Archive for the ‘ Novel ’ Category

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 2)

McCullers on Love and Isolation

… every lover knows this.
He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing.
The Ballad of the Sad Café

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter became a best seller and allowed McCullers (and her husband) to live in New York City permanently. She was quickly introduced to and became friends with some of the most eminent literary and artistic figures in New York. Her lifestyle almost immediately became immensely more complex as her relations with her husband cooled and her unconventional attachments to others became the norm. (The first such relationship was with Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a gay woman estranged from her gay husband and given to suicide attempts.) She would divorce and remarry her husband and then reluctantly divorce him again when he forged her name on checks. (In this her emotions seem remarkably like Lucile Wilson in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.) Throughout the rest of her life she would be subject to serious physical ailments, including a stroke that took place before her second novel was published in 1941 and temporarily blinded her. Depression plagued her incessantly until she began psychotherapy with Dr. Mary Mercer in 1958. She died in New York in 1967. During the 27 years from the publication of her first novel, she wrote four long-form fiction pieces, none of them, however, nearly as long as the first one. And while her life since her first major publication would never again resemble the world of Columbus, Georgia, where she was raised, she continued to write exclusively about people with confined lives, living in the Deep South. Within eight months of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter her second novel was published, and on first impression, was considerably different from her first. But we will see that that novel and the one that followed really were part of her continual pursuit of that One Big Thing she knew. These two novels were an inquiry into one aspect of that thing: Whether love is the means to break out of the aloneness in which we are trapped.

[The first part of this piece is found here.]

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

 McCullers’s novel Reflections in a Golden Eye had a smaller scope than her first one. Its subject was the domestic intrigues of two married couples, officers on an army base in the South and their wives. One officer, Capt. Weldon Penderton, a repressed homosexual, is locked in a toxic marriage to a wife, Leonora, who is having an affair with her husband’s superior and their next door neighbor, Major Morris Langdon. Langdon’s own wife, Allison, is psychically crushed by the death of her small child three years before. The pain of that loss and the humiliation from the recent discovery of her husband’s affair caused her, in a moment of extreme crisis, to commit a particularly brutal act of self-mutilation four months ago. While the couples frequently dine together at the Penderton’s, Allison, has no affection for the other three and spends her days indoors listening to classical music tended to by her flamboyant Filipino houseboy. One additional character adds the sinister aspect to this conventionally dysfunctional set of relations: Private L.G. Williams, one of the post’s stableboys—a quiet, backward, brooding loner who becomes a voyeur of Leonora and a strange object of Penderton’s desires. In all these loveless relationships communications have ceased altogether by circumstances that have stunted each person. Only the two most superficial characters, Langdon and Leonora, maintain a semblance of love, purely erotic, only because they have no essence to share with anyone.

In many striking respects this novel is quite unlike The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The action, location and characters are circumscribed to the point of claustrophobia. The setting of the story is largely responsible. The (male) characters are not only military men, they all live on an army base. The military prizes above all else conformity and mindless obedience: “once a man enters the army he is expected only to follow the heels ahead of him.” Regularity induces boredom: “Things happen, but then they happen over and over again.” The physical plant reinforces the tedium: “the huge concrete barracks, the neat rows of officers’ homes built one precisely like the other, the gym, the chapel, the golf course and the swimming pool—all designed according to a rigid pattern.” In short, the characters are cut off from the world, and their lives are distinguished by enforced meaninglessness.1

The second difference is that there are so few characters (Weldon Penderton and Alison Langdon are really the only characters given any depth) and their attitudes toward each other are vivid and without nuance. The major’s wife, Alison Langdon, the least self-delusional of the lot, sums up the other three characters: “Morris Landon in his blunt way was as stupid and heartless as a man could be. Leonora [Penderton] was nothing but an animal. And thieving Weldon Penderton was at bottom hopelessly corrupt.” And given how the narrator describes the characters, this, if anything, is charitable.  And it does not even include Private “Ellgee” Williams, who the narrator tells us “had neither an enemy nor a friend … In his eyes, which were of a curious blend of amber and brown, there was a mute expression that is found usually in the eyes of animals.”2  There is none of the empathy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

The combination of the first two differences also produces a third; namely, that not much happens in the lives of these characters outside their interactions with each other. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter each character was motivated by the search for his own “meaning” or the pursuit of his “real true cause.” Here the Army is the overriding purpose and therefore none of them has any individual life. This means that the narrative is much tauter and the scope appears much narrower.

Finally, let me suggest that the fundamental difference is in approach. While The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is deadly earnest in its approach to the characters, their losses and the universal application of the lessons, Reflections in a Golden Eye is in its construction, approach to the characters, plot turns and tone a very black comedy. This does not mean that there is anything particularly funny that occurs. Nor does it mean that there is a happy ending. The happy ending was a contrivance of Renaissance comedies, and we are definitely deeply within a post-Renaissance period. Chekhov after all had suicides, bankruptcies and failed murder attempts end his comedies. But if you take a far enough view, all human endeavors are part of a grand comedy (which was recognized even at the beginning of the Renaissance by Dante, who produced the most famous unfunny and divine comedy). The modernist tragico-comedy depends on finding that the unexpected dread derives from the fabric of the banal. While in this novel all the characters are trapped in a banal existence, the emergent dread comes from the two principal characters.

The two figures around whom the novel revolves are fundamentally defective, but in nearly opposite ways. Penderton “was something of a savant.” He stuffed his heads with facts and statistics of all variety and could write three languages. But it was empty of ideas, because that required fusing two or more facts and “this the Captain had not the courage to do.” By contrast Williams, for all the narrator tells us, seems to have nothing in his head but ideas, or if not ideas, then at least ill-formed concepts devoid of facts or even contours, for at the important events of his life he was able to prepare the way and bring them about without having any conscious intention to do so. This is how he became a voyeur and how he could get into the Penderton house (and Leonora’s bedroom) every night. “The mind of Private Williams was imbued with various colors of strange tones but it was without delineation, void of form.”

When it comes to psychological adjustment (in one respect), Penderton “on the whole had  lived a most rigid and unemotional life,” while Williams would daily ride a horse to an abandoned field where he sunned himself naked. As for social conformity, Penderton (though impotent) married the attractive and appealing (though dim-witted) daughter of a General, while Williams is terrified of women, having been drilled by his Bible-thumping father that women carry in their bodies loathsome diseases (a belief reinforced by the Army’s monthly check-ups testing for venereal diseases). Penderton grows to long for the communal life and imagined camaraderie of the privates. Williams has no friends at all. He seems to have no need of them. Although he lives surrounded by enlisted men, he remains on the periphery, and they are happy to ignore him as well. This is what allowed him to slip out of the barracks at night to stare at Leonora.

In one respect, however, both have what might have been called at the time “deviant” sexual orientations. (It is here that Bloom’s reference to Freud might be useful, although he was not applying it to this novel.) Williams may seem to represent pure id, but until he saw Leonora naked (she had flung her clothes off in the living room with the windows open in front of her husband to outrage him), his superego thoroughly repressed it. The vision, however, awakened his id. He would become obsessed with her and eventually become trapped in his voyeuristic compulsion. Penderton also became obsessed, but with Williams. Penderton’s feelings are a form of love, translated through the mind of a person so psychologically malformed that it is expressed as one of its variants, hate. “There are times when a man’s greatest need is to have someone to love, some focal point for his diffused emotions. Also there are times when the irritations, disappointments, and fears of life, restless as spermatozoids, must be released in hate. The unhappy Captain had no one to hate and for the past months he had been miserable.” He despised Allison and her Filipino houseboy Anacleto but he did not hate them in this sense. He had several unpleasant encounters with Williams to that point but nothing to rise to the degree of white-hot intensity. That would change over an encounter with his wife’s horse.

Firebird was a spirited horse, once thought unridable especially by a woman. Leonora was a good equestrian and determined to ride this beautiful animal, which she eventually mastered, although they would have daily ritualized struggles before he yielded to her leadership. Penderton was a timid man, not a good rider, certainly inferior to his wife and Major Langdon, who usually rode together. (This was where their attraction began and was first consummated—in  a berry patch a couple of hours after they first met.) The enlisted stableboys admired Leonora for her beauty, friendliness and horsemanship. They called her “The Lady.” Williams took care of Firebird. He was especially good with animals, something akin, I  suppose, to a “horse whisperer” and he therefore greatly prized Firebird. One day, as the frustration  and self-loathing reached a peak, Penderton decided to mount Firebird alone. He came to the stable, ordered Williams to prepare the horse and mounted him. Williams let the animal go, on Penderton’s command, and watched as he warily went forward with this awkward rider. As they proceeded further, Penderton yanked the reins up short; the horse nearly lost his balance and had to rear but he suppressed his anger. The captain repeated his maliciousness twice more. The third time the horse stopped short, turned his head back to look at the captain and then flattened his ears and lowered his head as though to throw Penderton. The gesture terrified the captain, but the horse did not throw him, so they galloped on again. When they reached the top of the ridge, however, the horse plunged down the other side at breakneck speed. The horse took the helpless rider into the woods with the same perilous momentum. Penderton held the horse’s neck for dear life. The ride became hallucinogenic as the scattered images reached the petrified mind of the captain in a blur, and he was unable to comprehend what was going on around him. He even once thought he saw a naked man lying on a rock in the woods. At the point the captain concluded that he was about to die the ride became exhilarating: “A great mad joy surged through him.” He did not know how long the ride lasted but eventually the horse emerged from the woods and slowed down to a trot and then, exhausted, stopped. Penderton warily dismounted, tied the horse to a tree, then viciously beat the horse over and over with his whip until the horse gave a cry and hung his head down. Exhausted, bloodied from thorns and branches and a rash from the horse hair his face and neck clung to, the captain collapsed on the ground, began sobbing and passed out. When he awoke he saw Williams walking naked from the woods towards him. “He looked at the Captain with vague, impersonal eyes as thought looking at some insect he had never seen before.” He stepped over the prostrate captain, and took the horse’s reins and led him back to the stables.

And this was the beginning of Penderton’s obsessive hate towards the private. The passion became all consuming. Penderton would contrive ways to see Williams, to pass by him during the latter’s routine or to watch him from his car. Penderton was stalking the private during the day, as Williams was entering Penderton’s house at night to watch Leonora sleep. Penderton’s emotion as he passed Williams was charged with sexual excitement. Soon he was pitying himself for not being young like Williams and sharing in the enlisted men’s routines.

As this dynamic moves towards its inevitable climax, the major’s life is upended by what happens to his wife Allison, which everyone believes is a nervous breakdown. This would soon enough separate her from him, and the loss profoundly affects Langdon. Even though he had neglected her (and worse betrayed her) and considered her strange and weak, he could think of nothing else when the break came. It affected the lives of Penderton and Leonora as well, although the captain soon tired of pitying the major. At one point the major even shows regret at losing the Filipino (who he felt was effete, ridiculous and frivolous). He tells Penderton that his barbs that Anacleto should join the army to be made into a man were simply jokes, but he really did believe that he would have been better off, even if more miserable. Penderton asks the major if he meant that “it is better, because it is more honorable, for the square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?” Langdon affirms that is what he meant and asked whether Penderton agreed.

“‘No,’ said the Captain, after a short pause. With gruesome vividness the Captain suddenly looked into his soul and saw himself. For once he did not see himself as others saw him; there came to him a distorted doll-like image, mean of countenance and grotesque in form. The Captain dwelt on this vision without compassion. He accepted it with neither alteration nor excuse. ‘I don’t agree,’ he repeated softly.”

After this the actual climax seems something of a plot device to end the story, excused only by its near inevitability.  No neat resolution of the psychological or moral contortions that the characters are put through is attempted. So how does this show McCullers’s One Big Idea? The novel is her first try at an answer to this question: This isolation we we find ourselves trapped in, can it be broken through by means of love? The answer seems to be no, because love of any sort makes demands on the other which cannot be reciprocated. Of course in Reflection in a Golden Eye the “love” expressed by each of the characters is stunted, self-interested, not tender and not “normal.” But even the conventional “love” expressed between the major and Leonora does not seem to have any merit in this regard; it is their own banality, their inability to see beyond their basic desires, and not an achievement of meaning or purpose, that allows the two to avoid existential doubts and their “love” to be frustrated by lack of reciprocity. Major Langdon believed that only two things mattered: “to be a good animal and to serve my country. A healthy body and patriotism.” Leonora didn’t even think on this level of abstraction.

That this view of the uselessness of love to resolve the existential dilemma or our absurd predicament is universal, and not limited ot the stunted characters in Reflections in a Golden Eye, can be more easily seen in the next long fiction work of McCuller’s, The Ballad of the Sad Café, a novel that was published in the August issue of Harper’s Bazaar. It did not receive much critical attention, however, until it was published (unrevised) in a collection of her short stories (together with her first four novels) by Houghton, Mifflin in May 1951.

The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943 / 1951)

As she did after finishing her first novel, McCullers plunged right into completing another long fiction work after completing Reflections in a Golden Eye. Much of the work on The Ballad of the Sad Café was done at the Yaddo arts colony in Saratoga Springs, New York in June–August 1941. She was also working on another work that year and the next that would become her fourth novel. She finally completed The Ballad of the Sad Café in November 1942.

