I just came across this paper I gave at the Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass conference, held in New Bedford, Mass. in June 2005. I suppose it has been waiting for me to turn it into something more substantial, but I doubt I ever will. So here it is, in its flawed, elliptical original state.
What follows is the summary of an experiment: a report of the results observed when two characters from Melville and Douglass are placed alongside each other. One day, perhaps, Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins will have their own conference. Until then, they can briefly make an appearance in the shadow of their creators.
The ‘incomparable’ Jack Chase, I hardly need explain, is one of the more engaging figures in Melville’s White-Jacket (1850). You may recall him using his impressive powers of eloquence to persuade the captain to grant the crew of the Neversink a day’s liberty ashore in Rio de Janeiro. With a cool blend of flattery, entreaty, and some choice quotations from Shakespeare and Pope’s translation of the Odyssey, he succeeds in winning the concession, and the scene ends with his shipmates crying out, ‘Jack Chase forever!’ ‘Who can talk to commodores like our matchless Jack.’
In My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Douglass tells us how a group of slaves planning to escape north by canoe are arrested and suspicion falls on former co-conspirator Sandy Jenkins as their betrayer. Although he has little evidence, the literate Douglass singles out the dialect-speaking Jenkins who – the previous year – had persuaded Douglass to carry the root of a certain herb in order to protect himself from the cruelties of his master. This, and the fact that Jenkins had withdrawn from the plot following a dream in which he saw Douglass attacked by a swarm of angry birds, seems to confirm that he alone of the group remained in thrall to what he calls ‘slaveholding priestcraft’.
Both books draw on the familiar idiom of ante-bellum reform – condemning institutions (naval flogging, chattel slavery) with the objective of securing their abolition. We might even argue that this idiom helped to secure their popularity: they addressed a readership already receptive to such sentiments. But they also tell us a good deal about the strategies by which sailors and slaves negotiated the power relationships of men-of-war and plantations on a daily basis. After all, desertion and mutiny, flight and revolt were the last resort of a minority. Most of the time, sailors and slaves settled for less dramatic measures, that had the more limited objectives of making their lives more dignified and their hardships easier to bear.
If the institutions appear to be susceptible to a moral critique (giving us a stark choice between good and evil), the strategiesseem to belong to the much less clear-cut world of everyday ethics (enjoining us to attend to the grey area between better and worse).
White-Jacket and My Bondage stand out from most contemporary nautical reminiscences and slave narratives, I would argue, because of the extent to which they introduce novelistic techniques to the non-fictional forms that they draw on. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which they create significant, complex secondary characters – apart from the first-person protagonists. How these characters choose to respond to their circumstances is a matter of some importance.
Melville and Douglass pay unusually close attention to the dynamics of what might be called ‘ethical authority’: in particular the rhetorical skills employed by individuals to manage or intimidate subordinates, to win concessions and respect from superiors, to provide comfort and support to their peers. In doing so, White-Jacket and My Bondage might be said to threaten or undermine antebellum programmes of reform by dwelling on the nuances of conduct that the moral condemnation of institutions insists are irrelevant distractions.
Very briefly, I would like to argue that these texts engage with ethical authority on two levels.
Firstly, they depict the rhetorical strategies used by sailors and slaves. Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins serve as models of admirable and misguided conduct respectively. The former is shown using his skill to win concessions not only for himself but for his shipmates. The latter cowardly withdraws from the runaway plot due to his backward belief in the supernatural and is assumed to have betrayed his fellow slaves. While the one sets an example of how to negotiate relations of power to common advantage, the other shows how a refusal to engage with them can leave one’s comrades exposed to danger.
Secondly, White-Jacket and My Bondage depict these strategies in such a way as to validate the strategies used by their own narrators, which are (in the case of Jack Chase) modelled on – or (in the case of Sandy Jenkins) in direct opposition to – those highlighted in the story they tell.
