Sunday, January 08, 2012

No Backing Down

An excerpt from Mutt Ploughmans' book Forever Voyaging: One Writer's Apprenticeship with Herman Melville.

For years I have nursed an idea for a specific writing project in some nether corner of my mind. The concept is to write an historical novel about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who became unexpectedly famous due to his remarkable spiritual memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), and who went on to have a long and distinguished career as a prose writer, poet, peace activist, and spiritual mentor.

This is an ambitious scheme, and nothing in my history suggests that I have either the skills or the stamina to bring it off. I would have to do a great deal of background research, for one, something I lack the resources and the time for. It would also be extremely taxing from a craft point of view, trying to get a handle on the nuances and the complexities of a figure so well known and even revered in many circles.

To write a novel like this is a pipe dream. But I hold on to such things. A writer should always dream big. If he can’t, he should find a job in an office somewhere (or keep the one he probably already has). When he gets a vague idea for a future project, he sometimes will try to plan for it in advance, anticipating the moment when he may feel bold or just insane enough to give it a try. He keeps one eye open all the time for anything that could help, while keeping the idea on low heat in his mind. Sometimes this lasts for years.

Not long ago, for example, my twin brother and I were in a used bookstore in Philadelphia, and I spotted an out-of-print paperback edition of a 1970 book called The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The Hard Life and Good Times of Thomas Merton, written by Ed Rice, a lifelong friend and close confidante. I knew about the book from having read biographies of Merton, but had never seen a paperback copy before. The book was musty and old. All the better. I bought it without hesitation. I do not know if I will ever have what it takes to give my novel about Merton a try. But if I ever do, that discovery in Philadelphia will surely be a tremendous help.

I bring this up in order to explain that when I read the following anecdotal tidbits about Melville, I related well to what he was doing. Most fiction writers probably would. In 1849, just before sailing for England to hand-deliver the manuscript of White-Jacket to his British publisher, Melville saw and promptly purchased at a downtown New York bookstall a pamphlet with the extraordinary title The Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter (A Native of Cranston, Rhode Island), Who Was a Soldier in the American Revolution. This tale chronicled the titular figure’s real-life journey from the battlefields of America to Europe, where he remained in “exile” for fifty years.

Both of Melville’s grandfathers served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, a source of pride for the writer throughout his life. Thomas Melvill, Herman’s paternal grandfather, had in his possession a glass vial filled with tea leaves from the actual Boston Tea Party that Melville could remember admiring as a boy. Clearly Melville bought the pamphlet to stow away for future use. This fact seems confirmed when, weeks later, he recorded in his journal that while in London he had picked up a map of the city dated 1766 “in case I serve up the Revolutionary narrative of a beggar.” These advance maneuvers eventually led to his 1855 novel Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile.

After the debacle of Pierre, Melville seemed inclined to move forward on a number of different azimuths. Most immediately, in order to earn much-needed cash, he turned to writing short fiction for the literary magazine market. Some critics have characterized this period as Melville going “underground;” indeed, many of the stories he wrote were published anonymously. He was paid about $5 a page on average - surprisingly lucrative wages - and his work appeared primarily in two publications: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine; and the newer Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, published by George Palmer Putnam, whom Melville knew through his (dwindling) connections in the New York literary establishment.

Between these two journals, some of Melville’s most enduring fiction was first revealed to the world, including “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (Harper’s, 1853), “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (Harper’s, 1855), and “Benito Cereno” (Putnam’s, 1855). In the following chapter, we will examine these and other short fiction works by Melville – which, when considered individually, effectively broaden a reader’s understanding of his marvelous skills and range of interests.

Some also regard this time as Melville’s period of “seclusion,” when he withdrew into himself, and was possibly even afraid to write another novel after the beating he’d taken for Pierre. Personally, I can’t find evidence in any of Melville’s writings up to Israel Potter that he was ever anywhere other than deeply within himself. Nonetheless, one may be tempted to conclude that he was cowed into writing thrifty or whimsical short fiction by the negative feedback he received all his life from critics. But when you look closely at Melville’s life and his working output during this time, it seems that nothing could be farther from the truth.

First of all, while some of the shorter stories he wrote could indeed be characterized as entertainments (one story called “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!” is about a vain rooster with a glorious lineage), several of his shorter works still wrestle with weighty themes and betray a kind of progressive urgency. If you have read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” you know that its meaning and its themes could be debated without end, but no one would describe that particular story as “whimsical.”

Though he changed direction frequently, and experimented in countless ways during these mid-career years, Melville did not tamper his pace. He did not like to allow too much idle time to pass between projects “for fear of facing that dreaded state,” Robertson-Lorant writes sympathetically, “in which a writer looks at blank paper and sees the existential void.”