As with her second novel this one also adopted a new narrative format. The story is called a “ballad” not because it follows any of the literary rules of the romantic ballad, but rather, I think, because the folk ballad was not only the most prominent form of folk poetry/song in the American South, it was also the form of folk art that collectors (and eventually students) of Southern folk traditions most carefully curated and catalogued.3 A study of the folk ballad of the first decades of the twentieth century summarized its two features as: (1) its “dramatic presentation of action is the ordinary narrative method”; and (2) “impersonality of approach of the theme is the ordinary narrative attitude.”4  McCullers makes both of these choices in The Ballad of the Sad Café, but enhances the folkloric ambiance of the story by setting the action in an utterly isolated Southern town, by employing almost fairytale-like features and by stripping down the plot to its essential simpleness.

  The setting is not just remote, it is cut off from normal human commerce. It is visited only by the likes of the tax man or an agent of a store who comes to see if a resident is creditworthy enough to buy some small appliance on installments (he never is) or travelers who became lost and are seeking the way to their true destination. The train is so far away that a faint whistle is only occasionally heard on very still winter nights. The Greyhound bus station is three miles away. McCullers makes this unnamed town something like Macondo at the beginning of the story:

The town itself is dreary, not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street, only a hundred yards long. On Saturday the tenants from the near by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.

The three main characters are taken right out of a fairy tale and dropped into this Southern equivalent of the Black Forest. Miss Amelia Evans is first introduced, and we get a full picture of her in two paragraphs. But given the deliberate pace of McCuller’s prose, we see her character revealed slowly, the way we would see a corpse whose body is exposed when the morgue’s winding sheet is pulled back. At first she is quite unremarkable. The building that once housed the café of the title, was before that a store which sold mainly farm supplies and staples (like feed, guano, meal and the like). She became the proprietor at 19 when her father (her only parent) died. She also sold the best liquor in the county which she made herself from a still located in the swamp. We then learn of her appearance. “She was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles of a man.” But she still might have been attractive if she were not cross-eyed. But it did not matter, because she cared nothing for love. And yet at one time she had “a strange and dangerous marriage, lasting only for ten days, that left the whole town wondering and shocked.” She had an unusual ability to make things with her hands. But with people she had no talent and ultimately only one use: “to make money out of them.” She also had a strange intolerance for perceived injustice and indeed slights of any kind for she was constantly involved in litigation. Not just to recover money owed her but also over anything that annoyed her. “It was said that if Miss Amelia so much as stumbled over a rock in the road she would glance around instinctively as though looking for something to sue about it.” She was 30 years old at the beginning of the ballad and with the combination of physical and personality characteristics, she was a force to be reckoned with. The picture we see is of a woman not given to talk but who was propelled by principles that were stored deep in a well inside her that was almost never explored. She is as inert as one of Chekhov’s peasants.

She would have gone this way indefinitely except that the second character mysteriously enters the town: Cousin Lyman. He is the one “freak” in all of McCullers’s long-form fiction. One evening in April close to midnight, Miss Amelia was standing on the porch of the store while three men and two boys sat on the steps in front of her. (Although she was reclusive, she allowed her customers to drink the liquor she sold them on the porch if their wives objected to having it at home; it was only good business.) A stranger came down the street. From the distance one of the boys first thought a calf had gotten loose. The other corrected him when it got close, saying it was someone’s youngun. When the strange figure arrived, he was seen to be a dwarf with a hump on his shoulders. His head was large and his chest was “warped,” but he had thin legs, barely able, it seemed, to carry his disproportionate body. He was dressed in dirty clothes and carried an old suitcase. While his physical appearance was odd, it was the personality that he would reveal as he wormed his way into the center of the town that marked his strangeness. As he became secure in his position, he became an unctuous meddlers in others’ business. He has some of the attributes of Rumpelstiltskin or Norse trolls.

The third major character does not enter the story until late, but we know of him even before his entrance, for he is Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia’s husband. He is a fairy tale villain. His backstory is laid out much as Miss Amelia’s was. We learn that he was one of seven children abused and neglected by the “wild younguns” who sired and bore them. “T]he first thing they learned in this world was to seek the darkest corner of the room and try to hide themselves as best they could.” One winter when the mill closed for three months, the parents left town abandoning their children. Marvin Macy was luckier than most of his siblings for he was taken in by a kind and loving widow, Mrs. Mary Hale. The rescue was not enough. As the narrator notes: “the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.” And Macy grew up self-centered, lazy and extremely cruel. But then he saw the 19 year old Miss Amelia and fell in love with that “solitary, gangling, queer-eyed girl.” This love changed him. Too shy to make his love known, he nevertheless reformed over the course of two years, became polite, saved his wages and even became religious. When he finally declared himself (“carrying a bunch of swamp flowers, a sack of chitterlins, and a silver ring”), she accepted. She proved a strange bride at the church and afterwards, walking home two paces before her husband. And over the next 10 day she proved a strange wife and eventually threw him out. The experience reverted Macy to his previous character with a vengeance. “For the true character of Marvin Macy finally revealed itself, once he had freed himself of his love.” He left town, robbed gas stations and a grocery store with a sawed-off shotgun and was rumored to have killed a man. His name was in all the newspapers until he was eventually arrested, tried and committed to the state penitentiary in Atlanta. “Miss Amelia was deeply gratified.”

This decade-old story was never forgotten by the town folk, who were at first amused by the humiliation and squalid nature of the affair. But they never spoke of it to Miss Amelia. Yet the narrator warns us (like a balladeer): “do not forget this Marvin Macy, as he is to act a terrible part of the story which is yet to come.”

Perhaps a fourth character should be described as well—the town’s men folk. I say men folk, rather than “community,” because, aside from Miss Amelia (and Mrs. Hale in Marvin Macy’s back story) there are no women actors in this tale. And apart from Miss Amelia there is only one woman’s voice in the story. It was a voice heard by Cousin Lymon one moonlit summer night when he was bored and lonely: “Somewhere in the darkness a woman sang in a high wild voice and the tune had no start and no finish and was made up of only three notes which went on and on and on.” Unlike these three women, the men folk never acted alone. They came to conclusions as a group; they acted collectively. They are not seen as coming to anyone’s aid, but they are always ready to ridicule, they delight in other’s misery, and they always seem to be on the verge of violence. Like the time that the rumor spread that Miss Amelia had murdered Cousin Lymon. A group of eight men got themselves up and went to Miss Amelia’s store. They did this unconsciously, as though guided by a power outside them:

“Some eight or ten men had convened on the porch of Miss Amelia’s store. They were silent and were indeed just waiting about. They themselves did not know what they were waiting for, but it was this: in times of tension, when some great action is impending, men gather and wait in this way. And after a time there will come a moment when all together they will act in unison, not from thought or from the will of any one man, but as though their instincts had merged together so that the decision belongs to no single one of them, but to the group as a whole. At such a time, no individual hesitates. And whether the matter will be settled peaceably, or whether the joint action will result in ransacking, violence, and crime, depends on destiny. So the men waited soberly on the porch of Miss Amelia’s store, not one of them realizing what they would do, but knowing inwardly that they must wait, and that the time had almost come.”

They stood on the porch watching Miss Amelia working on her books in her office. When she shut the door they were looking through, it triggered their action:

“Now to the group on the porch this gesture acted as a signal. The time had come. They had stood for a long while with the night raw and gloomy in the street behind them. They had waited long and just at that moment the instinct to act came on them. All at once, as though moved by one will, they walked into the store. At that moment the eight men looked very much alike — all wearing blue overalls, most of them with whitish hair, all pale of face, and all with a set, dreaming look in the eye. What they would have done next no one knows.”

But then they see Cousin Lymon unharmed and their collective resolve evaporates. This “collective” is alway in the background, always provides the ominous undercurrent. For the men folk, as a group, enforce the conservative, misogynist, racist, embittered ethos of this place. There are some men, however, who are not part of this collective, for example, Henry Macy, Marvin’s brother. In every respect he was unlike his brother. Not only kindly and honest, but also “a shy and timid person with gentle manners and nervous ways” There are others like him, but they don’t take action or effect change. They are feckless. They withdraw at the sign of trouble. They become emotional and frightened. Just as Miss Amelia is the Man-Woman, they are Women-Men.

Cousin Lymon was one such a Woman-Man. When he slinked into town to throw himself on the charity of Miss Amelia, his supposed cousin, the three men and two boys watched him cry when he thought he would be turned out. The five on the porch assumed that Miss Amelia would physically throw him out of town on his ear. For Miss Amelia was more of a man than they were, and that is what the men folk would do. But she surprises them all. She first gives him a bottle—for free!—of her prized liquor. Then she takes him in and feeds him. The rest was not seen by those five.

After many days it became clear to the town that what Miss Amelia had done was even stranger than murder, and to many even more grotesque. Miss Amelia had taken Cousin Lymon in permanently. It was an odd development. What was even odder was that Miss Amelia had fallen in love with this little hunchback. She cleaned him up. Made sure he was fed and comfortable. She attended his little wants. This great change in Miss Amelia was the source of much rumor in the town. This six foot woman with bulging biceps and the manners of a farmer, who wore overalls and physically abused and ejected her husband, was now in love. But what kind of love? The majority believed they were living in sin. Some minority of “good people” excused this: “if those two had found some satisfaction of the flesh between themselves, then it was a matter concerning them and God alone.” But the opinion of “all sensible people” was “a plain, flat no.”

But if not physical, it was certainly transformative, this love. For Miss Amelia gave him the run of the place, and he responded by becoming puffed up, soon comfortable in the notion that he could have what he wanted and take without even asking. Those who saw this change were astounded. But the most astonishing product of this love was the café. The beginning was that night when the eight men saw Cousin Lymon, who came down and spoke with them sociably. And soon there would be drinking in the store, and one thing led to another and the store was turned into a full bore café. The town had never seen anything like this before. The concept was strange: a place to go to have polite social intercourse while dining. But it soon proved salubrious to the town’s psychic and social well-being. It was a civilizing force:

“For people in this town were then unused to gathering together for the sake of pleasure. They met to work in the mill. Or on Sunday there would be an all-day camp meeting—and though that is a pleasure, the intention of the whole affair is to sharpen your view of Hell and put into you a keen fear of the Lord Almighty. But the spirit of a café is altogether different. Even the richest, greediest old rascal will behave himself, insulting no one in a proper café. And poor people look about them gratefully and pinch up the salt in a dainty and modest manner. For the atmosphere of a proper café implies these qualities: fellowship, the satisfactions of the belly, and a certain gaiety and grace of behavior. This had never been told to the gathering in Miss Amelia’s store that night. But they knew it of themselves, although never, of course, until that time had there been a café in the town.”

Is this the effect of love? To improve the conditions of those about the lovers and add one small drop to the well of general happiness of the world (usually at drought level)? Well, that is not born out by the story. As with all love, evidently, the object is never satisfied. Cousin Lymon, who was exalted by the grace of Miss Amelia, and truly without any desert on his part, soon grew restless with his situation. He began instigating trouble with the customers and soon began to worry Miss Amelia. And then the crisis came. Marvin Macy was released from the penitentiary and was returning to town. He brought with him an ill wind, but no tornado at first. Yet Miss Amelia watched warily because Cousin Lymon was the kind of weak, defenseless, guileless sort that Macy would squash for sheer pleasure. As the inevitable builds, it is Lymon who betrays Miss Amelia, but even that does not defeat her. She goes on to stage a monumental battle with Macy, which excited the town’s bloodlust but left her beaten in every respect. The café, of course, is boarded up, and only occasionally does anyone get a glimpse of her peering from an upstairs window. What they see is “a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.” She has replicated the pattern that undid Marvin Macy himself, love. What the narrator said about his desire, now applies equally to her: “though the outward facts of this love are indeed sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that the real story was that which took place in the soul of the lover himself. So who but God can be the final judge of this or any other love?”

The story ends with an epilogue entitled “Twelve Mortal Men.” In two paragraphs it tells of the chain gang where every day they are set to work digging at the hard clay and rocks to widen the road out of town. And every day there is the music of their work song, their ballad:

“One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great hoarse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.”

What type of gang is this? asks the narrator. The same kind of gang that watched ominously as evil undid love and destroyed what was civilized among them. The kind of gang that Miss Amelia was capable of facing down, until she let her guard down, until she became a lover. “Just twelve mortal men who are together,” the narrator concludes.

Before returning to McCullers’s One Big Idea, I should say something about the writing here. In my view this is the most tightly written and graceful of McCullers’s five novels. It is deliberately paced and probes the corners of the story with an attention to what envelops the plot that some might take for languor. In fact, V.S. Pritchett criticized the writing because McCullers “winds her way backwards and forwards into her people in a way that is sometimes too dilatory.”5 But he is quite wrong. The narrator turns his (for, though the narrator is not one of the men folk, he does not challenge the prevailing sexual, moral or social realities, all of which are the province of the men folk) attention to those persons, actions and objects that justify comment, and those comments are patiently amassed into the argument that the story ultimately delivers. And that point is that Love is not the answer to humanity’s prison of solitariness. And this is why it fails: it requires an impossible congruence between the Lover and the Beloved:

“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring—this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.”

The object of love is arbitrary (there is no predetermination of it, there is no explanation for it), a “preacher may love a fallen woman,” and there is the perfidy:

“The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.”

