The Clare Spark Blog

October 24, 2009

Murdered by the Mob: Moral Mothers and Symbolist poets (2)

Picasso, Seated Pierrot, 1918

Picasso, Seated Pierrot, 1918

   I did not expect that there would be so many readers for part one of this essay, so I am putting most of the remaining materials on the website today. In the published version of my book, much that is here was either rewritten, deleted, or sharply cut. But I have no better way to link misogyny and antisemitism than I have done here with the study of specific characters as they interacted: Raymond Weaver and Melville’s granddaughter, Eleanor Melville Metcalf.  As you will see, I am particularly interested in the image of the modern artist as Pierrot or Cain, sometimes appearing as Lulu (but not here), in revolt against “the moral mother” and Victorian (bourgeois) culture. The disturbing S-M material has not been published before.

[Daniel Macmillan to his brother Malcolm, June 15, 1833]…though I was very young, only ten, when [father] died, I have the deepest reverence for him. He was a hard-working man, a most devout man, and as I have heard mother say, cared for nothing but his family, that is, did not care what toil he endured for their sakes. You knew him better than I did, you can value him more highly. I now remember with pleasure, and with something better than pleasure, the manner in which he conducted family worship. Though I did not understand a word of his prayer, the very act of bowing down on my knees did me good, at least I think so….[Mother] has such high and noble notions that no one could ever venture to say an impudent thing to her, or talk scandal in her presence. If any one did so once, it never was repeated; some quietly spoken but most bitter and biting saying put an end to such garbage...there is nobody like mother in the whole world. If ever I saw any one with the same tenderness, strength and calmness, the same joyousness of heart, with the same depth, I should instantly fall in love with her, that is if there was any chance of it ever coming to anything! But at present a grave seems the most likely place for me. Pray send mother to Glasgow. I want her to cheer me. No, I can cheer myself. But to go back to the old subject. I tell you that I am proud of my parentage. Besides, I am very glad that my mother is a Teuton. From her we take any mental superiority we may have. What a most beautiful forehead she has! What an eye! What a face, take it all in all! A noble temple for her noble soul! I am rather glad to have some of the Celt in my nature, but glad that the Teuton stands uppermost–as I think it does. I desire to keep the Fifth Commandment.[1]

       Early in his novel Black Valley(1926), Weaver attested to his understanding of Melville’s and Thomson’s dreamy revelations, which he called “the irony of being two.” Weaver transmits Melville’s and Thomson’s images linking sex, revolution, and apocalypse in Gilson Wilburforce’s  confession of his incestuous sexual initiation with an older woman at the age of nineteen (he is a Pierre, just emerging from his teens). Gilson is grilled by his inquisitorial double, the Satanic Gracia West, who plays Ahab to Gilson’s whale (or, if you like, Claggart to Billy Budd):

 “…And the woman with the daughters and the goldfish? Do you remember? The first night off Yokohama?…

     Gilson flushed scarlet, and bit his teeth into his parched lips. Tears gleamed in his eyes. He swallowed a sob. His body was ice.

    Narrowing her eyes, Mrs. West studied him closely for perhaps a full minute, before she replied to his eloquent silence.

    “Now you have told me nearly everything,” she said finally, with cool but gentle deliberation.

    There was another long pause.

    “Tell me. Was it mother? Or daughter?” The words came with slow distant impersonality, her voice bleached of every color of emotion.

    Gilson buried his face in his hands, his rigid body shaken by hot leaping sobs.

    Mrs. West again tilted her head backward thirstily, and held her eyes closed.

    “It’s too contemptible to plead that I was drunk!” Gilson exclaimed between his sobs, fairly spitting his words from him like unclean and loathsome things. “Drunk!”

    “She seemed so lovely to me at first,” Gilson forced himself to go on, his face still covered. “She usually came to sit with us while we were playing cards each evening, and at the end, I’d help her to her cabin. It all happened so naturally, and didn’t seem shocking at all. When we were about to stop, she’d say how she resented that every pleasant thing had always to come to an end, and then she’d order some more drinks, and then some more. Her daughters used to wait up for her. There they were, every evening, in their pajamas, and were terribly amused at her, and used to stand her up under the port-hole–under the goldfish–at the end of the hallway between their cabins–and laugh at her as she tipped about with the roll of the ship–and shake their fingers in her face in great sport–and swear for the fun of it. Then she would laugh too.–She has the most golden laugh I’ve ever heard–and so gay, and so fresh, and so eager for happiness;–and the daughters, in their bright cool pajamas, seemed so clean!–And then, three nights ago–with Mrs. Burgoyne—-”

    Gilson clenched his teeth as if steeling himself against the probe of a lancet into his very quick, and wedged his cheek between his fists, speech obliterated.

 “–you first tasted the mystery of life and death.”

      Like a tongue of lightning, Mrs. West’s impetuous insight had blasted through all reserve and crashed into the inner sanctuary of Gilson’s heart. For one blinding moment the burning air brayed with a blood-red voice. The sky shot molten darts and reeled into black silence. And then the glittering plunge of waves against the boat, the steady vibration of the propeller, and the white railing immaculate in the sun. [Compare to the end of Moby-Dick without the Epilogue.]

    “And now you are dazed; revolted; incredulous,” continued Mrs. West. “Your innocence, your sacred innocence, you feel you have forever lost. And lost among such sordidness. You nursed and cherished it, perhaps. As a wonderful gift to bestow. As if, indeed, virginity were not a thing to be achieved! Now it can never again be yours to give, you feel. Fantastical.–And here am I, acting as if I thought by talking to you I could teach you what every young man should know! Someone else must teach you that. But probably nobody all at once. I believe, Gilson, that we must sin into innocence. Does this seem a hideous idea to you?–But the hideousness of life is, of course, unspeakable. We won’t try to talk about it. I’m warned by Saint Paul’s pernicious example. So!–You have burst through some of the swaddlings of infancy. And you are now convinced that you are no longer fit for the kingdom of heaven!”

    Though Gilson had listened to Mrs. West with wide-eyed absorption, much had seemed to him merely unintelligible. And yet there was to him a kind of necromancy in what she had said. For now that his shame was known to another soul, by some subtle magic the shame seemed transformed, and ebbed away as Mrs. West spoke. And at her closing exclamation, tempered partly in mockery as it was, there had broken across Gilson’s tear-stained face a strange faint radiance, as of a new wisdom, a new pride, a new strength, still elusively shy, but maturing to a deep rich music coursing through his blood.

    “And in her arms,” said Gilson in hushed awe, “the thought of my mother—–”


    It was the voice of Mrs. Wilburforce: a percussion of reality that shattered the enchantment. The stiletto glint of Mrs. West’s black eyes vanished into the wide and haunted vacancy of his mother’s gaze.

    “Gilson,” she said, “your eyes were so dreamy, and moist, and lucid, and pure, as you sat there lost in thought, it almost seemed that my boy was again a little child. Such innocence—-“….[2]

       Father is too weak to protect him from the abuse of the virtuous mothers, a thought that runs through Melville, Thomson, and Weaver.  Raymond Weaver’s story is a valuable testament to the resentments engendered by child-rearing which is moralistic rather than moral; it should give pause to scholars who believe that “domestic feminism” raised the status of women. The Weaver papers contain a fan letter from another victim of the moral mother, a reader who thought he understood the autobiographical content of Weaver’s exposé; from the language, tone and address, we may infer that the writer did not receive an elite education, but rose from a puritanical working class or lower middle-class background to a position where he could afford to live on Washington Square:

 [fan mail:] I want to write you a letter telling you how much I enjoyed your book Black Valley, but I do not exactly know how to go about it. So I’ll make the best fist of the job I know how and begin.

    In the first place you have wonderful courage to set forth the picture of Gilson as you have done, for there is no doubt in my mind that Gilson is yourself. To explain, it took courage to tell the world just how pure the heart and soul of a young boy could be. To be popular you are supposed to make the boy a stout young dumb bell with a strange leaning twords [sic] crime. Then you are supposed to spend pages telling about how pure and spotless some young girl is.

    Then you have what it takes to paint the picture of the pious female. Man, don’t you know that you are losing your best market for your books when you tell the truth that way?

 The young hero in fiction that sells the book is he who is straight only after a great fight with himself. And much must be said about the innocent woman. You and I know there is more going on in the mind of every young woman than any man ever dreams about until he is past forty.

 Black Valley makes one think–and like it. The style is good, the story is well told. Give us some more like it. [Signed, J.L. Fitz-Gibbon, December 31, 1931, with a Washington Square address, but on the stationery of Tex-La Pecan Orchards, San Antonio, Texas]   

     Raymond Weaver also preserved a student paper analyzing Melville’s social ideas. Like Weaver (who socialized with New Humanist critics), David Rein [3]worried about Melville’s mysticism and the romanticism inherited from Rousseau: “He thought too much on the ultimate scheme of things. He was too often at the cosmic extremities of thought.” Having criticized Melville’s (or Weaver’s) defeatism, Rein describes Melville’s manly resistance to witches brews, imputing his alienation to women and the reading public:  “Melville’s pessimism, however, was not passive, something in him, perhaps the very vigor of his manhood, refused to lie still under a potion of helplessness.” “It is known that his wife was intellectually incapable of sharing his thoughts. Melville’s long silence on sex corroborates this viewpoint. What he might have said would, perhaps, have been too offensive and unfair to the wife he was still living with.” “The critics and audience of Melville were too smug and stupid to know his deeper thoughts.”

