Thursday, August 18, 2011

iron belaying pins flying in the dark

Related posts at melvilliana: 


As reported previously here, the 1848 manuscript journal of William S. W. Ruschenberger is now available online "for use in research, teaching, and private study."

To my mind, certain portions of Ruschenberger's journal appear to have been mined by Herman Melville in the writing of White-Jacket (1850).

The Plymouth
For example, take a look at the belaying pin incident in Ruschenberger's eyewitness account, reported while on board  the sloop-of-war Plymouth in the entry for April 3, 1848.  Significantly, there is no entry for April 3rd in the published version of Ruschenberger's 1848 journal, as originally printed in the Southern Literary Messenger 16 (1852).  The Southern Literary Messenger series "Notes and Commentaries on a Voyage to China" jumps from April 2nd (in the April 1852 installment) to April 4th (May 1852), and thus entirely deletes Ruschenberger's dramatic narrative of the events of April 3, 1848:
Monday April 3d.  Wind ahead.  This day completes seventeen years since the day of my commission as a surgeon in the navy.  Capt. Gedney plays whist every afternoon in the cabin with different officers of the ship and Lt. Davis.  To day three men were brought up for card playing on the berth deck, and Gedney stood up on his stick, cripple as he is, and counted off a dozen lashes to each one of these men for doing what he does every day.  In consequence of the Master at Arms having reported the card-playing by these men, an iron belaying pin was thrown at his head in the dark.  Fortunately the missile missed its aim.  The offender could not be discovered.  With a view to his detection, all hands were called on deck, and Gedney hobbled up to the capstan and made the following speech:
"Men — I suppose you all know what you are mustered here for — if you don't, I'll tell you Somebody threw a belaying pin last night at the Master at Arms.  It was my intention to give you liberty at Rio; but I won't give you no indulgence until I find the rascal that threw the pin.  If I find him out, I will try him by a drum head court-martial, without waiting for any flag-ship, and whatever the sentence is, if it is five hundred lashes, or hang him, I will carry it out, by God — lick him or hang him, I'll be damned if I don't.  Pipe down, Mr Page." — This is a specimen of quarter deck eloquence, and of the effects of reading the bible on Sundays & attending church service.  How can a man compound with his conscience to act in this silly way.  Nay, this bare faced injustice is monstrous when we consider that Gedney sets an example and then flogs the men for following it.
The censored narrative which I have transcribed above from Ruschenberger's 1848 manuscript journal seems to have inspired Melville's portrait in White-Jacket (chapter 42, "Killing Time in a Man-of-war in Harbor") of Captain Claret and that officer's response to an airborne belaying pin:
One other way of killing time while in port is playing checkers; that is, when it is permitted; for it is not every Navy captain who will allow such a scandalous proceeding. But, as for Captain Claret, though he did like his glass of Madeira uncommonly well, and was an undoubted descendant from the hero of the battle of the Brandywine, and though he sometimes showed a suspiciously flushed face when superintending in person the flogging of a sailor for getting intoxicated against his particular orders, yet I will say for Captain Claret that, upon the whole, he was rather indulgent to his crew, so long as they were perfectly docile. He allowed them to play checkers as much as they pleased. More than once I have known him, when going forward to the forecastle, pick his way carefully among scores of canvas checkercloths, spread upon the deck, so as not to tread upon the men— the checker-men and man-of-war's men included; but, in a certain sense, they were both one; for, as the sailors used their checker-men, so, at quarters, their officers used these man-of-war's men.
But Captain Claret's leniency in permitting checkers on board his ship might have arisen from the following little circumstance, confidentially communicated to me. Soon after the ship had sailed from home, checkers were prohibited; whereupon the sailors were exasperated against the captain, and one night, when he was walking round the forecastle, bim! came an iron belaying-pin past his ears; and while he was dodging that, bim! came another, from the other side; so that, it being a very dark night, and nobody to be seen, and it being impossible to find out the trespassers, he thought it best to get back into his cabin as soon as possible. Some time after—just as if the belaying-pins had nothing to do with it—it was indirectly rumoured that the checker-boards might be brought out again, which—as a philosophical shipmate observed—showed that Captain Claret was a man of a ready understanding, and could understand a hint as well as any other man, even when conveyed by several pounds of iron.
To be sure, at sea the iron belaying pin makes the handiest of weapons as any sailor or pirate knows.  Nautical literature is full of bludgeonings with belaying pins.  Nevertheless, consider the parallel particulars in the accounts of Ruschenberger and Melville.  In both narratives the incident happens at night, in the dark.  A belaying pin (or two, in Melville's telling) is sent flying in both narratives, in both accounts by the hand of an unknown assailant or assailants who are never discovered.  Moreover, the motives for the attacks are strikingly similar, having to with the enforced suppression of recreational games.  In Ruschenberger's 1848 narrative, the target of the flying belaying pin was enforcing Captain Gedney's unfair and hypocritical prohibition of card-playing.  In Melville's narrative, the hypocritical Captain Claret (who flogs sailors for drunkenness while tipsy himself) had prohibited checkers.  The big difference in the two accounts is in the reaction of the respective captains.  The belligerent and unrepentant Gedney vowed to flog or hang the unknown offender, but Melville's timid Claret is quick to change his mind and approve the playing of checkers, having been personally assaulted, twice.

Before getting too far along we have to consult Howard Vincent's essential study The Tailoring of Melville's White-Jacket.  Evanston:  Northwestern University Press, 1970.  We need to know if Vincent located any source for the belaying pin incident in White-Jacket.

Whew!  At p. 123 Vincent does quote extensively from the passage in question.  And while Vincent does not identify Melville's source, he knows there is one:
When anything is "confidentially communicated," as he says this information was, to one of Melville's narrators, it is certain that a bookish source is the communicator.
And Vincent immediately goes on to say
Sources for the latter half of the chapter have not appeared.
 Hey, it's on and poppin!

On the same subject, check out Melvilliana posts on Flogging John and Peter and speaking a whaler, homeward bound.

Don't forget, as reported at Melvilliana in our inaugural message to the world, Ruschenberger's 1848 journal is digitized and online!

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