And this is where the Beloved has his say, for it is better in this case to be the lover than the beloved: “the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being be loved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

Love is a state of disequilibrium; it cannot last. From the beloved’s part, it is intolerable to be loved. From the lover’s it is a state that creates more rather than less isolation. It is thus not the solution to the existential question that McCullers first posed in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

These two novels are McCullers’s only treatment of sexual, erotic, romantic (however you will) love. It is perhaps here that Bloom’s recourse to Freud’s theories (quoted in the first part of this series) might be appropriate. But Freud is looking at a different phenomenon, and he goes about his investigation by a method distinct in two ways: He treats only one person (the lover), and he sees it in a developmental context. McCullers rejects the supposition that there is a normal or even ideal (as in “ego ideal”) form of love to be aimed for or diagnosed. There is nothing “abnormal” in Captain Penderton’s, or Private Williams’s, or Marvin Macy’s or Miss Amelia’s desires. Only the town’s gossipers enforced by the men folk judge love in that manner. And McCullers, unlike Freud, is looking for a metaphysical solution to the dilemma of human solitude. In these two novels, she strikes off love as the answer. She will look at mechanisms for avoiding the problem rather than ameliorating it in her final two novels, which we will look at in the next post.


1Some time during the cold war and certainly after the Vietnam misadventure had produced its impression on public opinion and the popular media the idea of the military as an organization filled with soulless automatons who cannot think for themselves became commonplace (perhaps best summarized by George Carlin’s quip illustrating the word “oxymoron” with the phrase “military intelligence”) But at the time McCullers wrote the work (1940) and when it was published (1941), the United States was facing a very perilous world and while most hoped the United States would stay out of the global conflagration, it was a not popular conception that the U.S. military was anything other than heroic. They after all “won” the Great War. It is therefore no wonder that McCuller received such push back, especially from Fort Benning in Georgia, which was assumed to be the model for the novel. [Return to text.]

2McCullers is fond of this construction, where the eyes or expression betrays something found elsewhere. It occurs twice in this novel. You may recall she also uses a similar construction (more memorably) at the end of the first chapter of her first book to describe John Singer, also without friends or enemies: “In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” The same vacant expression is described differently depending on how the narrator wants us to feel about the character. [Return to text.]

3For an early example of how studiously collectors tried to catalog Southern ballads, see Reed Smith, “The Traditional Ballad in the South during 1914,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 108 (April–June 1915), pp. 199-203, which can be seen on JSTOR (open access). [Return to text.]

4Gordon Hall Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), pp. 10–11. [Return to text.]

5V.S. Pritchett, “Books in General,” The New Stateman and Nation (August 2, 1952), pp. 137–38 reprinted in Beverly Lyon Clark & Melvin J. Friedman (eds.), Critical Essays on Carson McCullers (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996), at 41. [Return to text.]

“… before an unknown hollow darkness of the heart”

Carson McCullers at 100

Isaiah Berlin based his most famous essay1 on a fragment of Archilocus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin forced this enigmatic apophthegm into a classification for writers and thinkers: “there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.” The first group are the hedgehogs, and the second the foxes. He illustrated this division by putting, among others, Plato, Dante, Hegel, Dostoevsky and Proust among the hedgehogs and Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac with the foxes. His use of this dichotomy is something of a rhetorical trick, because his essay is about Tolstoy for whom he says the division does not apply. But it is, perhaps, much better suited to the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967), who, unlike almost all  American novelists, is a hedgehog.

When one considers the celebrated novelists of the first half of the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine any of them conceiving of the need for a systematic organization of thought into a single way of looking at things. Such thinkers are rare enough throughout history, and American fiction writers, with the exception, perhaps, of Hawthorne and certainly, of Melville, have not been been systematic moralists or practicing metaphysicians; rather, they have usually preferred psychological, and occasionally political, approaches to stories, and both are notoriously digressive methods.

Nabokov hated the kinds of novels hedgehogs produced, deriding them as books with “messages.” But all novels more-or-less have messages, even Tolstoy’s. (Anna Karenina after all begins with the epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”) The difference with hedgehogs, however, is that the central view is not a moral of a particular story or even an organizing principle for a work; it is rather a way of looking at the world which informs (and usually is the reason for undertaking) a writers total output. And given that the author so concentrates on that central vision (it is perhaps the reason why he becomes an author), it casts the story in a slightly heightened light, immediately noticeable, often by the adoption of a tone that is emotionally noncommittal and measured, although Dostoevsky’s prose is often urgent and frenetic.

T.S. Eliot (descendant of the Puritans, America’s quintessential hedgehogs) may have been America’s chief literary hedgehog. But the system he tried to construct, involving old -fashioned reactionary politics and unintelligible Catholic-Buddhist mysticism, was too solipsistic to be seriously entertained by anyone. McCullers was quite different. Her systematic quest was the result of experience and self-knowledge, and it appealed viscerally. And regardless of any limitations she might be accused of, one always feels she is driving at something beyond ordinary literary insight.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

From the beginning of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter it is obvious that McCullers had in her sights the roots of human isolation. “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together,” is the opening sentence. The picture it produces is the paradigm of isolation. Cut off from the rest of the town not only by their disabilities but also by the social segregation the disabled suffer, they have only each other. The chapter describes, in precise, unsentimental prose, the life these two lead. One, John Singer, a tall, thin, impeccably neat and refined man; the other, Spiros Antonapoulos, short and obese, and, we soon learn, mentally challenged. The two, over the course of the decade they lived together, made a life out of their simple and unvaried routine. Antonapoulos worked for his cousin, the owner of a fruit store. Singer was a silverware engraver. They would walk together to work, arm in arm, and come home together at night, where Antonapoulos cooked the meal (food was his one joy), and Singer washed the dishes. Singer did all the communicating, often signing for great stretches of time. Antonapoulos rarely “spoke,” except before bed when he prayed to “Holy Jesus” or “Darling Mary.” Silver did not know how much his friend understood of what he signed. “But the two mutes were not lonely at all.” Until one day, when Singer was 32, Antonapoulos became ill. He was ordered on a strict diet—a great privation for him—and he blamed Singer, who enforced the doctor’s regimen. Antonapoulos became spiteful and soon began acting out by committing small misdemeanors and indecencies in public. Eventually, without consulting Singer, Antanapoulos’s cousin had him committed to the state mental institution. The loss of his friend was a devastating blow from which he struggled to recover. At first, and for a long time, Singer wandered the streets of this deep Southern town until late at night. Singer was not of this place (“more like a Northerner or a Jew,” the town’s African American doctor concluded after receiving a small kindness from him), and this made him even lonelier. After weeks of this solitude, his grief changed him: “His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” He reached that state of numbness that is the only outcome of deep heartache.

That first chapter, we realize after finishing the novel, is really an encapsulation of the entire novel, like a sonata movement in a Classical era work, whose statements would be developed in various ways by the rest of the work. But Singer’s fate is not just emblematic; it sets him on a course that would make him a central character in the lives of others. In fact his relationships with the other major characters becomes a unifying plot device as well as a central metaphor in its own right. In each of the next four chapters we meet in turn the other four main characters who would become unlikely (and unsought for) disciples of Singer and whose stories unfold as something like variations on the theme of Singer’s.

The second chapter introduces us to Bartholomew “Biff” Brannon, the owner of the town’s dinner, the New York Café. Biff was not a man of action: “[h]e usually stood in the corner by the cash register, his arm folded over his chest, quietly observing all that went on around him.” His perch on the edge of this world allows him to watch, cogitate and try to puzzle together the half-conclusions he comes to. We meet his wife, Alice, who has no respect for him, and it’s clear that there is no longer any love in this marriage. Their current point of contention is a drunk, Jake Blount, who has taken up something like permanent residency in the diner. Alice wants him out, but Biff is too passive to take action. And he finds Blount an interesting object of his contemplation. Meanwhile, as Saturday turns to Sunday, Blount passed the stage of inebriation and has become a sloppy drunk, trying to declaim radical politics to the late-night diners and drinkers, most of whom consider him an object of ridicule. As a result of the outcome of that evening Blount would become a major character in his own right.

In this second chapter, we meet the two other new major characters, Mick Kelley, a 14 year old member of a large, downwardly mobile family who operate a run-down boarding house. Mick is one of six children and is barely supervised by her overworked parents, and this explains how she is at the diner past midnight buying cigarettes. Biff finds himself strangely attracted to the tomboyish girl. In this chapter we also meet the town’s African American doctor, Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland, who in the middle of that night is brought by Blount into the diner and is enraged when he believes that he has been tricked into coming to a segregated eating establishment soley to be mocked. Even John Singer is there, having during his wanderings made arrangements with Biff to take all of his meals at the café every day. Through Mick we learn that Singer has taken up lodgings at the Kellys’ boarding house, and after Blount that night makes a scene owing to acute alcohol poisoning, Singer offers taking Blount to his room for the night. To continue the symphony analogy, this chapter is something like a scherzo, and there are three movements left.

The third chapter follows Mick’s around the next day, Sunday, and shows us her family and acquaints us with her aspirations, at the same time both unrealistic and cramped. She is obsessed by music. But her parents cannot afford any additional expenses (even if they knew her interest); almost any connection she might have with music is out of the question, so she listens outside the room of a boarder who has a radio. She discovers that the music she is particularly entranced by was written long ago by someone named “Motsart.” She dreams of someday having a piano, but for now she has tried to make a violin from a broken mandolin and wires. When she realizes it won’t work, she is disgusted with her own foolishness. She wonders why she so enthusiastically worked on a thing that was so ridiculous. ‘Maybe,” she thinks, “when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.”

We also discover in this chapter that the black cook at the boardinghouse, Portia, is Dr. Copeland’s daughter, and while she maintains her filial regard for him, she tells Mick of his estrangement from the family. She attributes his loneliness (despite being “full of books”) to his rejection of religion,. Religion gives peace, she explains, like what she, her husband, her brother Willie (who works in the kitchen of the New York Café), and their boarder Mr. Singer. (By using the same word as the narrator, peace, to describe the current state of John Singer, Portia ironically compares the numbness of personal devastation with the grace of God.) She warns Mick that she will experience the same emptiness of her father without God. “Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t have love and you don’t have peace.” Mick is cut to the quick by the accusation that she hadn’t loved, but she keeps her own counsel. When she wanders off she is gripped by an indescribable agitation and wrestles with an unquenchable longing for what she knows not. While sitting on the stairs hoping a boarder will turn on her radio she became lost in thought: 

“She thought a long time and kept hitting her thighs with her fists. Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want—I want—I want—was all that she could think about—but just what this real want was she did not know.”

In the fourth chapter we come to understand the obsession that Blount was unable to articulate during the previous night’s binge. Having been cleaned up by Singer he goes off to look for work. In the want ads he learns of a broken down amusement show looking for a mechanic. He finds the owner and tells him of his experience in all sorts of mechanical work is hired to run the flying jinny, an aging and splintered carousel that is taken from one vacant lot to the other to provide amusement for the town’s underbelly—mill hands, children and blacks. After taking the job he walks back through the white mill workers’ part of town. The buildings and inhabitants are both dreary and hopeless. He sidles up to three workers with “mill-sallow, dead pan faces” sitting on a porch. After offering them tobacco, he begins asking about strikes and their opinions about the owners of the mill. He asks them if their exploitation makes them mad, but all he can elicit is mocking laughter. “The men laughed in the slow and easy way that three men laugh at one.” He is enraged, but returns to Singer with bottles of beer because he knows that Singer is an empathetic soul and can provide him solace. He explains how he has spent his life studying the system that chews up people for profit on capital. He tells Singer that they are two of the very few who understand and when two such find each other it is something like a miracle. Singer, who clearly does not understand, writes a question on a card: Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Blount looks into Singer’s eyes, which seem to hypnotize him. “‘You get it,’ he said in a blurred voice. ‘You know what I mean.'”

Chapter five tells the story of Dr. Copeland, a man dedicated to the liberation of his people. So certain of the righteousness of his goal, he tried to enlist his children into the fight, giving them the names Karl Marx, Hamilton, Willie and Portia. Hs book study and life experience have taught him what it will take for the Negro to reclaim his rights: discipline, hard work, dignity and exemplary behavior to emulate. He knows this to his core; spreading this word has become his “real true cause.” He saw his children as agents in this work and hoped to teach them of their special places and their own real true cause, but they wanted to fit in with their peers, to avoid the stigma of being “uppity.” Dr. Copeland’s wife did not openly resist him, but she sided with them. She allowed the children their minor vices and childish wishes, and worse, she took them to church and instilled in them “the cult of meekness.”  It was more than he could bear, and the result of the conflict was his wife moving to the farm of her father and taking the children. She died, but the children remained estranged. Only Portia occasionally visited her father, but neither she nor any of the others became the scientists, lawyers and teachers Copeland knew his people needed, and he was now bereft of his family and his dreams.

These introductions are followed by the large central part of the work, where the destinies of these characters play out. The stories are presented much like the introductions, with one chapter for each of the characters, although the stories occasionally cross paths. Each chapter has subtly different narrative language appropriate to the character whose story is told.  Words or phrases that peculiar to a particular character are inserted in a non-intrusive way, and this softens the artificiality of an omniscient narrator’s voice. But these insertions do not substitute for the characters’s internal dialogue, they merely illustrate the level of intellectual maturity and social adjustment of the character. The narrator’s tone remains the same throughout: sympathetic without pathos, exposition without any unnecessary emphasis, objective rather than like-minded, all accomplished with clear expository sentences designed to show the reader external events and the characters’ responses, suggesting some deeper meaning, but without idiosyncratic style or obvious technique. She always allows the structure of the narrative (with occasional rhetorical emphasis) to permit the reader to form conclusions of a deeper sort.

