Saturday, March 24, 2018

`A Man Sawing Wood at So Much Per Cord'

Herman Melville went to Washington looking for a job in March 1861. Moby-Dick was ten years in the past, and he seemed to have given up writing fiction. Friends and relatives pulled strings. His father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, angled to secure Melville a consulship in Florence, Italy. Other acquaintances lobbied U.S. Senator Charles Sumner and the new president, Abraham Lincoln, who had been inaugurated on March 4. Though mortally ill, Shaw wrote to Sumner on March 21 regarding his son-in-law:

“He has suffered somewhat in his health, as his friends believe, by devotion to study, and a life of extreme solitude, and they fully believe, that with the improvement to be derived from a mild climate, a more free social intercourse with artists and men of letters and refinement, he would be able to perform the duties of American Consul at Florence, with great credit to his country.”

Melville arrived in Washington on March 22. Hershel Parker in the second volume of his biography tells us Melville “chased Sumner about the capital.” That night, he attended the new president’s second levee (a formal presidential reception) at the White House. In a letter to his wife dated March 24-25, Melville wrote:

“The night previous to this I was at the second levee at the White House. There was a great crowd, & a brilliant scene. Ladies in full dress by the hundred. A steady stream of two-&-twos wound thro’ the apartments shaking hands with `Old Abe’ and immediately passing on. This continued without cessation for an hour & a half. Of course I was one of the shakers. Old Able is much better looking [than] I expected & younger looking. He shook hands like a good fellow -- working hard at it like a man sawing wood at so much per cord. Mrs Lincoln is rather good-looking I thought. The scene was very fine altogether. Superb furniture -- flood of light -- magnificent flowers -- full band of music &c.”

The meeting otherwise goes unremarked. Lincoln made no mention of it. Melville was one of thousands seeking patronage from the new administration. Hershel notes: “Melville’s description of Lincoln as sawing metaphorical wood at so much per cord indicates a high degree of fellow-feeling, since it was the image he used of himself in 1849 about the way he had composed Redburn and White-Jacket.” What to us seems like a meeting of giants, a rare convergence of two great American writers, turns out to be a minor social function.

In “Lemuel Shaw’s Meditation,” one of four dramatic monologues spoken by historical figures and collectively titled “Crossing the Pedregal” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002), the late Helen Pinkerton has Shaw, in January 1861, recalling his earliest awareness of Lincoln and meditating on the threat of demagoguery:  

“Then I recalled a speech made years ago,
A strong lyceum speech in Illinois
By a young Western lawyer, a Whig like me,
That made my point exactly: the risk we ran
In that mob-ridden time, prelude to this,
That some mad, towering genius, seeking glory,
Through antislavery or its opposite,
Might overturn our laws, for personal fame,
Might break the Union to enhance his name.
The lawyer urged obedience to law
Till laws, if bad, as slavery’s code, be changed.”

Near the end of the poem Lincoln reappears, this time as president. In Pinkerton’s retelling, Shaw has read Moby-Dick:

“If this young lawyer—no one-idea’d Ahab
Nor coward Starbuck he – can find his way
As President, during the coming conflict
To use his war powers, citing the Union’s need
In mortal danger, for black-soldier power,
Ending the nightmare slavery has been,
Though he’ll not change our human nature’s evil,
He might permit a lessening of the wrong,
A small increase of right.”

Lemuel Shaw would die, age eighty, on March 30, 1861. On April 12, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter and the Civil War began. Lincoln named T. Bigelow Lawrence of Boston to the consulship in Florence. In 1866, more than a year after the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination, Melville wrote to Henry A. Smythe, whom he had met in Switzerland and had been appointed collector of customs for the district of New York in May of that year. Melville was sworn in as a customs inspector at the port of New York on Dec. 5, 1866. He resigned effective Dec. 31, 1885.

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