Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Who is Znobbi?

Everybody is somebody in Vivenza, allegorically the United States of Amerca in the political chapters of Mardi (1849). So Alanno of Hio Hio roars like Senator William Allen of Ohio. Easy one!

Nullo looks like the sepulchral John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, associated with the controversial nullification of protective tarrifs. Piece of cake!

But Znobbi? The question stumped even Merrell R. Davis:
President Polk appears as the "personage," but I have been unable to identify "Znobbi...." (A Chartless Voyage, 89)
Nobody knows for sure who he is (though you may find extraordinarily fine writing about Znobbi and the limitations of democracy, and about Moby-Dick and "the dialectical imagination" at Both Wearing Black Masks). 

Znobbi you remember is the "fluent, obstreperous wight" of chapter160, "a runaway native of Porpheero [Europe], but now an enthusiastic inhabitant of Vivenza." We encounter him near the temple (read The Capitol building, in Washington). Znobbi brags of his role in elevating the remarkably undistinguished chief (James K. Polk) to his current position. After greeting the head man too familiarly and disrespectfully grabbing him by the nose, Znobbi cheers him on as the personification of democracy. Then, caught in the act of secretly pilfering something valuable from a bystander, Znobbi is immediately seized as a thief by the crowd, now spurred to action by their surprisingly vindictive leader. On the whole episode (making up the chapter in Mardi titled, "A Scene in the Land of Warwicks, or King-Makers"), Babblanja comments:
"There's not so much freedom here as these freemen think."
Znobbi we are told is a "native of Porpheero" meaning a native of Europe. The fact of Znobbi's foreign birth rules out two previous guesses as to the identity of his historical counterpart. In spite of what the Herman Melville Encyclopedia hints, Znobbi cannot be Herman's brother Gansevoort, native son of New York--although Gansevoort famously did help elect Polk in 1844 and reportedly did brag about it. Even supposing Melville could have satirized his late lamented brother with such a caricature as Znobbi, Gansevoort lacks the important qualification of European birth.
Emphasizing Znobbi's pretensions as king maker, Helen Trimpi nominates Gideon Johnson Pillow. By all means get and read Melville's Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850's, but reject General Pillow after all as the real life counterpart of Znobbi. Yes, Pillow engineered Polk's "dark horse" nomination as the Democratic candidate in 1844, but the man was born in Tennessee, not Europe.

My choice? After a brief flirtation with the loveable rascal, "Count" Louis Fitzgerald Tasistro, I am ready to fight for Irish-American journalist John Nugent (1821-1880).
native of Europe?  Check, born in Galway, Ireland.
"He is a native of Galway in Ireland; of small stature and light complexion, quite genteel and of a good education. Those who understand topography Latinized will easily know that he is a Galwayan from his signature of 'Galviensis'...” (Washington Correspondence” from "Schuyler" dated April 30, 1848 in the Utica, New York Oneida Morning Herald, May 3, 1848)
"fluent and obstreperous"? Check! and check!!
"...a man of erudition far beyond many of the Senators themselves, as well as a scholar of high attainments." --"RODERICK RANDOM" in the New York Herald, May 2, 1848
"Nugent was a master of pure English and keen in invective. His humor was pungent, his satire of the vitriol quality. [Cited example, said of Gov. Bigler in 1853: “his porcine Excellency grunted his anathemas against the Administration.”] --James O'Meara, "Early Editors of California," Overland Monthly (November 1889).
Another wrote he was 
“unbending. If he took a position he would hold it against the world.” --Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography
In two words, Nugent was known for his:
“pugnacious propensity”  --Our Press Gang
"enthusiastic inhabitant" of the United States?  Check!!!
"...in a farewell speech to an audience of Americans in Victoria, he suggested that if the rights of American citizens in the area were ever in jeopardy, the American government would not hesitate to intervene." (Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online)
Seized by "the people" (or their elected representatives) for theft? Check. During the exact same time Melville is known to have been writing Mardi from the pages of the New York Herald, John Nugent a.k.a. "Galviensis" was stuck in the custody of the Sergeant-at-Arms of the U.S. Senate, having been arrested and held for questioning in the scandalous affair that Nugent's newspaper-employer called


A full page of commentary from eastern newspapers under the above heading appeared in the New York Herald on April 6, 1848--one day after the same newspaper published the will of John Jacob Astor, the document ("all codicils") that Melville parodied in Mardi as the will of Bardianna.
Here while writing Mardi Melville could have read the latest news of the affair, this reprinted from the Washington correspondence of "Potomac" to the Baltimore Patriot (but attributed to "Louis Fitzgerald Tasistro of the Baltimore Clipper"):
Galviensis” has been arrested, by order of the Senate, and is now in durance, in a Pickwickian sense, because he will not answer all the questions propounded to him. The Senators who are dealing with him, know that he sent the Treaty to new York for publication in the Herald. They know, that he has been in the confidence, and that he is the organ of Mr. Secretary Buchanan. They know, that the Herald has teemed with laudations of Mr. Buchanan, and denunciation and ridicule of Mr. Polk and Governor Cass....

... finding that the President was determined to secure re-nomination through the influence of the patronage properly belonging to himself, he hired an obscure young man, who writes for the New York Herald over the signature of “Galviensis,” but who is not even a citizen of the United States—to abuse Mr. Polk and ridicule his pretensions; and to confess the truth, “Galviensis” has been very effective in the performance of his task.
Somebody had secretly leaked the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo but Nugent-Galviensis wasn't talking.

Eventually Nugent was discharged, possibly through the agency of his ally, then Secretary of State (and suspected leaker of the treaty with Mexico) James Buchanan. Correspondence from Washington titled "The Prisoner Released" appeared in the New York Herald on May 2, 1848.