As for the key feature of the structure most critical comment has focused on the relation of Singer to the three who most avidly seek out his attention. (Biff is too busy at the café to spend much time with Singer at the boarding house and doesn’t sit with him at the diner. Besides, his interest in Singer is clinical: Unlike the other three, he sees that Singer does not understand what they offer up to him. He tries to understand why they delude themselves.) The three become more and more dependent on Singer: “Each person addressed his words mainly to the mute. Their thoughts seemed to converge in him as the spokes of a wheel lead to the center hub.” Singer does not seek this position, nor does he do much to maintain it. He barely understands what they tell him, and they interpret his smiles or nods as suits them. He is happy for the company but finds them strange. One night he has a dream where Antonapoulos was knelling atop a set of stone stairs holding something above his head and he seemed in an attitude of prayer. Below him Singer himself, also naked, was looking up at Antonapoulos. Below Singer were the four other main characters looking at him. The dream ends when the stairs crumble. Much has been made of the metaphorical implications of Singer’s relation to the others. And just as Singer’s “disciples” attribute to his reactions the meaning they wish them to have, critics have assigned as the meaning of the metaphor their own hobbyhorses. I’ll give one example: Harold Bloom, one of America’s most prolific critics, and one who often appeals to non-academic readers, sees this metaphor in terms of classic (early) psychoanalysis and refers to Freud’s “The Dynamics of Transference” (1912) to note that inability to love results from early channelling of libidinal impulses in ways that withhold it from conscious personality (etc., etc.).2 But McCullers in this novel does not addressing the expression of erotic love by this metaphor. She is not even dealing with any of he other forms of love that bear Greek names (such as agape or philos). What the “disciples” want, is not “love,” but rather affirmation of the meaning they have chosen for their lives, the meaning they have selected consciously, not as a result of innate drives. This may or may not be susceptible to psychoanalytic description, but not in the reductive way Bloom suggests.

In much the same way other academic critics have forced this work into the confines of their own specialties. Let’s put aside feminist and queer theory critics and look at earlier critics who regarded the novel as another of the Southern Gothic genre begun by Faulkner. Most of the support for that categorization stems solely from the southern location and the supposed treatment of “freaks” and “outcasts.” (The reed that often supports the claim that McCullers is obsessed with “freaks” is Biff’s statement to Alice that “I like freaks.” But when he thinks of it Blount (to whom he applied the term) is not a freak, and those he was thinking of do not appear in the novel.) That the characters were ground down by poverty, the Depression and racism does not make them freaks or otherwise bizarre. In fact, McCullers treats each of the characters with a kind of respect, and thereby gives them a dignity that is apparent even in the first glance. McCullers’s characters are overall much more articulate than Faulkner’s, her African American characters in particular are real people rather than props. Her style and narrative structure avoid any self-referential “literary” technique. Nor does she emphasize the morbid or construct elaborate but implausible plot developments. In short, there seems really very little in common between McCullers and Faulkner. But for me the most important difference and what makes McCullers unique is how she can make a novel of ideas out of people and events that remain realistic throughout. In this novel almost all the characters are living on the edge of financial disaster. Privation distorts their possibilities as well as their relations to others. And yet in addition to trying to retain their dignity, the main characters are also searching for deeper meanings to life, and it is that quest and the answers they tell themselves that are at the heart of the mystery that we feel reading her novels.

Characters searching for meaning was not a Southern, or even American, literary commonplace. Of course, there were all sorts of existentialist theories and treatments of existentialist themes and outlooks from as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. (One could even go earlier with Büchner’s Woyzeck.) But whether one could (or even should) define a meaning for one’s self was a question that would become a central issue only in the middle of the twentieth century and later. An important early step in that direction was Camus’s The Stranger, but that novel was published a year after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And the French work dealt only with the preliminary issue: the absurdity of our isolation (to translate it into more McCullers-friendly concepts). Camus would elaborate his concept (and its consequences) in many essays and criticisms, which gave him intellectual heft among academics. McCullers was never an accomplished essayist, possibly because she formulated her ideas in terms of stories. (In this she might be said to be Southern.) But in her first extended story she examined her existential (or absurdist, for she is more like Camus than either the atheist Sartre or the deist Kierkegaard) thesis from several different angles, not just one  (exceedingly abnormal) point of view as in The Stranger.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is also the only work that puts her existential thesis in the context of common religious beliefs (for the South in the late 1930s). There are only two characters (and they are secondary) who subscribe to any form of systematic religious belief. The first is Antonapoulos, whose religious rituals, as far as we can tell, are extremely childlike and rote, almost superstitious. Singer’s dream acknowledges his friend’s superiority ot him in matters spiritual (and in the same sense his superiority to his own “disciples”), but in the end the edifice collapses. Portia is the other believer (or at least practitioner) in the work. She believes that membership in her denomination and moderate practice of ritual (not too “sanctified” she insists) results in peace and the ability to love.  It is true that she is the only character who demonstrates something close to selfless concern for others, even those outside her own insular race (for she expresses concern for the Kelly children). Her behavior, however, seems more in keeping with the cult of meekness (as Dr. Copeland calls it), the kind which reinforces conventional social and ethical rules without any appeal to heightened consciousness (the kind, in short, that William James seems to prefer in The Variety of Religious Experiences), and nothing she says shows it gives any meaning to her life. It certainly is not a motivation to seek social justice. The other characters dismiss religion outright. Mick believes no more in God than in Santa Claus, she says, but her early indoctrination bubbles up in snatches of scripture at an oddly inappropriate moment. Blount is plagued by a street preacher out to convert him, but Blount’s response is mere mockery. He regards it all as a lie, unlike the gospel of worker liberation which he preaches and for which he himself is mocked. Biff is also reminded of religion. His wife teaches Sunday School and at the beginning of the novel, he hears her preparing a lesson involving the verse from Mark, to the effect that all men seek for Him. The talk only effects nostalgia in Biff, who remembers the days before he gave it all up. When each reach their own crisis, none considers religion as a sensible recourse.

Even the one central teaching of conventional Christianity, altruistic love (Christ-like in its self-abnegation) does not give us permanent relief from the isolation the characters experience, because it depends on the existence of the object of our devotion. When Singer loses Antanapoulos, his reason for living disappears, and with that, he takes away the affirmation he was supplying to the others. The short denouement part of the novel concludes their stories in reverse order of the characters’ introductions. Copeland, having met his wall, the realization that his life work of self-actualizing into a respectable, dignified man was no match for the entrenched institutionalized forces of racism, gives up. He is carted off (literally) to the farm of his father-in-law, whose meekness and religiosity Copeland spent his lifetime opposing. It is perhaps the fact that the farm is away from the town, itself isolated from the arena that Copeland had tried to contend in, that makes it any refuge at all. Blount, having not convinced any person of the idea he found so simple, and indeed becomes the reason that the oppressed end up attacking each other, has to leave town, to escape questions and possibly to find converts elsewhere. Biff gives him a little help, but without Singer, Blount has not reason to stay. Mick made a decision, forced by circumstances that effectually compelled it, which for all practical purposes will end her dream of pursuing music. Barely on the edge of adulthood she can expect a future as dreary of her father’s, but evidently because we cannot live without meaning, however illusory, she thinks she can save $2 out of $10 weekly salary to some day buy a piano. These thoughts console her while she drinks a beer and has a chocolate sundae at the café at the same time realizing that she is angry all the time. Only there is no on to be angry at. Biff suffers no great trouble, because he had no meaning he would commit to. He realized he would no longer love again, and he never understood the mystery of Singer. But suddenly in the middle of the night, as he tends the customer-free café, he comes to a transcendent realization. “For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded.” But the exhilaration of the vision soon turns to terror. What he was looking at was the past; the future, however, holds “blackness, error, and ruin.” It was necessary to wash his face with a wet handkerchief and to actively impose self discipline to dispel the terror. He was, after all, a “sensible man.” And so he composed himself “soberly to await the morning sun.”

There are two influences that I think profoundly influence the organization and approach of this novel, and both are Russian.3 The first is the mature work of Dostoevsky. In the first place, the techniques of Dostoevsky’s first effort to mesh more than one story into a single work, Crime and Punishment, are evident. Long stretches of independent stories, occasionally crossing with the other story, are allowed to develop under their own logic, almost independent of the design of the others. What gives The Heart is a Lonely Hunter such expansiveness is the careful construction of the separate stories, not as accessories to each other, but almost in their own right. The parallels are not overstated, and the details allow us to consider the psychological makeup of each character. A particular point of comparison is the introduction of Blount in McCullers’s book and the introduction of Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment (in both cases in the second chapters of the respective novels). Like Blount, Marmeladov is quite drunk and attempts to tell his story. Like the customers in the New York Café, those in Dostoevsky’s bar treat the drunk with ridicule. But out of the encounter a relationship is formed between the two drunks and the two central characters in the novels. A second characteristic of Dostoevsky that McCullers also uses is the sudden shocking moment that drastically changes the relationships of the characters and their possible future courses of action. This is probably best seen in Demons (The Possessed) and The Idiot. Finally, Dostoevsky also dwell on the human need to express out inner thoughts to others. This is what in Crime and Punishment undoes Raskolnikov legally (although we are led to believe at the end, it formed the basis for his spiritual renewal). It is also evident, more perversely, in the character of Stavrogin in Demons. What McCullers does not take from Dostoevsky, however, is his tendency to descend into the maudlin. For her restrained tone and objective recounting of narrative, she more closely resembles Chekhov.  Both of these two Russian influences also  can be seen in the next two novels.

With her first novel McCullers staked out a territory that became her own over the next two decades—the mystery of human isolation and its consequence. Dostoevsky likewise spent his career exploring the spiritual dimensions of human suffering. Although neither fully answered the questions they posed, they both came near an answer by the final novel. In the next post I’ll discuss how McCullers came to almost know that “one big thing.”


1“The Hedgehog and the Fox” in Russian Thinkers (London: Hogarth Press, 1978), reprinted in Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays ed. by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [Return to text.]

2Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” Carson McCullers (Modern Critical Views) ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), pp. 1–2. [Return to text.]

3McCullers wrote an essay in 1941 entitled “Russian Realists and Southern Writers” in which she compared the Russian aristocracy to the Southern social order: “The Southerner and the Russian are both ’types,’ in that they have certain recognizable and national psychological traits. Hedonistic, imaginative, lazy, and emotional—there is surely a cousinly resemblance.” It is not for this reason, however, or at least not for this reason alone, that I think she owes a debt to the Russians. [Return to text.]

We are not alone

For those who might be saying, I’m probably over-reacting, nobody believes this is for real, here’s some crowd-sourced information that might both assure you (that you are not the only one) and terrify you (that it probably is for real):

Amazon’s top 12 editions of political fiction as of right now (Feb 10, 12:50 .m. EST):

1. 1984 by George Orwell (Signet ed.)
3. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Signet ed.)
6. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Kindel ed.)
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell (Signet ed.)
10. 1984 by George Orwell (Berkley; 60th anniversary ed.)
11. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
12. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Audible ed.)

Beckett on how we got here and what to do now

Who better than Samuel Beckett to explain our current absurd situation and what to do about it? So as we are hurling toward the unthinkable, we can take stock with the lyrical analysis in The Unnamable, the last of his great trilogy of novels beginning with Malloy and Malone Dies.

Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on. Can it be that one day, off it goes on, that one day I simply stayed in, in where, instead of going out, in the old way, out to spend day and night as far away as possible, it wasn’t far. Perhaps that is how it began. You think you are simply resting, the better to act when the time comes, or for no reason, and you soon find yourself powerless ever to do anything again. No matter how it happened. It, say it, not knowing what. Perhaps I simply assented at last to an old thing. But I did nothing. I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me. These few general remarks to begin with. What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later? Generally speaking. There must be other shifts. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless. But it is quite hopeless. I should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say aporia without knowing what it means. Can one be ephectic otherwise than unawares? I don’t know. With the yesses and noes it is different, they will come back to me as I go along and how, like a bird, to shit on them all without exception. The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter. And at the same time I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never.

From Three Novels by Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2009), pp. 286–87.

Turner’s Whaling Canvases (and a little Melville)

A small exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan (through August 7, 2016) shows that in the late 1840s it was not just Herman Melville who was thinking about the business of whaling as a subject fit to expand an art form. The Met has re-assembled the four oils that Turner painted around 1845 that treat the dangerous, bloody and seemingly existential business of whaling by putting together in the same room for the first time since they were in Turner’s studio its own Whalers together with the related ones now owned by the Tate. While these few paintings might seem a thin reed to base a Melville-Turner connection, if you read to the end, you might find some interesting points of connection (and some wild conjectures).

Turner and the Sea

1. Fishermen at Sea by J.M.W. Turner. ca. 1792. Oil on canvas. Tate. London. (BJ 1.) (As with all the illustration in this post, click to enlarge and click again to enlarge further.)

For some, Turner was principally, if not exclusively, a landscape painter. At the Met last week, I was surprised when a woman remarked to me (out of nowhere), “I thought Turner was a landscape painter.” John Ruskin, Turner’s early and greatest champion, also saw him as principally a landscape painter, and that’s how he’s treated in Modern Paintings.1 But maritime works were a core part of his output. The first painting the 21 year old Turner exhibited, his Fishermen at Sea, [#1] was a maritime picture but also a breathtaking production that made the familiar dramatic with bold lighting from the moon illuminating a boat atop an undulating sea defined by dark water and white crests, white reflections and white birds. The chiaroscuro effect emphasizes the power of the sea and also implies that the water nests the fishermen who appear serene in the midst of the surges. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1802. when he was 27, owing in large part to his Dutch Boats in a Gail [the “Bridgewater Seapiece”] (1801; BJ 14), which was a popular success when exhibited to the Royal Academy in 1801 and was considered by Henry Fuseli and Benjamin West to surpass the Dutch models and even Rembrandt! From then on maritime subjects became a staple for Turner. A maritime painting was the first of Turner’s paintings to be engraved. (The painting The Shipwreck (BJ 54), exhibited in 1805, was engraved by J. Burnet in 1853.) Hermann (p. 1) found that 150 of the 541 oils catalogued Butlin and Joll have the sea as its central feature, and this doesn’t count historical/mythological pictures or views of harbors or Venice.

