questions to my wife today she would say Yes, and yes. To me, however, it just means I like to look and listen and think. It doesn’t feel anti-anything. Whatever you call it, this quality was as true of me at age five as it will be at fifty-five. That’s why it’s no surprise that I ended up seated about halfway up the sloping grass hill, towards the El stop, looking down at the park with my back towards the rails. The hill was steep enough that it gave you a kind of towering perspective, at least to my perception, and that was agreeable. It spoon-fed the imaginative process I so loved to engage.
Here sits the King, aloft on his Judgment Seat, surveying the breadth of his lands, when suddenly—
The lunatic screech of metallic brakes behind and above me shattered whatever waking dream I was having. I had my elbows on my knees, and was painstakingly pulling apart a dead maple leaf that crumbled to flakes in my chapped and dirty fingers when the train arrived. For some reason I hesitated before looking over my shoulder to see the train. I figured it was disgorging passengers into the autumn gusts, a displacement of moody people from one corner of the city to the next, like some depressing riff on cross-pollination. Yet I remained fixated on the destruction of the maple leaf. I can still see that desiccated thing in my fingertips, piffling away to nothing.
Then I heard the whistle blast, screaming out across the city, as the cars slowly propelled themselves forward, blue sparks crackling between wires, steel wheels grinding on the rails. No longer able to hold back, I turned around, over my right shoulder. I watched the train pulling away, but instead of the usual stream of melancholy workers heading towards parking lots or sidewalks, chased by the wind, I saw only one figure: a very tall man. But he was not walking away. Standing on the top of the slope, somehow on my side of the tracks, he was staring straight at me.
Once the train was completely gone, he stepped off in my direction down the hill.


