restricted access Surfacing: Sleepers Ahoy
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Surfacing Sleepers Ahoy THOMAS FAREL HEFFERNAN Adelphi University S ometimes in phrasing, sometimes in the details of an episode, Melville seems to talk too excitedly, to overdo it, so to speak. When announcing the birth of his son Malcolm, Melville has his words go out to the universe and has the universe respond.1 The language becomes almost hysterical—and so it should, for an effect is sought, an effect that Quintilian, had he ever seen an example of it, might have called rhetorical hysteria. Without the excitement of over-articulation, the tone of many passages in Melville’s fiction—consider the opening pages of Pierre—would never have been achieved. As is the case with language, so too with action; in the initial confrontation of Ishmael and Queequeg, or in the description of Fayaway, the flight in Mardi, Lemsford’s poems shot from a gun, and in many other passages, the reader finds an artful exaggeration (which is often just short of convulsion). One memorable passage from White-Jacket would seem to qualify as the work of Melville the exaggerator: during three days of stormy weather, the crew slept not in their hammocks but on the berth-deck, where quarters were so tight (“face to back, dove-tailed into each other at every ham and knee”) that no one could even roll over without the whole mass of sleepers rolling over simultaneously. This maneuver was performed at the hoarse cry of a fellow who did the duty of a corporal at the after end of my file, “Sleepers ahoy! stand by to slew around!” and, with a double shuffle, we all rolled in concert, and found ourselves facing the taffrail instead of the bowsprit.2 Now there, says the reader, I see what you mean. A row of sleeping men packed as tightly together as body parts in a box prepared for a surgery C  2006 The Authors Journal compilation C  2006 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc 1 Herman Melville, Correspondence, ed. Lynn Horth (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1993.), 115–18. See also Hennig Cohen and Donald Yannella, Herman Melville’s Malcolm Letter: “Man’s Final Lore” (New York: Fordham University Press and the New York Public Library, 1992). 2 Herman Melville, White-Jacket (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1970), 83. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 115 T H O M A S F A R E L H E F F E R N A N Joao Silva. The New York Times. professor’s lecture (Melville’s comparison) is a brilliant silent-movie sequence, and Melville is playing it for laughs, right? Well, not so fast. Readers of the (Sunday) November 6, 2005, New York Times saw (first page and above the crease!) a surrealistic photograph of prison inmates in Malawi sleeping on the floor of a huge cell in the cramped proximity that Melville had described. Detailing the squalor, overcrowding, survival-only diet, loss of files and consequent loss of process that the prisoners suffered from, the writer, Michael Wines, focuses on one revealing detail: Prisoners sleep on blankets on the floor, too tightly packed to reach the toilet—too packed, in fact, even to turn in their sleep. One inmate awakens the rest each night for mass turnovers. The most privileged inmates sleep on their backs, ringing the walls of the cell. Everyone else sleeps on his side. So the scene on the Neversink has been reprised, in modern times, and the inference is that Melville’s scene could have come from someone’s real observation , not from a transport of exaggeration. Not the least interesting aspect of the scene in White-Jacket is that sleep is oppressive, not an escape from oppression. In this, White-Jacket has analogues; sleep oppresses the laborer, the lover, and the harborer of anxieties. In Chapter 2 of Walden Thoreau puns on “sleepers,” the now largely forgotten word for railroad ties, making them the symbols of the oppressed...


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