2. The Wreck of a Transport Ship by J.M.W. Turner. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1810. Fundaçao Calouste Gulbendikan, Lisbon.) (BJ 210.)

The sea with the men and vessels on it was a subject that was not only dramatic in itself, but also one central to the psyche of the island nation who allowed its rulers to impress foreign seamen so that its own navy and merchant marine could continue to supply the “nation of shopkeepers” with its economic vitals. Britannia took pride in ruling the oceans, and Turner was more than willing to become its visual chronicler, booster and sometime critic. Between Dutch Boats in a Gale and Wreck of a Transport Ship [#2] Turner had a “decade of painting grand seapieces” which he would no return to until the late 1820s (BJ 210). When Turner took up seascapes again, this time more or less regularly, with Port Ruysdael, exhibited in 1827 (BJ 237), he would concern himself with churning seas, which Ruskin described as the “white, wild, cold, comfortless waves of the north sea” which in the composition are “almost subordinate to the awful rolling clouds.” (Modern Painters I:379.)  To Ruskin Turner was the undisputed master of both the sky and the sea:

3. Margate from the Sea: Whiting Fishing by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. 1822. Private collection.

“it may be generally stated that Turner is the only painter, so far as I know, who has ever drawn the sky, (not the clear sky, which we before saw belonged exclusively to the religious schools, but the various forms and phenomena of the cloudy heavens,) all previous artists having only represented it typically or partially; but he absolutely and universally … He is the only painter who has ever represented the surface of calm, or the force of agitated water; who has represented the effects of space on distant objects, or who has rendered the abstract beauty of natural color. These assertions I make deliberately, after careful weighing and consideration, in no spirit of dispute, or momentary zeal; but from strong and convinced feeling, and with the consciousness of being able to prove them.” (MP  I:138-39).

4. Regulus by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1828, reworked 1837. Tate, London. (BJ 294.)

To achieve mastery of skies and seas, particularly turbulent ones, the treatment of light (including reflection, chiaroscuro and diffusion) as well as color (although the more experimental approaches to color came later) needed to be subordinated to his overall approach. Like many romantic painters (including those of the more-or-less contemporary American Hudson River School) Turner began with a fondness for lighting the picture from a central source in the background. As time went on, Turner used sunlight in both seascapes and landscapes that approached closer to the horizon (see Margate from the Sea [#3]). As he increased the intensity of the light, it threw the forms on both sides into something like relief. In Regulus (rev. 1837) [#4] the viewer sees sunlight so intense that it obscures the objects on either side of its direct rays. The effect was one that Turner vigorously applied himself to create. John Gilbert, whose own exhibit was on the opposite wall to Turner’s at the British Institution exhibition, saw Turner rework the piece in 1837:

5. Ancient Italy—Ovid Banished from Rome by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1838. Private Collection. (BJ 375.)

“The picture was a mass of red and yellow of all varieties. Every object was in this fiery state. He had a large palette, nothing in it but a huge lump of flake-white; he had two or three biggish hog tools to work with, and with these he was driving the white into all the hollows, and every part of the surface. This was the only work he did, and it was the finishing stroke. The sun, as I have said, was in the centre; from it were drawn—ruled—lines to mark the rays; these lines were rather strongly marked, I suppose to guide his eye. The picture became wonderfully effective, just the effect of brilliant sunlight absorbing everything and throwing a misty haze over every object.” (BJ 294.)

6. Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1842. Tate, London. (BJ 398.)

A similar concept (also of an ancient historical setting) was used the following year in Turner’s Ancient Italy—Ovid Banished from Rome [#5]. The critics were not charitable to these experiments. Ruskin, after Turner’s death (in his 1857 Notes) found Regulus to be “very disgraceful to Turner,” and the Anthenaeum (May 12, 1838) concluded on the basis of Ancient Italy that it was “grievous to think of talent, so mighty and so poetical, running riot into such frenzies; the more grievous, as we fear, it is now past recall.”

7. Peace—Burial at Sea by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1842. Tate, London. (BJ 399.)

Storms at sea as well as night on the ocean required Turner to understand how to express the absence of light, and he engaged in a similar path of experimentation. In Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead [#6], he painted a swirl of light and dark encircling a craft listing in mortal danger. Turner added a subtitle: “The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich.” It is less important that the documentary evidence does not support this claim than the fact that Turner called himself an “Author” not “Artist.” The painting was intended to be journalistic; that is, recorded by an observer. And to our eyes the painting has real authenticity. But the contemporary critics found the work insufficiently representational. Punch and other satirists routinely compared Turner’s work of this period to various salads and the Anthenaeum (May 14, 1842) condemns Turner for using “his whole array of kitchen stuff. Where the steam-boat iswhere the harbour begins, or where it ends—which are the signals, and which the author in the Ariel … are matters past our finding out.” The idea that the piece should be criticized for expressing the emotional intensity of experiencing the storm’s ferocity instead of subordinating it to a “literal” depiction of physical forms and relationships (one that could not be seen under the circumstances portrayed) seems odd to us who have absorbed a century and a half of developments in painting and other pictorial technology. But the radicalness of the approach, pre-Impressionism and before the New was celebrated, can be perhaps best understood by considering that Ruskin himself expressed (privately) his view that the was nothing more than “whitewash and soapsuds.”2 When Turner combined his mastery of intense light, pure blackness and his experiments with reds and yellows of early 1840s, he produced Peace [#7], a visual threnody of surprising power. What did the most informed art writers of his time think of it? Clarkson Stanfield of the Royal Academy thought the sails were too black. The newspaper critics were uniformly hostile, with the Spectator (May 7, 1842), insinuating its lack a patriotism (or its radicalness) by dubbing it “rouge et noir.” Other newspaper commentators competed to make even less witty disparaging remarks. But even Ruskin (in his 1857 Notes) criticized the “unnatural blackness of the sails.

8. Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1840. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (BJ 385.)

The most effective of Turner’s black-red-yellow experiments was Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840; BJ 385) [#8]. Turner here subordinates composition to the interplay of colors. The most clearly defined object is a human leg surrounded by fish in the right foreground. Hands appear to be sticking up from the sea further back. We see a ship somewhat obscured by the mist or fog. What the painting essentially consists of is the layering of black, yellow, red and white (with a few other colors for details). The interplay of the colors makes up the sea, which imperceptibly becomes the sky, which takes up half the canvas. Turner regarded it as the noblest sea Turner ever created, and, therefore, “the noblest ever painted by man.” The ship is forcing its way through uneasy surf, moving away from the central light (lightning?) but framed in an ominously red sky. The production heaves with moral revulsion.

9. Van Tromp’s Shallop at the Entrance of the Scheldt by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1832. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut . (BJ 344.)

The newspapers once again objected to the lack of sharp definition of objects. And it is certainly true that the works of the 1840s were considerably less “representational” than those of the 1830s, such as the Von Tromp’s Shallop [#9]. The earlier paintings followed the approach that had come to be accepted among Dutch painters earlier in the century. The Dutch painters attempted a sort of “verisimilitude” that made the objects throughout the painting distinct, even though a person viewing the scene in nature could not see the actual scene in that way, most of the scene being confined to peripheral vision. But in the 1830s Turner had departed from the Dutch models by adding atmospheric perspective so that German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen considered Turner’s approach as “a crude painted medley with a general foggy appearance” constituting a “total want of truth.”3 Ruskin expends a great deal of effort in defending Turner from this kind of criticism by way of a minute explanation of the nature of atmospheric perspective (the effect of air, depending on its moisture content, to make more obscure and paler distant objects, to the extent of their distance), although he had no term for it, simply calling it one of the intentional “mysteries” of Turner’s painting. (MP, IV:68-79.) It is in the context of Ruskin’s defense of Turner’s renderings of skies and clouds (and by extension distant objects) that Ruskin makes his provocative statement: “We never see anything clearly.” (MP IV:58.) That defense, however, depended upon rendering the forms “definite”: “You can only show how the light affects the object, by knowing thoroughly what the object is; and noble mystery differs from ignoble, in being a veil thrown between us and something definite, known, and substantial; but the ignoble mystery is a veil cast before chaos, the studious concealment of Nothing.” (MP IV:73.)  But this is where Turner and Ruskin (at least the younger Ruskin) parted ways. And it is why Ruskin denigrated the first of the whaling canvases at the Met exhibit.4

Turner, Whales and Whalers

*10. The Whale on Shore by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1837. Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio. (The asterisk—*—indicates the piece is shown as part of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition.)

It was during his new, more expressionistic, departure in the 1840s that the whaling projects were conceived. Turner had only once before taken any interest in whales and that was a watercolor [#10] designed to be engraved for an illustration to a multivolume collection of Walter Scott works (specifically to an abridgment of The Pirate). The work is strikingly busy. The scene represents an important plot point in the novel. During an attempt to kill a whale the pirate of the title (who had earlier been saved by the hero) rescues the hero from drowning. Their obligations now cancelled out, they may begin their rivalry for the same love interest. Even given the elaborate and fully populated scene by Scott, it is remarkable how many things are going on in Turner’s picture. The whale is near shore in the midground right. The rescue takes place in the foreground. A thunderstorm is off shore to the left. And the whale is being harassed by boats and attacked with all sorts of weapons including muskets. The picture is filled with scores of people. The composition was perhaps designed to give a flavor of the fanciful nature of the novel. In the midst of the chaos, the whale itself is quite odd. Hamilton (p. 94) says that it has the look of a “post-medieval bestiary woodcut illustration.” It is interesting to note, however, that the whale is clearly a right whale, the kind of whale most common in the North Atlantic, and not a sperm whale, which Turner would paint in his canvases.5 Neither the style nor the content of the painting, however, prefigures the whale canvases.

11. Peche de la Balein by Frederic Martens. Uncolored acquatint after a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray, published by Rittner & Goupil, Paris, 1834-35.

11. Peche de la Balein by Frederic Martens. Uncolored aquatint after a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray, published by Rittner & Goupil, Paris, 1834-35.

Hamilton (p. 92) suggests as a possible guiding influence on Turner’s mid-1840 departure in maritime works Captain Elisha Ely Morgan, an affable old Yankee mariner, who regularly appeared in London, owing to his packet service between New York and London and Liverpool. While in London Morgan cultivated the foremost literary and artistic lights, including Dickens and Thackeray. Turner became such an enthusiast of Morgan’s tales of the open sea (Turner himself never made an ocean voyage) that the two became so close that Morgan added Turner to the list of his intimates who were sent a box of American cigars when Morgan returned to New York. Hamilton speculates that Morgan’s stories may have influenced Turner’s evolution in sea painting from the academically-based paintings of the 1830s to the dramatic and emotion-filled pictures of the 1840s. (It may not be a coincident that Morgan was an abolitionist, and Turner painted the Slavers in 1840.) Morgan had also spent a year whaling in Greenland, so that might have been an impetus to the specific project. But Turner had other sources of inspiration.

12. Boats Attacking Whales by William James Linton. Engraving published as frontispiece to Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839).

Natural history, and the order of the living world, was a component of English cultural conversations in the 1840s and for many years before that. The five volumes written by various naturalists under the supervision of Charles Darwin describing the specimens he collected during the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle were published from February 1838 to October 1843 (under the general title Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle). Darwin’s own Journal and Remarks on the voyage (which contains references to whales and whaling throughout) was published in 1840.6 The Beagle was only one of a number of government sponsored expeditions, designed to explore sea routes but also to report on and collect new or little known organisms as a matter for scientific research. Specifically with respect to whales, although the British whaling industry was at depression levels owing to foreign (mainly Yankee) competition, whaling still captured the public’s attention. There was a fair amount of conventional art, including popular engravings [e.g., #11], as well as travelogues, histories of voyages and even literature. (Melville’s Typee, which was first published in London in 1846 and well received, portrayed sailors from the whaler The Dolly). Perhaps most important of the authentic descriptions of whaling was Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), which both Turner and Melville consulted.7 While the illustrations were fanciful [e.g., #12 with sperm whales frolicking and leaping wholly out of the water in the manner of dolphins], the text, written by a British surgeon, strove for accuracy not only about whales but also about a whaling voyage that Beale himself undertook.

13. Wreckers–Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore b y J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1834. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

Financially Turner’s biggest inspiration probably was the rich spermaceti magnate Elhanan Bicknell, who had long been in the whaling business but had liquidated his investments before the bust. He was now a wealthy connoisseur of British painting, including Gainsborough, Landseer, Stanfield, Etty and others,  and had previously patronized Turner. According to Sutton, he became a champion (or at least a purchaser) of Turner before even his friend John Ruskin did. In the year before Turner painted the first two whaling oils, Bicknell purchased eight canvases by Turner.8 (The year 1844, however, was the year after the first volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters was first published, and it caused something of a bull market in Turner works.) Among the works of Turner he bought was Wreckers, a work that received universal praise on its exhibitions at the Royal Academy in 1834 and the British Institution in 1836. Turner’s attempt to reel in Bicknell was not only unsuccessful, however, it also resulted in a permanent breach in their relationship.

*14. Whalers by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1845. Tate, London. (BJ 414.)