In addition to writing almost all of his short stories in this decade, he also wrote another novel – apparently on the heels of Pierre – with the beguiling title Isle of the Cross. In a prime example of literary tragedy, however, the manuscript has been lost to the ages.

Only a handful of details are known regarding what this novel would have been about. Thanks to his father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw, Melville had been introduced to an accomplished attorney named John Clifford. At some point during the course of their acquaintance, Clifford told Melville an intriguing story from his professional experience that rooted itself in the writer’s mind. The story had to do with a woman, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper on Nantucket, who saved a drowning soldier from a shipwreck, eventually marrying the man. They had a daughter; but later, apparently afflicted with wanderlust, the man went off to sea again. It was not until many years later, when their daughter was seventeen, that the man finally reconsidered and returned to the woman, full of penitence, expressing a desire to repair his broken relationship with his family.

It is fascinating to speculate on how this novel may have colored Melville’s overall legacy, or what place it may have taken in a meritorious hierarchy of his books. The novel would have been notable for the fact that its primary character was a land-locked woman, not a sailor or some other white, male misanthrope. For Melville to write an entire novel around a woman’s life demonstrates significant advances in his sensibility and in his skills as a storyteller. Yet, because of his damaged reputation as a result of Pierre, he was unable to convince a publisher to accept Isle of the Cross. The manuscript was tucked away somewhere and, eventually, swallowed up by time.

Sometimes when a writer is between projects, she simply flails around for a while, lobbing a bunch of darts at the big wheel of potential ideas in her imagination. She may write a story here, an essay there, an aborted beginning to a novel, perhaps a blog post. I experienced this kind of water-treading between March and June of 2010. It’s a drag. I couldn’t come up with any new ideas for stories or even a quick essay, so I spent time on my own blog, posting amateurish responses to Melville’s books. I also spent time editing the stories I had written previously, sending them out to small literary magazines, and waiting for weeks and months – only to receive rejection notices for every one. This was nothing new. Truthfully, it feels worse to lack a new story to tell than to hang on the fate of existing ones.

As I worked through this head-turning, somewhat jarring period in Melville’s own literary progress, I again felt as though I could relate to some of his experiences. He tried out a bunch of new things, seeming to grope for the one project that would command his full attention.

Since it seems evident, from our perspective, that Melville’s writing was changing into something else, the thought occurred to me that perhaps 2010 was a year in which I was turning into a different sort of writer myself. This may be the ultimate reason why I was so gripped by Melville in general, and for such a long period. He might be the ideal companion for any American writer undergoing a transformation.

In my case, this notion seemed welcome. After all, my first 20 years of writing had not led me into any bright, lush valley of success. But that didn’t make going through radical change any less painful. It’s hard to be unsure of exactly where you are going or how you might get there. When you consider Melville’s total body of work and the life he led, you see clearly that no matter how else he may have stumbled, or what sort of man he was in matters unrelated to art, he never allowed the indecision, the empty void of despair, to defeat him. Melville was a kind of Tom Petty of American letters, standing up before the gates of critical and commercial Hell. He wouldn’t back down.


In 1853 and into 1854, having already penned one story that would go down as a classic of the form (“Bartleby”), Melville re-read the pamphlet about the war veteran Israel Potter. Having had the impulse to snatch it up in the first place, in the faith that the right time to take on Potter’s story would make itself known, it must have been stimulating after the experimentation of 1852-1853 to re-discover this gem from his own library. This time, Israel Potter’s tale seized Herman Melville for good. In Andrew Delbanco’s words, “the story of a life that starts out gloriously but leads nowhere suited Melville’s mood.”

He got to work on what we would today call an historical novel, or maybe a work of speculative fiction, based on this broadly unknown tale of a soldier who helped bring about the birth of a nation, but was never given the recognition he deserved. He wrote it in a refined, comparatively direct prose style that bore the stamp of the work he had been doing in magazines. Like his earlier Redburn, Israel Potter was far more palatable to the common reader than his other novels. Melville was as aware of this fact as anyone. When we come across passages like this one, describing a naval battle, it seems he was consciously working to keep hold of the reader’s attention, in spite of the fact that it sounds a little like an early version of Yoda:

Elsewhere than here the reader must go who seeks an elaborate version of the fight, or indeed, much of any regular account of it whatever. The writer is but brought to mention the battle, because he must needs follow, in all events, the fortunes of the humble adventurer whose life he records.

It seems unlikely that the same man who penned Mardi or Pierre would write in this manner without first undertaking a fundamental overhaul to his craft.

Seeking to turn a profit from his effort, Melville sent off the first 60 pages of the novel to George Palmer Putnam, requesting that the story be serialized. He assured Putnam that his newest work continued “nothing of any sort to shock the fastidious” and “very little reflective writing. It is adventure.” The publisher evidently drank the Kool-Aid. Unlike most of the work of his great contemporary across the pond, Charles Dickens, Israel Potter was Melville’s only serialized novel.