    Here is an example of Weaver’s “great sense of tragedy” and his “heroic vision” identified by the Spectator and Trilling. Here too is James Thomson’s position of radical pessimism. A “man” is too weak to resist the power of the mother who unfairly uses magic to enslave her young. He does not directly encounter and confront the real mother, but invents an indifferent Nature, an inflexible Necessity that smothers and chokes all human initiative and resistance to oppression. But this is a projection of what the child would like to do to Mother, but cannot. The “heroic” part is the whale turning on his persecutors, Billy’s smashing Claggart’s forehead, then stoically accepting his doom. Such definitions of heroism lead to the “tragedy” of personal and social violence. In the art and lives of Melville, Thomson and Weaver, aggression was directed outward toward women, Jews and the omnipotent Bumble [Thomson’s name for the bourgeois philistine]; inward against their flesh and self-esteem.

       Herman Melville’s astrological chart, drawn in Weaver’s hand, lies in the folder containing the Melville family pictures. A letter to Weaver from Henry A. Murray explains why.  “…I am most desirous of investigating the oracle of Horoscopes. Herman M. was born at 11:30 P.M. August 1st, 1819–I should like to know the position of the stars on that date etc. & the Lady’s interpretation as well. Also as a control my own–Sat. May 13, 1893 I think in early AM before sunrise.—It was the custom among some people to have their horoscopes read & then in a monstrous frenzied orgy–defy the Fates and the stacked cards & swear defiance. Does handwriting come into this game?”[4]

        Both Herman Melville and Raymond Weaver, like Murray, created a defiant persona, a Superman, defined against the philistinism of the middle-class and the suffering but servile lower orders, to demonstrate their successful resistance to the demands of bourgeois society; demands, however, which were transmitted and enforced in the family by the morally superior mother acting as sergeant-at-arms on behalf of upper-class male authority (which in turn is determined by impersonal economic forces, an analysis which is not engaged by the misogynist). But this noble and defiant self was a “pasteboard mask” only partly defending against inner feelings of emptiness and futility. Any wandering but persistent Ahab was likely to strike through the mask. To avoid the humiliating exposé, pre-emptive action was necessary: the whale (in Mother’s eyes the little monster), rises from the deep, now gigantic, now shimmering like a god, to destroy the Ahab/Wandering Jew/Mother whose potions have depleted his sense of himself, his “manhood.” Having written a “wicked book” Melville feels “spotless as a lamb” because he has destroyed part of himself, the internalized “evil eye” (blinded in Ahab and Pierre) which would condemn him. The parricidal ruthlessness, or as Weaver put it, the lack of a “robust conscience” which he attributed to Melville; the “narcissism” so keenly spotted by Melville in others (Annatoo, Ahab, Mary Glendinning) were wryly exposed as self-portrait (in Pierrot and Pierre) to the reader who cared enough to look and look and look and look.

      Walter Benjamin concluded his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction” with the warning that fascism aestheticized politics; that people were viewing their destruction “as an aesthetic experience of the first order,” as Homeric spectacle.[5] We have been describing the Melville/Thomson/Weaver dreamy detachment from themselves and their fascination with “evil.” We have supposed that their gloomy assessments of human nature and the prospects for social amelioration were distorted by the social relations of early childhood; not derived from the experience of emotionally mature and thoughtful social activity. Neither Melville nor Thomson left a summing-up, a reliable statement to posterity concerning their stance toward the modern world; such an apologia was left by Weaver.[6] It could have been written by Melville or any number of ironic, enigmatic and elusive modern artists and writers who believe they are anticapitalist but who, like Allan Melvill, hold themselves aloof from “the dust of parties,”[7] finding refuge in aestheticism. I reproduce it here, with a bracketed running commentary to remind the reader that the primary source for Weaver’s sketch of the history of Western culture is his failed rebellion against the domineering parent.


     Pierrot is one of the eternal verities of literature and life: immortal like Pan and the Pagan Gods, but with the difference that he realizes that all eternity is but in the fleeting moment, all delight a poignant sorrow, all beauty a snare to the flesh and a thorn in the spirit, all success at the best, a not ignoble failure. [Cf. Maria G. to Augusta, June 29, 1850: “in the midst of life we are in death…May we all have the wisdom to realize this awful truth, to live prepared to dye…” Also Susan Lansing’s copy of “Cling Not to Earth.” Weaver has not escaped traditional Christian other worldliness; even though there is no heaven or hell, the asceticism remains.]

     The eager, sophisticated quick-eyed Greeks were as noble children in their envisioning of this world: staunch-hearted, sobered by a loving intimacy with nature, whom they made mistress and mother. [Once upon a time there were children so strong and manly they were not taken in by deceitful mothers. The children controlled the parent, whose bodies they could enjoy without being swallowed up.] But this ardent Homeric strength corrupted itself with barbaric splendor, and while Roman magnificence spread its broad and mighty conquest, there rose from the lowest depths of humanity the great unrest of the disregarded masses: the voice of the silent slave, of the sorrow-burdened artisan, of the halt, the blind, the leperous, the voice of the passionately hungry disinherited–a deep wild voice that gathered with whirl-wind impetuosity. [Self-aggrandizing, power-mad, narcissistic parents, while mesmerized by the booty of conquest (the colonized are the children, the booty the children’s bodies), are simultaneously sowing the seed of revolution, a storm  which will level everything in its irresistible path.]

      The Roman Empire, the ancient world, was preparing itself to die, and the death-throes were frightful: tumult, blood, poverty and plague from within, and without, the pressure on all sides from barbaric hordes. [“hordes” corrected from “hoards”: a Freudian typo.] Then humanity found in the Cross the justest symbol of its torn, world-weary and crucified spirit, and conceived a new and other-world salvation through apotheosis of pain. Life was painted in sharp and violent chiaroscura, all pure righteousness and deep-dyed abomination, and the consequences of this were exaggerated to eternity.

     The old Paganism, fallen from its former nobility, was regarded as the kingdom of Satan set up in reality; Pagan literature was declared to be obscene, irreverent and unholy, and all Pagan art with its frank celebration of the beauty of the human body, seductive and diabolical.

    In this terrible dilemma of the agonized conscience, natural abundance was sacrificed to moral order. To the Pagan, life was a beautiful thing, to be accepted joyfully in all its rich variety, and every vital impulse was gratified as a gift from the Gods, pregnant with a morality of its own. To the Christian, man entered this world in utter and innate degradation, loaded with the overwhelming burden of a “mysterious[“] “original sin” whose magical properties would have been meaningless to the contrite [sic!] openness of the Pagan mind. This “sin” the Christians viewed with a sardonic optimism, and that sin should exist, and that sin should be punished in eternal Hell-fire, they considered a fitting and beautiful thing. The flesh was made vile and guilty, and the keenest joys came to be in asceticism and mortification of the body. “Ye are not beasts, but immortal souls, not slaves of flesh and matter [mater], but masters of your living bodies, servants of the living God alone.” [The angry children have attacked and killed the parents. Once passions are out-of-control, there is no going back. Divided, and confused, tired and persecuted, parents and children lacked the rational vision to restore the Greek union with nature, this time around tempered with austerity. Instead, the parents think of a new and more effective way to torture little children. Nature is no longer to be enjoyed; the child subdues its body to perfect its eternal bondage to the parent. But what is meant by the “contrite openness of the Pagan mind”? Can it be that there is no escape from history for Weaver; that even as Pagan, he feels naughty for his parricidal and incestuous impulses, and even this pasteboard mask, the best one he’s got, is all too easily pierced with a Freudian slip?]

    Then came Darwin and Industrial Revolution, and in vain the ways of God cried out anew, and in querulous and hysterical disagreement, to be justified to man. Life lost its Pagan thrill of flame-touched winged experience, and ceased to be as it was in Homeric times, something carelessly to use, to waste, to enjoy. [Now we know why he’s contrite; he’s been playing with fire.] The magnificent readiness to persecute and ecstatically to be tortured of the lurid centuries of Christian fanaticism died from the breasts of nature: martyrs ceased to sing in the flames. The broad earth, that once was trod in the calm of self-trusting integrity with proud adventurous purpose, blackened its valleys with a race inglorious alike in its birth and its living: a puny people, small and morbidly self-conscious in its lives, and vulgar in its pleasures: a spawn that made a fetish of riches, and mocked its vaunted freedom by slavery to Mammon. [There are two lines of possible interpretation here. First, Mother, described as “the broad earth” is tired of being walked on by her confident but “proud” Hellenistic sons. She is so burned up that she has impoverished the Greeks by producing a swarm of parasitic Hebraists. Weaver knew Matthew Arnold’s categories, and knew Melville’s image of the Jews as flies living in the skull of the Holy City (in the Journal) and Margoth in Clarel.  The puny people could be rival siblings, or they might represent Weaver as an infant, furious at being removed from the breast, and whose narcissistic needs were never satisfied. But his dependency needs frighten him, because his mother, who may turn on him at any moment, is not reliable. So he recreates her as the one who clings and resents his manly independence. In Black Valley, Gilson’s mother is dying of breast cancer. It is the decay of the middle ages– really his mother’s waning authority, that has produced a “vaunted freedom,” symbolized in Weaver’s novel by the sticky trap of Gilson’s affair with the sensual and narcissistic, vampirish modern woman, black-haired O-Yo-Ake-San, who is also a projection of Weaver as child who takes and takes, and from whom he is rescued by his demonic double Gracia West. Crazy Gracia does Gilson’s dirty work by smothering Mother before she can learn that Gilson has impregnated a Japanese Eve (this act a symbol of his autonomy, like Pierre’s merger with Isabel) and convincing Gilson not to marry, but to put himself into her (evil) hands. There is no escape from evil mothers in the modern world.]