In 1845 the 70 year old Turner was interim president of the Royal Academy. For his contribution to that summer’s annual exhibition (he was a member of the hanging committee) he selected his two whaling paintings [##14 & 15] together with four Venetian scenes. The whaling canvases both involve what whalers called the “chase,” and in the 1845 catalogue both refer to chapter XIII of “Beale’s Voyage” (i.e., Beale, Natural History of the Sperm Whale) for a description of the action. Beale describes the chase and capture as follows:

*15. Whalers (The Whale Ship) by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1845. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (BJ 415.)

“When in pursuit of the whale with the boats, it occasionally happens that just at the moment the harpoon is about to be plunged into its body, the whale suddenly descends, leaving nothing but a vortex to mark the spot where but a moment before it was seen floating; but its course, however, has been observed, and the boats are placed in a position to be as near as possible to it when it again rises to breathe; the time, as has been before stated, when he will do this is known to a minute. If they should be more fortunate in the next rising of the whale, and they succeed in darting the harpoon into its body, then immediately after the first struggles of the wounded animal and when he is lying exhausted from his enormous exertions to escape, or free himself from the harpoon, the boat’s head is placed close to its side, and the headsman begins to destroy it by thrusting his lance into its most vital parts, which lie near the fin, or darting at it from a distance; at the moment of lancing, he cries ‘stern all’; the oars are then immediately backed and the boat’s stern becoming its cutwater, it is thus removed from danger without the loss of time and trouble in turning. Again, when feeling the lance, the whale plunges and throws itself in all directions, lashing the water with its tail, or rearing its enormous head, and threatening destruction with its formidable jaw, (see cut, p. 154).” (pp. 159-60).

16. South Sea Whale Fishery by William Huggins. Engraving on p. 154 of T. Beale (1839).

The two paintings represent sequential events. The first (BJ 414) [#14] shows the whale boats in the process of harpooning the whale. The harpooner in the stern of the boat (the foremost of the human figures) is about to throw. The one slightly behind has no harpoon in hand and is perhaps cheering a hit. The whale, which is seen as only a brown mound to the right. His spout is slightly pink, showing that it has been injured enough to be exhaling blood. The men are pulling back the oars, the very thing Beale describes they do after the headsman cries, “stern all.” What is most remarkable about the painting, however, is the whiteness of the spray which obscures the scene and blends into the sky and sails of the distant ship. The oval effect created by the spray and clouds curving over the heads of the whalers creates a sense of urgency to the action. But it is the color that Turner uses to create the bright pacific sun over the sea that is most noticeable. The Spectator (May 10, 1845) remarked on the “prismatic brilliancy” of the “hues of light.” The Literary Gazette (May 17, 1845) concluded that Turner’s “scale of color has never … been approached by any other man;  … it is a development of elements essential in nature, carried far above her usual aspects.” The color must have faded over time, because the Morning Chronicle (May 7, 1845) praises the effect of the “red clothing of the sailors in the boat” which now appear brown. This may be an example of Turner’s point that owing to the materials used, Turner’s colors are not permanent.9 But even with the fading, the sense is one of blinding white sunlight in the mist.

Anonymous engraving at T. Beale, p. 173 (1839).

17. Anonymous engraving at T. Beale, p. 173 (1839).

The second painting (BJ 415) [#15], which shows the whale’s breach which followed its sounding on being harpooned, is at initial glance a more iconic composition. The head of the whale is seen in the foreground with the ship seemingly chasing it. To the right there is a large splash, possibly caused by the whale’s fluke. On closer inspection, between the whale and the ship are the boats stuggling against the waves caused by the whale’s actions. One boat seems ot have capsized, another is in the process of being upended with whalers holding the sides, and the third seems just beginning to feel the effects of the upheaval of the ocean. The story from Beale (pp. 173-76) is of an operation off Japan in June 1832. It was late afternoon when the whale was harpooned and successfully lanced, but it sounded deep and when it breached it hit one boat with its head upending it. It circled the men in the water, but did not harm them. When the whale was again lanced, it died and sunk, never to be seen again. The men, however, were all rescued. The culmination of the two scenes then is a near death experience ending in ultimate futility, a conclusion that Turner often urges for all manner of human endeavor, especially by quoting from his (never found) poem “Fallacies of Hope.”

Like its companion piece, in the second Whalers the atmospheric perspective is made through a brilliant foreground lighting effect rather than solely through darker tinted backgrounds. And unlike Regulus [#4] and its “huge lump of flake white forced into all the crevices of the canvas,” the brilliance of the surface was made up of different hues and tints. While Punch (January-June 1845, p. 233)  compared its effects to that of “lobster salads,” the critic for the Literary Gazette (May 17, 1845), while preferring Turner’s earlier work (because it did not “sublimate truth” to imagination) saw that the “handling of the tints, and their harmony, allowing for the exalted pitch of prismatic brightness, are astonishing. Splintered rainbows thrown against the canvas is a better comparison than … lobster sauce … .”

Bicknell took home the second of the Whalers but discovered that it was finished in part with water color, and he took that as a sign that Turner had not given enough time or care to finish the work properly. He attempted to remove the watercolor himself and damaged the work. A confrontation with Turner arose when he returned it for Turner to re-finish. Turner dug in his heels, and the dispute soon merged with another one,10 the combination of which seems to have ended their personal relationship.

*18. Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!’ by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 423.)

Nothing discouraged, Turner undertook to paint two more whaling paintings for the next year’s Royal Academy show. The first, Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish! [#18], depicts the “cutting in” process for a whale that has been hauled in (see chapter 67 of Moby Dick for a description) and the “baling of the case” (Moby Dick, chapters 77 and 78). The second, Whalers (boiling Blubber) entangled in Flaw Ice, endeavouring to extricate themselves [#19], shows the final stage of the process of rendering fat into commercial oil. But like the first pair, this pair begins with a euphoric moment (a catch that fills the hold?) and ends with a potential disaster—the ship trapped in packed (flaw [sic]) ice. In fact, if you look at the four paintings in order, you can discern the sequence of the business of obtaining spermaceti and other oils from the sperm whale: first the chase, then the (unsuccessful) kill, then the cutting in and retrieving the spermaceti from the head and finally boiling the blubber for residual oil. But the two sets are also distinct. Not only do the 1845 paintings and the 1846 ones take place in different seas (a point I will discuss below), but their focus is also different. The first set observes men confronting nature, and they do it with sheer brute manpower. There is no sign of machines or technology (beyond simple Iron Age tools). In the 1846 set the focus is on the manufacturing aspect of whaling: retrieving the spermaceti, cutting in and rendering the blubber. The last painting shows how industrial methods have been brought to this far-away sea by means of the try-works (see Moby Dick, chapter 96). It is true that disaster faces this crew too (in the form of the ice pack), but that is simply part of the order of things: the fallacy of hope; it is not a condemnation of industry itself.

*19. Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 426.)

For a long time art historians had seen this second pair as depictions of whaling in the Arctic, and then criticized Turner for details that were unrealistic. There was no commercial whaler known as Erebus, sperm whales are rare in the Arctic, Arctic whalers did not boil blubber and so forth. Wallace (1988), however, persuasively showed that the painting were of Antarctic waters and that Erebus was not a commercial whaler but rather a former bomb ketch refitted as a research vessel, sent (with another converted bomb ketch, the Terror, which had seen service in the War of 1812 against the United States) to explore southern sea lanes, to investigate the magnetism of the earth and also to “use every exertion to collect the various objects of Natural History which the many heretofore unexplored countries about to visited would afford.” (Richardson & Grey, p. v.) The youngest member of the expedition (which took place from 1839 to 1843) was the 22 year old Joseph Dalton Hooker, who would become one of the eminent botanists (specializing in geographical botany) and evolutionists in England and Darwin’s closest friend, defender and confidant. (He wrote the “Summary of the Voyage” which introduced Richardson & Grey’s first volume of the zoology of the voyage.)  As a member of the Anthenæum Club, Turner would have known a number of persons familiar with the voyage, including Hooker’s respected father, William Jackson Hooker.11 Wallace speculates that Turner might have even talked with expedition commander Captain James Clark Ross when he returned to London in 1843.

20. Cartoon published by Almanack of the Month (June 1846), p. 350.

The relevance of the location depicted may have to do (as Wallace argues with the nature of the illumination of the objects in the two pictures. Unlike the bright light of the first set of whalers which runs towards a warm color temperature, the color temperature of the second set is decidedly cooler, more bluish, even though the intensity seems the same. Wallace (1988, p. 27) says that the 1846 paintings give off “a wondrous radiance that is almost benedictory in its quality”; the first one having a “copper calm” and the second a “shimmering azure transparency.” Sympathetic contemporary critics struggled to explain what Turner was trying to achieve but they nonetheless remarked on the handling of color. About the first painting [#18] the Literary Gazette (May 9, 1846) said: “So entirely is the eye carried away by a sort of indistinct and harmonious magic, that we seem to consent to the abandonment of solid truth and real nature altogether, and allow dark ships to be chrome yellow, whales glittering pink, human beings sun or moon beams, and little thick dabs of paint ethereal clouds.” The Anthenaeum (May 9, 1846) praised the Boiling Blubber picture for allowing the viewer to make out forms, although color still predominates: “one can make forms out of those beautiful, though almost chaotic colours. The sea-green hue of the ice, the flicker of the sunbeam on the waves, the boiling of the blubber, and the tall forms of the ice-bound vessels, make up an interesting picture.” Given the Ruskin’s remark about the impermanence of Turner’s colors and the inference that the color of the sailors’ outfits in #14 faded considerably, it is probable that we do not today see the intended brilliance of the hues. Nevertheless, they are still striking. Those who denied any merit to the works simply ignored what Turner was attempting because they had long ago given up on Turner altogether. Instead of analysis they reverted back to the by-now-hackneyed lobster salad quip. The Almanack of the Month (June 1846) extended the quip beyond its already thin breaking point and added a caricature of Turner [#20] for those who failed to get the point.

What was Turner intending? Wallace argues (1988, p. 28), plausibly I think, that Turner intended to portray the unique atmospheric effects of the Antarctic region, which he learned of through reading Hooker’s journal (in December 1840-January 1841) or possibly through the impressions Hooker conveyed to his father, relayed to Turner at the Anthenæum Club. Hooker made the point that the meteorology and light of the Antarctic was distinct from that of the Arctic. And then he writes a passage that could describe the light effects of the second set of whalers:

“The water and the sky were both as blue, or rather more intensely blue than I have ever seen them in the tropics, and all the coast one mass of dazzlingly beautiful peaks of snow, which, when the sun approaches the horizon, reflected the most brilliant tints of golden, yellow and scarlet; and then to see the dark cloud of smoke, tinged with flame, rising from the volcano in a perfect unbroken column; one side jet black, the other giving back the colours of the sun, sometimes turning off at a right angle by some current of wind, and stretching many miles to leeward!”

The blubber rendering operation with its resulting plume replaces in the Boiling Blubber canvas the volcano in Hooker’s journal, and with this change the description of atmospheric effects seems to match.

21. The Hero of a Hundred Fights by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca. 1800-10, reworked 1847. Tate, London. (BJ 427.)

21. The Hero of a Hundred Fights by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca. 1800-10, reworked 1847. Tate, London. (BJ 427.)

The final two whaling canvases, however, are about more than lighting effects; they also have a narrative component. The Hurrah! painting (as we noted above) describes the processes of cutting in and baling the case. The painting shows the decapitated head of the sperm whale hoisted above the deck by a kind of windlass. (And it is distinctly a sperm whale as opposed to the right whale in #10.) The body of the whale lays on the side of the boat while the sailors cut at the layers of fat in order to unspool the blubber in one piece as the body rotates in the water (while sharks nip at the bleeding mass, according to Melville).  None of this requires any of the tools developed by the Industrial Revolution that began only a quarter of a century before Turner was born. No did the rendering of the fat in the Boiling Blubber painting. In fact, the entire Ross expedition of 1839-43 was somewhat pre-industrial—it was the last major British exploratory expedition undertaken wholly without steam power. But the second painting fits within Turner’s late depiction of technology, which as Turner saw it late in life involved dangerous blinding fire in the midst of darkness. This is how Turner depicted the casting of the bronze monument to the Duke of Wellington in The Hero of a Hundred Fights [#21], the only painting Turner exhibited in the Royal Academy’s show the following year. He would not submit any work thereafter. But that blasting light was also used by Turner in a series of religious and mythological paintings over the course of the next several years. The most striking of these, perhaps, is Angel Standing in the Sun [#22], which was exhibited at the same Royal Academy show as the second set of whaling pictures. The Angel of the Apocalypse in that painting (Revelations xix:17-18 is noted in the original catalogue) invites the fowl of the air to feast on the great men of earth.  The blinding light has come to signify the Fallacy of Hope itself. Was this perhaps the terror of a man facing his mortality? This peculiar form of Turner chiaroscuro appears around the time of Peace [#7], which commemorated the death of his friend, David Wilkie, an event that profoundly affected Turner.  However that might be, the Boiling Blubber painting is part of this group, pregnant, as it is, with incipient terror, for the ice-pack that is surrounding the ships could easily present mortal danger. Hooker explained how difficult it was to extricate from an ice pack which stranded the expedition from December 1841 to February 1842 (Richardson & Grey, pp. vii-vii). Captain Ross described the immense peril they were in when a storm struck while in the ice-pack in January 1842:

22, Angel standing in the Sun by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 425.)

