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2— Part and Whole
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Reading the Incomplete: Herman Melville

What might a reading look like that has no desire to imagine a whole, no desire to devise for the text a hermeneutic totality? I want to pursue that question by way of a practical demonstration, by turning now to Herman Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," a story that, almost providentially, brings together questions of the material and the immaterial, part and whole, and all


against the background of a literary form that makes justice an unavoidable (if implicit) issue. As the title suggests, this is a diptych, made up of two contrasting, complementary parts, evenly divided and inversely matching. On one side, there is convivial ambience, culinary delight, and carefree association, a world occupied exclusively by men. On the other side, there is a brutal environment, regimented labor, and physical misery, a world occupied monotonously by women.

Given this complementary structure—this antithesis of privilege and oppression—it is hardly surprising that the men should happen to be bachelors. For bachelorhood, here and elsewhere in Melville, is a species of manhood singled out for its privilege and distinguished, in that privilege, from manhood of the more run-of-the-mill sort. exemplified by the "Benedick tradesmen," who, being married, must spend their lives attending to the "rise of bread and fall of babies."[72] The bachelors, by contrast, are free from all obligations, marital and paternal, free, it might seem, even from the necessity of work. Of course, we know that the bachelors actually do work. They are practicing lawyers, hailing from such places as Grey's Inn and Lincoln's Inn. However, as they are here presented they are eminently at leisure. The bachelors are portrayed, that is, as if they were gentlemen of means, banded together, first and last, by their pleasure in idleness. Reveling as they do in a unique gender privilege, they make up a class by themselves.

The mapping of an aristocratic identity upon a bachelor identity—the mapping of class upon gender—is, of course, something of a convention itself. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out, the "aristocratic," as perceived (no doubt wishfully) by the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century, was marked by a cluster of attributes including effeminacy, unspecified homosexuality, connoisseurship, and dissipation, all of which were conveniently personified by the pleasure-loving, leisure-flaunting bachelor.[73] Sedgwick is speaking of nineteenth-century England, but her insight applies equally to nineteenth-century America, where an even keener suspicion of the "aristocratic" prompted the same indictment of class through gender, making the effete bachelor a metonym for the entire upper order, real or imagined. This is certainly the case with Ik Marvell's Reveries of a Bachelor (1850), which makes that most unmanly of luxuries, daydreaming, the essence of well-heeled bachelorhood. And it is the


case as well with "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," which, in making effete aristocrats out of effete bachelors, would seem to be operating within a well-defined tradition of populist critique.

"The Paradise of Bachelors" is thus pervaded (ostentatious references to "paradise" notwithstanding) by an aura of the degenerate, an aura of declension from a heroic past to a feminized present: "the iron heel is changed to a boot of patent-leather; the long two-handed sword to a one-handed quill"; "the helmet is a wig." Instead of "carving out immortal fame in glorious battling for the Holy Land," as the Crusaders once did, the modern-day bachelor is now reduced "to the carving of roast-mutton at a dinner-board" (317–318). There is a time-honored quality to this portrait of degenerate leisure: time-honored, but, it would seem, also endlessly repeated. Melville was hardly alone, then, in his dire intimations, for as Francis Grund observed in 1837, Americans as a rule "know but the horrors of idleness."[74] And so it was that in 1843, when Henry Ward Beecher gave a series of Sunday evening lectures to his congregation (subsequently collected in his Lectures to Young Men ), the first lecture should be devoted to the subject of idleness. Like Melville's story, this also featured a certain seedsman :

When Satan would put ordinary men to a crop of mischief, like a wise husbandman, he clears the ground and prepares it for seed; but he finds the idle man already prepared, and he has scarcely the trouble of sowing, for vices, like weeds, ask little strewing, except what the wind gives their ripe and winged seeds, shaking and scattering them all abroad. Indeed, lazy men may fitly be likened to a tropical prairie, over which the wind of temptation perpetually blows, drifting every vagrant seed from hedge and hill, and which—without a moment's rest through all the year—waves its rank harvest of luxuriant weeds.[75]

Such harsh judgment (not to say such figurative extravagance) might seem surprising. It is especially surprising coming from Beecher, who happened also to be the author of a popular novel, Norwood (1868), whose idealized hero, Reuben Wentworth, was not only idle in his youth but actually contemplated a career in idleness. He discussed the matter with his Uncle Eb, who, when asked whether one could "be a gentleman in any respectable calling," had answered, "Oh, dear, no. My gentleman must take all his time to it, spend his time at it, be jealous of everything else." Wentworth ends up not being a


gentleman—he becomes a doctor—but what Uncle Eb said about the gentleman might equally be said of him: "He [is] so fine that he accomplishes more while doing nothing than others do with all their bustle."[76]

