Thursday, December 30, 2010

Don't Cross the Streams

An excerpt from Forever Voyaging: A Literary Sabbatical with Herman Melville, my nonfiction book-in-progress.

I challenged myself about a decade ago to read one book by Charles Dickens every year for the rest of my life. This last year (2010) is the one time since that I have not lived up to this challenge. I thought for a while about suspending the Melville project in order to squeeze in another installment of what I nerdily describe as “Dickensfest”, i.e., my annual reading of his work. But I didn’t want to violate the integrity of the experiment. And there was simply no way I was going to read both Dickens and Melville simultaneously. I don’t know how many people today still read both of these writers’ books, but I’m sure they’re out there; these folks know that you can read one or the other, but not both at once.

The suggestion brings to my mind that memorable scene from Ghostbusters where Harold Ramis warns Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd not to “cross the streams” of their zap guns, telling them in a most understated manner that the consequences would be “bad.” If you’re wondering how we were able to travel from Melville to Dickens to Ghostbusters in so short a space, my advice is not to attempt to understand, but to merely hang on for your own “nautical sleigh-ride.” This book will take other unexpected and possibly jarring turns, but consider the bright side. There are many, many books out there about Herman Melville, but only this one offers the kind of head-turning digression you have just experienced.

I bring Charles Dickens into the mix because in some respects I felt as though I had almost read a Dickens book when I finished Redburn, for to me it is easily the most Dickensian of Melville’s works. It is an interesting point of consideration: the affinity or lack thereof between Herman Melville and Charles Dickens, in terms of both their writings and the men themselves. They were contemporaries. Dickens, obviously, had a longer and far more celebrated career as a novelist, but they both were writing in the same literary era (Dickens got a decade’s jump on Melville), and it’s certainly possible to argue that they were at the height of their literary powers at the same time, in the early 1850s.

The two writers never met. In fact, from Melville’s side of things, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that he gave Charles Dickens a whole lot of thought either way. Certainly he must have been well aware of his novels as they followed one on top of the other. Dickens was something like the Beatles of his day, all the way up to the triumphant arrival on American shores during his first visit to the United States in 1842. His name for his moment in time was much like J.K. Rowling’s for our own; you may not have read his novels, but you certainly knew who the man was. Melville, for his part, was closer to his predecessor Edgar Allen Poe, in that he accomplished a great deal of brilliant work that no one much appreciated, of course, until well after he was dead.

Did Dickens’ work have any influence over Melville? If at all, it seems to have been only to a limited extent. I have read at least one biographical anecdote indicating that Melville and his wife, Elizabeth (“Lizzie”), occasionally would read Dickens’ books aloud to one another. There’s one story, documented by biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant and others, that recounts a coincidental occasion in which Melville, visiting London in 1849 in order to deliver the manuscript of White-Jacket to his English publisher, attended a public hanging that Dickens personally witnessed and later reported on. Dickens also visited the Manhattan’s infamous House of Detention prison complex, commonly known as “The Tombs,” in 1842 and subsequently wrote about it in a travel narrative called American Notes – the same prison that factors into the conclusion of Melville’s novel Pierre as well as his classic short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Although each of these make interesting side-notes, the fact remains that Dickens’ and Melville’s circles rarely intersected, and given the flash-in-the-pan reputation that Melville was saddled with for most of his lifetime, this seems reasonable.

Dickens, obviously, was famous for going in to places and recounting the circumstances and conditions he experienced while there. He did this in his novels and in his exhaustive catalog of journalistic pieces, and he did the same in American Notes. He was famously and justifiably horrified by the sights he had come across in New York City’s Five Points region during his visit; the resulting account of this place and others in his book were regarded as something of a betrayal to many well-intended Americans who had welcomed the great novelist like he was some kind of royal figure or head of state. Melville, to a lesser extent, delivers the same sort of reportage in the Liverpool section of Redburn, although he experienced none of the backlash, since he lacked anything resembling Dickens’ readership.

Melville stages this portion of his novel interestingly, in that the titular character has come to Liverpool because it is the place where the business that was the Highlander’s primary purpose in the first place is to be transacted. But Redburn has also come to Liverpool for a personal reason: his own father, during his youth, had “several times crossed the Atlantic on business affairs,” and had visited Liverpool well ahead of his son. Redburn even brings along with him an old guidebook, published in 1803, called “The Picture of Liverpool” which his father had used on his own journey years before and had jotted down notes of his experiences in the margins. This book is a treasure to the young traveler, who is determined to disembark as soon as he is allowed in order to literally follow in his father’s footsteps on his own exploration of that coastal city, using the same guidebook to plan his route. The reader feels Redburn’s inner conflict here rather acutely. He left home to outrun his father’s misfortunes and his shadow in the first place. Yet he also longs to share in the man’s experiences and even to possibly redeem him.

