Pip illustration by Catherine Kanner (from Cetus, the Whale, pub. by Melville Press, 1996).
The first mention of Pip as a native of Alabama is contradicted later in the book, when, in Chapter 93, “The Castaway,” Ishmael notes that Pip is from Tolland County, Connecticut. The reasons for this shift are unclear, but the subject of slavery was prominent in Massachusetts in 1851, while Melville was in Arrowhead, writing Moby-Dick. During that time, two momentous events concerning slavery occurred in nearby Boston. The first involved a runaway slave named Frederick Wilkins, who had escaped from the south to Boston, where he was employed as a waiter. Wilkins had been arrested in February and brought to the courthouse for a hearing in front of Melville’s father-in-law, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court Lemuel Shaw. As Wilkins’s supporters were leaving the courthouse, a crowd of blacks surged through the open doors, rescued him, and spirited him away. This act was in direct defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law, passed the previous year, which held that runaways could no longer seek refuge in the North, but were required to be returned to their owners in the slave-holding states.
Even opponents of slavery were outraged by this blatant disregard for the rule of law. Scarcely two months later, another fugitive, Thomas Sims, was also arrested. He, however, was not able to escape, and was tried, found guilty and returned to his owner in Georgia. As Melville scholar Hershel Parker notes in the first volume of his authoritative biography of Melville, “Naturally Melville knew a good deal about this second important fugitive case of the year, but it did not capture his full moral attention.”
I suggest that, although it did not receive his full attention, Melville was not completely oblivious to the state of the world around him. It is possible that, in order not to confront the issue of slavery head-on, given his father-in-law’s direct involvement in the Wilkins and Sims cases, Melville changed his mind about Pip’s origins, deciding instead to avoid the issue altogether by making Pip a freeborn black. Parker wryly adds: “Even though [Melville] counted himself one of those ‘who always abhorred slavery as an atheistical iniquity,’ as he later wrote in the “Supplement” to Battle-Pieces (1866), in Moby-Dick (ch.1) he asked, ‘who aint a slave?’ thereby shifting the focus from the immediate horrors of Negro slavery in the United States to the level of cosmic tyranny.”
Tony Tanner, writing about the flogging of the African American seaman, Rose-Water, in Melville’s White-Jacket, echoes Parker in calling attention to Melville’s penchant for philosophical musings, as opposed to clear, direct statements: “…the figure of the black slave (or freed slave) provokes ambivalent feelings which confuse him....when a writer engages in universals he absolves himself from having to confront local, historical, and political problems—like the status of the black slave in America....”
It is also entirely possible that Melville simply forgot that the earlier chapter had mentioned Alabama as Pip’s birthplace, and merely was using Alabama metaphorically. When Pip first jumps from the whaleboat and the line is cut, Stubb warns him that the whale has more worth than a black child: “‘We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind, and don’t jump anymore’.” This threat goes unheeded as Pip again jumps into the water, in the impulsive act of a young child. He is rescued, but has gone insane.
Pip himself provides a clue that he might be a runaway, although, given his mental state, it would be difficult to take anything he says at face value. In Chapter 125, “The Log and Line,” he cries out, in the midst of his madness, “Pip! Pip! Pip! Reward for Pip! One hundred pounds of clay—five feet high—looks cowardly—quickest know by that!” As the ship’s-crier, Pip is ironically calling out a reward for his own capture, which would support the contention of some scholars that he is, indeed, a runaway slave. Alternatively, it could simply show awareness on Pip’s part of how fragile his status remains.
Melville, however, has already compounded the confusion with Pip’s earlier description of life with his father in Tolland County, Connecticut. In 1784, Connecticut had enacted a law to end the practice of slavery in the state. Known as “The Gradual Abolition Act of 1784,” this act “…set all children born to slaves in Connecticut after March 1, 1784, on a gradual course to freedom and thus prevented the growth or replenishment of the slave population through procreation,” notes David Menschel. However, Menschel adds that as there were “…other methods for introducing new slaves into the state, such as capture and importation,” and warns against viewing this progressive law “…in isolation, but rather … as part of a larger legal framework, the constituent parts of which were not foreordained.”
By the time Melville began Moby-Dick, however, slavery in Connecticut had ended, and the chance that twelve year old Pip had been born in servitude was practically nonexistent. According to David L. Parsons, author of Slavery in Connecticut 1640-1848, “By 1800, 83% of Connecticut’s 6,281 Blacks were free, and by the time general emancipation was enacted in 1848 there were only six slaves left in the state.” Melville has acknowledged a black northern population in Chapter 2, “The Carpet-Bag,” when Ishmael happens upon the black church service in New Bedford, so it is possible that Pip would have originated from such a community.