A giant was coming down the grassy slope. I was riveted to the cold ground. I wanted to escape but I couldn’t stand. I turned my torso back around quickly to see if anyone else was observing his approach, but the number of kids had diminished even more by that point, and Sandra was still talking to the boys with her back to me. Not paying any attention. This guy could march right down the hill and abduct me for all she seemed to care.
Twisting back around so that I faced awkwardly up the slope again, I got a better view of the approaching figure. He was like no stranger I had ever encountered. Immensely tall, much more so than my father; I knew he had to have been over six feet. This man was very thin and seemed almost rubbery, to judge by his delicate, loping strides down the incline.
What he was wearing greatly contributed to how slender and how high his form seemed to reach into the air. On top of his narrow head was a vertical, black, stovetop hat, which I only recognized from having endured a little learning unit in my pre-K class on American presidents, mainly Washington and Abraham Lincoln. For the moment I thought the man was Abraham Lincoln, for after all, this was Illinois. Was he still alive? But that impression changed after I could see the man’s face a few moments later.
He also wore a body-length, tattered brown overcoat, cut like a suit jacket towards the top, with a high waist and wide lapels, but slowly broadening out towards the bottom like a dress. The hem was ringed with a mangy-looking fringe of what appeared to be some sort of animal fur. This coat extended all the way down to the man’s ankles, and billowed loosely around his feet as he walked, over black shoes that tapered to an almost sharp point. It looked like he had been wearing that coat for a very long time, like I was hoping to do with my Bears coat (sadly, I no longer fit into it less than three months later). I noticed that small circles of the same fur enclosed the wrists also, like fuzzy handcuffs.
The closer the man came to me the odder he looked, and the more terrified and simultaneously ossified I became. I saw that he wore a brightly colored vest underneath the coat, with rainbow stripes running lengthwise, buttoned up neatly; below that was a lavender shirt, believe it or not, with ruffles leading straight up to his cleanly shaven but chicken-like neck. I know nothing about fashion or clothing, but I did have a big sister who seemed to have an inexplicable fixation, as many girls do, with how well one article of clothing matches another. This guy clearly did not share the same weird proclivity. Even I could tell that the clothes he was wearing did nothing to complement each other. He looked both dapper and utterly ridiculous at the same time.
As he approached, and it was clear there would be no protective intervention from elsewhere, I found the courage to look up. When I did I encountered a face that could only be described as hatchet-shaped. It was like watching the blade-like hull of a warship drift brazenly into your personal space. Except for the man’s wild, jet-black, curled moustache, which one usually didn’t find underneath a ship’s figurehead. He had long, thin lips, which the moustache did not obscure, that when I first saw them were flattened broadly in a wide, inviting grin.
Time seemed to suspend, and the surrounding noises stopped, or maybe they all merged somehow into one steady tone, a chord, ringing out over everything. Yet I could also hear the wind, the ever-present wind, the perpetual rush of air. The giant-man seemed to descend the hill in three to four long, bow-legged strides. Suddenly he was standing right in front of me, still seated on the grassy slope, looking up the long, absurdly draped flagpole of him. The man bent down at the waist, his ship’s-prow nose and the bridge above it carving its way to the point that I almost thought it would ram into mine. It stopped just short, so that the man could inquire:
Boy, have you seen an elephant near here?
A wizard, I thought. A magician. The only possible explanation for who this man could be. My throat froze and my vocal chords flat-out vanished. I stared up at him. He waited. The man had wrinkled skin, parchment-like, but his eyes were the most unusual green-blue shade I had ever seen. They bore deeply into my own and dragged up from within me a memory, some moment when I had spied a shade of the exact same color. Then it came to me. A few months earlier my family had spent two days at a hotel right alongside Lake Michigan. This man’s eyes were the exact same color as the water, the way it looked from our hotel balcony. My mom had called Sandra and I out to look at it as the sun was falling one night. But I had forgotten about that.
The man still waited for my answer. I tried to remember what he had asked. My voice suddenly returned, sort of.
I’m not supposed to, you know, talk to people like you.
You’ve never met a person like me, said the man, leaning back to an upright stance. His voice was dry and wistful. He sounded old, but it was hard to tell exactly how old he might have been.
Well. People I don’t know, I said.
Yes, but we do it anyway, don’t we. Your sister’s doing it.
Yeah, but she’s not supposed to.
Don’t you want to know how I know she is your sister, boy? Aren’t you curious? The man dragged out that last word to twice its length, again drawing his face nearer to mine.
I didn’t know what to say, so I shrugged my shoulders. He was starting to scare me, if you want to know the truth. He reminded me of something…..
The man leaned back again, standing upright.
Hmmm, he said. I hope you’re a more curious boy than that. I think you are a more curious boy than that. I think I’ve just startled you, is all. You haven’t seen me before.
I shook my head.
Yet I’ve been around for so long – right here in Chicago. A really, really long time.
Again I couldn’t think of a reply. I felt like had been there a long time too. But I was pretty sure he was talking about a longer period.
How long? I asked.
Too long.
Who are you?
Just a passenger.
But … but … what’s your name? What do I call you?
Oh, you know, said the man. How about Passenger. I’m James T. Passenger. And I’m at your service.
He suddenly reached up, plucked the stovetop hat off his cylindrical skull, and executed a long, graceful bow. It seemed like something he had done before, perhaps lots of times.
Oh. Okay. Well … I’m …
Not to worry, boy. I know who you are. Which is good, because I always will, after today, know who you are. More importantly, you will know me. There won’t be another day when you don’t.
I was not sure what was happening, for I felt intrigued and confused at the same time; scared out of my wits and yet enthralled. I did the only thing I could think, which was to twist around, stand up, and look for my mother. But she wasn’t there.
Ah. Thanks for reminding me, said the strange man. She’s not done yet, boy. But there’s not much time. So, have you seen one or not? He stepped up next to me, on the side of the hill.
Seen what? I almost whispered.
What was going to happen? For some reason, although I didn’t want to, I turned slowly to look at his face, where I found his eyes boring directly into mine once again.
An elephant. A huge, white, unmistakable elephant.
Around us, the kids that were still left kept right on playing. Sandra had finally moved away from, or more likely had been dismissed by, the older boys, and I could recognize her bunched over brooding posture from five miles off. She wasn’t even facing away from us anymore, but she was in her own world. She didn’t see either one of us on the hill.
I haven’t seen any elephants, I said. I don’t think they live around here. But I did see a lion.
I never did know why I said that. I knew the man wasn’t talking about an artificial elephant. That seemed clear. Yet, for whatever odd reason, he terrified me in the exact same way that lion did – the drinking fountain. I never felt that I was in physical danger. It was a terror more difficult to name, or to explain away. Like a dreadful anticipation of something you think may be coming, but you just aren’t sure of. Something that could happen, that maybe should have happened, but by some inconceivable calculus of chance and conditions, hasn’t happened yet.
In any case, as soon as I said that, the man’s lake-eyes widened, and for a moment that water, or at least the color of it, seemed to flood out over everything in the world. But then he was in front of me, dry, his face near to mine yet again, asking me a question in one drawn-out word:
I pointed past his upper arm to an area behind him, towards where that lion held its empty court, waiting patiently for victims. But I wouldn’t look at it. For my fear of that lion, and of James T. Passenger, had reached their apex, together, at that very moment. Whatever is happening here, thought I, it doesn’t include me, it has nothing to do with me.
But of course it had everything to do with me.


