Captain Kip Files

I wanted to get to know the workers on board the Morgan because, as a biographer, I need to gain some sense of Melville’s work environment. But this “sense” I hope to achieve is a far cry from the reality Melville experienced, and my own 21st-century experiences on the Morgan can only be a faint simulation of what he experienced in 1841.  So I must keep in mind that for one day only I am only imagining what another man’s life only might have been.  That’s a lot of “only,” and perhaps all I can do in writing a biography is measure the distance between my present and Melville’s past.  Still, one boundary these two spheres share is our common humanity; if only I might isolate, for one day, one or two of these shared humanities.

I had witnessed the work on board the Morgan: the running to stations, the pulling and heaving, the call and repeat, the unity of body and action.  Now I wanted to know the workers, from the youngest on board to captain, as individuals: what they thought and felt.  Maybe here would be the connection.  I had little time for extensive interviewing, and no illusion that in less than a day I could really “get to know” anyone, much less a group of workers busy at work.  Often my interviewees stopped their responses in mid-sentence with a polite “I gotta go” when first mate Sam or second mate Sean yelled out a command. So I developed a concise two-question approach that I hoped would allow me sufficient entrè into the varied lives of the crew:  How did you get into this profession? What is your biggest fear?

Of course, the two questions were a mirror of myself: who am I and why do I fear death? But I also had Melville in mind and, in particular, his brilliant (lesser known) novel Redburn, an autobiographical fiction based on his adolescence that is therefore an important though problematic source for any biographer.  In Ch. 16, Redburn is made to climb aloft to the highest yard in the dark of night to release the gaskets that tie up the highest smallest sky-sail. Standing on the skysail yard, Redburn reflects:

For a few moments I stood awe-stricken and mute. I could not see far out upon the ocean, owing to the darkness of the night; and from my lofty perch, the sea looked like a great, black gulf, hemmed in, all round, by beetling black cliffs. I seemed all alone; treading the midnight clouds; and every second, expected to find myself falling—falling—falling, as I have felt when the nightmare has been on me.

I have always related to this passage: the darkness, muteness, and falling.  I have a healthy respect for heights.  I like to hold tight to railings.  When I’m on a balcony, I imagine myself pitching over and have to shake off this “imp of the perverse” death-wish (as Poe might call it).  Three years ago, I witnessed a person throw herself off a five-story parking structure in San Diego: I saw her fall; I heard the slap-crack as her body hit the pavement like lumber, and I must shake off this image, night or day, whenever it invades my mind.

On board the Morgan, I had no time to explore the crew’s fears in such detail, and I knew that even in asking the question, I risked unconsciously coaxing them in their response toward my agenda of exploring Melville’s self-doubting expressions of fear rather letting them express their own authentic being.  But, I reasoned, if the present crew is a sphere completely separate from the sphere of Melville’s past, one common link between then and now is this form of our shared humanity.  Fear is trans-historical, and my job was to ask and listen to these sailors not listen to myself.

One respondent, the youngest of the professional crew with three years experience under sail on tall ships, was utterly unresponsive even to my first question: how did you get started working at sea?  He gave only laconic, single word utterances, and I never got to my second question: it seemed fruitless to attempt it. I left him to his solitude, which I deeply respect.

Others were more open in relating their life histories: they had been on a boat of some sort since the age of four, ten, twelve, clocking from ten to twenty years working summers or full time on ships powered by engines or wind.  I did not ask them if they loved the sea, if it had some pull on them, or metaphysical depth.  Their eyes were on the deck and the rigging and not on the horizon.  One had been at it long enough, he said, and he was set to quit in a year or so and return to college, get a degree, and make some money. For many, this sea life is a transition to something else.  Melville, for instance, left the sea and became a writer, which as far as we can tell, is when he began to reflect back on the pull of the sea and its metaphysical depth.