    It was in such later evil times that Pierrot, the last of the lesser Gods was born; neither Pagan nor Christian, but changeling of our modern days. Of his parentage we know nothing, though he was born perhaps by some roue Bishop to a woodland nymph, or else by a satyr to a nun. When we first meet him it is a French Cafe chantant, consorting with all the out-cast of society, whimsical both in dress and in manner, masking from the crowd the deep thoughtfulness at the bottom of his nature, and giving no hint of what he most deeply is–a philosopher who seeks to embody in his life a creed whose one abiding truth lies in its fallibility. [He “most deeply is” not a heterosexual, and he would prefer that his mother not find this out; to protect himself from killing and/or being killed, he pretends that there are no enduring moral values.]

    While still a youth, Pierrot’s adolescent sympathies were stirred by the strange mystery of the suffering that he saw on all sides of him. The spectacle of sky-tapestry and silent summer dawns, and the breathless beauty of the strange men and women of whom he caught but a fleeting glance, no longer held him enthralled by their rich immediacy; but in their presence he felt a new and bated anxiety–a sorrow that in a world so lovely in some of its visible aspects [note the qualifier], so much hideousness, disease and pain could hold sway. The heritage of long Christian centuries had quickened his feelings to which his earlier Pagan ancestors were blind. That harshness, that insensibility, that so frequently was synonymous with cruelty among the Greeks and Romans, and that was a necessary condition of their calm joy in life, he was born to late to enjoy. And that Calvinistic acceptance of the evils of this world as a necessary term in the statement of the moral problem was foreign to his nature. Some told him that God was good, and loving, and omnipotent, and he nursed this belief jealously: but in the end it went down as irreconcilable with the facts of the crowded streets among which he lived. He walked along the lighted boulevards of nights, the long file of arc-lamps burning like threaded jewels, with above the glinting stars so sharp and brilliant they would have clattered if they had fallen; and the immortal stars filled him with a dumb awe as they hung away in dizzy infinitudes of space. Off beyond the rumbling fever of the streets he knew that suns in all degrees of life and death hung in their orbits; and the pettiness of all things merely human froze him into a sense of microscopic isolation. [The facts that prove there is no benignant God: the cities produce “rumbling fever” (his unacceptable feelings) that make him feel immobilized and fearful, totally vulnerable to the punishment of the parents.] And out to sea he wandered for peace, and inland he traveled, and stood among the Alps. Everywhere he saw evidence of the same resistless energy, now spinning into suns, now rearing itself into mountains, now wasting itself in the endless drift and toil of the sea; bringing forth life in infinite variety–the fish, the bird, the reptile, the horse, the dog: his brothers. And before these facts he felt the vanity, the superficiality of all logic, the needlessness of all argument, the futility of all endeavour, the crushing momentum of time, and and the inexhaustable  fertility of matter; and nowhere any intention, any responsibility, any conscious goal. The same energy that had brought to birth suns with cataclysms [birth is hideous, said Gracia to Gilson] and aeons of labor was flowing ceaselessly through him: and struggle as he might to arrest it, with irresistible impetus it would move on. His God-like privilege was to have perceived it in its flux. His dignity, he felt, lay not in what he did, but in what he understood. All matter toiled about him in travail of doing: and he too spun dizzy in the vortex. [How many times did Mrs. Weaver complain about childbirth to Raymond?] Yet within him, constant among change, was the observant eye before which all passed in phantasmagoria: a passive spectator ever alert in the silent theater of his mind, a spectator that compared and pronounced judgement on the actors as they passed. Far from experiencing the impatience of the Lady of Shallot for “shadows”, he felt that only when calmly contemplative before the mirror of his senses could he ever come to any personal significance above the beasts. And so it was that he formulated to himself as ideal, the role of idler, spectator, and poseur. [He made too much trouble for his mother by being born. If he erases himself as a material being, he can pretend that he never hurt her or anyone else.]

    Pierrot, as we have said, soon came to feel the manifold absurdity of attempting to withstand the great momentum of the cosmic forces in whose swirling current he lived. All that he could do materially he saw could avail but little, and in the end, nothing. He saw the epic absurdity of any concern to improve either people or things. Like a huge, good-natured comedy the universe flowed along: and he felt that wisdom lay in accepting the inevitable with all possible grace and charm. The furious moiling in the gold-mill by which most people make their lives so dyspeptic and unlovely; the passion for reform, and the fever for fame–that “last infirmity”-: all these held no compunction [?] for Pierrot. Far more important did he believe it to keep his native preference fresh and unsullied, his senses unclogged and vital [cf. William Blake], and his prejudices frankly and smilingly unreasonable. And though he made idling his life’s chief business, yet he kept clear the distinction between idling and doing nothing. To idle he conceived to mean to give himself up graciously to the moment, with a sweet disposition to accept gracefully all consequences, to glide with the flow of time as with a lovely melody. He sought to avoid sweat and savagery: all was to be merely creative acceptance, a determination to be omniverously interested, a refusal to be caught by surprise. He was an artist at heart, and amusingly repellant did he find the intemperance of reformers and the deluded ebulition of men burning with “missions”. If you never finish your epic romance in ten volumes; if your theories of reinforced concrete construction never come to fruition; if the millions of Mongolians in Asia never adopt an alien religion: what of it? Far more important is it to keep one’s blood cool and one’s temper sweet, and one’s eyes clear to the romantic scenery along the by-ways of life. Pierrot accepts existence, and deliberately, with the attitude of the old Tang poet who resigned a governorship because he disliked wearing a ceremonial robe: a man with an unsoiled sense of relative values. And the Charming old Chinese gentleman who spent his whole life in writing one story that was published by his heirs in one hundred and two volumes–a work not known to have been read by more than three people, and this though there was no lack of clashing adventure and melting sentiment. This delightful old idler is said to have written the end of the story first–very dramatic, romantic, and convincing. And so interested did he become in the conlusion, he wrote backwards toward the beginning, day after day, year after year. He died at the mellow age of eighty one with his work not yet begun but long since concluded. To the highly energised man-of-affairs, such a life must seem a purile waste, a prodigious inanity: but Pierrot smiles approval. The old Chinese gentleman had been true to his nature; he had wasted no time in unbecoming haste; he had made no disproportionate effort to block the mighty rush of nature’s infinite flow with a mean little fence of bristling perpendicular pronouns. He had known no torture of conscience, no racking of the flesh; in peace and gentleness and innocence had he lived and died–and what diviner destiny may a man ask?

    The world lay about Pierrot, a great variegated spectacle, a turgid conflict; singularly beautiful in some of its aspects–too beautiful at times for mortal man to contemplate-: but in the main, huge, bungling, Rabelaisian. And this great spectacle thundered past Pierrot, bewilderingly complex and unmanageable; and Pierrot stood well aside, fascinated by its eddys and back-waters, giving free play to the onward dash. Yet abidingly near at hand Pierrot found one curiously refractory object that challenged to mastery: his own warm, lithe body, stirred by strange whims of the blood and unaccountable tensions of the nerves. And he struggled with this marvelously knit thing of bones and sinews to make it obedient to his will. Around him lived other curiously animated human forms; some loathsome with age or broken by disease and sorrow; some rapturous like the dawn in beauty. And Pierrot was surprised beyond loving expectation to find all these humans absolute strangers among themselves; often though dwelling in deceptive proximity of space yet with souls more separated than antipodal suns of the Milky Way. Pierrot soon learned that in vain do we grimmace to our fellow men for understanding; that love at best can but mirror back to us our own ideals: ideals that only too frequently vanish from their object at the moment of bodily surrender; that he as flesh-bound soul must dwell forever in dumb and toothless isolation. Then it was that Pierrot found ironic solace in the role of poseur, and sought to win what joyn [sic] he could from beautiful masks. [When he feels his body in sex, he experiences himself as an evil, and therefore abandoned, baby. The false self, made as beautiful as a flower, gives him a measure of solidarity with others.]

     While yet a boy, Pierrot had come to a passionate attachment for one of his play-fellows, and Pierrot had been present when the lad he loved had died. “My God, he is dead!” the broken-hearted father had sobbed, and Pierrot was chokingly moved. Yet even at that moment of keenest sorrow, a Something in Pierrot had stood off and pronounced: “That cry was good–it would have gone well on the stage.” And throughout life, in leaping pain and in pulsating delight, always in the central quiet of Pierrot’s mind had sat this Spectator and judged [sic]. Yet these judgments were never moral–for Pierrot knew no standard of virtue by which he dared to measure his fellow men, himself with no rag of ethical certainty, no shred of unequivocal truth: truth being at best an unstable equilibrium of lies. He felt it gigantically absurd that he should permit himself to declare upon the good or evil consequences of any act. His one consideration was to discover in all behavior some grace, some unobtrusive elegance, some mastery of technique. The Jesuits had taught that a goodly result might justify a series of diabolical antecedents–a programme which to Pierrot was twice malicious in its double inversion. To do all things with persuasive grace, to sanctify the meanest act by lovely enactment: that was the ultimate goal of all effort.