Next thing I knew, I was trying to make a getaway. I had my back turned to Passenger. In another instant I would have taken off at a sprint, forgetting my sister. But I was too slow, and the stranger’s long hand with its talon-like fingers outstretched had grabbed the hood of my Bears jacket. The very same way Sandra had! Could it be possible that she had cooked this guy up somehow, elaborately, to bump me off? If so, at the very least, Sandra was more inventive than I had previously given her credit for.
Are you sure you have not seen an elephant? asked the stranger.
The iron-like grip guided me, not particularly harshly, backwards, until I took the not-very-subtle hint and turned around. He stepped to one side, and there was the lion, the fountain, mostly at a profile to where we were stationed. But that was not all I saw. The breath flew right out of my lungs. For reaching out of the lion’s wide open jaws – slowly, waving around in the air, as though feeling for something not seen – was a massive white trunk. An elephant’s trunk.


I knew it, he was saying. Suddenly his hand was on my shoulder lightly, protectively. Like a father’s.
As soon as I set eyes on you from the window of that train, I knew it. I don’t know how I knew, but there was something about you that told me instantly that you would be able to see. That you are one of those who can perceive what so many others cannot.
I stared at the elephant’s trunk, just waving around, from inside the drinking fountain. How could that be? How many times had I stuck my own head into those same jaws? Had I ever seen a hole, a tunnel … a passage? No. But my eyes were seeing, obviously, what this man’s were.
Yet, the other kids, the adults walking by … no one was making any noise, or saying anything. No one acted like the trunk was even visible! Let alone the weird-looking man towering over the innocent five-year-old on the side of the hill! It seemed as though only selected people could see these events. Where that left me was something I didn’t really have time to consider.
I could not remove my eyes from that waving appendage. Now that the shock of seeing it had sunk in a little, I wondered what the thing was doing, why it was sticking up out of there in the first place. What was it hoping to find? Where did it come from? Would it grab hold of, or injure, the next child that approached, looking for a drink?
I felt the man place one hand on either of my shoulders, so he could gently turn me away from that wildest of visions and talk to me face-to-face, mano a mano.
Boy, he said, leaning over so he could look at me closely once again, his eyes twinkling with a rejuvenated energy and excitement I hadn’t seen there before. You have no idea how long I’ve waited for this. How long I have searched for it!
What is that thing? I asked.
An elephant. As I’ve been saying all along. I finally tracked it down. Or it tracked me down.
What’s it doing?
Looking for me, just as I am looking for it. Its job is to carry me across.
Across what?
I will try to tell you, he said.