When as a young man you visit a place where your father has gone before you – no matter how significant or insignificant his experiences there – you are haunted by a kind of invisible apparition of that man. It doesn’t matter if your father is alive or deceased at the time of your journey: it is the specter of his younger self that follows you, nipping at your heels, all but whispering the same questions into your ears that you are already asking yourself. It is a bit of a psychological minefield that countless young men, for mysterious reasons, wander into quite willingly.

I’ve had this experience, too, in more places than one, but nowhere more so than when I attended Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the late 1980s and early 90s. My father had gone to undergraduate and graduate school at Xavier four decades before. In my first year I lived in a dormitory on the same side of the same street where my father once lived – except when he resided there, there was no dormitory. Instead there were literally military barracks where he was jammed in with hundreds of other young men. Indeed, I spent my whole time in college walking around a campus where he had lived and studied and struggled.

This sort of thing is both a blessing and a curse. Most young men experience a certain unique pride simply to walk where their fathers once walked. You feel inspired to make your own name while doing right by his. Even Jesus Christ longed to do the same. You want to cross through the same battleground or spiritual wasteland or what have you that your old man did. But at the same time you feel an obligation to live up to his example – and of course, when he set that example, he inevitably had it much tougher than you. Every time I had a feeling that I couldn’t overcome a challenge in college, there was my father’s youthful ghost, saying: Remember, boy, you live in a dormitory; I lived in army barracks. You had a refrigerator humming pleasantly in your room; I set perishable food out on a windowsill in the dead of winter to keep it safe to eat. You had a scholarship and a stipend; I waited tables and swept floors for tuition money. All this was no less unpleasant for being accurate.

Thus does Redburn set out to see what his old man had seen. And he gets more than an eyeful for his efforts. Melville brings the sights and sounds of Liverpool vividly to life, including the hustle and bustle of the “granite-rimmed” stone docks, where the merchant ships are executing their transactions; a “floating chapel,” and “old sloop-of-war, which had been converted into a mariner’s church” wherein the clergy had the unenviable task of inducing “the seamen visiting Liverpool to turn their thoughts towards serious things”; and finally, what may be described as the poorer side of town. The young man wanders into depraved and foul conditions unlike anything he has been exposed to before.

It is at this moment in the novel, when Redburn finds himself in a narrow alley called “Launcelott's-Hey,” that Melville stages his most Dickensian scene, and it is one of the most powerfully written passages on urban conditions during that century that I have encountered from any writer. Ambling along by himself, Redburn hears a “feeble wail, which seemed to come out of the earth,” whereupon he investigates as follows:

At last I advanced to an opening which communicated downward with deep tiers of cellars beneath a tumbling old warehouse; and there some fifteen feet below the walk, crouching in nameless squalor, was the figure of what had been a woman. Her blue arms folded to her livid bosom two shrunken things like children, that leaned toward her, one on each side. At first, I knew not whether they were alive or dead. They made no sign; they did not move or stir; but from the vault came that soul-sickening wail.

Redburn is so horror-stricken upon making this discovery that he decides to act. But when he returns to the street to seek assistance, he is repeatedly rebuked. In one case, when he asks a woman where this unfortunate family, notably lacking a father figure, might be taken, she coldly replies, “To the churchyard.” Moments later, a second woman, described as a “hag,” renders an even harsher judgment: “She deserves it.” In this manner the young man is introduced to the way societies often try, convict, and condemn the poor and the disadvantaged in one fell swoop.

The sight of such misery and its implied social injustice is profoundly convicting to Redburn, who feels charged enough to ask, “What right had anybody in the wide world to smile and be glad, when sights like this were to be seen?” After failing numerous times to secure help or to come up with a viable plan, Redburn realizes he must return to his ship. Before he does, however, he makes one last visit to the alley, where he finds that “in place of the woman and children, a heap of quick-lime was glistening.”

This scene for me brought to mind the more famous encounter of a Dickens protagonist with victims of poverty and neglect: namely that of one Ebenezer Scrooge, during his visitation by the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ classic story “A Christmas Carol.” Many readers will recall the moment when, just before that towering “spirit” leaves Scrooge to pursue his fitful Christmas Eve sleep again, he opens the bottom of his long robe to reveal two small children clinging to his legs, who appear “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable.” When Scrooge smugly inquires of the spirit whose children they are, the ghost responds with the same answer that Redburn has inferred from his own permanently scarring experience: “They are Man’s.”

(c) 2010 by Jude Joseph Lovell

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