Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Old Mortality and Melville's approach to rewriting history

renewing with his chisel the half-defaced inscriptions....
Renewing gravestones with hammer and chisel was the unpaid business of Old Mortality, the source (not the main subject) of Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality (1816).  
Rennovating or "retouching" old inscriptions:  what a great metaphor for Melville's habit of re-writing from sources!  Melville thought so.  Acknowledging a pamphlet autobiography as the primary source for Israel Potter (1856), Melville in the fanciful dedication compares his inventive rewrite of the original narrative to
"a dilapidated old tombstone retouched."  
Fittingly, Melville returns to the tombstone image and finishes the job of retouching in the last chapter, which as Alide Cagidemetrio points out in Fictions of the Past is titled Requiescat in PaceCagidemetrio (and who else, I wonder?) gets the allusion to Scott's Old Mortality, and writes with fine insight about its significance for Melville's characterization of Israel Potter, and more broadly as a poet's approach to the rewriting of history:
The “old tombstone retouched” is a topos for the “poetics” of historical fiction.  The Cameronian tombstones in Walter Scott’s Old Mortality may serve as its most illustrious example.  The introduction to the novel is in fact the introduction to a character of the past, Old Mortality.  He is a forgotten, poor, and aged patriot turned by historical events, like Melville’s Israel, into a wanderer.”  Fictions of the Past:  Hawthorne & Melville (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 182.
"'Poetics' of historical fiction" is wonderful.  Aesthetics too or an aesthetic seems also implied.  Some day we might try elaborating on that theme, here at Melvilliana, Melville's aesthetics of the rewrite.

The use of multiple personae is interesting, too, and reminds me of Melville's experimenting with imaginary narrators and editors in his manuscript "Burgundy Club" sketches.  For great insight into that strategy check out Robert A. Sandberg's 1989 article on "the adjustment of screens."  Similarly the story of Old Mortality, as one of Walter Scott's Tales of My Landlord, has been redacted supposedly through various authorial and editorial personae, including (besides Scott himself and the landlord of the Wallace inn), the fictive narrator Peter Pattieson (deceased) and fictive editor Jedediah Cleishbotham.

From the description of Old Mortality's occupation as Peter Pattieson allegedly gave it in manuscript, according to Jedediah Cleishbotham in the "preliminary" first chapter of Old Mortality (Tale II in Tales of My Landlord:
"During this long pilgrimage, the pious enthusiast regulated his circuit so as annually to visit the graves of the unfortunate Covenanters, who suffered by the sword, or by the executioner, during the reigns of the two last monarchs of the Stewart line....In the most lonely recesses of the mountains, the moor-fowl shooter has been often surprised to find him busied in cleaning the moss from the grey stones, renewing with his chisel the half-defaced inscriptions, and repairing the emblems of death with which these simple monuments are usually adorned.
"... As the wanderer was usually to be seen bent on this pious task within the precincts of some country churchyard, or reclined on the solitary tombstone among the heath, disturbing the plover and the black-cock with the clink of his chisel and mallet, with his old white pony grazing by his side, he acquired, from his converse among the dead, the popular appellation of Old Mortality.
"... Conversing with others, he was grave and sententious, not without a cast of severity. But he is said never to have been observed to give way to violent passion, excepting upon one occasion, when a mischievous truant-boy defaced with a stone the nose of a cherub's face, which the old man was engaged in retouching."
Old Mortality LH Philly
Old Mortality / sculptural group at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
by James Thom (c. 1836) via Wikimedia Commons

1 comment:

  1. Scott, this is peripheral to your post, but I wonder if you could tell me where the Melvill/e kin who died around Pittsfield in the 19thC are buried. The big database Find-a-Grave doesn't show them, and I can't locate a local record. The Pittsfield Historical Society should know but haven't yet been able to tell me. Hershel Parker says you have a great nose for the Melvillian truffle. Have you nosed this one?