My second question was hard to ask because fear is something people do not readily admit to.  Men are often reticent with regard to this subject, so I fully recognize how the question What is your biggest fear? can be taken as an assault on a man’s manhood. The Fear Question is the opening of an issue that the culture tells men not to address. This mute stoicism is a venerable precept of courage, although, paradoxically perhaps, another precept is that writing about your fears is itself an act of courage, and one Melville manages quite well.  A common enough initial response to the FQ was “spiders.” The humor is that a big guy cringes at a little crawling thing, and we chuckled at this opener, though, any sensible man will tell you spiders are scary.

A second, understandable evasion was to ask whether I meant fear in general or fear at sea.  And I would let that ride: whichever, I would say; start where you want.

I was undeterred in asking this number two question, expecting that when I got people finally to relent they would respond mostly along the lines of Redburn’s fear of falling falling falling.  He relates this to “the nightmare,” which is the common enough anxiety dream of falling that many have experienced.  And why should a young man dream of falling? What anxieties could possibly afflicted a young man? For starters there is failing to succeed, to love and be loved, to be a man, to find a mate.  Falling is a form of failing.  The two seem closer than just one letter apart.  But no one mentioned this.

44CrewWorkingFourRiggingAlthough, one worker after some thought beyond the spider stage of response said, he mostly feared “freezing up” in the rigging.  I thought he meant that his forearms, wrist, and hand might, from all the gripping and holding, cramp and go numb, but no, the fear is being up in the rigging and not knowing whether to climb up or down, slide right or left.  Which line will secure you, which one is loose.  Freezing up is when you cannot tell.  The issue is not falling, but not knowing where to go.

In Redburn, Melville writes that it is not enough for a young sailor “to learn the ropes.”  In fact, that expression, which we take to indicate expertise, really is only the beginning of what a sailor in the rigging must learn, not just the names of the lines but their relation to each other, and one’s relation to the line.  To pass from a boy to a sailor man, Redburn tells us, means becoming “an artist in the rigging.”  This modern sailor knew this truth all too well.  He was as much an artist in the rigging as any of his crew mates, but he also knew that no artist can get lost in his revisions, that even the best artist in the rigging can “freeze up.”  Others listening knew what he meant.

Another long-time sailor spoke of fire in the hold.  A ship is a bit of tinder floating in the sea; it’s all wood and hemp; it is designed to keep water out; fire travels fast below deck.  And this person’s insight birthed another, a fear of being cast on a lifeboat at sea.  I think he was on a roll and might have listed more fears of the sea, but a command went out, and he ran off, repeating the command.

21BlocksAndSheet2An unexpected fear came up in an unrelated conversation with one of the crew’s more experienced members: the snapping of the canvas sails as they billow out.  We assume this sound, like the revving of an engine, signals the beginning of some romantic sea adventure, or at least wind in the sails and forward movement.  But, she cautioned, the force of a flapping sail can break the line that holds it, which means the loose end of the sail with its ropes, block, and tackle can slap you in the face or push you off a spar.  If you hear a snap, you better duck or hold on tight.

Eventually, I worked up nerve to ask my questions to the captain, Kip Files.  It occurs to me now how presumptuous I was in asking the captain what he fears.  Maybe it is not good deck etiquette to ask the person in charge of the very piece of wood that is keeping you afloat in the Atlantic anything that approaches self-doubt, or interior searching.  Frankly, I want my captain courageous.  Unconsciously, I seem to have been re-enacting an embarrassing moment in Redburn when the young man approaches his captain, as if they were gentlemen of equal rank, and he is summarily rebuked for thinking he might pay the captain a social call.  What had I been thinking?  But Captain Files honored my question with respect, though perhaps a quizzical look, as if to say do you really want me to tell you I fear sinking, drowning, falling?  But his diplomatic response was a telling mix of confidence and anxiety: he feared failure, in particular, failing to get the Morgan into Boston on time.  And while I thought at the time that this was a spider-like evasion, I see now a truth embedded in his authentic response: his fear of failing is a version of my fear of failing.