     Yet sometimes, fairly smothered by the voluptuous richness of the broad sky and the miraculous earth, he has felt an impotent rebellion against the gaping externality of lovely objects, and has craved to be mastered by them wholly, to be consumed utterly by their loveliness, to slip into their beauty and be lost. Even more has the beauty of fair living bodies ravished him with a passion for some wild and undivined total possession of them; and he has wished that as Cleopatra dissolved her pearl in rosy wine, that he might make a Saturnalian draught of all the souls he had ever loved, and drinking, go divinely mad.

    Thus lives Pierrot, the tireless idler, the sad commedian, the tragically sincere poseur. This is to have failed in life, perhaps–but with what a grace! [end, “Pierrot Philosophique”]

    Masked, Weaver is “joyn[ed]” with  his “Socratic demon,” thirsty Gracia West who drinks Gilson’s rage, leaving him empty but pure. Engorged, her stiletto eyes are his; with the bleakness of Thomson’s “Melencolia” they detect the frauds of the material world: Jew-Marxist-Freudians like Lionel Trilling, students given to vanity and perversity, seductive mothers and adoring wives and sisters, and certain members of the Melville family. But Weaver’s thundering voice belies the wish for “a lovely enactment” in all things; the vocal landslide that mocks–but longs for– the cottage in Nathan’s pastoral (in Clarel). Thus his notes on Elizabeth Shaw Melville’s niece and confidant, Josephine Shaw McK. (Weaver’s informant concerning Herman’s violence toward Lizzie):

“Cousin Josie: Deaf–coarse bobbed hair–walks with a hideous rocking–with strange straps and paraphanalia [sic] rattling under her skirt. Loathsome in appearance–and as keen as an old Devil.”

    Weaver could have been the sea-crabb, or Herman looking under the masculine Fanny Kemble’s skirt, identifying with Pierce Butler so that he too might amputate himself off from his maternal half.

       Besides describing Herman’s relations with his wife and sons, Lizzie’s sloppy appearance and laziness (“Lizzie careless in appearance–slippers–shawl–stockings down–She loved her ease too–fond of settling own news paper”), and the emnity of Lizzie’s brothers (“His brother-in-laws (Sam & Lem) hated him.”), the keen old Devil had apparently described the warm admiration and devotion of the Melville and Shaw women: “Herman lived in a family of adoring women.” “His mother-in-law adoring–when he comes to bring back Lizzie “the perfect gentleman he always is.” There are question marks next to two of the adorers: “Mrs. Melville–adoring?” and “? Frances”; (he must have been thinking of the daughter Frances, not the sister). Lizzie, Helen and Augusta are noted without comment, but the list is finished with “(cf Nietzsche)”.

      As we have seen above, Weaver had his doubts about all ostensibly nurturing women; his notes to Sophia Hawthorne’s diary comment on this deceptive type, the “whole-hearted adoring wife.” “—further adoring reflections. One is reminded of Butler’s Christina or Mrs. Ruskin–the awful mother of that awful prig.” [Folder 2, Weaver papers]. In his 1928 Introduction to The Shorter Novels of Herman Melville, Weaver attributed a major source of Melville’s torment to the duplicities of women, revealed at last in the disillusion which inevitably accompanied sex: it was a trial which the manly author pluckily endured.

 [Weaver:] The riddle of Mardi goes near to the heart of the riddle of Melville’s life…The allegorical part of Mardi…is a quest after Yillah, a maiden from Oroolia [I rule you?], the Island of Delight…Yillah is lost beyond recovery. In its intention to show the vanity of human wishes it is a kind of Rasselas–though a Rasselas which, for its “dangerous predominance of imagination,” Dr. Johnson would have despised. The happiness sought in the person of Yillah is the total and undivined [?] possession of that holy and mysterious joy that touched Melville during the period of his courtship. When he wrote Mardi he was married, and his wife was with child. And Mardi is a pilgrimage for a lost glamour.

  In these wanderings in search of Yillah, the symbol of this faded ecstasy, the hero is pursued by three shadowy messengers from the temptress Hautia; she who was descended from the queen who first incited the kingdom of Mardi to wage war against beings with wings.[!] Despairing of ever achieving Yillah, the hero in the end turns toward the island of Hautia, called Flozella-a-Nina, or “The Last Verse-of-the Song.” “Yillah was all beauty and innocence; by crown of felicity; my heaven below:–and Hautia my whole heart abhorred. Yillah I sought; Hautia sought me. Yet now I was wildly dreaming of finding them both together. In some mysterious way seemed Hautia and Yillah connected.”

    The hero lands on the shore of Hautia’s bower of bliss. “All the sea, like a harvest plain, was stacked with glittering sheaves of spray. And far down, fathoms on fathoms, flitted rainbow hues:–as skeins-full of mermaids; half-screening the bower of the drowned.” Hautia lavished him with flowers, and with wine that like a blood-freshet ran through his veins,–she the vortex that draws all in. “But as my hand touched Hautia’s, down dropped a dead bird from the clouds.” And at the climax of the surrender into which Hautia had betrayed him, it was, between them, “snake and victim: life ebbing from out me, to her.”

    Later, in Pierre, Melville came to reflect upon “the inevitable evanescence of all earthly loveliness.” The nuptual embrace, he says, “breaks love’s airy zone.” The idealities of courtship, he wrote, “like the bouquet of the costliest of German wines, too often evaporate upon pouring love out to drink in the disenchanting glasses of matrimonial days and nights.” And Pierre exclaims: “By heaven, but marriage is an impious thing!”

    This darkly figured hieroglyph of Melville’s discontent was neither acclaimed by the public nor deciphered by Melville’s wife. Withal, Melville was now not only a husband, but a father besides; and for his income he depended solely on the earnings from his books. The reviewers had, in effect, given him clear warning that he could not support his family in luxury by the sale of cryptic libels upon it. Mardi had been followed rapidly by Redburn. Though his household at 103 Fourth Avenue was populous with relatives and visitors, he had shut himself away from the distraction of this varied company. In a letter to Hawthorne he later confessed: “The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose–that, I fear, can seldom be mine.” Endless bustle within the house; outside, as Mrs. Melville writes to her mother, screams of street vendors “continually under our windows in every variety of cracked voices”–screams in which the guests from Boston “find much amusement.” Mrs. Melville further writes that “Herman thinks I had better go back to Boston to see if the change of air will not benefit me,” but she could not bring herself selfishly to follow Melville’s solicitude: “I don’t know as I can make up my mind to go and leave him here–and besides, I’m afraid to trust him to finish up the book without me!” It was a life to enamour even a misanthrope to the family hearth.[?] To quiet them all momentarily, Melville would put them copying manuscript. Yet, despite everything, Melville had stuck to his desk. [end Weaver quotes, XXII-XXIV]    

    In this excerpt from Weaver’s essay, we see the continued juxtaposition of the rainbow “half-screening” the catastrophe; the productive silences broken by “cracked voices” and  “screams” are reminiscent of the trance that begins Pierre, shattered by Pierre’s marching off with Lucy’s crimson flower in his lapel; in Yillah and Hautia, as in Thomson’s Mother of Beatitude, bliss is mysteriously connected to the Mother of Annihilation: the Indian skull is interwined with flowers: a snaky image that rivets Nathan and prepares us for the fall into deism, science, and moral insanity: the child of Nature (Pierre as the massacred Indian) is finally arbored by crazy Isabel’s ebon vines. These are the symbols that rule the romantic imagination and adoring but priggish women have put them there; women who, like Jews, have too much power in the modern world and who, like Hautias and Sphinxes, make ceaseless war on “beings with wings.” “Where ‘dat old man?” The rest is anti-history: Isabel’s “All’s o’er and ye know him not” is tied to Billy Budd’s “God bless Captain Vere.” The defenses of the fathers are too dangerous to assail: having granted that, there is no way out of the labyrinth. “Where dat old man?” 

      I have led the reader through the Weaver underworld to avoid the errors of moralism and the defensive aestheticism generated in Melville, Thomson, and Weaver. An oppositional criticism should provide a non-violent alternative to the usual wars on artists and readers. Weaver’s conduct with regard to Eleanor Metcalf is not attractive; we want to understand the social relations that explain his last words on the matter of Herman Melville. The remainder of this chapter will examine Weaver’s repression of the critical evidence that Melville’s mental states were of tremendous concern to him and to his family. We will then try to account for Weaver’s assault on his own carefully nurtured reputation, placing key documents in his papers, literally coming out from behind Pierrot’s mask to expose his naked psyche.


[William Blake, circa 1793] I saw a chapel all of gold/ That none did dare to enter in,/ And many weeping stood without,/ Weeping, mourning, worshipping.

 I saw a serpent rise between/ The white pillars of the door,/ And he forc’d & forc’d & forc’d,/ [Till he broke the pearly door, deleted.] Down the golden hinges tore.

 And all along the pavement sweet,/ Set with pearls & rubies bright,/ All his slimy length he drew,/ Till upon the altar white

 Vomiting his poison out/ On the bread & on the wine./ So I turned into a sty/ And laid me down among the swine.    

