Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 76 (October 1997):46-50.
It should have been easy for Herman Melville to hate Manhattan—the "Babylonish brick-kilns of New York," as he wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851. It was there in Manhattan he was born in 1819, at 6 Pearl Street, down by the Battery, while his ambitious, hard-driven father busily bankrupted the family with a hapless importing firm three blocks away. It was there in Manhattan he was unhappily schooled, first at the Male School on Crosby Street and then at the Columbia Grammar School, and there he returned thirty years later to spend the bitter, dark end of his life—a misemployed customs inspector turned drunkard, possibly a wife-beater, and the forgotten man of American letters: a minor author who’d written a scandalous sea-tale or two early in life and hadn’t had the sense to quit writing. It was there in Manhattan, in the family house at 104 East 26th Street, that his eldest son put a bullet through his brain in 1867, and there that Melville himself died in 1891—with an obituary in one New York journal that read, "even his own generation has long thought him dead."
Melville had as well a second reason to hate Manhattan—the whole urban world of "Cain’s city and citified man," as he wrote in Billy Budd (1924), the novella whose publication helped restore his literary reputation thirty years after his death. As a young man in 1840, abandoning the upstate New York towns to which his family retreated after his father’s bankruptcy and death, he visited Manhattan with his friend Eli Fly. But when the only work Fly could find was as a Wall Street scrivener, scratching out copies of endless legal documents, Melville fled, joining a whaler sailing for the Pacific on January 3, 1841. And it was there in the warm South Seas—the other side of the world from the city where men like Fly were "pent up in lath and plaster, tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks"—that at age twenty-three he found Nature’s own paradise on an island in the Marquesas and in the arms of a woman he fictionalized as "Fayaway" in Typee (1846), the scandalous first novel he wrote upon his return.
The author had even a third reason to hate Manhattan—the city "taken by its rats," where there reverberates at night "a mixed surf / Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot," as he described it in a poem from the 1860s. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, William Wordsworth might declare, "This did I feel in London’s vast Domain: / The Spirit of Nature was upon me there," and at the close of the century Arthur Conan Doyle might make Sherlock Holmes shudder at the thought of the countryside’s hidden crimes. But they were perfectly understood by their readers to be holding a deliberate paradox. As far back as Horace deserting ancient Rome for his Sabine farm—and indeed, far further back—there has run through Western literature a contrast between urban corruption and rural innocence. The Romantic tradition to which Melville at least partially belonged modified this pastoral motif in a number of ways, but it never lost its certainty that cities are perverse, the swarming nests of all that is evil and unnatural.
In January 1832, as he lay ruined, mad, and dying, Melville’s father marked in the family Bible the fifty-fifth psalm—the Romantics’ beloved psalm that reads: "Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away. . . . For I have seen violence and strife in the city, . . . mischief also and sorrow are in the midst of it. Wickedness is in the midst thereof: deceit and guile depart not from her streets." Melville himself, in his own bleak old age, underlined in his edition of Balzac the sentence, "New York: A place where speculation and individualism are carried to the highest pitch, where the brutality of self-interest attains to cynicism, where man [is] essentially isolated." But even as early as 1850, still flush with his early literary fame and staying with his brother Allan in a brownstone on Fourth Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets, Melville decided that he had to escape the Manhattan in which he failed to build any reputation besides being "the man who lived among cannibals." Buying a 160-acre farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, near the home of his idolized mentor Hawthorne, he claimed to find "a sort of sea-feeling in the country." It could only have been with a cobblestone from a city street, he wrote back to a friend in Manhattan, that Cain killed Abel and introduced murder into the world.
The reasons Melville should have hated New York have led many readers to imagine that he did in fact undertake an assault upon urban life in his land-based novels, Pierre (1852) and Israel Potter (1855), and such stories as "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853). In Melville, "cities are invariably evil, heartless, remorseless, indifferent," one modern critic observes; "the city is a description of disappointment, frustration, and pain," another adds—and the list goes on: "The black, demonic aspects of the city are uppermost in Melville’s mind in Pierre"; "Israel Potter is characterized by failure, frustration, and bleakness"; Bartleby’s New York is "blank, heartless, and cruelly indifferent."