Elsewhere in Beecher, there are further examples of people who accomplish more while doing nothing than others do with all their bustle. In an essay entitled "Dream-Culture" (1854), for instance, he went so far as to argue that "the chief use of a farm, if it be well selected, and of a proper soil, is, to lie down upon." He called this unusual kind of husbandry "industrious lying down," and contrasted it with the other, more usual variety, practiced by farmers, which involved "standing up and lazing about after the plow or behind his scythe." That kind of farming was ordinary enough. "Industrious lying down," on the other hand, produced crops that were far more extraordinary: "harvests of associations, fancies, and dreamy broodings." And to those who objected that such "farming" was "a mere waste of precious time," Beecher replied that it was completely justified "if it gives great delight[,] . . . if it brings one a little out of conceit with hard economies, . . . and the sweat and dust of life among selfish, sordid men."[77]

Beecher certainly seemed to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth.[78] He was not alone, however, for there was in fact very little agreement in the mid-nineteenth century about the merit of leisure and recreation.[79] The controversy attracted a good many commentators, especially clergymen, a significant fact in itself. In a book called The Christian Law of Amusement (1859), for example, James Leonard Corning, pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, described the battle as being waged between those who denounced amusement "with most dogmatic intolerance as if nothing could be said in its favor" and those who praised it to the skies, "as if the progress of civilization depended on it."[80] However, this did not prevent Corning himself from joining the fray, determined as he was to prove that the necessity for amusement was a "Christian law."

As for Henry Ward Beecher, the battle seemed to be going on inside his head and among his various pieces of writing. But there was a pattern as well behind these seemingly contrary pronouncements.[81] In Norwood , for example, it was the gentlemanly Dr. Wentworth who, alone of all the townspeople, could afford to be seen standing under a cherry tree, "watching with a kind of sober smile the workmen" la-


boring away at their tasks.[82] Leisure clearly meant different things when it was enjoyed by different people. Cheap amusements—such as the popular theater and the circus—were sinks of iniquity: a "universal pestilence," an "infernal chemistry of ruin," indeed "hell's first welcome."[83] More genteel pastimes, however—such as visiting the Louvre and the National Art Gallery, or summering in the country—actually turned out to be morally uplifting and indeed were recounted by Beecher as fond episodes in his own life. Star Papers , his collection of occasional essays, offered a record of his tour of Europe as well as his "vacations of three summers."[84]

Beecher is something of a pivotal figure from this perspective, testifying not only to the fluidity of class attributes in the nineteenth century but also (perhaps more crucial for my argument here) to the contending valences within the social field, its failure to exhibit anything like a rationalized totality. Leisure, once flung in accusation at the feet of the upper class, was now claimed by the middle class, gingerly but also quite openly, not just as a birthright but as something of a requisite, at once identity imparting and identity certifying.[85] The social meaning of leisure would thus seem to be more variously marked, more variously nuanced and accented, than might appear generalizable from any simple economic given. It is against this complex semantic history of leisure that we can begin to gauge the dissonances in Beecher's own writings, or the dissonances between him and Melville. And it is against this complex semantic history, as well, that we can begin to gesture toward a historical criticism that is nonetheless not bound by the preposition "in." For the great interest of the Melville story is surely not what is in it: not the fact that leisure is here linked with degeneracy but the fact that it is so linked in accordance with an earlier, more populist, faintly anachronistic conception of class. Unlike the blandly decorous leisure in Norwood or Star Papers , leisure in "The Paradise of Bachelors" remains overrich, too savory, too alluring.[86] And unlike Henry Ward Beecher, who apparently has come to accept leisure by accepting a selective version of it—the version newly sanitized by its association with the middle class—Melville has kept alive an older dynamics of attraction and revulsion, or attraction as revulsion, so that the spectacle of gentlemen at leisure becomes not so much a presumption in favor of leisure as a presumption against the gentlemen themselves, who as leisured men are also shown to be lesser men.


From that perspective, it is difficult to speak of the story as a "social critique"—as if that critique were its resident identity—for the critique is hardly located "in" the story, but is intelligible only in relation to Beecher and only in relation to an earlier conception of class that, in the mid-nineteenth century, was just about to be superseded. Furthermore, even with this expanded semantic horizon, the text does not seem to possess a meaning integral enough or binding enough to give it anything like a concluded identity. For the Melville story, in its very polemical energy, in its metonymic attack on the leisured gentleman as effete bachelor, also carries with it something like a polemical overload, with consequences unintended, unexpected, and quite possibly unwelcome. One such consequence is that even though the story is probably not "meant" to be homophobic, homophobia is nonetheless more than a dim shape on the horizon.[87] The resonances of the story (and for us, in the 1990s, they are troubling resonances) must far exceed anything Melville himself might have imagined. Given this signifying surcharge, and given the continual evolution of that surcharge, any attempt to devise a hermeneutic totality for the text is bound to fail—woefully, but perhaps also happily. For that failure is surely a tribute to the story's continuing vitality, its continuing ability to sustain new meanings, even troubling meanings, over time. The semantic horizon of the text is thus commensurate neither with the sum of its parts nor with the sum of any number of readings. Taking these incommensurabilities as reminders of a nonintegral universe, we should perhaps also take to heart their intimations of shortfall, as well as intimations of possibility, in order to rethink the very idea of adequation, both as it informs a reading of a text and as it informs a theory of justice.