 My Dear Mr. Weaver: Mr. Van Wyck Brooks told me this summer that you had gathered a number of details about Herman Melville that you weren’t at liberty to publish in your biography. I wonder if there is anything which would be of help in doing the little critical biography I’m engaged in for the Murray Hill Biography Series; anything, that is, which, without being divulged, might guide or enrich my own interpretation. It would be a great privilege & help if you would permit me to call upon you, at your convenience & discuss the subject. I don’t wish to start any hares that you’ve run to cover. Faithfully yours Lewis Mumford [Oct. 28, 1927]

 My dear Mr. Weaver, …I have been mulling over all the baffling problems that you opened out to me; and I wonder if you can throw any light on the following questions:

 1. When did Melville’s “attacks” definitely begin? 2. Do thy have any relation to the carriage accident? 3. At what dates did the Melville family attempt to put him away? 4. Was the aunt you saw in Boston Melville’s sister or his wife’s? 5. Are there any records of Melville’s services at the Customs Office? 6. When did Melville begin to suspect the paternity of his children?

 The fact that Melville’s wife couldn’t bear to mention his name, or that his son committed suicide does not necessarily throw any light on Melville’s disorder: if they did Dr. Smith Ely Jelliffe would be a candidate for the asylum, and Xantippe doubtless had similar feelings about Socrates. If the relations between husband and wife were venomous and terrible, it is hard to explain Bridegroom Dick (1876) & if the family were inimical, what is one to make of the subsidy that published Clarel?

    I am not trying to counter your facts: I am merely attempting to get them in line with other facts: and since, doubtless, you have asked similar questions yourself I should be grateful for your answer–even if the answer is, that there is no answer.

    With thanks again for your patience and courtesy…[Lewis Mumford to RW, Dec. 14, 1927. Buried in Henry Murray’s annotations to Pierre (1949) is the remark that Melville was “morbidly distrustful of his wife’s fidelity.” (478)]

 Dear Mr. Weaver: I am now finally cleaning up my Melville–the sprat alas! grew into a whale! and I feel, no less than at the beginning, my deep load of gratitude to you. I have tried to signify this in my preface: and I can only reiterate it in private: now matter how far we may differ in our interpretations of Melville, my own work could not have been done without yours and I humbly and gratefully acknowledge this….[October 1928, Mumford to RW, Weaver papers]  

 Dear Mark [Van Doren], Probably you will not have heard, unless in a roundabout way, that Raymond had last week a threatening heart attack. Fortunately the worst of came while he was actually in a specialist’s hands, and in the hospital…The trouble is diagnosed as coronary occlusion. But the prognosis is good if Raymond will consent to manage his energies carefully. And the convalescence will be a slow one. I think he is resigned to this, and naturally he knows that we will want him to take care of himself. He is now in a better state of mind, perhaps, than he has been in for some time….[H.R. Steeves, July 10, 1946]

 Minute for the Faculty of Columbia College upon the Death of Raymond Weaver [.] The death of Raymond Weaver on April 4, 1948, removed from the Faculty of Columbia College one of its most powerful and beloved members. Except for the three years, 1912 to 1915, which he spent as teacher of English in Hiroshima, Japan, he had devoted forty-two years of his life to this academic community. Born in Baltimore in 1888, he came as a student to Columbia College and graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Science in 1910. He was made Master of Arts in 1917; instructor in English in 1917, associate in 1919; assistant professor in 1923; associate professor in 1937; and professor in 1946.

     Raymond Weaver was one of the great teachers in modern times. He cared for his subject; and for his students, with an intensity which kept him always in immediate contact with whatever was personal, important, and alive. The trivial, the neutral, did not exist for him. Poetry was a world in which he naturally lived, sharing its pleasures and its terrors with whose whom he knew. One of his students has written: “To be a great teacher and still to be one’s self, retaining the fine salt of one’s own character–this, too, was within his compass.” And a colleague has said: “He was personally and intensely implicated in every idea he ever dealt with. He related every moment of the classroom to life, and his vision of life was heroic.” Poetry for him was not something that other people wrote and read. It truly and simply existed for him and his students. His concern was never with what Dante and Shakespeare and Homer reflected or represented, but with what they knew and felt in their own souls.

   Raymond Weaver’s death is an irreparable loss to many colleagues in many departments of the University. Without bending his will to please others, he gained universal regard by his unceasing devotion to the profound and the beautiful. His courtesy was unimpeachable, as was his tenderness to those who knew him best. He might have spoken the words that Keats wrote in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and truth of Imagination.”

   In 1921 he published Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, a book which established the modern reputation of its subject and which remains the indispensable biography of a great American writer. In subsequent years he edited from manuscript such works of Melville as Journal up the Straits and the magnificent tale of Billy Budd, a literary treasure which the world owes to his efforts. In 1926 he published Black Valley, a distinguished and successful novel. And he was editor of other volumes. But these things the public has already judged and received into its favor. What only the Columbia community knows is that it has lost a completely irreplaceable man. [Signed] Dino Bigongiari, John Angus Burrell, Andrew J. Chiappe, Mark Van Doren 

 Dear Mrs. Erskine, I have resigned my instructorship here at Columbia–an enterprise exciting enough to me, for I leave with very mixed emotions. Most should I have liked the advice of Professor Erskine. But I had to act rapidly–and have taken the step. I am teaching next year at the Brooklyn Polytechnic–with promise of real and almost immediate advancement. From one point of view I have entered into the wilderness: but at Columbia was wilderness also–though at Columbia there are a very few golden voices. Professor Thorndike was on the whole inclined to encourage my departure. He said he could not advance me here: that his policy must be to use ‘cheap labor’ (the phrase is his) for most of the undergraduate work. He implied that I cheapened myself by staying on here so surrounded: that my final prospects were better if I at this time made my declaration of independence….[Raymond Weaver, July 2, 1919.] Weaver was reading Melville for the first time; his Nation article appeared one month later listing his affiliation with Brooklyn Polytech. In 1921, RW told friends he was to write a biography of Disraeli (which never came off, nor are there notes. In 1922, back at Columbia (when?) RW wrote to Erskine: he had been offered as associate professorship at Amherst, he complained that he was “very tired now–used up by piecing out my life on the stint that I am paid, and in the end getting nowhere beyond each year a little added work and the armed forbearance of those who have blocked me.” Later that year, RW effusively praised Erskine’s Collected Poems; in 1928, he abjectly apologized for having forgotten to teach Erskine’s class on Macbeth. On 17 March 1929, Weaver told Erskine he must seen him: “I’m going into the hospital–and before I’m normal again, you’ll be sailed….”In 1939, Weaver was being considered for the head of the Rutgers English Department (Folder 20).]

 Dear Mark: Who can tell where the lightning’s going to strike! It hit me out of a clear sky–though fantastically enough, the bolt was delivered by hand, wrapped in paper, and by a messenger who smiled a silly kind of kindness as if he hadn’t the smallest realization of what explosives he carried.

   Your Robinson book of course. Mark, it’s gorgeous! I haven’t been so happy, and so moved, in many a day. It has sent me out of my mind (and I’ve read it twice)- you must forgive my intemperance.

   With the madness first upon me, I telephoned Cornwall to confess it. But I got a voice that sounded dead black. That gleamless voice seemed to intend to say that you were out–having driven Dorothy to the station (this was on Sunday night, around 8-thirty.) Still possessed, I resolved to telegraph you. I walked out, found a Postal place, and indited a long night-letter. The operator was a son-of-a-bitch. “Your address,” he said”–Falls Village, Cornwall. Connecticut–there’s no such place.” “I can believe that,” I said. “Yo’ can?” he drawled, with gallows [sic] of phlegm around his wind-pipe as he drawled it. ‘Yo’ ought’a know you can’t send a telegram to two places at once.”

   With this, I got as mad as Hell! I wanted to tell you, as straight and as quick as I could, that I was a lunatic: i.e., that I was so enthusiastic over your book that I knew my enthusiasm to be a rare burst of wisdom on my part: and I wanted to thank you.

   So I cursed out that operator, called him a jack-ass and a fool, tore up the telegram, and walked to 59th Street to regularize,–if I could– my blood. For, having read your book immediately upon its arrival, I had gone out and bought all the best of Robinson I didn’t already have, and plunged into him. What this did to me! I’ve read so much bad poetry in my life that I had, to the moment when your book arrived, boasted a superior sophistication in rating poetry as being pretty much just something to vomit upon.

   Then, the miracle. I read your book–dived into Robinson–recognized what poetry can be–went batty–and in that state of higher grace resolved that all writing that isn’t poetry isn’t worth looking at….[RW to Mark Van Doren, 7 June 1927]

 Dear Mark: I got back early this morning from a week-end in Long Island feeling very fit and set-up. As always, I was short of cash–so I took the manuscript of the Melville book to 59th Street–The Carnegie Bookshop–and offered it for $200. They didn’t blink an eye and said they were sure they could sell it–at a “considerably advanced price” to themselves. I don’t believe they will sell it….[RW, 9 Sept. 1935]

 Dear Mark: [From Honolulu, where he has been on Sabbatical]…As you know, I can be very slow on the pick-up. This has been true of me in my relations with these Islanders. The “best” families are descended from Missionaries–and some of them have been very hospitable to Burrell & me. All the while I never gave a thought to the fact that Melville had expressed himself bitterly about these same missionaries–calling Dr. Judd, the ancestor of one of the most pretentious of the island families “a sanctimonious apothecary adventurer.” I had never given a thought to the fact I had expressed myself contemptuously of these same missionaries.–And only the day after I had very recently been entertained by some of their descendants did I discover that the brother of my hostess (the brother being a Walter F. Fryar, an old boy, formerly governor here) had just published a pamphlet on “Anti-Missionary Criticism” instigated by Melville in particular and me in large parenthesis. Here, it seems, they still tenderly nurse a grudge what once seemed to me self-evident truth–and now that I am reminded of it again, still does.