Our “38th Voyager” crew coordinator, Paul O’Pecko grabbed me.  I was on the list to climb the rigging, and I was next. Weather permitting, we were allowed aloft but only up to just under the platform where the shrouds meet the foremast or mainmast.  More experienced sailors climb over this platform or through the “lubber hole” in the platform.  More experienced sailors continue up higher on rope ladders, or out on foot ropes sagging beneath spars, or slide down stays that keep masts secured.  I was not an experienced sailor, but knew I had to do this.

Fellow voyager Jason had just descended and gave me the harness we are required to wear, as do all sailors.  The straps fit tight around your shoulders and up your crotch.  Does that feel comfortable? Dana coyly asked.  Tolerably, I said.  Then the harness is not tight enough, she said.  So I cinched it up to uncomfortable, climbed onto the bulwarks with nothing but the sea moving past me below, and climbed the shrouds with nothing but deck below, following Dana’s instructions always to maintain three points of contact: two hands and one foot; two feet and one hand.  Our harness came with a loose strap ending with a clasp, which we are to use at the top to clip on to a secure line as we look around.

37GoingAloft2As I climb the ever-narrowing wooden rungs of the shroud, I wonder what use this clasp is while I am climbing.  I could fall to the deck, like lumber, as I climbed, the strap and clasp flailing in the descent.  Nor did I pause to look at the horizon; or up to the platform; or down to the deck; only at the whiteness of my knuckles as I muttered, “three points of contact; three points.”

37GoingAloft5Sitting aloft was Chris, who kept me company as I clipped onto to a line he had a liking for.  I had no questions for Chris about his career or his biggest fear.  I could see the bow of the ship as it cut the water and the deck spreading beneath me, and I turned as well to wave to friends below, who looked mighty small.  I am still a respecter of heights.

37GoingAloft3I asked Chris how often the wooden rungs of the shrouds break, and as I descended, I could not help repeat to myself his answer:  “Almost never.”



Sea Writing and Melville Biography

In this post, I want to begin an experiment by printing here selections from my Melville biography—still a work in progress—related to Herman’s first moments at sea, written before I embark on the Morgan.  Once I am done with my experience on a whaling ship, I want to see how I might re-write these passages.  The new versions created by such revision would be what I call a “fluid text,” mentioned in my previous post.

Some background: Melville embarked on his first oceanic voyage as a nineteen-year-old “boy” (greenhorn) on the packet St. Lawrence to Liverpool and back in 1839.  He would not go whaling, on the Morgan‘s sister ship Acushnet until January, 1841.  My first day sailing on a whaling ship will happen, weather permitting, on July 14, 2014, between Provincetown and Boston.  So my adventure will do double duty in simulating, via my own experience, Melville’s first voyage and his first day on a whaling ship. The three selected passages below attempt to capture some sense of life on a ship: its motions, its effect on time and sleep, and the stars at night.

[Leaving New York Harbor] from Ch. 39. Along the Marge

Sailing through the Narrows—New York Harbor’s gateway to the Atlantic—is exhilarating whichever way you are headed, into port or out to sea. Boatloads of immigrants, as early as the 1830s, have made their entrance to America through this strait, with Brooklyn to the right and Staten Island to the left. And the St. Lawrence might have passed one such immigrant ship as it sailed into the Atlantic. For Melville the exhilaration was in escaping America and family. The musty acrid stench of the city, the clatter of iron rims on cobblestones, the sweat and babble of workmen and whores, the chuffing of the steamboat Hercules that had tugged his ship through the Narrows, and the carpings of mother, uncle, siblings, and cousins simply dissolved. With wind filling the sails, Herman left it all behind and moved into waters he had never before witnessed. . . .