In an interesting new study, Melville’s City (Cambridge University Press, 312 pp., $59.95), however, a scholar at MIT named Wyn Kelley demonstrates Melville’s surprising distance from the rest of nineteenth-century thought about the city. Tracing the course of the author’s work from Typee to Billy Budd, Kelley shows convincingly that Melville—though he borrowed from many different sources—belongs completely to none of the established genres of Victorian city writing: the Romantic pastoral that used urban depravity to extol rural virtue; the popular "Reform Literature" of the yellow journalists that sensationalized municipal corruption and disorder; the "scientific" tracts of the emerging city planning movement; or the urban strolls of the flâneur and the Addisonian "spectator" (a genre that reached its peak, for New York, with what Kelley calls the "humorous-genteel-sentimental-melodramatic-ironic" observations of Charles Dickens in his 1842 American Notes). And yet, though she shows Melville’s uniqueness, Kelley misses, I think, the conclusion to which her evidence points.
A close reading of "Bartleby, the Scrivener," his most sustained study of New York, reveals in fact that Melville had a profoundly theological understandings of the nineteenth-century city. It is true that he never possessed much notion of effective social reform; in "Bartleby" the urban social order is as fixed and determined as the order of Nature. Packing hordes together in its poverty-stricken tenements and slums, the city breeds endless crime, filth, and disease. And yet, in that very forcing of people upon each other, the city also breeds the inescapable notice of crime, filth, and disease—and thereby makes possible the sudden and utter conviction of guilt.
With his overwhelming sense of fallen human nature, Melville grants little room for the operation of grace, and the reformation his characters become convinced they need is usually impossible for them to obtain. But tragedy—especially a death brought about by participation in an inevitable social logic—compels the recognition of fallenness and failure. The occasion for the sin of indifference coincides in "Bartleby" with the occasion for being convicted of indifference, for the city is the hard school in which we learn our own sinfulness.
There is something of a boom going on these days in Melville studies, with Kelley’s book and at least half a dozen other major academic monographs appearing from university presses, and with two new full-length biographies published last year: Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s relatively unimportant but informative Melville: A Biography (Potter, 752 pp., $40) and the first volume of the endlessly detailed Herman Melville (Johns Hopkins University Press, 941 pp., $39.95) by Hershel Parker, the grand old man of Melville studies.
This new interest has had some bad effects, with interminable arguments over Melville’s sexuality and disputes over his wife-beating spilling onto the pages of the popular press. But one good effect has been the way readers are compelled to think again about the novelist’s life. There are several unsolved puzzles about Melville: what really happened in the Marquesas about which he told so many different stories; why the warm relations he so desperately treasured with Hawthorne cooled; why he turned into such a bitter man in his late thirties; and why his career is punctuated not just by such triumphs as Moby-Dick (1851), "Bartleby, the Scrivener," "Benito Cereno" (1856), and Billy Budd, but also by such artistic (and financial) disasters as Mardi (1849), Pierre, and The Confidence-Man (1857). But his relation to the city—Melville in Manhattan—may be the most interesting puzzle of all.
The testimony of those who knew him is not that he hated the city. "He has always liked New York, & is not the first man who has been beguiled into the country, & found by experience that it was not the place for him," his mother wrote a few months before Melville sold his farm and moved back to Manhattan. Decades later, his granddaughter described the enjoyment he found in daily walks through the city, up from the house on 26th and into Central Park, "the Mecca of most of our pilgrimages." Though he often deserted Manhattan, he always returned—and if he seemed at times not to like New York City, he seemed not to like any place very much: not the Albany where his Dutch grandparents had settled, the Boston where he courted his long-suffering wife, the Pittsfield farm he could never make pay, or the island paradise where he stayed just four weeks before fleeing (if his fictionalization in Typee is an accurate guide) in fear of being raped and eaten by cannibals.
Even the evidence from Melville’s fiction reveals no simple pattern of despising the city. Though the narrating Ishmael, as Moby-Dick opens, makes a much-celebrated claim that every city-dweller longs to escape to the sea, the actual tone of the passage betrays a conflicting affection for New York:
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs. . . . Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. . . . But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. . . . Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land.
Pierre tells in part the story of a young man’s corruption by Manhattan. "In the flashing, sinister, evil cross-lights of a druggist’s window," the newly arrived Pierre is accosted by a prostitute, "horribly lit by the green and yellow rays from the druggist’s"to scurry away, thinking, "My God! . . . the town’s first welcome to youth!" Later, after he has joined in the city’s evil, he passes out in the street and awakens to find himself "lying crosswise in the gutter, dabbled with mud and slime." But Pierre also tells in part the story of a self-righteous young prig who brings his pride and inner corruption to the city in order to find them confirmed.
