Chips from the Hanging Spar – Melville’s Last Works

Melville would seem to have had a fairly miserable old age, ending with his death of cardiac failure at the age of 72.  No wonder his heart gave out.  After an initial success with books about sailing in the South Seas (Typee, Omoo, among others), Melville struck out with Moby-Dick (the greatest American novel that the NYTimes misspelled the title of in his obituary) and then again with Pierre (“Herman Melville Crazy” read a headline).  At the age of 38, he seemed to be washed up.  His last full novel, The Confidence-Man, didn’t help his reputation.  It is, however, a novel worth reading and a book of our time, of illusion and disillusion.  Not long ago, Philip Roth said that “the relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’ ”

The characters in Melville’s novel are either scammers or those who are just asking to be scammed.  It asks the brilliant question as to why we are so prone to believe what we want to believe and not to look for the truth.  One of the most interesting passages in this regard involves an old person and is worth quoting here.  A “confidence man” is talking to a man from Missouri (no one seems to have names) about the conning of an old man on the steamer they all are traveling on.  The Missourian has just finished telling the old sick man that he shouldn’t trust in the natural remedies sold to him by the doctor/con man and the con man argues that it would be “pitiless” to take away the old man’s hope:

“Yes, poor soul,” said the Missourian, gravely eyeing the old man – “yes, it is pitiless in one like me to speak too honestly to one like you [the old man].  You are a later sitter-up in this life; past man’s usual bed-time; and truth, though with some it makes a wholesome breakfast, proves to all a supper too hearty.  Hearty food, taken late, gives bad dreams.”

Truth is too hard to bear in old age – and so we turn to religion, medicine, what? One might think of Jung’s call for religion as a source of “psychic hygiene” for one approaching death.  But of more interest here is Melville’s disillusionment with life.  There is none of that in Moby-Dick.  While there is the evil of Ahab, Moby-Dick is a tale of the cooperative effort of a shipload of very different men who work together to a common end.  Something has changed for Melville with time and age.  The taste of life has gone sour. 

But this was not Melville’s final statement.  I prefer to think of Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd as his last judgment on life.  There is still disillusionment, but there is also handsome, honest, innocent Billy.  Billy Budd has been called “Melville’s Testament of Acceptance” of life as it is (Fogle).  It has also been called a work of tragic irony.  I prefer to think that, after being buffeted about for decades, Melville shows us he remembers innocence, he remembers Eden.  And he has accepted that it is inevitably lost.  One thinks of Beethoven’s inscription to the last movement of one of his last works (String Quartet Opus 135): “The Difficult Decision.”  Over the notes he wrote the question, “Must it be?”  He then responds to himself as the movement lightens and quickens: “It must be.”

In Melville’s story, Billy must be hung even though his action was provoked by a psychopath and the whole crew is on his side.  But in the British Navy one could not get away with flaunting the rules.  It would be bad for discipline.

Melville flaunted the rules and paid the price in many ways.  I have no idea whether he had regrets in his old age, but it seems he was not particularly content.  In 1850, he had written an enthusiastic piece about Hawthorne (whom he had yet to meet), and in it he talked about how great writers did not avoid difficult topics.  And he says that “he who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.  Failure is the true test of greatness.”  Melville himself was about to be tested.

He wrote the piece about Hawthorne in 1850, while he was working on Moby-Dick.  That great novel was published in 1851 to mediocre (at best) reviews.  In 1852, he published Pierre, which induced reviewers to doubt his sanity.  The Confidence Man  – Melville’s last full novel – was published in 1857 when Melville was only 38.  Eventually unable to sustain himself as an author, he took a job as a customs inspector in 1866 and worked at the New York Customs House for 19 years.  And then he started Billy Budd, which was published many years after his death.

According to the biographers, Melville entered a long silence at the end of his life.  Some thought he was crazy; but he was writing Billy Budd and, perhaps, came to the conclusion that we are all crazy and had to be to live this absurd life.

Melville had early success, which dwindled into an undeserved neglect and failure in his old age.  It happens.  We all have things (or marriages or children) which did not turn out as we hoped.  The question is what we do with all of that in our old age.  I wish I could tell Melville how much I love Moby-Dick; how well he read human nature in The Confidence Man, and how Billy Budd is one of the grandest of tragedies.

 In Billy Budd, the spar that Billy is hung on turns into a holy relic of sorts, with sailors chipping off bits surreptitiously because they know that there died a noble soul.  I have no chips of the spar or the true cross, but I have Melville’s books.

 If you are interested in thinking about what to do with a sense of failure in old age, you might look at my stories “A Balm in Gilead” or “A Perfect Ending.”  Or you might look at an earlier post, A Dimished Thing?.

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