     The urge in me is to write you what would turn out to be a sociological treatise on this island–its extraordinarily interesting mixture of population,–its blind provincial isolation,–its internal policies, as a Chinese-Hawaiian Irishman at the university recently said, in the hands of “unscrupulous men of wealth, church-going men ‘of noble missionary stock’ whose grandfathers brought the word of God here, and acquired most of the land by a violation of the Seventh Commandment,”–its—-: if I don’t choke myself off, this windy start will land hurdle [hurtle?] me into the void. Im now in the midst of reading Korzybski’s Science and Sanity (one of the most interesting books ever written…), and as a result should be a little less incautious in committing further “semantic disturbance”–an ideal phrase to infuriate the Edmon’s in their Platonizing….[30 April, 1939.]


     It is difficult to analyze Raymond Weaver’s behavior without understanding his identification with Melville. Both writers complain that they are damned by dollars, enslaved by Mammon, muzzled by the market: they dare not tell the Truth. And yet they chokingly blab (with “gallows of phlegm”): Melville with his anonymous monarchist threatened by the American mobocracy, or his graffiti (which express either Tory sentiments or the coexistence of Tory and communist beliefs, cf. “Daniel Orme” “omitted” from Billy Budd); Weaver with the gossip which reached the ears of Van Wyck Brooks, his revelations to Lewis Mumford and Jay Leyda, and the letters, self-portrait, and memoir which repose in his papers at Columbia. Both men viewed “madness” as instinctual liberation which went too far, and worried about their possible “insanity.” Both men could be variously tender and abusive; both felt they had to vindicate their moral purity and loyalty to dominant institutions, yet both thought they should have told the truth (which is a sign of autonomy and self-respect), though it be plucked from underneath the robes of Senators and Judges or the skirts of Fanny Kemble and Cousin Josie. Unable to resolve the contradiction between truth and order, both men protected their innocence by denying the existence of truth but fretted about corrupt expedients, taking their case to posterity.

    Late in life, Melville and Weaver put themselves on trial: Melville in the unpublished “Billy Budd,” Weaver in the unpublished memoir of his gentleman’s agreement with Eleanor Metcalf to protect Melville from the imputations (of insanity, abusiveness, homosexuality?) which could diminish his stature as a “deep-diving” artist; an agreement which Weaver failed to keep. Presumably the ambiguous character of the facts they place before us, the jury, will absolve them of responsibility for the wounds they have inflicted on others. Or perhaps we will see that in art and life they were victimized by forces which, for Melville at least, were too powerful to resist: swindling snake-eyed scientists, modern women, and Mammon, all of whom had blackened the valleys with industrial capitalism and revolts on the ragged edges of female genitalia. Perhaps Weaver’s memoir is a counter-object to Billy Budd. More manly than the acquiescent and womanish Billy Budd (in his student David Rein’s reading), Weaver would strike a blow for freedom, untying pink tape, re-ordering the too-neat bundles deposited in a little boy’s trunk. Or perhaps both these scenarios are operating: defiance coexists with a Calvinistic sense of sin in the psychology of the scapegrace: Pierrot’s white make-up covers the mark of Cain.


   It is impossible to know exactly when Raymond Weaver wrote the curious document that we now examine; like “Pierrot Philosophique,” it is undated. However, given his sense of drama and his identification with Melville, it is possible that Weaver wrote it very late in life, perhaps during the “two-year illness” which preceded his death in 1948.  Weaver’s memoir is hand-written in black ink on thirteen white leaves of heavy paper, hand-cut, 5 7/8″ by 6 7/8″. Affixed to some of the pages are letters, cards and envelopes that document his assertions. There are no page numbers.

   A letter from Carl Van Doren written on Nation stationery and dated July 1, 1919,begins the story: it is an indication of the lack of respect the “real” father of the Melville revival had for the difficulties of writing a competent essay on a challenging artist.

 Dear Mr. Weaver: I find we shall have to ask you for a short article on Melville–not more than 2500 words. As the article must fit exactly into four columns, please try to make it come out 2400-2500 as nearly as possible. As to time, why the sooner the better, tooter the sweeter. His anniversary is August 1. Our  issue nearest that is August 2. How about July 20?

      As you will see, and as I’ve said before, you will have to confine yourself to some special phase of Melville’s achievement or character or art. Sincerely, Carl Van Doren.

   Weaver’s text begins:

A letter from Carl Van Doren [underlined]. Some days previous be [sic] had been seated besides each other at an English Department Dinner.–It was this that started it all. He had said to me: “You know, there will soon be a centenary of Herman Melville. He was a wonderful old boy–and I’d like to do him myself. But if you’d try him, I’m willing.”

   I knew almost nothing of Melville–beyond the fact that Brander Matthews had mentioned him in course. I’d begun Typee–and stopped at the beginning. So, with Carl Van Doren’s offer, being unhampered with information, I feel [sic] in with his request. I thought: “I’ll read a few South Sea travel books, examine Melville’s official biographies, and turn out an adequate article.” The following day, I visited Columbia library, to find books and books by Melville–an indecent spawning–and no “official” biographies at all. So I consulted Poole’s index–to learn, by the references, that Melville had started off well enough, but went wrong, somehow–living to an incredible forty years of sedulous obscurity.

   I read him–with gaping wonderment and incredulity. I also bought him. A first edition of Moby-Dick, in 1918 [sic], could be had for less than a dollar. I picked up easily enough a complete set of him. Duplicates, when they were offered me as pleading gifts, I charitably bought: in my excitement they seemed incredibly inexpensive gifts of an excitement I feared to credit, to unconverted friends. Moby-Dick’s that now are unpurchasable at $200 I scorned at the piracy of anything over a dollar. [This could date the memoir; records of auction prices for Moby-Dick first editions confirmed my surmise that it was written between 1946 and 1948, however, in his review of Mumford’s Melville study, 1929, Weaver also mentions a $200 price for a first edition.] Evidently, I did not view Melville as an investment. He was an excitement, rather–a kind of indulgent madness vastly interesting to myself, but not trusted to wholesale consumption.

   I went to the Faculty Club for Sunday Lunch. A ruddy stranger sat at my table. Who this intruder was I had no idea. “I’ll talk of something remote” I resolved. So I mentioned Martin Luther’s preference for polygamy; I’d the day before chanced upon it in some reading. My rosy dining companion grew rosier, “I took a dissertation on that in Germany” he said. He started to lecture me with Teutonic endurance. I wanted to change the subject.

  “I’m working on Herman Melville,” I said.

  “Melville?’–he repeated. He brighted [sic] hatefully. “Didn’t he live in Pittsfield?”

   I had to admit that in so far as I knew Melville had.

   “My uncle’s librarian in Pittsfield” he said. ‘If you want to get in touch with what survives of Melville’s family, he might tell you. Here’s my card.–

   A card printed with the name of Mr. William Walker Rockwell, and addressed “To Mr. H.H. Ballard [,] The Berkshire Athenaeum” introducing Weaver is pasted on the bottom of this page. The following page contains a letter from Robert C. Rockwell headed by the statement “Mr Ballard (who turned out to be no Ballard at all) answered as follows:….” Only the first page is included and is dated June 24, 1919; it describes the holdings of the library. We may surmise then, that the English Department dinner took place  earlier in June, and a longer article was originally planned.

   [Weaver continues:] “So I wrote to Mrs. Morewood. To my surprise, the answer came from Melville’s daughter. This is it: [The envelope and letter are attached.]

My dear Mr. Weaver, I have just received a letter of yours written to my cousin Mrs. Morewood, and this is merely in acknowledgement of it. You were evidently misinformed as to my proper address. I enclose card for  

correction. I am quite willing to have you write a life of my father, Herman Melville, but fear I can not help you very much. I shall be obliged to put the matter in my daughter’s hands, as I am in ill health, and have serious trouble with my eyes. I shall be above address for the summer. Very sincerely yours, Frances Melville Thomas. [On a small card]: My daughter to whom I refer it. Mrs. Henry K. Metcalf[,] Wellesley Hills[,] Massachusetts [,] Woodlawn Ave.” [Dated July 9, 1919]

   Weaver’s text continues:

    Mrs. Morewood, evidently, wanted to keep her hands clean of Melville. And Melville’s daughter, in her turn, was passing the buck.

   I wrote to Mrs. Metcalf. I have no record of the initial correspondence. But I vividly remember urging her (evidently against provocation) of the importance of getting recorded all that was known of Melville: that a man who has published a dozen volumes had thereby ceased to be a private personality–a public character, rather, at the mercy of anyone who drew his own conclusions from the published books–and the loquacity of the Hawthorne family and friends: that Julian had imputed against Melville a clean-gone madness: that I[‘]d read Melville and lost my own mind: that I needed a little anchorage in fact for my own insanity.

