Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Little Negro Pippin: Ahab's Luckless Child

“Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines.”

This reference, made by Captain Ahab regarding Pip, the black cabin boy of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, could serve as an epigraph for the representation of African American children in many literary works of the antebellum period. Novelists of the time often substituted stereotype for originality when it came to creating fictional African American characters; many chose simply to reinscribe into their works already existing stock characterizations of blacks as lazy, stupid, base, immoral, depraved, and comical beings, child-like and ignorant in manner.

In my next couple of blog posts, I want to revisit some writing from several years ago, when I was working on my master’s thesis, “The Minstrel Children of Melville and Stowe: Representations of the African American Child in Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” My interest then was to examine Pip, from Moby-Dick, and Topsy, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, two fictional black characters that, in contradistinction to being simply child-like adults, were actually written as children. My goal was to study how the depictions of each served to strengthen, in one case, and negate, in the other, what most white writers of the antebellum era (as well as many who came after) had come to see as “authentic,” or realistic, portrayals of African American children.

It makes sense to look at these two works. Firstly, they are part of the American lexicon; most Americans, even if they have not actually read Moby-Dick, are at least familiar with Melville’s story of the epic hunt for the elusive white whale. Similarly, the phrase “Uncle Tom,” which originated decades after the appearance of Stowe’s novel, continues its work as a universal pejorative, symbolizing black servility and inferiority.

These two novels appeared in print at roughly the same time—Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared in serial form between June 5, 1851 and April 1, 1852, while Moby-Dick was published in England in October of 1851, with the American edition appearing in November of that same year. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which served as a driving force behind Stowe’s decision to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also has strong implications, albeit less overt, for Melville’s novel.

I refer to Topsy and Pip as “minstrel children” not to be facetious, but to show that each, as created by their respective authors, were partially drawn from the increasingly ubiquitous (during the antebellum period) images of black minstrelsy. As depicted, these portrayals conform to a stereotype associated with the “minstrel” character, i.e., each exhibits a talent for singing and dancing. Melville, however, manages to transcend many of the usual clichés in his portrayal of Pip in Moby-Dick, while Stowe, in creating Topsy, actually bolsters the stereotypical image of the heathenish black child. For this blog, though, I will reproduce some of my observations about Melville’s rendering of the black child. Pip, as drawn by Melville, is said to be a boy of twelve, yet the wisdom he articulates after he goes insane is well beyond the realm of any twelve year-old.

Pip undermines the usual “minstrel” representation of African American child characters in American literature. Although he is a performer (perhaps a runaway slave/minstrel who has shipped on board the Pequod?), one who sings, dances, and plays the tambourine, Melville incorporates a great deal of psychological depth into his character, which serves to undercut the outer trappings of his minstrel appearance. Pip is an anomaly, a complex character created by an author who, in addition to possessing an immense literary talent (although without achieving the commercial success that Stowe enjoyed), illustrated a fuller sense of the literary possibilities of the African American child character. In creating Pip, however, Melville still clothed him in the dress of the minstrel. Perhaps he knew that his reading audience would not be ready for so revolutionary a portrayal of a black child.

Pip is such an interesting character that it remains puzzling as to why, in the film adaptations of Moby-Dick, he has been given no more than a few cursory lines, quite a bit less than Melville apparently intended. To this day, there is something about the character of Pip that blinds those who would adapt Moby-Dick from seeing, or rather, from adapting, the work with him as a major character.

In literary studies as well, there persists a reluctance to see Pip as an actual child; with a few notable exceptions, scholarship has focused on Pip solely for his symbolic usefulness; in most readings, the context for discussions of his character remains that of the Fool to Ahab’s King Lear. This is somewhat understandable; in a novel rich with symbolism, one would be remiss if one did not mine Melville’s text for its many layers of meaning. However, understanding Pip is crucial to understanding Moby-Dick as well as to understanding Herman Melville’s vision of America as the nation stood on the brink of civil war.

One cannot truly understand Melville without attempting to understand Pip, and without attempting to understand why Pip inhabits the body of a child. Melville is very deliberate here; I suggest that he was perhaps looking to the possibility of children as the ultimate salvation for an increasingly contentious world. I argue that putting his prophetic message into the mouth of a small black child was intentional.

I don’t know how many of you out there have ever read Moby-Dick—my own first reading was a Classics Illustrated comic book version (that’s also how I first read Oliver Twist, The Three Musketeers, Crime and Punishment, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and scores of other literary classics—my obsession with comic books did not wane until well until adulthood). I have posted a link to an on-line version of the text. You can type in the keyword “Pip” to be taken directly to the pertinent chapters of the text if you want to follow along.

The next post will focus on Pip’s confusing genealogy. The information in the text is contradictory, as Melville appears to have given two locations for Pip’s birth. Ishmael notes that Pip is from Alabama; later, however, he is said to hail from Tolland County, Connecticut. Scholars have debated this—I’ll offer my thoughts on it.

All best, Rebecca

Link to the University of Virginia's Electronic Text:

Moby-Dick, or The Whale


stevekilduff said...

I haven't even read this yet but had to comment since Moby Dick is my favorite book; I actually own the freakin' Classic Illustrated version! (Not to mention the oh-so-tony Frank Stella take, and Mastodon's Leviathan.) None of which has to do with your thesis, of course.

At a previous post I was trying to guess what the two books were but gave up. I'm thrilled this is one of them. I'll read this in the morning when I'm awake, and have my glasses on, and I can be serious and attentive.

Anonymous said...


I remember this cover, which I used for the blog post, but there are two others from earlier Classics Illustrated versions. Maybe I should do a post on Classics Illustrated--I bet there are a lot of folks who still have them gathering dust somewhere. Back in the day, they served as the true mark of an educated nine year-old in my peer group--kidding, of course.

I love Moby-Dick as well. I have about 20 different editions of it--children's abridged and illustrated editions, critical editions, paperbacks, and one really nice one that my friend TJ gave me as a birthday gift a few years ago. Melville persists in my mind. Have you read Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife: or, the Star-gazer? I have not had a chance to read it, but it's on my ever-lengthening list!

I'll be putting up a new post on Pip on Wednesday. Every time I read the chapters where he's featured, I see more nuances.