When they came to write their books, of course, Melville and Douglass were no longer sailor or slave (and were free to pass judgement on their former tormentors from the safety of the printed page). But, as authors struggling to make an impact in the literary marketplace, facing a potentially sceptical reading public as a worker might face a demanding, even unreasonable, perhaps tyrannical employer, they had to choose their words carefully. To the extent that White-Jacket was indeed (as Melville himself famously suggested) a ‘job’ written for money, then his preference for the popular form of the anti-flogging nautical reminiscence was a shrewd one. Douglass, too, followed his first, successful slave narrative, with another work in the same vein.
However, they knew their books were much more than the routine record of simple recollections, important as the empirical accuracy of their representations of ships and plantations were. Not only do they complicate the moralistic rhetoric of institutional reform with a more ambivalent – novelistic – ethics of individual character, they do so within complex symbolic and allegorical frames. The prefaces of both works betray a certain anxiety that the cost of such sophistication might be a loss of credibility. They are haunted by the spectre of readers who will refuse to accept that Melville or Douglass were once sailors or slaves at all.
In these circumstances, Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins serve a very useful purpose.
If the conventional anti-flogging tale demanded a rather naïve narrator – not too clever or serious – the very title of White-Jacket already hints at different requirements. The jacket itself promises Carlylean probings of surface and depth, its patchwork character alluding to its unusual method of composition, its colour suggesting the presence of an allegory in which race plays an important role. To develop such propositions within a first-person account by a common sailor would strain credulity if it weren’t for the evidence of just that sort of erudition in one of the men on board the Neversink. Just as Chase uses his rhetorical skills to persuade the captain to give the crew ‘liberty’ ashore at Rio, so the narrator of White-Jacket (who – in the interval since the events he describes – appears to have modelled himself on his former shipmate) deploys a similar ‘off-hand, polished, and poetical style’ in order to win over potentially sceptical readers.
In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass hints at the kind of slave narrative preferred by his former abolitionist mentors when he refers to the advice that his 1841 lectures should restrict themselves to the unvarnished facts and could benefit from ‘a little of the plantation manner of speech’. It was advice he very soon found difficult to follow, as he was by then already, as he says, ‘reading and thinking.’ If Douglass’ refusal to toe the line was already evident in his 1845 Narrative, it was more boldly set out ten years later in My Bondage, which ruffles feathers not only by denouncing slavery as well as describing it, but also denouncing prejudice and discrimination in the North. It seems entirely fitting that Sandy Jenkins – as a representative of the kind of narrator Douglass was expected to be but couldn’t – plays a correspondingly enlarged role in the later work. On almost every appearance – Jenkins is introduced as the ‘root man’ as if to make sure the reader understands that superstition, the vernacular, cowardice and betrayal are virtually synonymous. And by implication aligning the standard-English narrative voice with reason, bravery and integrity.
As an important closing qualification, I’d like to raise the the possibility that their respective narrators are perhaps a little toosmitten by Jack Chase or a little too harsh on Sandy Jenkins. After all, Melville and Douglass – wittingly or not – give us enough to question their narrators’ assessment of these important characters.
On the one hand, Jack Chase is not quite as heroic as he seems. For instance, when his friend White-Jacket is ‘arraigned at the mast’, he is only bold enough to step forward and defend him, after Colbrook, the corporal of the marines, has done so first. And the one man to stand up to the captain’s ‘massacre of the beards’ is not Chase (for all his indignation and bravado when he submits to the barber’s shears) but ‘old Ushant’ – who is flogged and imprisoned for his resistance but who is rewarded with the ‘unsuppressible cheers of all hands’ when he disembarks in Richmond.
On the other, perhaps Sandy Jenkins is not quite the fool he is made out to be. If his offer of the ‘root’ is supposed to represent a response to slavery that is as backward and ineffectual as Douglass’ bold fight against Covey is modern and effective it still leaves open the possibility that it is actually the root that gives Douglass the confidence – if not the power – to win the fight, as he reports Jenkins later claiming.
If we take these apparent inconsistencies seriously, we might be forced to reconsider not only what kind of conduct Melville and Douglass are implicitly praising and condemning among sailors and slaves; but also what kind of voice, what form of address, works for them as writers.