Melville in the Margins

December 2, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Redburn, by Herman Melville.

Reading next: Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens.

If you’re a fan of Melville but didn’t know what to read besides Moby-Dick, or if you’ve been intimidated or put off by that book, do yourself a favor and give Redburn a try.  It’s short(er), it’s a good story, and it’s got some terrific, Dickensian sections on New York and Liverpool in the early-to-mid-19th century.  Melville’s voice is there, and he digresses a lot, but in interesting ways, and not so much as in his masterpiece.

Okay, PSA over.  Let’s talk about the Melville I love: Melville the trickster, the pre-postmodern, writing his books in the margins of other books while affecting a scorn for book-learnin’.  This book taking place mostly among the very poor and at sea doesn’t stop books and other printed matter from showing up everywhere, in interesting ways: what’s most interesting in Redburn is the variety of uses to which books are put, and the variety of meanings they hold for their owners:

-The book as moral guide, obviously: The ship’s black cook, Mr. Thompson, is rather more learned and curious than most of the white sailors.  In Redburn’s description from Chapter 17:

All that Sunday morning, he sat over his boiling pots, reading out of a book which was very much soiled and covered with grease spots: for he kept it stuck into a little leather strap, nailed to the keg where he kept the fat skimmed off the water in which the salt beef was cooked.  I could hardly believe my eyes when I found this book was the Bible.

Thompson uses this book not only for his own devotions, but to attempt to edify the steward, a “dandy mulatto” named Lavender.

-The book as object — pillow, specifically: There’s a terrific section in Ch. 18 (which is all about books) in which Redburn, having already read two books (a compilation of shipwrecks and a tract on the DT’s) loaned to him by a fellow sailor, pulls out Smith’s Wealth of Nations, loaned by a New York acquaintance.  I love this sentence for its apparent insight into a youth’s decision-making process in reading matter: “I glanced at the title page… I caught sight of “Aberdeen,” where the book was printed; and thinking that any thing from Scotland, a foreign country, must prove some way or other pleasing to me, I thanked Mr. Jones very kindly…”  There’s some humor about the book being unreadable, and Redburn says that “the best reading was on the fly-leaves,” where an inscription from 1798 is found; Redburn, like any good sub-sub-librarian in a special collections library, is most interested in provenance, the history of the book.  Finally, Redburn wraps his jacket around it, and uses it as a pillow in his tiny sleeping berth.

-The self-help book: A sailor named Jack Blunt has “an extraordinary looking pamphlet, with a red cover, marked all over with astrological signs and ciphers,” called the “Napoleon Dream Book.”  This provides Blunt a method of divining the meaning of his dreams, and is supposed to be the same system of dream-interpretation that Napoleon used to guide his rise to power.  Blunt faithfully follows this system every morning, making cabalistic marks on his chest to discover the meaning of his dreams.  (n.b.: there was, apparently, a popular song called “The Dream of Napoleon,” but I’ve found no extant divination guide with the title Melville provides.)

-The book as lost paradise: Most touchingly, chapters 30 and 31 deal with Redburn’s guidebook to Liverpool, entitled The Picture of Liverpool.  This is a real book, published in many editions.  Redburn’s is an almost religiously adored copy, used as it was by his father.  Things are quite autobiographical here: much as Melville’s father was once prosperous but slid into debt, so Redburn’s father dies penniless, and the Liverpool guidebook is a token of his glory days, crossing the Atlantic on mercantile business.  Redburn tries to follow his father’s route using the map his father marked up, and visit the sites his father saw, and take the roads he took; but he finds the city has grown, and changed, and the hotel where his father stayed was torn down, and many of the other sites pictured in the book’s plates are now gone, or radically transformed.

Throughout the book — as throughout much of Melville — there’s a tension between the knowledge gained from books and the knowledge gained in lived experience.  Ishmael famously said that a whaling ship was his Harvard and Yale, and this is commonly taken to stand for Melville’s belief; but then, Melville’s Harvard and Yale were also books by Charles Henry Dana and Milton and Shakespeare and Hawthorne and encyclopedists and anonymous balladeers and Moses and the Apostles.  He used them and learned (or stole) as much from them as from his years at sea.  Experience changes, memory fades; print remains.

Melville is fascinated by the palimpsest, the written-over text, the vainglory of print.  In Liverpool he remarks on the advertising broadsides, the quack-medicine handbills, and the song sheets hastily printed for the balladeers who sing of murders committed only yesterday.  Two quotes from this section are marvelous guideposts to Melville’s thoughts on literature, and on life:

Guide-books, Wellingborough, are the least reliable books in all literature; and nearly all literature, in one sense, is made up of guide-books….  Every age makes its own guide-books, and the old ones are used for waste-paper.

…I never could look at Death without a shudder.

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