Monday, May 30, 2011

Use of Vol. 2 in a Memorial Day piece on Melville and Robert E. Lee
This is in Patrick Kurp's ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE, "Remembering, Honoring, Suffering As I do"

Monday, May 30, 2011
`Remembering, Honoring, Suffering As I Do'
Thanks to the patient tutoring of Helen Pinkerton, I’ve come to understand that Melville’s “Lee in the Capitol (April, 1866)” is perhaps the great poem of the American Civil War. Part narrative, part interior and dramatic monologue, the poem is rooted in historical events: Confederate general Robert E. Lee appearing in the U.S. Congress on Feb. 17, 1866, before the Joint Sub-Committee on Reconstruction. The committee convened to resolve antagonisms between the Radical Republicans in Congress and President Andrew Johnson over how reconstruction was to be carried out.

In his poem, Melville crafts a fictional speech for Lee, in which the retired general holds both sides responsible for the war; in particular, the politicians (“intermeddlers”):

“I know your partial thoughts do press
Solely on us for war's unhappy stress;
But weigh--consider--look at all,
And broad anathema you'll recall.
The censor's charge I'll not repeat,
The meddlers kindled the war's white heat--
Vain intermeddlers and malign,
Both of the palm and of the pine…”

The final lines of Melville’s poem, spoken not by Lee but the narrator, ironically comment on the likely failure of politicians and others – Radical Republicans, in particular -- to learn from history:

“But no. Brave though the Soldier, grave his plea--
Catching the light in the future's skies,
Instinct disowns each darkening prophecy:
Faith in America never dies;
Heaven shall the end ordained fulfill,
We march with Providence cheery still.”

The poem is extraordinary, in part, because Melville, a strong Union supporter during the war, sympathetically projects himself into the voice of the great Confederate general and implicitly urges reconciliation. In the prose “Supplement” appended to Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), in which “Lee in the Capitol (April, 1866)” was published, Melville urged the Radical Republicans to practice “prudence, not unaligned with entire magnanimity,” and wrote:

“Benevolence and policy—Christianity and Machiavelli—dissuade from penal severities toward the subdued….”

Hershel Parker in Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891 (2002) says Melville’s poem overrides “the lessons of history in the hope of promoting reconciliation.” Parker continues:

“He mythologizes the man [Lee] who had endured a public renunciation of military glory—something parallel to the grandeur of his own renunciation, for years now, of literary glory: informing the poem is Melville’s profound though covert identification with Robert E. Lee. Even Melville’s depiction of Lee’s choosing not `coldly to endure his doom’ and speak out is infused with his own decisions to write and publish Battle-Pieces. And once again he followed rhetorical precedent, classical and Shakespearean, as well as American classroom exercises, in inventing an imaginary oration for a real historical figure.”

Melville possessed the fiction writer’s essential gift of projecting himself empathetically into characters unlike himself. As Pinkerton writes in “`Brave Though the Soldier, Grave His Plea,’ Melville and Robert E. Lee” (The Sewanee Review, Spring 2010), “One of the reasons Melville saw the war as a profound tragedy, when other notable Union poets did not, was that he saw it from more than one perspective [a capacity exceeding the moral imagination of most contemporary `Poets Against War’].” Pinkerton adds another layer of historical resonance to our understanding of Melville and of the Civil War. In “Melville’s Letter to William Clark Russell” (Taken in Faith, 2002), she channels Melville’s voice much as Melville channeled Lee’s. Near the poem’s conclusion, she has Melville refer to “Lee in the Capitol (April, 1866)”:

“You will remember, perhaps,
In my long poem dramatizing Lee
As spokesman for the South before the Senate,
I pled, with his imagined eloquence,
For reconcilement, magnanimity;
And in another, argued for charity,
As Grant showed Lee, which Lincoln meant to show,
Which truest soldiers felt for former foes,
Some of them men who fought and suffered most…”

Pinkerton intensifies Melville’s plea for “Benevolence and policy,” and his anguish, and concludes her poem:

“For the wound bleeds yet in my soul, divided
And suffering yet with them in spirit, but not,
Like them, endowed with holy faith. If I,
Remembering, honoring, suffering as I do,
See only a worldly end as their intention,
Share our time’s judgment of the Right made Law,
And its opinion that the Wrong put down
Validated all the blood, and fire, and hate,
Justified, too, the wrong we did our brothers,
Then I could not be true to those who lost,
To whose faith, I without faith, must return,
And in my meditations speak their names.”

1 comment:

  1. Hershel Parker I'm thinking differently about Lee than I did when I wrote the biography. I would not change what I said about Melville's attitude toward Lee, but my feelings have changed after seeing the recent PBS documentary and after learning from James Keith Head that John Andrew Jackson Costner was at Gettysburg. Think about it: if Lee had gotten mother's grandpa killed there (as so many others were), what a loss at the annual Head-Costner reunion, what a loss to have lost Bonnie and Lois, what a loss to the American movie industry, not to mention American scholarship.