The novel that eventually emerged from all of this is Melville’s shortest, clocking in at fewer than 200 pages; with a paltry 26 chapters (Mardi, by contrast, has 195). When all the pieces were assembled and published as one volume in 1855, it was priced at $0.75 apiece and it sold about 3,000 copies in its first six months. While this does not seem spectacular, it was more than twice what Pierre sold while Melville was alive. Although it seems to receive the least attention from modern Melville critics and aficionados, it has been described as one of the most accessible and entertaining of his books – though it does contain, to this reader anyway, a sizeable dollop of flat-out weirdness on top of its historical/fantastical mixture.

Israel Potter is a humble farmer from rural New England who dreams of one day owning a piece of land. Having fallen in love with the daughter of a more prominent neighbor, he leaves his parents’ nest at a very young age to formally request the girl’s hand. But his appeal is coldly denied, and Israel, destitute and broken-hearted, decides to volunteer for the nascent American militia. He acquits himself bravely at Bunker Hill and elsewhere, witnessing many horrors, but when he returns home to pursue his dream, he discovers that his money is worthless. Turned away again, Israel does what so many groundless, unfocused young men did during this historical era: he goes off to sea.

There his life takes another dramatic turn. The United States, now its own nation, still maintains a rather tempestuous relationship to its former motherland. Unfortunately for Potter, his ship is seized by the British navy, and he is transported in shackles to England. Setting foot on foreign soil as a still-young man, Potter has no idea that he will spend the next five decades in Europe, unable to scratch together the means to return to his own country.

Though he arrives as a prisoner, Potter isn’t about to take his incarceration lying down. Characterized by Melville as “bred among mountains,” and thus having a certain natural toughness and an aversion to being patronized, Potter escapes from bondage, aided by a sympathetic “knight” named Sir John Millet. Millet even goes so far as to use his contacts to help Potter find work, and eventually, by twists and turns of fate, secures the escaped prisoner a job as a “laborer” in the gardens of none other than King George III, the very personification of the enemy force Potter had shed his blood at Bunker Hill to rebuke.

From this point forward, the novel proceeds on an unlikely but engaging path, bringing Israel Potter into circumstantial contact with some of the most famous figures from the Revolutionary War period. In Andrew Delbanco’s helpful description, Israel Potter is presented as a kind of “18th century Forrest Gump.” Like that character, Potter seems to have within him a healthy measure of simplicity or innocence, or both, but he acquits himself well physically when the situation demands, and he does not shy away from speaking the truth no matter who he is addressing. While tending to the King of England’s garden he one day, inevitably, finds himself in a dialogue with the monarch. When George III requests that Potter address him properly as his sovereign, the younger man’s reply is unambiguous: “Sir, I have no king.”

Finding himself in an unlikely position of proximity to the innermost mechanisms of the British monarchy, Potter encounters a man whose expertise is the acquisition of intelligence. Noting both Potter’s youth and his moxie, the man recruits him as a spy and sends him on an “errand” to France to glean information from the American statesman Benjamin Franklin. Subsequently, Potter is led into various other improbable adventures, including individual escapades with Ethan Allen and John Paul Jones.

Melville clearly had fun presenting caricature-like portrayals of these widely known personalities from the legend of America’s birth. Franklin is portrayed as a punning, hedonistic power broker who seems to thoroughly enjoy the exalted status he maintains in Paris. John Paul Jones, on the other hand, comes over as a trigger-happy warmonger, always itching for a fight. When he has the opportunity to take note of Potter’s disdain for the British, he enlists Potter to participate in his marauding naval expeditions: “You hate so well, I love ye. You shall be my confidential man.”

Thus, turned this way and that by kismet, Potter endures many colorful adventures on what he sees as the wrong side of the Atlantic, some more treacherous than others. One of the most striking aspects of this character’s story is that while he is called upon again and again to risk his own well being for one cause or another, by men who recognize his courage, he is never quite taken care of by any of them, and is repeatedly dismissed once the job is complete. Potter ends up homeless on the teeming streets of London, trying to scratch out a living as a furniture repairman. He walks around hollering the novel’s signature calling card: “Old chairs to mend!” When he finally gains the opportunity to sail back to America, most of his unique but unlucky life is behind him: “An octogenarian as he recrossed the brine, he shared locks besnowed as its foam. White-haired old ocean seemed as a brother.”

Returning to his home country after so many years gone, Potter has nothing left. He tries to locate his father’s old homestead, only to find it has long been burned to ashes. He files a legal injunction seeking recompense from the government of the United States for his role in the Revolution, but it is summarily dismissed “by caprices of law.” As Melville writes strikingly near the end of Potter’s story, “his scars are his only medals.” Lastly, as a final insult, when Potter makes his way to Boston to attend a Fourth of July parade celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, he is struck and nearly killed by a “patriotic triumphal car.”