You may not understand all of this now, but that’s okay.
Believe it or not – and I put it that way because it’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or whether they don’t – a long time ago, there were a lot of people around here that were like me. There was, right here in this city, a great big gathering of people from all over the world, with all kinds of events and exhibits, entertainments, tents, carnival rides, crazy inventions, food stands, even wild animals. People came from near and far to share their culture, their experiences, to see how other people lived, and, most importantly, to share stories. It was glorious. It lasted for weeks and weeks. So many people gathered together at once, interacting, sharing, learning from each other.
Along the way, while all this was happening, something took place. Something amazing! With so many people visiting it at once, so many cross-currents of stories, so much energy and information and memories together at one huge event, the city of Chicago created its own great big imaginary world – its own place that people could visit in their minds, in their hearts. It’s a little hard to explain. It’s as though everyone in the city combined their ideas and creativity together and came up with an alternate universe. Then they put a lot of things in that world: all kinds of people and animals and fantastic machines and vehicles. I am one of them – a man, yes, but constructed of the memories, ideas, and imaginings of a million different people. That’s why I seem so oddly assembled.
I stared at him, completely dumbfounded. Yes, I was having a tough time understanding. But then again, somewhere inside of me – this is a feeling I can remember so clearly, and that I have tried to recapture for my entire life – there was a small light glowing, gathering heat, trying hard to catch fire. In a way that I could not put a finger on yet, what he was saying made perfect sense.
For a while, the man continued, all of us, the creations of this city’s imagining, lived here, together. Adjacent to your world, but accessible to nearly everyone. Over time, though, something terrible took place. Other human events occurred, awful ones, which tore people’s minds away from the stories they’d created. There were wars, great crime waves, fires, bouts of destructive weather, political battles. It all led to one simple but devastating tragedy: the city began to forget. It became disconnected from its own experience. It lost its stories. And its humanity soon followed.
Those of us who were living in that sideshow world, the alternate place, became separated, and gradually began to fade into nothing, one by one. There was a great agony of confusion. We no longer belonged anywhere. We wandered for years in darkness, looking for each other. We tried to reach people in your world, talk to you, but it was as though no one could see or hear us anymore.
You folks changed. Everyone began to look and act differently. Only rarely, on occasion, would someone be able to see us or recognize us. But by then so much time had passed and so many other events had happened that our world had been dismantled, disbanded. Some of us were still alive, still around, but there was no longer one place for us to go.
Along the way, I heard somewhere, I don’t remember where, rumblings that a new place had been created for those of us who were still left. Whether it was created by the same people, their children and grandchildren, or by one singular imagination that had not been around here before, I have never known. I’m hoping to find out – today, in fact.
There were rumors among my kind, those of us who could still be found, of a creature, a carrier – a white elephant. If you could find the elephant, it would carry you into that new place. There you could find out who was responsible for the place and why it had been created. Who it was, singular or plural, that had saved us from being irretrievably lost and forgotten.
Thus, I began to search for the elephant, so that it could carry me there. Only the white elephant knew where to find the passage through. I hunted high and low for years and years. And now, through you, I have found it.


Time to go, he said.
Can I go with you?
No. It’s not the right place for you. But you can visit. In fact, you will need to. However, you will have to find your own passage. You have a lot of searching and exploring to do.
Will I need the white elephant?
I don’t know the answer to that.
Will I ever see you again?
I don’t know the answer to that either.
And with that, the stranger turned on his heel and started off towards the lion. The wind threw leaves at his ankles and danced with the fringe of his overcoat. I watched his back as he walked away, in a state of wonder. Suddenly, he turned around again.
Oh. One more thing. Someday, I don’t know when, you will discover the courage to tell this story. As soon as you do, I tell you now, someone will be there to say it isn’t true. Don’t believe it. You know better.
He turned again and walked off.
When he got to the fountain, with the white trunk still flailing around, he positioned himself directly in front of the lion’s open maw. Out of nowhere, clouds rumbled thickly overhead. He did not touch the trunk, but it seemed to sense his presence. He leaned forward at the waist one more time and whispered something.
Then, very deliberately, he looked at me one final time. The elephant’s trunk slowly, painstakingly, encircled the man’s waist. The stranger removed the stovetop hat and tipped it in my direction. I held up my hand.
Next, in one shocking, rapid motion, defying everything I understood to be possible, the trunk simply whisked the man into the lion’s jaws. All of him. The hat, clutched in his long fingers, vanished last.


Last year, when I was having a hard time, I acted in opposition to my better judgment – it just sort of happened – and told this story aloud for the first time, to my former therapist. She listened closely, then nodded with a curt smile.
Well, she said.
Well what?
There’s obviously only one explanation for that.
Really. What is it?
Well, naturally. Your father was studying L.S.D.? Obviously you got into it somehow. Tell me, did he bring it home often? Was he an addict?
I feel sorry for her, truthfully. For such people will never understand. And it’s so simple. Unless you are willing to pursue the world within the wonder, the wonder within the world will never pursue you.
(c) 2010 by Jude Joseph Lovell

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reflections on Melville's Short Fiction

The "Melville, Pennsylvania" Project

Here we are at middle distance, more or less, in the Melville, Pennsylvania project, and appropriately enough it seems to be a point of transition. Although I do have one more novel to read – 1847’s Omoo, a copy of which I only came across after the project started – for the most part Melville’s novels are behind me now, and I have moved on to other genres of his writing.