The question of justice is, of course, the implicit burden of the Melville story itself, a question that, to my mind, is also better pondered as an instance of the incomplete rather than an instance of descriptive fullness. As we have seen, what Melville offers is a contrasting tableau of privilege and oppression, rendered in the idiom of class as well as the idiom of gender. The female operative, a casualty on both counts, thus stands as a metonym for injustice, an injustice done to all workers. This gendering of injustice is very much a deliberate invention on Melville's part, for, as Judith A. McGaw points out, even though there were actually both male and female workers in the Dalton paper mill that Melville visited, the story takes as its exhibit only


the latter.[88] This metonymic focus on the woman worker is in turn doubled upon itself, for the focus is hardly on her general well-being, but on one particular feature of her person. It is her sexualized body that is being dramatized here, the oppressions and deprivations of that body serving as a metonym for the full range of her oppressions and deprivations. Female sexuality, in short, becomes the generalized sign for the injury of class. Beginning with the journey to the paper mill (a protracted affair, vividly rendered as a grotesque encounter with the female anatomy), economic injustice is equated throughout with sexual violation, industrial capitalism being figured here as a mechanized rape of the female body.

It is this metonymic logic that confers on female sexuality its signifying primacy. To the extent that this signifying relation is understood to be a complete relation, however—to the extent that this "rape" is understood fully to summarize the female operatives as well as the entire working class—the women are also turned into naturalized signs, welded into and subsumed by what they signify. There they stand, "like so many mares haltered to the rack," tending machines which "vertically thrust up a long, glittering scythe . . . look[ing] exactly like a sword" (329). Not surprisingly, they give birth not to babies but to industrial products. The narrator reports a "scissory sound . . . as of some cord being snapped, and down dropped an unfolded sheet of perfect foolscap . . . still moist and warm" (332). In short, the sights and sounds of industrial production cruelly mimic the sights and sounds of biological reproduction, underscoring at every turn the simple equation between perverted womanhood and industrial victimhood.

Melville was not the only one to have lighted on the denaturalized woman as a metonym for the sufferings of the working class. Joan Wallach Scott, studying the representation of women workers in France during the same period, has come upon strikingly similar images of female sexual disorder metonymically equated with the problems of the entire industrial order. As Scott points out, this mode of cultural figuration—this deployment of a class critique upon the symbolic body of woman—is not altogether disinterested. Indeed, as she documents it, political economists such as Jules Simon (who wrote a book called L'Ouvrière ) not only routinely lamented the sexual plight of the women workers but also proposed, as a remedy, "the return of the mother to the family," for, as he said, "It is neces-


sary that women be able to marry and that married women be able to remain at home all day, there to be the providence and the personification of the family." Given this view of things, it is not surprising that, according to Michelet, ouvrière was an "impious, sordid word that no language has ever known." Jules Simon, meanwhile, went so far as to say that "the woman who becomes a worker is no longer a woman."[89]

There is, of course, nothing quite so outspoken in "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," nor anything that hints of the Cult of True Womanhood, the American counterpart to those pronouncements offered by Michelet and Simon.[90] Still, given Melville's anxieties about his literary career in an environment dominated by "scribbling women," it is certainly possible to see, in this story about "blank-looking girls" working on "blank paper" (328), a half-resentful, half-wishful, and not especially well-disguised fantasy about women who wrote too mechanically and too much.[91] Such speculations aside, we might note as well that in his metonymic logic—in the implied equation between industrial victimhood and perverted womanhood—Melville, like Marx, would seem to have begged the very question of justice his writing so powerfully brings into focus. In his case, injustice is both self-evident and beside the point, both naturalized and rendered moot by that naturalization. Its spectacle excites only an obligatory apostrophe—"Oh! Paradise of Bachelors! and oh! Tartarus of Maids!"—an apostrophe almost "equal" to its object, we might even say, not only in repeating the diptych form of the story but also in completing it, turning its metonymic conceit into a natural circumference, a natural totality.