It is hard to say just what Moby-Dick, Melville’s greatest and most famous work, really is: a metaphysical Romantic tragedy about Captain Ahab’s sexual obsession with an enormous white whale; an immense picaresque comedy about sailing; or a serio-comic grand opera that begins with the narrating Ishmael bored by the streaming crowds of New York and ends with him alone in the ocean, floating on the harpooner Queequeg’s coffin. But however one takes Moby-Dick, the book sufficiently demonstrates that its author was capable of huge, cosmic ideas about life and death, freedom and necessity, wisdom and insanity.
And yet, even as he develops such ideas in his fiction, he seems less to think them than to feel or even suffer them—wincing as they crash from side to side in his brain like dense boulders of thought. Melville was not a systematically educated man: thought backward in his early schooling, he taught himself literature by devouring haphazard naval libraries during the four years of his sailing adventure. And his lack of education meant that he had only the crudest intellectual tools with which to try to break his ideas open.
Perhaps the best way to grasp Melville is to take him as a relentless convoluter. What other writer would have taken an opening sentence as good as "Call me Ishmael" and buried it behind the ten pages of small-print quotation with which Melville begins Moby-Dick? What other writer, having just finished Moby-Dick and standing at the peak of his powers, would have taken in his next book a simple story about a young man’s descent in the city and compounded it into the unreadable, pseudo-Hawthornian mess of Pierre?
Even this understanding of Melville as a convoluter, however, itself needs convoluting, for he never deliberately started out to be anything other than simple. After the success of Typee and Omoo (1847), his third book, Mardi, proved unpopular in 1849, and under financial necessity he quickly produced in the next year two sailing stories, Redburn and White-Jacket, before turning under the influence of Hawthorne to the complexities of Moby-Dick and Pierre. He clearly intended these intermediate books as straightforward narrations: Redburn is merely a "nursery tale," he wrote in an admiring letter to Richard Henry Dana, the lawyer whose account of leaving Harvard to sail around Cape Horn was recorded in the immensely popular Two Years Before the Mast (1840). But Redburn and White-Jacket show Melville incapable of leaving his material simple and straightforward, and the books did not, in fact, prove financial or popular successes.
The problem lies partly in the fact that Melville felt his ideas as moods more than he thought them as ideas, and partly in the weakness of his schooling. He knew the Bible well, inheriting from his church-going age an almost unconsciously profound biblical awareness that left Scripture the ground on which his mind invariably walked. But Melville had little else of the kind of general education that might have stocked his brilliant mind with anything beyond the intellectual commonplaces of his day. His typical pattern of writing is to take a hackneyed, obvious notion like the Romantic view of the corrupt city and the innocent country, and twist it into complex, awkward shapes in an attempt to make it express the far denser mood-thought he felt about the city.
All of this—his deeply felt ideas, his biblical knowledge, his autodidactical education, and his convoluting development of a theme—shows to clear effect in what most critics think his greatest story, "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street." Harsh reviews doomed Pierre in 1852; by the time Melville died forty years later, the novel had brought in only $157. And yet, at the very moment Pierre was failing, Melville began to make his only steady money when first Harper’s magazine and then Putnam’s asked him to contribute regular stories. Completed quickly at the farm in Pittsfield, "Bartleby" was printed in Putnam’s in three installments in 1853, paying the author $85.
Relying on memories of his friend Fly’s work as a law-copyist in 1840, and of the office at 10 Wall Street where he visited his brother Allan after returning from sea in 1844, Melville sets his story in a modern, nineteenth-century office building. An elderly lawyer keeps a quiet practice, doing "a snug business among rich men’s bonds, and mortgages, and title-deeds." Indeed, he adds, "I do not speak in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat; for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion." He initially employs two clerks, but as the story opens, he has been named a Master in Chancery, where wills are read and estates settled. And in answer to his advertisement for an additional scrivener, there appears a "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn" figure named Bartleby.
At first, the work goes well. But one day, directed to check his copies, the clerk replies, "I would pre-fer not to." As Bartleby continues to refuse to help verify his work, the lawyer comes to feel as though in some utterly unspecifiable way he needed Bartleby’s refusal. Having allowed the scrivener in his "mild effrontery" to remain after the first noncompliance, he is incapable of firing him, even as what Bartleby prefers not to do escalates. Each new refusal is met by some new revelation that binds the employer’s sympathy. One Sunday, stopping on his way to a downtown church, the lawyer discovers Bartleby is living in the office—and "Presentiments of strange discoveries hovered round me. The scrivener’s pale form appeared to me laid out, among uncaring strangers, in its shivering winding sheet. . . . I did not accomplish the purpose of going to Trinity Church that morning. Somehow, the things I had seen disqualified me for the time from church-going."
