Here are my final thoughts on Pip's confusing genealogy. I had planned to write about the academic conference I presented at last week, but I decided to finish this brief series of posts first. When we left off, I wrote about Pip playing his tambourine as a squall approaches. Again, I want to offer suggestions on how Pip may have come to ship on board the Pequod.
In Chapter 16, “The Ship,” we are introduced to Peleg and Bildad, the two self-described “part owners and agents” of the ship. Given the dubious scruples of these characters, it is possible that Pip was hired out by his father to work on board the ship, and taken advantage of. It is also possible that he, at some point, realized that he actually had been abducted and would be forced to stay on the Pequod in a state of forced servitude. There is no evidence of this, but it remains a possibility, for, as Parker adds, “If [Melville] wanted, he could borrow...a description of the chicanery by which landsmen lured green youths to sign on a whaling voyage.”
That Melville was using minstrel signifiers to help define Pip’s character is not hard to decipher. The major one is his tambourine. “…He had once enlivened many a fiddler’s frolic on the green;” notes Ishmael in “The Castaway.” His minstrel origins are further supported in the text by his singing lyrics from “Old King Crow,” after he goes insane and is taken under the wing, so to speak, of Ahab. It is somewhat ironic that Melville used minstrelsy to help define his African American characters, as blacks did not appear formally in minstrel troupes until at least 1855. Melville, then, would have seen whites in blackface makeup performing on the stage when he went to the theater. An intriguing explanation may be found at the end of Pip’s seemingly nonsensical and bizarre monologue, which forms the final passage of Chapter 99, “The Doubloon.”
After several inhabitants on board the Pequod, including Starbuck and Ahab, pause and soliloquize on the doubloon, which has been nailed to the masthead of the ship, Stubb comes along to reflect upon it as well. When he is done, he notices Pip, who has been watching. He remarks on Pip’s “…unearthly, idiot face…” as he listens to all the “interpreters,” as Stubb calls them, ruminate on the meaning of the doubloon. Pip then steps up with his own interpretation: “I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.” He repeats the conjugation twice more. Stubb notes Pip’s facility with the conjugation, but is unable to decipher why Pip keeps repeating it. He is frightened by Pip’s insanity, and goes off.
Eric Lott makes an interesting observation about this connection between Pip and Stubb, suggesting that in using the verb “look,” Melville is alluding to the minstrel tradition called “The joking triangle, in which white men share a dominative relationship to a black man which is based above all on looking… [a] northern analogue of black men on the auction block.” There is support for this theory, in that Stubb had previously threatened to sell Pip into slavery.
However one wants to interpret Pip’s commentary on the act of looking and perceiving—one should not ignore the conjugation’s significance as a marker of his actual literacy. As noted above, there is a strong possibility that if he is a freeborn black, he would have at least gone through grade school. He then delivers a final commentary, wherein a third, intriguing hint as to his origins is offered: “Hish! Hish! God goes ‘mong the worlds blackberrying. Cook! ho, cook! and cook us! Jenny! hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, Jenny, Jenny! and get your hoe-cake done!”
A clue as to how Pip might have come on board the Pequod is hidden in this passage. As already noted above, it was not uncommon for black children to be hired out by their parents for money under apprenticeship agreements. These children were also quite vulnerable to kidnapping by corrupt employers, who were not above selling them into slavery. Charles Feidelson notes that the term ‘blackberrying” might be derived from the term “blackbirding,” the practice of hiring Pacific Islanders as indentured servants, and then forcing them into slavery.
Melville’s fondness for punning lends an air of truth to this, if one imagines the scenario of a child going “blackberrying,” or blackberry picking, and then being accosted and kidnapped into slavery, i.e., made a victim of “blackbirding.” Melville would certainly have been aware of (or perhaps even had first-hand knowledge of) blackbirding, given his own South Seas adventures. He was certainly familiar with the similar practice of the British impressment of black sailors, which he wrote about in White-Jacket.
Also, as Wilson notes in Freedom at Risk, “…black sailors [were] extremely vulnerable to seizure and sale as slaves…” during the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Hershel Parker adds that the character of Pip was said to be based on John Backus, a black sailor who shipped on board the Acushet, the ship from which Melville deserted in July of 1842. One of Melville’s former shipmates on the Acushnet, Henry F. Hubbard, made the connection between Backus and the portrayal of Pip. According to Parker, Hubbard “…saw Pip’s jumping overboard as a recollection of Backus’s panicky leap from a whaleboat.” Backus deserted the ship as well, disappearing in San Francisco. As opposed to the fictional Pip, Backus was not a child. If, as Hubbard suggested, Pip was modeled on the adult Backus, why then, did Melville decide to portray Pip as a child? I’ll take that up in the New Year—we can take a little break from Melville. It would be great if those who have an interest would think about spending some time during the upcoming holiday season curled up with a copy of Moby-Dick! There is nothing more rewarding than reading!
For my next post, I will discuss my impressions of the SAMLA conference in Atlanta, at which I delivered my paper on Margaret Halsey’s Colorblind: A White Woman Looks at the Negro.