Against this formal closure—this inscription of a figural reality as full reality—I want to suggest an avowedly "incomplete" reading, one designed, that is, to go against the grain of the story, and most certainly against the grain of metonymic thinking. I want to suggest a reading predicated on the improbable presence of a historical "whole" in the text, an improbability whose consequences I take to be pragmatic rather than self-deprecatingly rhetorical. In other words, if we concede that the meaning of literature is not a containable category, we would have to concede, infinitely more, that the meaning of history is also not containable: not as a hermeneutic totality, and especially not as a hermeneutic totality in a text. Taking this hermeneutic incompleteness as an energizing relation between history and litera-


ture and as a tribute to the evolving vitality of both, we might want to focus on those moments in the text where its historicity seems most tenuous, most problematic, using these moments to question the very idea of a unified "whole," both as it bears on the determining ground of literature and as it bears on the determinate shape of history.

Reading "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," then, not as a totality, I want to engage it obliquely, engage it by dwelling on what it does not represent, which in this case happens to be an alternative account of the woman worker. That alternative figure casts a new light, I think, not only on the presumptive totality of Melville's story, but also on the presumptive totality of the historical process itself. For that figure was nothing if not emblematic in the 1830s and 1840s. Gleefully adduced—by company officials and ecstatic foreign visitors—that woman worker was considered the pride of America and was routinely contrasted with the debased operatives in Manchester, England.[92] Charles Dickens, who admitted to having "visited many mills in Manchester and elsewhere," reported with much-dramatized surprise that the American women workers "were all well dressed. . . . They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and department of young women: not of degraded brutes of burden." Indeed, "from all the crowd I saw in the different factories that day, I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power."[93]

For Dickens, the American woman worker cut a different figure for obvious reasons: in being so happily unrecognizable to the English reader, she showed up everything that was wrong with industrial England. This juxtaposing function was, in fact, the standard function assigned her by English visitors. The Reverend William Scoresby, who visited the "factory girls" expressly to report to his congregation in Bradford, England, devoted chapters of his book, American Factories and Their Female Operatives (1845), to "Their Literary Pursuits," "Their Leisure Employments," "Their Moral Condition," and "Causes of Their Superiority." Scoresby found that these women were "clothed in silks, and otherwise gaily adorned," that it was "a common thing for one of these girls to have five hundred dollars (a hundred guineas, nearly) in deposit" at the Lowell Institution for


Savings, that their literary publication, the Lowell Offering , was "fair and comely," quite "a phenomenon in literature": in short, though "having no possible motive for flattering our transatlantic sisters," he must nonetheless conclude that in "general moral character, or superior intelligence, or great respectability—these factory girls do greatly surprise and interest us" and that they must commend themselves to "those who feel an interest in the improvement of the condition of our working population."[94]

These glowing nineteenth-century accounts are echoed by some twentieth-century historians, who, reacting against mainstream labor history, have called attention instead to the benefits of factory work for women.[95] Thomas Dublin, in particular, emphasizes the importance of industrialization not only to women's individual well-being but also to their potential for collective action. Dublin finds that—contrary to our usual view—the New England factory girls had not been driven to work by dire necessity. Indeed, according to him, the property holdings of the fathers put them in the broad middle ranges of wealth in their home towns; fully 86 percent of the fathers had property valued at $100 or more. These women came because they wanted to, he argues, because they wanted the freedom of urban living, away from their rural families; what they gained along the way was a sense of solidarity born out of the social relations of production. Work sharing at the mills and communal living at the company boardinghouses socialized the women in a way that the household economy would not, and that experience led directly to the collective action exemplified by strikes of the 1830s and the Ten Hour Movement of the 1840s, which saw the growth of a permanent labor organization among women, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (founded in December 1844). Dublin concludes that the factory experience "placed the Lowell women squarely within the evolving labor movement and indicated that crafts traditions were not the only legitimating forces in labor protests of the period."[96]

Such arguments, striking in their own right, do not pose as severe a challenge to the Melville story as they do to our current habit of reading. Any attempt to read the story as a metonym—as a container of history, an index to history—is bound to flounder here, for what is most striking about the story is surely its oblique relation to the lives of nineteenth-century women workers, its nonencapsulation of anything that might be called a "historical whole," and its unavoidable


slipperiness as the ground of historical generalizations. To acknowledge this is not, of course, to argue for a lack of connections between history and literature. It is, however, a call to rethink the nature of those connections, to set aside our current metonymic premise in favor of concepts such as unevenness, off-centeredness, nonalignment. Such concepts, in their challenge to the idea of a fully integrated totality, qualify not only the hermeneutic relation between history and literature but also the epistemological foundation of yet another idea which requires a "whole": the idea of justice itself.

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