In the second chapter, if you will, of his career, Melville dabbled in shorter works of fiction and poetry. The poetry I am only now beginning to wade into, which is a daunting prospect for me on a number of levels. But I have now read most if not all of his surviving shorter fiction works, and it is his writing in this format upon which I now offer some rather subjective and probably under-cooked thoughts.

I usually find ways to cite Melville’s own words in my reflections, so readers can assess the strength of his writing “from the horse’s mouth." In this situation, for me, there seem to be too many good examples, and from wildly divergent tales; it seems more effective to nudge readers in the direction of these shorter works in general, rather than cite lines or passages. Not all of his stories are readily available in any store, but many of them are collected in various editions with his most famous short work, called Billy Budd, Sailor (which merits a separate reflection here in the future). For the record, I will list here the name of the stories I intend to discuss, at least in broad terms:

“Bartleby, the Scrivener”
“The Encantadas”
“The Two Temples”
“The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”
“The Bell-Tower”
“Benito Cereno”
“The ‘Gees”
“I and My Chimney”
“The Piazza”

One thing the reader may notice about the above list is that, for a major American writer, it’s not very long. Melville wrote only a limited amount of short pieces, and with a few minor exceptions, he wrote them in one particular period of his career – from around 1852, after the novel Pierre came out and failed roundly, up until around 1857 or so, when he published The Confidence-Man. After that, he made a trip to Europe and the holy land, and came back a changed man and a different writer. Thereupon he entered into a phase where he worked primarily on poetry, and then a kind of prose-poetry mixture, right up through the post-humously published novella Billy Budd.

It may be a little surprising for me to say that I believe Melville’s short stories – considering there aren’t very many – are among his finest works. The most broadly understood notion concerning his short pieces is that he wrote them for financial reasons, for quick paychecks, following the tremendous drubbing both commercially and critically he suffered with the publication of Pierre. And by most accounts it seemed to have been a smart move, because at the time stories of this nature paid pretty well. Melville wrote them for only two magazines, Putnam’s and Harper’s. The arrangement appears to have been mutually beneficial.

Probably the most famous of Herman Melville’s shorter stories is “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”, and it’s also one of the strangest, although you can make a fairly solid argument that they’re all pretty enigmatic. As the subtitle indicates, the story is set in the financial district of New York City. It concerns a law office that hires the titular character, who appears out of nowhere off the street, to join their small staff as a “scrivener”, or a copyist – in the days before Xerox machines, of course, someone had to produce copies of all legal documentation by hand.

Everything starts off well, with the new employee copying documents at a mighty clip, but soon Bartleby begins to show alarming signs of some kind of mental disturbance. He never leaves the office – ever – and after a while, he starts refusing any task his employer assigns him to, offering the now-famous rejoinder “I would prefer not to” whenever he’s asked to do something.

As the story continues, Melville skillfully creates tension and a gloomy, foreboding atmosphere. However, in a technique that must have frustrated readers at the time (and today too), he deliberately fails to supply satisfactory answers to the questions the story suggests. Bartleby seems to come further unhinged as the story extends itself, and ends up, notably, in the same prison in Manhattan that Melville’s Pierre Glendenning finds himself in in the conclusion of that novel – aptly known as “the Tombs”. “Bartleby” is creepy, atmospheric, evocative of a lost time, and challenging to the reader’s imagination all at once. I think those qualities are virtues, and the story is beautifully written as most of Melville’s work is. But for readers who enjoy having loose ends resolved, novels such as Redburn or even Moby-Dick would be a more satisfactory choice.

“Bartleby” is also one of Melville’s longest “short” works, nearly a novella. The other almost novella-length short piece (aside from Billy Budd) is “Benito Cereno”, which hearkens back in some ways to Melville’s sea adventures, and is considered another of his best short stories. This entertaining and mysterious tale is set on the high seas, specifically off the South American coast – yet the two ships involved in the tale never sail anywhere during the story itself.