When Bartleby prefers even not to copy, the lawyer at last fires him. But Bartleby raises his "passive resistance" one more step and refuses to leave. The hopelessly entangled lawyer, desperate to rid himself of "this man, or, rather, ghost" without violence, finally moves to another building. When new tenants have Bartleby removed to the New York jail called "the Tombs," the lawyer bribes a warder to see to his care. But Bartleby refuses help, preferring at the end even not to speak or eat. The lawyer visits the scrivener a final time, only to find that Bartleby has turned his face to the prison wall. "He’s asleep, ain’t he?" asks the warder; "With kings and counselors," the lawyer replies in the formula for welcome death from the Book of Job. In a postscript, the lawyer relates a vague rumor that Bartleby once worked in the Dead Letter department of the post office: "When I think over this rumor, hardly can I express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?" "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" he concludes in an overphrasing that rings strangely ironic.
There is a great deal going on in the story. From the first introduction of Bartleby as "pallid," to his imprisonment in "the Tombs," to the postscript’s rumor of "dead letters," Melville plays with common phrases that mention death, restoring to these dead metaphors more and more of their original morbid meaning. From the first description of the matching clerks, to the tedious reproduction of legal documents, to the inexplicable sympathy the lawyer feels for Bartleby, Melville delves deeper and deeper into the notion of copies. From the subtitle’s mention of "Wall Street," to the interior screens set up to divide the office, to the prison’s barricades, Melville gives more and more complicated expression to the idea of walls. Themes of food, paper, silence, law, and money swirl through the story as well.
All these features of "Bartleby" meet, however, in Melville’s convoluted use of Cain and Abel to present his mood-thought about the city. The story makes innumerable references to the Bible, from the opening parody of biblical language in the description of Astor, to the parody of Pilate’s questioning of Christ in the lawyer’s interview with a mute Bartleby, to the seriously meant quotation from Job. But perhaps the key reference occurs when the lawyer reflects that both he and Bartleby are "sons of Adam"—at which point the reader is expected to see behind a standard metaphor for shared humanity and recollect that Adam’s first son was Cain, the builder of the first city and the slayer of his brother. Perhaps the reader is even expected to remember that the Gospel of Luke declares, "The blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias," and continues in the next verse, "Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered."
This reference to Cain the builder in part Melville’s declaration that the lawyer, the "citified man" who takes away Bartleby’s key, is responsible for the scrivener’s death. But the feeling about the city that Melville is trying to express runs deeper than the pastoral commonplaces and reform literature of his contemporaries. The grave-destined Bartleby is no perfect victim; the same chapter of Luke that reproves lawyers denounces "scribes" like Bartleby as "graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them." The lawyer who "keeps" his office—and gives his coat to his older clerk, and bribes the warder to feed Bartleby, and (in a last attempt to save the scrivener) invites him into his home—is in fact his brother’s keeper in a way that only the city allows. And his sympathy for his scrivener and the guilt he feels when he dies are possible only in the close confines of urban life. Melville had no illusions about New York, but the city stands in his mind as the place where men learn not only cruel indifference to their brothers, but the necessity to keep them in charity as well.
The author "has lost his prestige," one publisher wrote in 1855, "and I don’t believe the Putnam’s stories will bring it up." After returning to Manhattan, Melville achieved some financial security by becoming a customs inspector in 1866, transferring in 1878 from the Battery’s Custom House to an office on the East River at 76th Street. The pace of his writing slowed with his new work. Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, and his Civil War poems, Battle-Pieces, had done little to restore him to public notice, and Clarel, his long poem from the 1870s, was, as he himself described it, "eminently suited for unpopularity." In the mid-1880s, inheritances eased his finances and a few British critics began to speak of him as a neglected American genius. But it came too late—his habit of bitterness too well established by his drinking, his rejection by Hawthorne, and his favorite son’s suicide to allow him much happiness in the few years he had left. Billy Budd, the work that would reestablish his reputation, remained unpublished on his desk in the house on 26th Street when, in September 1891, he was laid next to his son in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx. The convoluted New York City of his birth remained his home.
J. Bottum is Associate of First Things.