Herman Melville, Immortality, St. Paul, and Resurrection: From Rose-Bud to Billy Budd

Article excerpt

In "The Pequod Meets the Rose-Bud," Chapter 91 of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, second mate Stubb swindles the inexperienced French captain of the Bouton-de-Rose out of a blasted but extremely valuable whale carcass. The chapter opens with an epigraph from Sir Thomas Browne's Vulgar Errors: "In vain it was to rake for Ambergriese in the paunch of this Leviathan, insufferable fetor denying that inquiry" (402). In the next chapter, however, Stubb does just that by probing the purloined whale's bowels for ambergris, the precious substance of fine perfumes. As Stubb proceeds with his "inquiry," Ishmael soliloquizes over the marvelous reversal of olfactory sensations in this "insufferable fetor": "Now that the incorruption of this most fragrant ambergris should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing? Bethink thee of that saying of St. Paul in Corinthians about corruption and incorruption; how that we are sown in dishonor, but raised in glory" (409; 1 Cor. 15:42-43). Gordon Poole argues that the name of this foul-smelling French ship was a private joke between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Melville about the malodorous diapers of Hawthorne's baby daughter Rose, nicknamed "Rosebud" at her birth on 20 May 1851, when Melville was deep into the writing of his great sea story. On that basis as well as on etymological surmises, Poole claims that the encounter with the Rose-Bud gives a bawdy, "grossly impudent, ironic twist to St. Paul's homily" (13). While Poole finds this seemingly minor and dispensable encounter "sown in dishonor," his scatological interpretation ignores the less urgent but infinitely more momentous end of humankind signaled by "raised in glory" in Ishmael's Pauline homily. St. Paul's preachments upon resurrection and immortality in 1 Corinthians, evoked in Ishmael by the spoils of the Rose-Bud, hounded Melville for a lifetime, eventually suggesting in late-blooming roses a symbolic eschatology.

Melville's early commercial success as a writer of South Sea experiences whetted his appetite for literary immortality, but after Omoo he wanted to spring free of the restraints imposed by John Murray, his English publisher whose Home and Colonial Library published only works of true adventures. Melville's breakout effort at telling a different kind of truth was Mardi, a voyage of the mind that he hoped would earn him both fame and commercial success. By the time he presented a copy to his literary friend Evert Duyckinck, however, he already knew that Mardi had failed, for he likened it to a tropical flower that "may possibly--by some miracle, that is--flower like the aloe, a hundred years hence---or not flower at all, which is more likely by far, for some aloes never flower" (Correspondence 154). Whether or not literary immortality would ever come, he refused to court a transient fame based upon his experiences as "a man who lived among the cannibals," as he wrote to Hawthorne (Correspondence 193).

Pressed by family responsibilities and the birth of his first child, Melville after Mardi resumed writing of his salt-water experiences because dollars damned him, and in quick succession he produced Redburn and Whitejacket before setting off to Europe in 1849, ostensibly to get more favorable terms for future publications in England. Upon returning to New York on 1 February 1850, he plunged into writing about whaling, material he had skirted in his five previous books. Then, after escaping to the Berkshires that summer, he discovered Hawthorne--first, as the author of Mosses from an Old Manse, about which he wrote a rhapsodic review for Duyckinck's Literary World; and, second, as a neighbor living but six miles away. In June of 1851, when Moby-Dick was "in his flurry" Melville wrote Hawthorne that he "did not think of Fame, a year ago, as I do now"; that "Fame [is] the most transparent of all vanities"; that "All Fame is patronage"; and he blustered, "Let me be infamous; there is no patronage in that" (Correspondence 192-93). …