“The storm reached its height at two p.m., when the barometer stood at 28-40 inches, and after that time began to rise. Although we had been forced many miles deeper into the pack, we could not perceive that the swell had at all subsided, our ships still rolling and groaning amidst the heavy fragments of crushing bergs, over which the ocean rolled its mountainous waves, throwing huge masses one upon another, and then again burying them deep beneath its foaming waters, dashing and grinding them together with fearful violence. The awful grandeur of such a scene can neither be imagined nor described, far less can the feelings of those who witnessed it be understood. Each of us secured our hold, waiting the issue with resignation to the will of Him who alone could preserve us, and bring us safely through this extreme danger; watching with breathless anxiety the effect of each succeeding collision, and the vibrations of the tottering masts, expecting every moment to see them give way without our having the power to make an effort to save them.”  (Ross, pp. 169-70.)

As it turned out, both Erebus and Terror had or were experiencing this very event at the time the second set of paintings were being exhibited at the Royal Academy, this time in the Arctic and this time with more formidable technology at their disposal. Both vessels had been refitted with steam engines to search for the illusive northwest passage. They were last seen entering Baffin Bay in August 1845. It was later learned (in 1853, after Turner’s death, and confirmed in 1866) that the vessels were trapped by pack ice and abandoned by the crews, all members of which perished. All reprieve from the Fallacy of Hope is merely temporary.

A Melville Connection?

23. Title page of Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale with note in Melville’s handwriting. volume from Houghton Library, Harvard College. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Image from Melville’s Marginalia.

It is natural nowadays to associate Moby Dick with any reference to whales, sperm whales in particular. Given that Turner’s whaling paintings were shown in 1845 and 1846, and remained in his collection until his death in 1851 shortly after Moby Dick was published in London) and given that Melville visited London in 1849, the question is natural whether Melville ever saw the whaling paintings or any other oil by Turner, and if so, did it affect his writing?

There is the very slightest of documentary evidence. The only reference to Turner in Melville’s hand is a notation on the cover page of his copy of Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, which he bought in New York on July 10, 1850, on which he wrote: “Turner’s pictures of Whalers were suggested by this book.” [#23.] So before Melville finished the book, or even a substantial portion of the work, he knew of Turner’s Whalers. Did he see them? On that there is no direct evidence. His journal of his 1849 trip to England and Europe makes no mention of Turner, although he did visit many art collections. So how did he know about Turner? Well, we know (Sealts, p. 80) that his father-in-law had borrowed the second volume of Modern Painters from the Boston Anthenaeum and it was still outstanding when Melville visited him in July 1848. His friend and literary “agent” Evert Duyckinck had a complete set, and while there is written evidence that Melville freely borrowed books from Duyckinck, there is no evidence that Melville borrowed Ruskin from him.

But he had to know of Turner from somewhere, the marginalia on his Beale book shows that. So what did he know and what influence did it have on him? If you read Moby Dick with Turner’s works in mind, you find all sorts of parallels. I pointed out one a few days back. Harold Beaver in his notes to Penguin’s 1972 edition of Moby Dick identified Whalers (The Whale Ship) [#15] as the painting hanging in Spouter-Inn on which Ishmael expends much energy contemplating in chapter 3. Here is the passage:

Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

Ishmael’s impression of the painting is much like contemporary critics’ reaction to the late Turner work, including the whaling pictures. What is particularly striking is the phrase “nameless yeast,” so similar it is unlikely to be a coincident that Ruskin uses the phrase “masses of accumulated yeast” to describe the “creamy foam” in Turner’s Snow Storm [#6], which is another plausible inspiration for the Spouter-Inn painting. (MP I:380-81.) But the problem comes when Ishmael finally resolves (at least for hiself) the import of the painting:

In fact, the artist’s design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

The image, therefore, is more like the frontispiece of Beale’s book [#12] than any of Turner’s work. Moreover, what made the painting obscure, or indistinct and mysterious (as Ruskin refers to Turner’s work), is the accumulated smoke and grease of the inn, the effort of the artist. Finally, although Melville visited the National Gallery while in London in 1849, Snow Storm and the whaling paintings were in Turner’s gallery, which Melville makes no mention of in his journal, as Wallace points out (1991, p. 57).  On the other hand, Ruskin’s own writing provides more than enough basis for Turner’s imagined painting (which after all is not described with any degree of detail or analysis), and Ruskin’s footnote’s reference to Shakespeare’s “yesty waves” was itself enough to catch Melville’s attention, given his then current obsession with Shakespeare.

Still if you trace Melville’s work from Typee onward, you get the sense of a writer whose visual sense has greatly improved. So could any conclusions be drawn if someone systematically compared the writer and artist over time? Would any connections turn up?

24. Dark Clouds over the Sea, possibly near Boulogne by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. 1845. Tate, London. From the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbooks. (Turner Bequest CCCLVII 12.)

Fortunately Robert K. Wallace made the attempt, and he did so meticulously in Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (1992). Wallace is perhaps uniquely able to ferret out relations between art forms, having previously written studies on the relations between Jane Austen and Mozart and Emily Brontë. (I have read neither of these books; I merely note their existence and Wallace’s previous attempts to relate literature to other art forms.) He also, as demonstrated by his 1988 article  on the Antarctic source for Turner’s latter two whaling pictures showed that he has a talent for teasing out sources by mapping out possible relationships, both historical and literary. If anything, however, that piece also showed that he sometimes built possibility upon possibility to draw conclusions that go well beyond what the evidence supported and often what seemed plausible. His suggestions of the many layers of meaning to “Fish” in the title to the third whaler [#18], for example, seemed literary sleight of hand. It is too convoluted to repeat here, but suffice it to say: If Turner’s layered his title with so many different and interlocking meanings, he was a greater literary punster than James Joyce, nearly a century before Finnegans Wake. Another example from the article involves his “reading” of a watercolor sketch given the name Dark Clouds over the Sea, possibly near Boulogne [#24]. Is the dark mass on the horizon a whale, rather than a vessel’s bow? If so, Wallace speculates that Turner saw a whale, and it stimulated his interest in painting the whaling pictures. But the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbooks probably date from after the 1845 Royal Academy show (Hokanson, p. 46 n.23), and so could not have been one of the inspirations. That speculation might have been enough for most scholars but Wallace sees a whale’s skeleton in the clouds and a weasel’s skull (!) attached to it. Why so? Well, it comports with the following exchange between Hamlet and Polonius in Hamlet III:ii:368-73:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

What this speculation suggests is that Wallace is less interested in sources as bases for inspiration for a particular artist than sources as inspiration for critical comparisons. In other words, Wallace is seeking not what influenced an artist but rather what might have influenced him, evidently believing that the possibility is enough to enhance our understanding of the artist’s work. And that is how he proceeds in his very large (664 page) book.

On page 575 Wallace sets out the conclusion that Turner play the role of “Melville’s spiritual father” and that Moby Dick could not have been written “without England’s greatest modern painter in his mind’s eye.” This is a breathtaking conclusion, and unless the terms “spiritual” and “mind’s” mean to contradict what they modify (much like the legal term “constructive” does), there is simply nothing offeried in the way of proof for those propositions. After an introductory tour of Turner’s life and aesthetics, which he reduces to the term “indistinct,” relying heavily on Ruskin’s quote—”We never see anything clearly,” he proceeds to give a biography and then chronological tour of Melville’s work, closely keyed to Turner’s works that Melville had engravings of. These mainly come from the collection of the Berkshire Anthenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and all but one or two are known to have been acquired by Melville well after he wrote Moby Dick. Wallace scrutinizes the first five novels with an eye to anything Turnerian, and compares passages of Melville to work of Turner’s that Melville could not have seen at the time he wrote them. Before getting to Moby Dick, Wallace retraces Melville’s 1849 stay in London, and piles up the possibilities of what he could have discussed with those he met. He comes to the conclusion that Melville may have seen engravings of Turner and might have had in-depth conversations about Turner with others. But the fact is, there is no proof of any of this. When he delves into Moby Dick there is much imaginative legerdemain drawing connections between passages and plot points and Turner paintings. It is the kind of writing that would merit extreme praise in a freshman humanities seminar (“Gogol’s treatment of the father-son relationship is much like Homer’s in the Iliad …”). It is mostly interesting because it reveals how Wallace processed the two artists whom he clearly admires. It reminded me of the works of Peter Conrad. In other words, it is neither scholarship in any traditional sense nor literary-artistic criticism. Maybe it is postmodern criticism, a form in which the works are only useful in showing the connections which a particular reader-viewer can make in his mind.

25. Figures on a Beach by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on millboard. ca. 1840-45. Tate, London. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Turner Bequest M 1974 .

25. Figures on a Beach by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on millboard. ca. 1840-45. Tate, London. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Turner Bequest M 1974 .

After this detailed tour of fanciful connections, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Wallace makes too much of Turner’s influence, which could only have been indirect in any case. He oversells the premise by looking to Turner to the exclusion of other, more direct influences on Melville. But more importantly, I think he proceeds on incorrect assumption about the nature of Melville’s aesthetic in Moby Dick. Wallace, as I said, makes the case that Turner’s approach was to render the visual world “indistinct” in order to emphasize the sublime and possibly metaphysical realms. He relies on Ruskin for this, but Ruskin does not go as far as Wallace does. His discussion of “mystery” is really only about atmospheric perspective, in the paintings up to the mid-1830s. And Ruskin’s point is that Turner is rendering physical reality true to how we actually see it (because the atmosphere, depending on moisture content, makes distant objects more or less distinct compared to closer objects). His discussion on this point had nothing to do with the more abstracting effects of light and atmosphere and darkness that Turner explored in the last decade of his life. In fact, Ruskin expressly dismisses these later Turner works, including the whaling paintings. But whatever one makes of the merits of describing Turner’s artistic view as intended obscurity, that is decidedly not the approach of Melville in Moby Dick.

The narrator, Ishmael, tries in every way he can to explain everything. From his reasons for undertaking the voyage, appealing to the reader’s knowledge of psychology (chapter 1), to the variety of whales and how they relate to each other (chapter 32), the nature (including financing) of the industry, the obtaining and processing of the oil from chase to cleanup, to the anatomy of whales and to the extent known their behavior, social and otherwise. Ishmael goes to great length to explain things in meticulous detail and with precise language. His description of the whales’ heads (chapters 74 and 75), their skeleton (chapter 103) and fossils (chapter 104) owe considerably more to the style of Charles Darwin than to anything Turner ever painted. When he gives a list of the pictorial representations of whales that he has seen, he gives a comprehensive list (and Turner is not among them) and he then discusses their accuracy (chapters 56 and 57). Even when he tells a story, a fish story so to speak, for example the “Town-Ho’s Story” (chapter 54), he offers to swear an affidavit before a priest to its veracity. There is no attempt to pare down, to reduce to the minimum (as in Turner’s late oils on paper, e.g.Figures on a Beach, [#25]). Even as Ishmael grows to comprehend that physical reality seems to suggest metaphysical truths, Ishmael tries to explain each phenomenon as he understands it. There is no attempt to obscure anything. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions about the ultimate question: Is the universe run randomly or is there a malicious order behind it all? There may be no answer, but the question could not be clearer, and the evidence is laid before the reader much as a lawyer would before a jury.

Even with the laser-like focus on Turner that Wallace seems to have, it is nonetheless peculiar to suggest that Turner supplied Melville with the moral/metaphysical quest that is the heart of the story; Melville’s Calvinist mother was vastly more influential, let alone philosophers (like Schopenhauer) and anti-philosophers (like Carlyle). And what could Turner teach about the sea, about how it looked and the existential dread it represented? Turner never was on the deep ocean, even overnight. Could Turner’s canvases given any insight into the terror of Pip or even the visual aspect of the South Seas or night on the forecastle? Melville had experienced those things, and Turner had not. At best Turner learned of such things second hand, and yet, according to Wallace, he was supposed to have be “indispensable” to Melville, who actually experienced those things but only knew of Turner by repute or interpretation of others (who probably had only conventional opinions). And finally, the character of Ahab, and especially his final diatribe (chapter 132: “The Symphony”), are both clearly Shakespearian, and Melville in his correspondence was clear on how fundamental he saw Shakespeare’s works, and yet said nothing about Turner. The fact is that if Turner contributed to Melville’s thought process at all, it was not in essential ways.

So why do so many scholars and others (even casual viewers of Turner and museum curators) link the too? The answer is that maritime drama must draw on the same elements, whether in a story or a picture (and music too probably). When the two draw on these elements in their own way, we connect them, especially because they were contemporaries and their wolrd view was necessarily similar, even though they were innovative in their own fields. Turner would be the artist you would use to illustrate Moby Dick because he was attempting to break out of the confinement of Romanticism much as Melville was. If we were to listen carefuly to Berlioz or Wagner in connection with Moby Dick we would likely find similarities there as well, but less so since neither wrote expressly “maritime” dramatic music (except for Wagner’s Flying Dutchman). We are constitutionally designed to see patterns and trace connections; it’s part of our social equipment. Scholars develop these innate skills in peculiar ways and sometimes beyond what is useful, especially in these days when “inter-disciplinary” generates cachet in a way that analysis of the text itself does not.

None of this, however, should discourage you from seeing the canvases at the Met, before three of them are returned to the Tate and the story told by Turner (not an imagined one by Melville), in the manner of his groundbreaking final phase (which needs no connection with others, even one as significant as Melville), can not longer be seen in the way Turner originally conceived it.


1Ruskin tells the story of being startled on coming across a reference to Turner as a sea painter as early as 1832. (Dialecta, pp. 1-2. See n.* on p. 1). [Return to text.]

2Ruskin revised his opinion in Modern Paintings, describing the “most hopeless, desolate, uncontrasted greys …” as “of the very finest pieces of colour that have come from his hand.” And extolling the work as “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion,  mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas, even by Turner. Of course it was not understood; his finest works never are …” (MP I:381-82). [Return to text.]