Israel Potter is a fascinating entry into Melville’s canon for numerous reasons – its polished prose style; its historical perspective; its tall tale-like tone; its sense of play – but one of the most intriguing aspects of this novel and its history is the way it was received versus the way Melville intended it. Even though he wanted the novel to appeal to many readers – what fiction writer does not aspire to the same thing? – the book was clearly written as a critique of his own homeland. Melville felt that the story of the real Israel Potter stood as an example of how the United States of America, conceived with such noble intentions, had betrayed its own values, its own principles.

Yet the critics, for once, widely approved of Israel Potter, and turned a blind eye to the book’s implicit satire. One reviewer praised it for its “manly and direct” narrative style. They patted Melville on the back for finally cleaning up his act and delivering an entertaining story steeped in risk and adventure, and disregarded the apparent discomfort the author felt about the state of things in their young nation. As with Israel Potter himself in his day, the critics seemed to feel that if they just ignored Melville’s satirical broadsides, they might quietly sputter out on their own.

What Melville must have felt about all of this is hard to know. Surely he must have appreciated positive notices regarding his work as much as the next writer, and probably some of the good reviews were helpful in the book moving a respectable number of copies. But it also must have been a familiar frustration that the novel was not read closely enough by most critics to notice qualities that might have been considered controversial. There was often a dismissive or patronizing tone to the way the critics treated Melville’s books, especially as he grew older. Almost as if their reviewing his books at all should have been honor enough for him, and that he ought to have been grateful for their taking notice of what he brought forward.

Israel Potter doesn’t quite have that feeling of a great ambition winningly accomplished that one derives from novels like Moby-Dick or Mardi, or even Pierre. It is an odd bird even in Melville’s catalog. Yet I feel like it is distinguished in a number of ways. It confirmed Melville’s standing as a ceaseless innovator who challenged himself at all stages, throughout his writing career. It is one of the very few homegrown works I have seen in any art form – books, films, visual art – that is willing to take a critical view of the United States and its actions with regard to the American Revolution. One almost never finds anything about the birth of our country and the years immediately following that is not presented in glorious colors. In that sense, Israel Potter is a brave novel. It will make any American think.

Melville was patriotic enough, and was rightfully proud of his own family’s historical participation in the Revolution. Yet he also had a compassionate and progressive way of thinking about the common man, and was unwilling to gloss over actions by the government or society at large that he saw as socially unjust. He would brilliantly demonstrate this bedrock principle again, almost immediately after publishing Israel Potter, in his great novella “Benito Cereno,” focusing this time on slavery and racism.

Another distinction of Israel Potter is that it is still the only novel I’ve ever come across that is dedicated to an inanimate object, bizarre as that sounds. In some ways this book’s dedication page (actually almost two pages) is central to the entire concept; indeed, Melville said as much in a letter written decades later: “In what light the book … is to be regarded, may be clearly inferred from what is said in the dedication.”

If one flips back and reads these pages again after the devastating denouement to Israel Potter’s story, and notes that the book is presented “To His Highness the Bunker Hill Monument” (in Boston, Mass.), one begins to grasp Melville’s full intent. Israel Potter is, unfortunately, a prophetic book. At times it has the feel of a Vietnam-era anti-war novel, even though it preceded that conflict by over a century. When the reader reaches the last paragraph of the dedication, there can be no doubt of its sardonic tone:

Your Highness will pardon me, if, with the warmest ascriptions on this auspicious occasion, I take the liberty to mingle my hearty congratulations on the recurrence of the anniversary day we celebrate, wishing your Highness … many returns of the same, and that each of its summer’s suns may shine as brightly on your brow as winter snow shall lightly rest on the grave of Israel Potter.

The final aspect of the book I wish to reflect on is the very name of the character himself. Even though Melville did not invent the name of “Israel Potter,” he immediately seized upon its ironic possibilities, with its reference to the “potter’s field,” a term describing a mass graveyard for criminals and outcasts. This is the kind of detail that a writer jumps all over, and immediately begins to unpack in his mind. If they are very fortunate, it can trigger the spark that drives and sustains an entire novel.

It was an enlightening and enjoyable experience to read Israel Potter, a novel that seems unjustly forgotten. It is difficult to find a book that is both a colorful entertainment and an instructive case study of a great writer’s continual evolution. The book is well worth a modern reader’s time. Hell, I felt proud of myself merely for having discovered and enjoyed a novel about a character named “Potter” that had absolutely nothing to do with magic, wizards, or “muggles.” With due respect to J.K. Rowling and her success, that alone, in our time, feels like an achievement.