Sunday, May 20, 2012

`The Grand Pacification is Coming'

One hundred-fifty years ago this week, on May 25, 1862, Herman Melville’s youngest brother, thirty-two-year-old Thomas, was making his final commercial voyage, bound for Hong Kong as captain of the Bengal. Herman was landlocked at Arrowhead, the house in Pittsfield, Mass., where he and his family lived from 1850 to 1863, and where he finished writing Moby-Dick in 1851. Melville addressed his letter to Tom “My Dear Boy: (or, if that appear disrespectful) My Dear Captain.” Its tone throughout is affectionate, kidding and, near the conclusion, rousingly patriotic. He begins by chiding his brother for the “long and entertaining letter” (now lost) Tom had written their mother. In it, Tom had complained of a “jackass” who “improves his opportunities in the way of sleeping, eating & other commendable customs.” Melville writes:

“For my part I love sleepy fellows, and the more ignorant the better. Damn your wide-awake and knowing chaps. As for sleepiness, it is one of the noblest qualities of humanity. There is something sociable about it, too. Think of those sensible & sociable millions of good fellows all taking a good long friendly snooze together, under the sod—no quarrels, no imaginary grievances, no envies, heart-burnings, & thinking how much better that other chap is off—none of this: but all equally free-&-easy, they sleep away & reel off their nine knots an hour, in perfect amity.”

It’s typical of Melville, creator of the innkeeper Peter Coffin, to turn joshing into a light-hearted meditation on death. However, he tells his youngest brother: “Tom, my boy, I admire you. I say again, you are a hero.” There’s more kidding, and then a shift:

“Do you want to hear about the war?--The war goes bravely on. McClellan is now within fifteen miles of the rebel capital, Richmond. New Orleans is taken &c &c &c. You will see all no doubt in the papers at your Agents. But when the end—the wind-up—the grand pacification is coming who knows. We beat the rascals in almost every feild [sic], and take all their ports &c, but they don’t cry `Enough!’—and it looks like a long lane, with the turning quite out of sight.”

The Shakespearean allusion is likewise typical of Melville. Earlier in the letter he had alluded to As You Like It. Now, in a darker key, it’s Macbeth’s “Enough!” The Confederates were three years away from conceding “Enough!” In June, Robert E. Lee would force McClellan’s army to retreat and thus end the threat to Richmond in the Seven Days’ campaign. Ahead in 1862 lay the Second Battle of Manassas, another Southern victory; Antietam, a slaughter on both sides; and, in December, a crushing Union defeat at Fredericksburg. Of that battle, Melville would write in “Inscription for Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg” (Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, 1866):

“To them who crossed the flood
And climbed the hill, with eyes
Upon the heavenly flag intent,
And through the deathful tumult went
Even unto death: to them this Stone--
Erect, where they were overthrown--
Of more than victory the monument.”

[The passages from Melville’s letter are taken from Correspondence, The Writings of Herman Melville, Vol. 14, edited by Lynn Horth, Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1993.]

1 comment:

Shelley said...

I always hope somehow that some of the attention and admiration Melville gets now will make up in some way for all the neglect he suffered in his lifetime....