   Mrs. Metcalf lived out of Boston. I went to Boston to call. We neither of us knew the other–so I was happy to be accepted for tea. This left both of us without involvement (it sounds, in retrospect, as if the ghost of Hawthorne were presiding!). Either of us might hate the other: and meeting at tea made the meeting merely experimental.

   It rained when I left Boston. On the train I naturally wondered what I was coming to. When I came to Wellesley Hills, it was still dismally raining. A suburban station–but not absolutely deserted. Mrs Metcalf herself was there. And [sic] English-looking woman, with flat-heels, a rain-coat, and a bad breath. She had a taxi.

   “This weather is enough to provoke conversation” she said at once on the way to her home; “but you don’t want to talk about the weather. So I’ll tell you at once the worst–though I trust you as a gentleman as to what you’ll ever publish.”

   She said: “You say in your Nation article, that Melville was happily married. He wasn’t.”

   And before the short ride to her house was over, I felt that Melville was a man of even deeper secrets than I had expected.

   We opened the trunk of manuscript–as I’ve recounted in an article that follows.

      Always. it rained.[8]

      Of all people, Eleanor Melville Metcalf turns out to be an Isabel: she has shattered the myth of the happy family; she must be exposed and punished. We may now see the dynamic that links good mothers, bad mothers, and two kinds of bad Jews: the commercial Jew (Mammon) and the radical (scientific) Jew. Weaver’s narratives begin to tell a coherent story, one that links the attempt to dump Trilling in 1936 with the exposé of the Melville women and the insanity they have generated.


    Mother’s sin lay in her creation of the blissful connection with the infant, only to sever and withdraw herself in moments of separation (birth, weaning, expression of difference, critical judgment delivered as disapproval); in withdrawal, she becomes a killer; the bad mother has replaced the good. The powerful Jew (enslaving Mammon) could be a projection of the indignant abandoned child’s desire to control and punish mother for wandering off.[9] Disguised as Knight, the cleansed and innocent (cupid) may now rescue the good nurturing mother from her persecutor (Mammon, who is a projection of the child’s forbidden wishes and filthy facts), to reinstate the lost Eden. But along comes the scientific Jew, a regular Freud, a cover for the uninhibited and blabby “modern woman”: s/he peers and probes into the cupid’s mind and flesh, spots him as a greedy parricide.[10] The happy family is revealed as fraud, but so is the rescue: the Knight masked Dragon. Consequently, he may justly be annihilated for his crimes against the family/state. Baby dons the black and white costume of Pierrot and mocks brains, “dreams,” “crusaders,” and facts, i.e., history, materialism and the search for truth.

…My mother [Sophia Hawthorne], in talking of former times, spoke of Melville as most interesting & fascinating, but as if he had a wild Spring in him, like all untamed creatures, and he could not always be followed. Perhaps he did not like the mise en scene so well in England, as that of the little red cottage in Lenox. But I do not remember any remarks in that regard. [From Mother M. Alphonsa Lathrop to RW, August 27, 1920; attached to the Weaver memoir at Columbia]

[Weaver:]   The greatest of all dreamers conquer their dreams; others, who are great, but not of the greatest, are mastered by them and Melville was one of these. There is a passage in the works of Edgar Allan Poe that Melville may have pondered when he awoke at the helm of the Acushnet after looking too long at the glare of the fire: “There are moments when, even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity may assume the semblance of a hell; but the imagination of man is Carathes to explore with impunity its every cavern. All the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful; but like the demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they must sleep or they will devour us–they must be suffered to slumber or we perish. [Weaver, M & M, 152, marked in my library copy.]

 …It all ended one day when Mendon had Janice on the rack. He had taken her to a deep-hidden torture room and locked a great succession of doors behind him. At last he was ready to kill her and take her secrets that had made her mistress of all conceivable universes. At his order she willingly stripped and stretched herself on the rack. Mendon began heating the irons. If she told quickly, he would keep her alive for a while, for as long as was convenient to him, she could live here in the dungeons which she now seemed to love. If she was stubborn, she would die here at once and painfully.

      He was all wound up with excitement and he was about to begin by ramming a red hot iron up into her sexual parts when he found himself suddenly grabbed from behind. Two factors held him while a third released Janice Orr who donned a long modest (and concealing) grey robe that he had brought.

   “My power is subject to one limit,” she told the foaming Mendon,” a very paradoxical limit. Its only limit is that I cannot limit my power. I cannot tie myself down with any “now and forever”, the words have no meaning. Half of the secret of my power,” she smiled at the shivering man, “is my knowledge of telepathy which enablem [sic] me and my advisors to know what you were planning all along and only to accept what we willed of it.” Mendon, slavering, writhing in fear threw himself prostrate at her feet but she merely raised a hand in signal to a factor who blew his brains out with a single shot from a heavy caliber piston [sic].

   Janice told the good news to a happily sobbing Fluerry and consoled her poor mad sister whom she still did not trust out of her cage. As she turned away to go back to the little room under the eaves, Fluerry trembled as she heard her sigh and say, “Ah, me! Now I shall have to find another man to torture me.” [S.T., a middle-manager? at Armstrong Cork Company, 12-31-46, Sadomasochism Collection, UCLA Special Collections.]

                                                                   IN A LITTLE ROOM UNDER THE WINTRY EAVES

      There is a grayness to Eleanor’s character in Weaver’s rendition: “Always. it rained.” Eleanor was both the loyal nurturer and  the frank and feisty modern woman, a woman who does not hesitate to take charge of a delicate situation. When Hildegarde Hawthorne expressed her “astonishment and disgust at seeing the Hawthornes (in Weaver’s account) accused of being the evil geniuses of Melville’s career, and the intimacy between the two men derided as ‘ironical’,” Eleanor staunchly defended Weaver.[11] Eleanor’s memoir of 1953, Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle, tended to stand with Melville and Weaver against the women in the family (including Augusta, who admired Jesus’s rod, and her own mother, Frances Thomas). 

    But in Weaver’s testament, Eleanor has “flat-shoes, a rain-coat, and a bad breath”: she is the poisonous and poisoned modern woman he obsesses about in all his writings, and with whom he is fused: the double who does his dirty work by choking off emotion, disconnecting him from the experience of his body. “On the train naturally I wondered what I was coming to” degenerating Weaver muses as he heads toward his first encounter with Eleanor, hoping for “a little anchorage in fact for my own insanity.” Is it “we” or is it  “she” who has opened the trunk of manuscript, which along with her confidential “secrets” is as menacing as Pandora’s box; as disastrous as the blackened valley left by (the dwarf) Weaver’s insight into the hypocrisy of the sentimental  family; undoubtedly the myth that Weaver hated swallowing as a boy, and which he partly coughed up in the Gnostic black masses of a homosexual rebellion (but not in his essay of 1919 for the Nation). 

      Eleanor’s crime was probably her ambiguity: what was she and what did she want from Weaver? How could he please her? From Weaver’s side (and assuming the story is not a fantasy) it sounds as if Eleanor wanted to unburden herself of her anger, but without blemishing her family’s reputation and her idealized memory of her grandfather (whose eyes followed her in his portrait, and who pretended to be a jolly cop in her reminiscences). Melville’s lecture on the statues of Rome is only one example of his family’s dedication to pristine character and self-control, to the stoicism that buttresses its respectability, class identity and authority (as managers and intellectuals: the right to command the labor of others, to formulate social goals, to describe social reality). But “stoicism” may cover the systematic suppression of feeling, cultivating impassibility in families when authority appears to be unfair, contradictory, indefinite and unreliable. For rage denies the reasonableness, happiness, purity and closeness of the lovely family which keeps them afloat; expressing rage drowns them in failure and loss of status; holding it in is equally damaging. It seems as if the family reproduced both its exasperation and fear of exposure generation after generation. Eleanor could hardly wait to tell Weaver about the difficulties in her family, but then she pledged him to secrecy, joining him to her family’s crazy-making insistence on both truth and order.  But in demolishing the myth of Melville’s happy marriage (Weaver’s defense against his own aggression: how could Weaver have read Melville and thought he was happily married?), Eleanor may also have been the emblem of  (Jewish) divisiveness in the same way as that confusing intellectual Jew, the anti-aesthete but art-loving Lionel Trilling, who had once taught that art is made in a context of class conflict (Marx) and ongoing struggle between individual desire and social welfare (Freud): a critical methodology opposed to organicist idealizations and painless conformity.

     To some conservative Melville scholars, bohemian aesthetes, liberals and socialists are the same: as a “rebel” and anticapitalist, Weaver theoretically should not have objected to another dissenter like Trilling. But Weaver was a scapegrace and a bohemian, not a liberal or a left radical: we remember that Weaver’s Calvinist contrition lingers, it pops out in “Pierrot Philosophique,” as it does in his deathbed confession.[12] Reading his papers, one may infer that Weaver’s hatred of passivity covered over his desire for punishment and atonement: we are confronted with a disturbed imagination, not a political strategist, a point which brings us back to the issue of insanity and the choking, weedy deaths which finish Pierre, Ahab, and Billy Budd.

    It is clear from his resentful and fearful writings that Weaver believed he and Melville were (at times) both “insane” and defiled by duplicitous and potentially ruinous women; yet they must deny it to avoid more persecution from the type of good/bad woman who first makes you crazy and then tries to put you away when you write a book exposing her (the storm after Pierre). In 1919, Weaver made a gentleman’s agreement to keep the Melville family secrets; he might have felt that he had once more sold his soul to get the esteem he illicitly craved: why else would he have hidden salient facts of his academic career?

