Saturday, February 16, 2013

early sources for Melville's "Chola Widow" sketch

Chart of the Galapagos by James Colnett
via Library of Congress
I'm having fun re-reading and re-thinking The Sources and Genesis of Melville's "Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow", the 1978 American Literature article by Robert Sattelmeyer and James Barbour. JSTOR has it online--for a price, without institutional access--but luckily I can look at the PDF also courtesy of my local library and ELM. Now that we have the 1847 newspaper story of "A Female Crusoe," the influence of the 1853 account of a "Female Robinson Crusoe" proposed by Sattelmeyer and Barbour needs to be reassessed. Only the 1847 story describes the separation of a young Indian couple, early united:
In the last boat, which was embarking with the last of this people, (some six or eight perhaps in number,) to convey them to the vessel, which was to carry them from the home of their nativity forever, was one of the tribe, small in stature, not far advanced in years, and his dusky mate, then in the bloom of life. The order had been given to shove from the shore; the oars had dipped in the wave, the boat was rising on the foaming surf, then breaking on the beach with awful roar, when, with the impulse of the moment as it were, this young and blooming bride of the red man, the imprint of whose footstep had been the last left on the sands of her island home, waved an adieu to her chosen mate, plunged into the abyss, “strove through the surge,” and, in another moment, stood alone on the shores of her native land. She turned, to give the last lingering look to her departing help-mate; and then, gathering around her form her flowing mantle, wet by the ocean wave, in an instant disappeared forever from the sight of her astonished and sorrowing companions. --A FEMALE CRUSOE
Melville in the "Chola Widow" sketch describes Hunilla's mate as
"her young new-wedded husband Felipe." --April 1854 Putnam's Monthly
Hunilla looks helplessly on as her husband and brother are wrecked and killed while fishing off shore.  Felipe's body washes ashore, as does the corpse of the lone woman's husband in the
1847 newspaper story.

As source-material for Melville's Hunilla sketch, the female Crusoe story itself is not, as Sattelmeyer and Barbour argue, the "final link" or "culmination" in the conjectured (admittedly) compositional process. Very possibly the later 1853 article supplied or inspired additional details (the dogs, for example). But their sequence is backward. Or inverted, something like that. Sattelmeyer and Barbour have Agatha as inspirational "germ" and the "female Robinson Crusoe" as "final link" to the Hunilla sketch, but now we know Melville could have started plotting in 1847 to make literary use of the "female Crusoe" story.

So it looks more like the Agatha theme from 1852 complemented a story or idea for a story already in progress, conceivably brewing since 1847.   

Sattelmeyer and Barbour proposed two additional sources for Melville's "Chola Widow" sketch. Both are early, and the first one Melville is known to have charged to his account with the Harpers on April 10, 1847. Hey, same day that he acquired Darwin's journal account of the Beagle voyage! For Sketch Eighth, the early sources identified by Sattelmeyer and Barbour are
1) Benjamin Morrell's ghostwritten  Narrative of Four Voyages (Sealts number 372 in the catalog at Melville's Marginalia Online) where suggestive details used in the "Chola Widow" sketch appear in the chapter that will go on to deal with the "Gallapagos Islands," "Elephant Tortoises," and "Alexander Selkirk, or Robinson Crusoe."
"While standing in for the island of St. Felix, my attention was arrested by the appearance of a flag or signal from the top of the island ; which, on approaching nearer, I concluded to be a sailor's shirt fastened to a pole."
In the "Chola Widow" sketch, Melville has reconfigured the plight and rescue of Morrell's five abandoned seal hunters.  Morrell's dissolute Van Doras is the prototype of Melville's "joyous" French captain who leaves the Cholos trusting in tortoises for "ample pledge" of his "blithesome promise" to return.
 He left with them sufficient water and provisions to last three weeks, pledging himself to be back in a fortnight, and take them off. They went cheerfully to work, and faithfully performed the duties assigned them for fourteen days, at the expiration of which they began to look out for the return of the vessel ; but they looked in vain.--Benjamin Morrell's Narrative
and 2) David Porter's Journal of a Cruise provided--as Sattelmeyer and Barbour (405) also show--suggestive details used in describing the scattered bones and tortoise shells around Hunilla's hut.
Looking again into Porter I find another borrowing for Melville's Hunilla sketch in the section on Payta, birthplace of Melville's heroine ("A Chola, or half-breed Indian woman, of Payta in Peru").  Nearing Payta, Porter sees
"two rafts or catamarans, steering by the wind...." --Journal of a Cruise
In describing these log rafts (from Guayaquil, to Porter's astonishment) Porter emphasizes their poor ("clumsy") construction and "frail" appearance:
 there can be no stronger proof of the mildness of this ocean, so justly, in this part, deserving the name of the Pacific, than the fact, that the loss of those vessels, frail as they are, is very uncommon. --Journal of a Cruise
Information from the sailors of the catamaran persuades Porter to skip Payta and head for "the Gallipagos Islands." In the Hunilla sketch, Melville has Felipe and Truxill "too hastily" construct the same type of raft, which Melville also calls a catamaran, that Porter criticized as structurally unsound and dangerous except in the mildest seas:
 ... they, too hastily, made a catamaran, or Indian raft, much used on the Spanish main, and merrily started on a fishing trip, just without a long reef with many jagged gaps, running parallel with the shore, about half a mile from it. By some bad tide or hap, or natural negligence of joyfulness (for though they could not be heard, yet by their gestures they seemed singing all the time) forced in deep water against that iron bar, the ill-made catamaran was overset, and came all to pieces, when, dashed by broad-chested swells between their broken logs and the sharp teeth of the reef, both adventurers perished before Hunilla's eyes. --Encantadas, Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow
In writing "The Encantadas" Melville got back to one of his oldest trustiest source-books, David Porter's Journal of a Cruise. Sketch Eighth too is more indebted to Porter than we knew. And close by Melville had Morrell's Narrative of Four Voyages, obtained in April 1847, and probably the story of "A Female Crusoe," first published January 7, 1847 in the Boston Atlas and reprinted March 27, 1847 in Littell's Living Age. Old old old sources.

So when DID Melville compose the "Chola Widow" sketch? Earlier, rather than later in 1853? In November 1853 he wrote the Harpers proposing a new book of "Tortoise Hunting Adventure." Wanted $300, said it was "now in hand, and pretty well on towards completion." I'm not sure if Hunilla was the heroine of that uncompleted book, but I know she was a tortoise hunter.

Related posts:

No comments:

Post a Comment