In Chapter 99, “The Doubloon,” Pip notes details of his life in Connecticut, noting that his father had cut down a pine tree and found an “… old darkey’s wedding ring,” which would seem to imply that he has clear memories of his prior life in New England. We cannot be sure which of his utterances are to be taken with any degree of veracity, as he has become “insane” by this time. However, in his role as “the Fool, Pip would seem to be telling the truth. Charles Feidelson, Jr., in his annotated edition of Moby-Dick, refers to Pip as a free Northern black. There is support for this, as Pip appears to be literate. Although he has ostensibly lost his mind, he is nevertheless able to correctly conjugate the verb “look.” This gives further credence to the position of those scholars who have suggested that he was a freeborn black.
David L. Parsons writes “The state of public education in Connecticut improved markedly in 1795 when proceeds from western land sales were used by the state for schools. For the next twenty-five years grade schools in Connecticut were of good quality, and in most communities Blacks attended.” Parsons goes on to note that, after 1820, the state government stopped its support of grade schools, and the quality of education in the public schools declined. However, education was still a possibility for black children in Connecticut, and Stubb’s reference to Lindley Murray’s The English Grammar provides an indication of where Pip might have learned his grammar skills. The probability is quite slim that Pip would have been able to read had he been a slave because, as Schwartz notes in Born in Bondage, only 10% of slaves ever learned to read.
Other scholars seem to be divided on the issue of Pip’s birthplace and circumstances. In writing of him in an essay titled, “Our Crowd, Their Crowd: Race, Reader, and Moby-Dick,” historian David Bradley refers to Pip as a fugitive slave: “Pip is first introduced in Chapter 27 as an ‘Alabama boy’ and later in Chapter 93 as hailing from ‘Tolland County in Connecticut’—which is to say he is a fugitive slave.” How Bradley arrives at this firm conclusion, given the conflicting textual evidence, is puzzling, as there is no compelling evidence in the text to support such a contention. Pip is a small cabin boy—twelve years old—how would he have gotten north and shipped on board a whaler? Melville, of course, preferred to remain obtuse.
In the absence of any specific textual evidence, it is easier to believe that he is either a freeborn northern black who shipped on board the whaler of his own volition, or that he was a kidnapped apprentice. Of this last proposition, given that he retains clear memories of an earlier life with his father, he would have to have been quite young when any kidnapping occurred. It is much easier to believe that Pip was a freeborn black from Connecticut, possibly a former member of a musical troupe. The linguistic markers would seem to agree with this first supposition.
Pip speaks in the language of the other New Englanders, in contradistinction to the “plantation dialect” of Fleece, the old black cook who makes an unforgettable appearance in Chapter 64, “Stubb’s Supper.” Had Pip been a fugitive from Alabama, would he not have spoken more like the stereotypical Fleece, whose southern drawl recalls portrayals of blacks in other, antebellum literature, such as that of Abbott, Trowbridge, Stowe, and others? Melville could write in dialect, if he deemed it appropriate, but he also insisted upon demonstrating (as many of his contemporaries did not) the wide range of linguistic differences among blacks.
That he would make such a strong distinction between Fleece and Pip, who sounds no different than Stubb, the “Cape-Cod-Man”, suggests northern roots. It would appear to me, then, that Pip is a freeborn black, given his linguistic style. As to his “minstrel” origins, the signifiers are much clearer. Pip as the on-board entertainer-cum-cabin boy is expressed directly in Chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” wherein Melville, using dramatic form, delineates the crew’s movements, as well as the uneasy tensions among the many races and ethnicities at the changing of the watch, just before a coming squall. The French Sailor calls for “a jig or two” and immediately shouts for Pip, who, sleepy at first, perfunctorily beats his tambourine (147). He later plays amidst the increasing tensions between the racially heterogeneous crew and the coming squall.
Tomorrow, I hope to post my impressions (not to be confused with Post-Impressionism--ha ha!) of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) in Atlanta, where I presented my paper on Margaret Halsey's Colorblind: A White Woman Looks at the Negro. (see my September 4, 2009 post) for background. In addition, I may write a little about a topic I am thinking of presenting at a future conference.
On Friday, I'll post Part 3 (the final section) of "Pip's Confusing Genealogy."