     Weaver’s memoir, hand-cut to approximately six by seven inches (and not too neatly), is close to the size of the Billy Budd ms. leaves (6″ by 8″) “we” discovered in 1919 when Pandora opened the trunk, the ms. dimensions specified in the essay of 1931. In an episode of graceful failure sometime before his death in 1948,[13] Weaver impersonated Melville (but rectified both the passivity of Billy Budd and his acquiescence in the cover-up) by leaving a “testament of resistance”: his memoir which certainly insults Eleanor but also makes its author look like a sick man, a cad and an opportunist. Perhaps Weaver’s last swipe at Eleanor recouped his manhood (which may have been nibbled away as he ingratiated himself with powerful men), but it may also have been a Melvillean reproach and cry for reform. Weaver pleads to Eleanor (a woman with too much power in the modern world, like another woman who had made him): I wanted facts that are roots and anchors in a world of poseurs. Instead you gave me sensational “secrets” which, if kept, would only further bind me to the confusing family I abhor, the family which imprisoned me behind this degrading white clown mask. Eleanor’s discretion, as he had predicted, put two public characters, Melville and Weaver, “at the mercy of anyone who drew his own conclusions from the published books….” That is, who might spot the overly compliant child aswirl in a vortex of impenitent rebellion.

   But this too perceptive sharp and nosy common reader was always himself: murderer and victim recognize each other, kiss and kill. Weaver and Eleanor/Melville are Ahab; Weaver and Eleanor/Melville are the Whale. Intertwined like Pierre and Isabel, like Billy and the oozy weeds, they live out the whaleness of Narcissus into Eternity: “there are so many secrets curdled/ curled up inside our scrofulous/ scrupulous embrace.” [14]

 [1] Quoted in Thomas Hughes, Memoir of Daniel Macmillan (London: Macmillan, 1883), 18-21.

[2] Weaver, BV, 58-61. Murray told me he couldn’t read this book.

[3] “Political and Social Satire in Herman Melville,” n.d. Rein was Columbia ’33. His quite excellent and accurate paper (although, like Weaver, contemptuous of the female relatives), written from the left and informed about labor history, is in Folder 14, Weaver papers. Rein recognizes throughout Melville’s awareness of social hypocrisy and “the imminent peril of being honest,” views Ahab as the “defiant spirit of man,” and concludes with a critique of Melville’s irrationalism and its harm to Melville himself: “Out of all Melville’s divings he had returned only with doubt. He failed to reach that attitude which sees the universe as a repercussion of cause and effect, which regards every movement and thought, the whole social system, as the conglomerate effect of alterable causes–this, I believe was his greatest weakness, if not as a  writer, at least as a thinker and man. He could become no greater than an Ahab or a Pierre–could do no more than burst forth in a wild spasm of unreasoned emotion, and then, as in Billy Budd, fall prostrate and acquiescent.” Given Weaver’s writings on BB (Introduction to the Short Novels of Herman Melville, Liveright, 1928, then the Macy anthology of 1931, replicating the 1928 analysis), Weaver’s interest in Rein’s critique is crucial to an understanding of his own ambivalence. But both Weaver and Rein suppressed the possibility of Melville’s subterranean radical, materialist identity. Melville was not a “mystic,” unless  Weaver was thinking of radical puritans such as the antinomian Anne Hutchinson or the New Light radical sectaries of the English Civil War period.

 [4] Weaver papers, Folder 19, n.d. The doorknocker at 22 Frances Street, Murray’s Cambridge home, was a whale. (Also the whale image on Murray’s note-paper to me, the smiling whale on envelope to Leyda, almost used in Log.)

[5] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Shocken paperback, 1969), 242.

 [6] Undated; a short but identical description of aestheticism, with a critique, is found Joseph Freeman’s autobiography, unattributed, but obviously the ideas of “Dr. Weaver.” An American Testament, 154, 155.

 [7] Quoted in Hershel Parker’s dissertation which persuasively argued that Melville’s family was conservative, not democratic in the sense that Parker thought liberal Melvilleans were using the term. But Parker views Melville, like Gansevoort (the other debater in the family), as cynical and opportunistic in his stance as democratic reformer, and entirely removed from contemporary politics during the Pittsfield years when he was writing Moby-Dick and Pierre. Parker uses “politics” in a more restrictive sense than do I. As for Melville’s alleged reeking insincerity, the record can be read that way, but it is not my sense of what Melville was doing. Anyway, as Milton said, only God can detect that kind of fraud.

[8] The Weaver article that deals with the contents of “the trunk” is the 1931 essay for the John Macy anthology, described above. Eleanor Metcalf dates her first meeting with Weaver in October 1919.

 [9] Cf. pornography in Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer: the Jew Louis Schloss who whipped, branded and defiled young Aryan girls. The case is described in Randall L. Bytwerk, Julius Streicher (New York: Stein and Day, 1983), 148-153.

 [10] The evidence supports Erich Fromm’s running critique of Freud’s excessive reliance upon infantile sexuality. In the material that I have examined, the issue is the fear of a sudden turnabout by mother, that the child feels contaminated by rage against domination, or poisons the family when he attempts to resolve dualisms (male vs. female), i.e., blur distinctions maintained by conservative elites. Incest may be associated, not with sex, but either with miscegenation or with a cleansing pain that restores family harmony. I have taken my critique of Freud further than Fromm, however. In the Terror-Gothic classics that I have read, sexuality is linked to the insatiable curiosity of the upstart autodidact. Thus sex is a sub-set of forbidden knowledge; physiologically, it seems to melt defenses and bring up rebellious feelings normally suppressed by veterans of authoritarian families. The material in the sadomasochism collection at UCLA suggests that pain purifies impudence, enabling pleasure to be experienced after the ritual purification. At the same time, the ritual reinforces class identity in the petit-bourgeoisie, and is literally a performance of its social relations with classes above and below, and a promotion to a higher level: i.e., “transcendence.”  

[11] The Literary Review, Feb. 4, 1922, 406, carried the Hawthorne letter; Eleanor’s unpublished response is in the Weaver papers (I could not find it in the LR). As she would in her memoir of 1953, Eleanor criticized her relatives for insensitivity: “Most frequently [the artists’] descendants are less capable of patient inquiry and true critical judgment than others. Families per se have not intrinsically better understanding of the souls of their members than others. Is not the reverse more often true? It seems to me this is just where Miss Hawthorne has made her initial mistake. She has allowed her perfectly natural pride in her precious heritage to obscure her critical faculty, even to the length of imputing “bad taste, spitefulness and sneering scorn” to one who has in my judgment written a most delightful and illuminating chapter on the two men…There is no more an “attack” on her grandmother than there is on my own, Herman Melville’s wife. They are both shown in what the author believes to be their true relationship to the subject of his biography.”…[Weaver papers, Columbia University] 

 [12] The deathbed confession is my fantasy of the memoir. More significant is Weaver’s tragic letter to Mark Van Doren from Payne Whitney Clinic, strongly suggesting that nurture terrified Weaver, in my opinion, because he felt unworthy and therefore expected probingly maternal doctors and nurses to turn on him. The Van Doren letters were read after I wrote the first drafts of this dissertation; I had not discovered  Weaver’s history of mental illness until spring, 1989.

 [13] Or anytime after 1931 when the Macy anthology appeared, see 203-204.

 [14] From an excavated draft of unpublished poem, signed C. Augusta Dupinstein, defective detective et juif errant.


  1. […] This battle cry did not originate with social conservatives like Jindal, but with such liberals as Gregory Bateson and Henry A. Murray, both of whom worried that relationships in the modern family were gravely flawed, as I showed in these blogs: (especially the material in bold face type on Gregory Bateson, objecting to mother-son bonding), this collage taken from various 20th century masculinists, including Henry A. Murray warning about the feminization of American culture, Picasso, and another writer for Survey Graphic:, and  Double binds inherent in social democracies (the unstated conflict between Truth and Order) were blamed on feminization, particularly the rise of the moral mother as husbands left home for offices and factories: […]

    Pingback by The Patriarchal Family: what could possibly go wrong? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 7, 2015 @ 8:18 pm | Reply

  2. […] Picasso’s immobilized seated Pierrot of 1918, and a collage linking antisemitism and misogyny see Melville went back and forth on this question: sometimes roaring as the unmasker of frauds, […]

    Pingback by Healthy Skepticism | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 22, 2014 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  3. […]       In this excerpt from an unpublished ms., I use the Melville-Thomson-Weaver triad to probe the sexual and class politics of some Symbolists as they encountered “the modern woman” (for them, the moral mother as Goddess of Annihilation/the Mob). We begin with the perception that Weaver was a radical insurgent, a liberal, or a Freudian; I will try to more fully describe Weaver’s social imagination: we shall see that Weaver, like other Romantics and Symbolists, led a double life, oscillating between the defiance and capitulation we have seen before in the contrasting postures of romantic and repentant Wandering Jews. Quotes from rare sources are used throughout, using my collage technique. The blog is rated X. (For part two see […]

    Pingback by Murdered by the Mob: Moral Mothers and Symbolist poets « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 30, 2009 @ 1:27 am | Reply

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