Saturday, June 7, 2014

NO! in thunder

What did Melville mean when he proclaimed that Nathaniel "says No! in thunder"? To Hawthorne himself Melville wrote that, in one of those long loving endlessly quoted letters from Arrowhead to Lenox.

Without a second thought I always took Melville's meaning to be Hawthorne was so far from being a soulless YES-man that he aggressively shouted, yelled, roared, thundered his NO! to conventionality and conformity.  Protesting loud as thunder, as the capitalization and exclamation mark graphically confirm. (Julian Hawthorne printed NO!)

So I uncritically supposed until reading a footnote to the introduction of Geoffrey Sanborn's Whipscars and Tattoos, citing the 1986 book by William Dillingham, Melville's Later Novels. Sanborn agrees with Dillingham that Melville's "in thunder" means in the middle of a thunder-and-lightning storm, not in a loud "thunderous" voice.

Here's how Dillingham explains "No! in thunder":
Melville wrote Hawthorne in a letter that he admired him for saying “NO! in thunder.” By “in” Melville meant during or in the midst of, and he used thunder as he frequently did to mean lightning. He was complimenting Hawthorne not for writing thunderous prose which expressed a rebellious no, but for a refusal to seek shelter when, figuratively, lightning is striking all around. The lightning-rod salesmen of the world advise us to fear lightning, to run and hide from it, and to cringe in the knowledge of one’s own impotency. It might strike you if you are not prudent and methodical in your precautions. The extraordinary few say no to the fear, and no to the message of purposelessness, and they continue to say no—almost impossible though it is—even after they are struck. So it is with Ahab, though he has to fight mightily. --Melville's Later Novels page 73
Ooh is that good. Making the same connection to Ahab as "Old Thunder" Sanborn highlights warrior pride,
"the feeling that enables one to say "No!" in the midst of a ship-splitting thunderstorm, and to discover, in the act of utterance, that one is speaking in unison with a wide world of other beings, objects, and processes--that one is, in fact, speaking in unison with the thunderstorm." --Whipscars and Tattoos, page 15.
Wow! Thundering in a thunderstorm. So by the time we get to Ahab in the Candles chapter of Moby-Dick we have Hawthorne's "No! in thunder" realized every which way, in every sense. And this (remember?) is also Byron's romantic stance in those stanzas on the alpine storm from canto 3 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Ahab is Byron's "live thunder" personified.

But have we not heard No in thunder somewhere before? Well there's a Civil War poem, Our Country's Call by John Pierpont:
Like a whirlwind in its course,
Shall again a rebel force,
Jackson's foot or Stuart's horse,
Pass our sleepy posts;
Roam, like Satan, "to and fro,"
And our Laggard let them go?
No! in thunder answer, "No! 
By the Lord of Hosts!"  --Rebellion Record
Aha, in thunder answer No! Way before Pierpont, a poem called Weeping Mary:
O one look of comfort give me,
Into pity's arms receive me,
From this heavy load relieve me.
Or in thunder answer—no.
--The Kilmarnock Mirror
Maybe we need our bibles now... Psalms, hymns.
The law is looked to for salvation, but the soul is brought to feel that it is in vain that he looks any where else than unto Jesus. "I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me: no man cared for my soul. I cried unto thee, O Lord, I said thou art my refuge, and my portion in the land of the living. Attend unto my cry, for I am brought very low." When the law is appealed to, it answers, "No," in thunder; and it is well the wretch can return and seek another refuge.
--David Charles, Sermons
Let's keep looking. Ho, what is this? Thomas Heywood, The Foure Prentices of London:
Soldan. Should Jove himself in thunder answer I [that is, Aye = Yes]
When we say no, we'd pull him from the sky.  --The Ancient British Drama
Jove himself!
And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot. --Moby-Dick Chapter 7, The Chapel
The context from Heywood is very much in the vein of Melville in that letter to Hawthorne, and more so in the figure of Ahab. Having the audacity to treat great powers of the universe as equals. Anybody that bold speaks in thunder, like Jove the god of thunder. Now I'm wondering did Melville read Thomas Heywood's Four Prentices or would he only have to have seen Alexander Dyce's footnoted comment on Tamburlaine in the preface to The Works of Christoper Marlowe? More later... (delivered at Hawthorne and Jove in thunder).

Related posts:


  1. You might want to also consider the "no" of the daemon of Socrates that Melville wrote in his 1851 letter to Hawthorne. "Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon, -- the familiar, -- and recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes." Socrates claimed his inner voice only said "no" and never suggested anything,

  2. Interesting connection, thanks! I get the "No" part of Socrates' naysaying "daemon" or inner monitor--where's the thunder? Speaking of naysayers, Gibbon regarded the daemon figure with a good deal of skepticism, comparing Socrates to a deluded religious prophet:

    "From enthusiasm to imposture, the step is perilous and slippery: the daemon of Socrates affords a memorable instance, how a wise man may deceive himself, how a good man may deceive others, how the conscience may slumber in a mixed and middle state between self-illusion and voluntary fraud." --History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume 3 (London, 1823) pages 322-323.

    Conveniently (and appropriately!) accessible also on in the excerpt titled "Mahomet's Death and Character":

  3. I share your respect for the other sources like Dillingham but respecting Melville’s Hawthorne letters one cannot quote Gibbons on Socrates as a source for Melville’s “no saying” d[a]emon. The reference overlooks Gibbon’s anti-supernatural bias that would condemn Socrates for even placing god in a human mind. It is like judging Jefferson as a fraud using the 1619 project bias.
    Reasoning from your Gibbon’s “the conscience may slumber in a mixed and middle state between self-illusion and voluntary fraud” you condem Melville’s profoundest experience as fraudulent.
    “your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God's.”
    “I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.”
    Are you comfortable calling Melville’s “Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon, -- the familiar, -- and recognized the sound” a voluntary fraud?

    1. Super comfortable, TTTT. Although I did not mean to offer Edward Gibbon as any kind of source for Melville's allusion to Socrates' daemon. But I do think the English historian's plain, bluff commentary provides an excellent reality-check to Melville's self-described "gibberish." More importantly, perhaps, a needful counter to the fatal transcendentalist flaw that HM himself identified in his earlier letter to Hawthorne--written in early May or June 1851, when the whale book was not quite finished:

      "But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion."

      About the thunder, a subsequent post on Melvilliana proposes Bible-based and theatrical sources for the idea that, contra Dillingham, "in thunder" means like Jove the Thunderer, rather than during or amidst a thunderstorm. So there Melville figured Hawthorne as Jove = God.

      Kinda wish I had taken more English courses at Emory including Dillingham's. Somehow I finally landed in Jerome Beaty's superb class on the Victorian novel. Fate, or dumb luck?