[Watches and Sleeping] From Ch. 40.  His First Crew

In Redburn, Melville makes spirited fun of this watch-induced, bell-driven system of sleep deprivation. With sophomoric good humor, he has Redburn weigh the pleasures of unconsciousness against the fact that when asleep, you cannot be conscious of being unconscious or therefore cannot enjoy the pleasures of unconsciousness. Thus, instead of seeking uninterrupted sleep while off duty during the middle watch, he asks a starbolin on duty to come below decks and quietly rouse him every hour as if he were announcing the next watch so that in waking up prematurely and repeatedly he can enjoy what would seem to be “several complete watches in my bunk to the other sailor’s one” and thereby maximize his awareness of the good sleep he is getting (NN Redburn ch. 26). Some will see the humor in this philosophy; insomniacs perhaps not.

The rigid dispensation of maritime time ignores human biorhythms. It reminds the sailor that every moment of his life is ticking away, every movement accounted for. At all times, he is being “watched.” The relentless system forbids normal sleep, countermands human will for the sake of survival, infects the mind with the presumption that an artificial order—“forms, measured forms” as Melville would have Captain Vere put it in Billy Budd—might somehow countermand the natural chaos of the waves. It even infects language.

Consider the economy of this nautical term watch. It is three kinds of noun and a verb. Seamen use a timepiece (watch) set to Greenwich time to navigate, while men in a team (watch) look at (watch) the rigging and sea during their shift on deck (watch): they watch the ship’s watch in watches during a watch. Now, after that sentence, look again at this word watch and see how odd it looks with all the duties it performs. At sea, one word for Time accounts for one’s group, identity, duties, and wakefulness; it brings the beating hearts of disparate men—their eating, sleeping, work, and bonding—in conformity to one artificial rhythm.

[Star Gazing] From Ch. 40. His First Crew

Although the city lights of Albany, Manhattan, even little Lansingburgh were dim compared to the glaring incandescent street lamps of today, their brightness limited stargazing for city dwellers, and on land Melville would have had to wander out at night and lie down in a field on his uncle’s farm in Pittsfield to watch the stars, or in Manhattan, he could walk along the Battery. But at sea, with the dim lights of the ship to his back, he could stand as far forward from the foremast as possible, press his belly to the port bulwarks at the bow, tilt back, and look straight up to the red star Arcturus over head in June. He could easily make out the familiar Big Dipper, and then follow the line of its pointer stars to Polaris on the tail end of the Little Dipper, that dim but ever-fixed star appearing only a couple hands up from the horizon, the polestar hub around which all other constellations seem to revolve. Lingering on deck into the middle watch that first night, he could see Draco perhaps for the first time, the long sinuous constellation that threads a path between the two Dippers almost encircling Polaris. And later at sea, with an hour or two to spare during other, quiet, steady-sailing middle watches, he could, if he took the time, observe the brighter stars of the Little Dipper seem slowly to move like the hand of a clock around the hub of Polaris, or so they would appear to move as Herman on the revolving earth revolved beneath the stars.

In one of his infamous but compelling “cetological” chapters in Moby-Dick, Ishmael alludes to this phenomenon—observable with the naked eye over time—when he reports seeing representations of whales everywhere, in paint, teeth, wood, sheet-iron, stone, mountain ridges, and finally stars. “Thus,” Melville concludes, “at the North have I chased Leviathan round and round the Pole with the revolutions of the bright points that first defined him to me.” Often related in mythology to the dragon, the Leviathan that earthbound Ishmael says he “chased round and round” is Draco, who with the Little Dipper also appears to revolve around the “Pole” of polestar Polaris.

Herman’s first day at sea was a long one. Though initiated into a world of work and regulated time, he had a well of adolescent adrenalin that normally kept him up late at night on land anyway, and ironically the nautical system of watches, which despite its rigidities seems suited to adolescent sleep patterns, actually required him to spend those late nights wide awake, every other day, without a carping mother sending him to bed. Like Ahab, he relished “the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches” and alone with his thoughts at sea, he was encouraged “to think untraditionally and independently.”