Manhandled Polk? Yanked the President's nose--metaphorically speaking? Check!!!!! Let's ask the victim himself. In his diary entry for March 25, 1848), Polk wrote up a confrontation with his Secretary of State and Democratic rival, James Buchanan: 
There is no reliance to be placed in Nugent. I would not believe him on his oath, and I fear Mr. Buchanan has placed himself in his power. Several members of Congress have within the last few weeks made insinuations to me, and some of them have openly expressed the opinion, that Mr. Buchanan had apprehensions that the Democratic National Convention, which is to meet at Baltimore in May next, might insist upon nominating me for a second term, and that, fearing this, he had procured this letter-writer to assail me through the New York Herald with a view to prevent such a result.... I told him that he knew that Nugent had been for months [calumniating], and still continued to calumniate and abuse me in his infamous letters to the Herald, and that this was a singular mode of giving the support of the Herald to my administration. He said that Mr. Walker and himself had both urged Nugent not to abuse me, but that they could not restrain or prevent him from doing so. I told him that it was deeply to be regretted that he had permitted so unprincipled a scoundrel to approach him, or to have anything to do with him. I did not say to him, because I desired if possible to avoid a rupture with him, that in my opinion no member of my Cabinet who was faithful to my administration and to me, would employ for any purpose a man who was habitually abusing & calumniating the Head of the Government....
On March 25, 1848 Polk continued to vent:
He [Buchanan] will now, I hope, learn a profitable lesson, and that is that it is dangerous to have any connection or intercourse with the unprincipled letter writers at Washington. He had taken this scoundrel, Nugent, into his confidence in order to have himself puffed by his letters in the New York Herald as a candidate for the Presidency, and by placing himself thus in his power has been very near being disgraced and ruined by him. It was his notorious intimacy with Nugent which gave probability to the imputation that Nugent had obtained the Treaty & documents at the State Department. --Diary of James K. Polk, March 25, 1848
 Weeks before, a previous talk on the same theme:
He [Buchanan] at length remarked to me that it was rumoured in the streets that he was to be removed from the Cabinet on account of the supposed countenance given by him to the correspondent of the New York Herald, whose letters lately had been very abusive of myself. The writer of these letters is a fellow without character or responsibility, named Nugent. He signs himself Galvienses. --Diary of James K. Polk, February 23, 1848
Two days before that, Galviensis had skeptically questioned Polk's stance and motives with respect to the next presidential election:
"The friends of Mr. Polk still contend that he does not desire to be next President. One of two propositions is easily demonstrable: either he desires to be next President, or to break up the democratic party. To the latter intent he will scarcely plead guilty." --New York Herald, February 21, 1848
In October 1847, Nugent's take on the controversy about General Pillow showed his Americanist enthusiasm as well as his disaffection with Polk.
Humbug, when within proper bounds, may succeed, but it should not be pushed too far. There is in the American people an intuitive appreciation of true merit, and they do not need special pleading or certificates, or any other adventitious evidences of merit, to help them to make up their decision. Has not the whole country rung with the names of Taylor, Worth, Shields, Smith, and other true men like them? Is there any difference of opinion about their merit, or is there a citizen who is not as jealous of their reputation as if it were a brother’s? …It is well known that General Pillow has attained his present rank in the army through the personal friendship of the President, who was, it is said, formerly associated with him in the practice of the law in Tennessee.
Another unworthy attempt is being made to array the regular army officers against those of the volunteer service, and to make political opinion a test of merit in the army. The example was unfortunately set by the president in endeavoring to supersede General Scott to the command of the army by the appointment of Mr. Benton as Lieutenant General, because the former is a whig, and the latter of the same political creed as the President himself. 
("General Pillow—Politics in the Army," New York Herald, October 17, 1847)
"Pinioned" by Polk himself? Check. Nugent believed and so informed readers of the Herald like Herman Melville that his arrest in the Senate and imprisonment by the Sergeant-at-arms was directed from the top:
The whole power of the government, from the President down to his servilest lacquey in the Senate, was employed for a whole month in avenging him of his private malice on a newspaper correspondent who had disobliged him by exposing his intrigues for re-election; and having exerted themselves to the utmost, they were obliged at length to declare themselves foiled.— They should in future adopt for their motto, “magno conatu nihil agimus.” ['We make a great effort and achieve nothing.'] --“Oregon,” correspondence from Washington dated May 31, 1848 in the New York Herald, June 2, 1848.
To the great satisfaction of Melville's demigod king Media, and the laughing admiration of his philosopher Babbalanja, the nameless chief of Vivenza gets a measure of revenge for personal affronts, when he directs his "people" to seize and hold the zealously patriotic but "obstreperous" transplant from Porpheero.
Helped put the chief where he is? Triple check!!! As a writer for the Herald, which eventually endorsed Polk in 1844, as a strident democrat (albeit in the camp of Buchanan by 1848), and as an Irish-American voter in the pivotal state of New York, Nugent held a legitimate claim to the title of king-maker, American style: 
"On the eve of the election in New York City, so many Irish marched to the courthouse to be qualified for voting that the windows had to be opened to allow people to enter and leave. Polk won the electoral vote 170 to 105, but his margin in the popular vote was only 38,000 out of 2.6 million votes cast. A shift of 6,000 votes in New York, where the immigrant vote and Whig defections to the Liberty party had hurt Clay, would have given Clay the state and the presidency. --The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People


 "a talented journalist, and a duelist"  --The Builders of a Great City: San Francisco's Representative Men

"John Nugent: The Impertinent Envoy" 

--Robie L. Reid, The British Columbia Historical Quarterly 8 (January 1944) - pdf

Znobbi is nobody but Nugent.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, John Nugent confessed on the trail west that JB leaked the treaty to him.