3G.F. Waagen, Works of Art and Artists in England. vol 2 (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 151, quoted by Ruskin in MP IV: 68. [Return to text.]

4Ruskin’s only reaction to the first two whaling paintings was: “Of the [Royal Academy] exhibition of 1845, I have only seen a small Venice, (still I believe in the artist’s possession,) and the two whaling subjects. … The Venice is a second-rate work, and the two others altogether unworthy of him.” (MP I:138.) [Return to text.]

5If you forgot the difference between the two types of whales, Melville meticulously explains the anatomy of both in Chapters 74 (“The Sperm Whale’s Head”) and 75 (“The Right Whale’s Head”) of Moby Dick. Throughout the novel, Ishmael shows some disdain for the fishing of right whales. [Return to text.]

6The full title of what is now commonly referred to as The Voyage of the Beagle was Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836 (London: Henry Colburn, 1840). [Return to text.]

7Turner provided page citations to Beale for the source of the two paintings exhibited in 1845, as we will see below. Melville purchased Beale on July 10, 1850 (Sealts, p. 40), a year and a half before Moby Dick was published. [Return to text.]

8In addition to Wreckers Bicknell bought five other paintings from Turner in one transaction in March 1844: Calder Bridge, Cumberland (1810) (BJ 106); Port Ruysdael (1827) (BJ 237), Palestrina—Composition (1828) (BJ 295), The Bright Stone of Honour (Ehrenbreitstein) and Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’ (1835) (BJ 361) (although Turner did not allow delivery until 1845), and probably Ivy Bridge Mill, Devonshire (1812) (JB 122). Bicknell bought two others in 1844: Helvoetslus—the City of Utrecht, 64, going to Sea (1832) (JB 345); Van Goyen looking out for a Subject (1833) (BJ 350). Before 1844 Bicknell purchased Giudecca, la Donna della Salute and San Giorgio (1841) (BJ 391) at the Royal Academy show in 1841, and Campo Santo, Venice (1842) (BJ 397) at the Royal Academy show in 1842. After their estrangement in 1845, Bicknell continued to purchase Turner works but not directly from Turner: In 1851 he bought two paintings at a Christies sale: Grand Junction Canal at Southall Mall (1810) (BJ 101) and Saltash with Water Ferry (1812) (BJ 121). In 1865 Bicknell probably bought Off the Nore: Wind and Water (BJ 476) from a lot at a Christie’s sale. [Return to text.]

9“One point … it is incumbent upon me to notice, being no question of art but of material. … No picture of Turner’s is seen in perfection a month after it is painted. The Walhalla cracked before it had been eight days in the Academy rooms; the vermilions frequently lose lustre long before the exhibition is over; and when all the colors begin to get hard a year or two after the picture is painted, a painful deadness and opacity comes over them, the whites especially becoming lifeless, and many of the warmer passages settling into a hard valueless brown, even if the paint remains perfectly firm, which is far from being always the case. … It is true that the damage makes no further progress after the first year or two, and that even in its altered state the picture is always valuable and records its intention; but it is bitterly to be regretted that so great a painter should not leave a single work by which in succeeding ages he might be estimated. The fact of his using means so imperfect, together with that of his utter neglect of the pictures in his own gallery, are a phenomenon in human mind which appears to me utterly inexplicable; and both are without excuse.” (MP I:136 n.*.)  [Return to text.]

10According to Ruskin’s father (in a letter to Ruskin in September 1845) the other factor leading to the estrangement involved the engraving of The Fighting ‘Temeraire’: “[Bicknell] gave [Turner] 120 Gs for loan of Tameraire to engrave & Turner beside demands 50 proof. Bicknell resists and sends 8.” (JB 377.) [Return to text.]

11That William Jackson Hooker was a member of the Anthenæum Club, see Joseph Dalton Hooker, A Sketch of the Life and Labours of Sir William Jackson Hooker, K.H., D.C.L. Oxon., F.R.S., F.L.S., Etc.: Late Director of the Royal Gardens of Kew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 [digital reproduction of original 1903 text]), p. lxxxvi. [Return to text.]


Beale, Thomas, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. To which is Added a Sketch of a South-Sea Whaling Voyage (London: John van Voorst, 1839) (online at Google Books and

Brown, David Blayney, Turner in the Tate Collection (London: Tate Publishing, 2002).

Butlin, Martin and Joll, Evelyn, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, vol . 1 (2d ed. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1984). [“BJ ___” refer to the catalogue number of the work in Butlin and Joll’s first volume, not the page number or the plate number of the work in volume 2.]

Gowing, Lawrence, Turner: Imagination and Reality (New York: Museum of Modern Art [1968]).

Grigsby, “Patina, Painting and Portentous Somethings,” Representations vol. 78, no. 1, pp. 140-44 (Spring 2002).

Hamilton, James, Turner: The Late Seascapes (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, c2003).

Hermann, Luke, “Turner and the Sea,” Turner Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-18 (Summer 1981).

Hokanson, Alison, “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 73, no. 4 (Spring 2016).

Joll, Evelyn, Butlin, Martin and Hermann, Luke (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) (specifically the articles on “Bicknell, Elhanan,” “Ruskin, John,” “Shakespeare, William,” and “Whaling”).

Mazis, Glen A., “‘Modern Depths,’ Painting, and the Novel: Turner, Melville, and the Interstices,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 70, no. 1/2, pp. 121-44 (Spring/Summer 1987).

Reynolds, Graham, “Turner”s Late Sky Studies,” Exploring Late Turner, pp. 17-21 (New ork: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, c1999).

Richardson, John and Gray, John Edward, The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Erebus & Terror, under the Command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross, during the years 1839 to 1843. By authority of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, vol. I: Mammalia, Birds (London: E.W. Janson, 1844) (with “Summary of the Voyage” by Joseph Dalton Hooker (pp. iii-vii) (online at

Riding, Christine, Turner & the Sea (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013).

Ross, James Clark, A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, During the Years 1839-43, vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1847) (online at

Ruskin, John, Dilecta: Correspondence, Diary Notes, and Extracts from Books Illustrating Præterita. (Orpington, Kent: G. Allen, 1886) (online at Hathi Trust).

Ruskin, John, Modern Painters, vols. I & IV (New York: John Wiley & Sons: 1886) (from Works of John Ruskin, “Popular Edition”) (a similar (unattributed) version, with the same pagination, is online at Project Gutenberg: References here are to  Volume 1 and Volume 4).  

Salander, Lawrence B., “Turner’s Necessity,” Exploring Late Turner, pp. 13-15 (New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, c1999).

Sealts, Merton M., Jr., Melville’s Reading: A Checklist of Books Owned and Borrowed (Madison: Universioty of Wisconsin Press, 1966).

Sutton, C.W., “Bicknell, Elhanan,” Dictionary of National  Biography ed. Leslie Stephen, vol. 5, pp. 9-10 (New York: Macmillen & Co., 1886) (online at Google Books).

Wallace, Robert K., “The Antarctic Sources for Turner’s 1846 Whaling Oils,” Turner Studies, Vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 20-31 (Summer 1988).

Wallace, Robert K., “Bulkington, J.M.W. Turner and ‘The Lee Shore,'” Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual Arts ed. Christopher Sten (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991), pp. 55-76.

Wallace, Robert K., Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, c1992).

Warrell, Ian, Turner’s Sketchbooks (London: Tate Publishing, 2014).

Wilton, Andrew, Turner and the Sublime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

Ziff, Jerrold, “John Langhorne and Turner’s ‘Fallacies of Hope,'” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 27 (1964), pp. 340-342.

The Lee Shore

A technique that Melville uses throughout Moby Dick takes a truism, examines it analytically but logically, and in the process burdens it with qualifications until the exact opposite appears to be undeniably true. The most extended version, and the most centrally important to the novel, is the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” (Chapter 42). But the technique is used throughout. In fact, it is one of the keys to the metaphysics and aesthetics of the work, it’s w-+

.hat impels Ahab, it embodies the logic of the apocalypse of the Pequod, and turns out to be what Ishmael has been searching for (without knowing it): In the dimension beyond the material world, things are different from what physical reality suggests, perhaps the exact opposite.

Earlier in the novel is a very short (four paragraph) chapter, “a six-inch chapter” as Melville puts it, called “The Lee Shore” (Chapter 23). It takes place just as the Pequod enters the open sea on that frigid Christmas night. Ishmael recognizes a sailor, Bulkington, who he had encountered in the Spouter Inn in New Bedford. Bulkington had just returned from a long whaling voyage; now, to Ishmael’s amazement, he was embarked on another, having forsaken the chance to rest ashore in the hospitality of the port. But without any caesura Ishmael  contemplates what the “port” and “shore” means and also what the the shoreless deep signifies.

The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ‘gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

And so, in that gale, what is the ocean, the unknown deep?

Know ye now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God–so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing–straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

 So shore is where danger is in a storm. And in fact the “landless” is where the highest truth can be found. (This realization becomes, as Melville says his chapter is: “the stoneless grave of Bulkington.)

I bring this up merely to show a painting by J.M.W. Turner that perfectly illustrates what Ishmael says.

Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca.1840. Tate, London. (BJ 458.)

This is simply evidence of something I’ve been trying to work out: How could Turner and Melville have been so sympathetic when they had no essential direct influence on each other? This problem suggested itself to me while viewing a recent Turner exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. I will attempt something of an answer shortly.

Melville’s Metaphysics of Love

It is probably true that Herman Melville is an acquired taste even now, and certainly his contemporaries never acquired that taste. I think Moby Dick and the later novels (not to mention the poetry)  largely met with indifference (and why many newspaper critics betrayed annoyance never adequately explained by their reviews) for the same reason that Dr. Johnson had no truck with the so-called metaphysical poets: he employed elaborate metaphors and imagery that seemed to clash with the sentiments he was expressing (according to a a strict a priori aesthetic). It was the disproportion of the images that gave rise to their name. But Melville, even more so than the seventeenth century English writers, deserved the title of “metaphysical poet,” because he, unlike they, actually employed the imagery and metaphors to delve into a carefully constructed, and fundamentally terrifying, metaphysics of the universe. If you need convincing on that point, I suggest you re-read the following chapters from Moby Duck: “The Whiteness of the Whale” (Ch. 42, the precise point that American letters entered into World Literature), “The Sphinx” (Ch. 70), “The Jeraboam’s Story” (Ch 71), “The Fountain” (Ch. 85). I’ll stop at those examples, because if you read them, chances are you will take up the entire novel again.

If the reading public at the time was hesitant to follow Melville down the whale’s throat to the navel of the universe, they decidedly bolted from his next novel Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1852). I will not try to rehabilitate that novel here, except to note that Melville’s metaphysical imagery can be quite breathtaking. I set forth a passage below which is an encomium to love. The first two chapters of the book have been spent extolling the beauty and virtues of the two young lovers: Pierre Glendinning and Lucy Tartan, two well-to-do teenagers at the beginning of the summer in the Berkshires on the plains before Mount Greylock. On the morning of this passage, the two lovers take a carriage to picnic on the hillside in the forest. During this ride wafts in a lyrical passage that overwhelms all that is “actually” happening. This passage is entirely life-affirming, and thoroughly Melvillean, but needless to say, it would not be Melville if it was not soon followed up by equally majestic images at least hinting of the opposite. We will keep to the positive here. This is from section iv of the Second Book (pages 41-42  of the first edition):

 That morning was the choicest drop that Time had in his vase. Ineffable distillations of a soft delight were wafted from the fields and hills. Fatal morning that, to all lovers unbetrothed; “Come to your confessional,” it cried. “Behold our airy loves,” the birds chirped from the trees; far out at sea, no more the sailors tied their bowline-knots; their hands had lost their cunning; will they, nill they, Love tied love-knots on every spangled spar.

Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth, the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof! The first worlds made were winter worlds; the second made, were vernal worlds; the third, and last, and perfectest, was this summer world of ours. In the cold and nether spheres, preachers preach of earth, as we of Paradise above. Oh, there, my friends, they say, they have a season, in their language known as summer. Then their fields spin themselves green carpets; snow and ice are not in all the land; then a million strange, bright, fragrant things powder that sward with perfumes; and high, majestic beings, dumb and grand, stand up with outstretched arms, and hold their green canopies over merry angels—men and women—who love and wed, and sleep and dream, beneath the approving glances of their visible god and goddess, glad-hearted sun, and pensive moon!

Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth; the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof. We lived before, and shall live again; and as we hope for a fairer world than this to come; so we came from one less fine. From each successive world, the demon Principle is more and more dislodged; he is the accursed clog from chaos, and thither, by every new translation, we drive him further and further back again. Hosannahs to this world! so beautiful itself, and the vestibule to more. Out of some past Egypt, we have come to this new Canaan; and from this new Canaan, we press on to some Circassia. Though still the villains, Want and Woe, followed us out of Egypt, and now beg in Canaan’s streets: yet Circassia’s gates shall not admit them; they, with their sire, the demon Principle, must back to chaos, whence they came.

Love was first begot by Mirth and Peace, in Eden, when the world was young. The man oppressed with cares, he can not love; the man of gloom finds not the god. So, as youth, for the most part, has no cares, and knows no gloom, therefore, ever since time did begin, youth belongs to love. Love may end in grief and age, and pain and need, and all other modes of human mournfulness; but love begins in joy. Love’s first sigh is never breathed, till after love hath laughed. Love laughs first, and then sighs after. Love has not hands, but cymbals; Love’s mouth is chambered like a bugle, and the instinctive breathings of his life breathe jubilee notes of joy!

That morning, two bay horses drew two Laughs along the road that led to the hills from Saddle Meadows.