Here, an American whaling vessel sails into port on the coast of Chile and makes contact with a second ship that seems unusually battered and broken. The American captain boards the ship to offer assistance, only to find that most of the passengers are black slaves, and the Captain, a Spaniard, appears sullen and uncooperative towards the American skipper’s efforts to help. While these overtures continue, the whaling captain notices strange behaviors among the remaining occupants of the ship, and begins to suspect that more is afoot than meets the eye. He’s correct. There has been a violent slave revolt, and the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, is really a prisoner. The story ends with a series of depositions as the ensuing events are pieced together, investigation-style, after the fact.

“Benito Cereno” capitalizes on many of Melville’s best qualities, and should be celebrated more than I have heard it so. It’s a cracking adventure, almost like a pirate story, but it’s also a mystery, and a rumination on death and violence. The prose is majestic yet fast-paced. If the story is backwards racially in some places, Melville seemed to approach racial matters with a duality common to liberal-minded white people of that time: he abhorred the concept of slavery, was an abolitionist on principle, and yet didn’t seem to fully embrace descendents of Africa as equal to himself or his own race, judging by his own use of language. Some stereotypical observations and descriptions in this story would justly offend the modern palate. These should be expected if not endorsed.

Beyond these more famous of Melville’s tales, the remainder of the small but impressive catalogue offers plenty of surprises for those who expect more sea-tales or tropical yarns. “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”, a story that couldn’t possibly fit anywhere into today’s literary landscape, is a robust, almost mythological tale of a preternaturally majestic rooster, whose very call seems to summon the gods from Olympus. “The Lightning-Rod Man”, one of my personal favorites of the group, contains early manifestations of themes Melville would explore in greater depth in the novel The Confidence-Man, inasmuch as it depicts someone trying to snow another person into some of their money. In this story, set on a tropical island resembling the South Pacific, a stranger attempts to hock lightning rods as a form of primitive homeowner’s insurance to a customer who isn’t buying.

Melville’s appetite for innovation, both with genre and with narrative structure, were also on display during this pivotal period. His remarkable story “The Bell-Tower” contains by far the earliest manifestation in literature that I know of what we might commonly refer to today as a robot – a mysterious tale concerning the erection of a Biblically-proportioned stone tower and what is revealed to be an artificially constructed metal creature that can animate itself on top of the monolith. (Keep in mind, this is 1853 we’re talking about.) In “The Two Temples” and “The Paradise of Bachelors…”, Melville experiments with structure in a format he called “diptych”, where the stories describe two similar events with the same characters but in different environments. Instead of being opposites, the two segments of these stories are more like panels laid alongside each other. Finally, in stories like “The Encantadas”, containing a number of small anecdotes concerning life on an exotic group of Pacific islands, Melville further refined a prose-poetry hybrid style of writing, which he had not only used once before, in the 1848 novel Mardi, but that also characterized some of his last works, including John Marr and Other Sailors and Billy Budd.

On a personal note, as an aspiring fiction writer, the short story is gaining ground as an ideal vehicle for further refining my own prose style as well as increasing my range and versatility. Although I have never felt entirely comfortable in the form, and always have imagined myself a novelist in gestation, the challenge of the short story format has exhibited an almost irresistible appeal. Novels, as much as I love them, have recently seemed beyond the reach of my stamina and perhaps my intellectual resources; while poems, as much as I admire them, require a far greater command of language and a more refined sense of observation than I have. Stories have challenged me greatly in my 20 years of creative writing, and even though I have yet to succeed in publishing my own, my uppermost intention is to continue up that hill.

All this is a long way to get around to stating that I find Melville’s short pieces fascinating and inspiring, and I would recommend them to readers who may be interested in experiencing some of his work but daunted by something as mammoth as, say, Moby-Dick. Read “Bartleby the Scrivener” or “Benito Cereno”, and you will acquire a sense of Melville’s great mastery of descriptive prose as well as his bottomless capacity for wonder at the natural world and the human animal. But you will also get cracking good stories, filled with insights and inquiries, the kind that transcend their own time and place, and bring together generations from across the vast landscape of literature.