Cast by Means of Figures: Herman Melville's Rhetorical Development

By Bryan C. Short | Go to book overview

12
"Such a cynosure": A Pisgah View of Billy Budd

Such a cynosure, at least in aspect, and something such too in nature, though with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds, was welkin-eyed Billy Budd. --Melville,Billy Budd

When Herman Melville died in 1891, Elizabeth found a "semi-final draft" of Billy Budd, Sailor among his papers, the result of work most probably undertaken since 1885, the year he retired from two decades as an inspector for the New York Custom House (Billy Budd 1). Since 1857, when The Confidence-Man had appeared, he had published no fiction but four intense and difficult volumes of poetry. 1 Although the development of this work, complex and compelling in its own right, lies beyond the scope of the present study, a "Pisgah view" of Billy Budd (to borrow from the title of "The Encantadas," sketch 4) discloses its presentation, among many other things, of a sharply drawn retrospective allegory of Melville's rhetorical career.2 Both his composing process, as outlined by Hayford and Sealts (Billy Budd 1-12), and intertextual evidence suggest that the allegory is central to the developing shape of the work. Billy Budd reflects, more thoroughly than ever, the impulse to theoretical summary seen in Moby-Dick and The Confidence-Man. Although there is no evidence that Melville saw it as his "final" statement on anything, it thematizes and evaluates the central rhetorical movements of his literary life with the clarity of focus often found in his art after Pierre.

In Melville's post-Romantic fiction -- Pierre, the magazine stories, and The Confidence-Man -- a catachrestic tropological program undermines the principles of memory, redemption, and genealogical time essential to Romantic art, to an ethos tied to the imaginative presence of the author. As a result, Melville becomes interested, first, in the momentary, picturesque effects of sketch and short story and, second, in poetics, the patterning surface movements of discourse. Although these interests lead naturally to the writing of verse, in BattlePieces Melville is rescued from the radical textual experiments of The Confidence-Man by history, by the shaping memorial winds of the Civil War.

The aspects which the strife as a memory assumes are as manifold as are the moods of involuntary meditation -- moods variable, and at times widely at vari-

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