Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pip's Confusing Genealogy - Part 1



Pip illustration by Rockwell Kent.



The phrase “luckless child,” used by Captain Ahab to describe Pip, the young African American cabin boy of Moby-Dick, could be applied to the majority of African American children back in the 1840s, given their inferior status to every other group in America at that time. This inferiority expressed itself in many ways—they were, as children (whether freeborn or enslaved), inferior to adults, and as black children, inferior to white children. That slave children were property, and thus unable to feel a sense of safety and security in their parents’ care, would have burdened them additionally. Although laws prohibiting the sale of very young slave children existed, this did not apply to orphaned children. These laws, designed primarily to protect children under the age of ten, would scarcely have protected a child such as the fictional Pip since, as children got older, the possibility of separation increased.

According to Marie Jenkins Schwartz (author of Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum Southavailable at Plainfield Library), approximately ten percent of adolescent slaves from the upper South were separated from their parents and sold between the years 1820 and 1860.This statistic, however, must be considered a fraction of the actual percentage of lost families. Separation of children from their parents was not confined to the south, however, nor was it confined to slave children, i.e., children born into slavery. Slave children were only marginally worse off than freeborn black children, whose lives also contained the threat of separation, usually in the form of kidnapping.

For the purposes of this discussion, kidnapping will be defined as it is in Carol Wilson’s Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865, i.e., as the abduction of free blacks, whether manumitted or freeborn, into slavery. I would like to bear in mind, however, the definition posited by abolitionists, who contended that any enslaved black was “kidnapped” from a natural state of freedom into the unnatural state of servitude. Untold numbers of blacks were kidnapped into slavery and, although laws against kidnapping existed, and abolitionists sought redress through the courts, state, as well as federal, authorities often turned a blind eye to those who flouted the law.

As mentioned above, children had no legal rights, and were thus, dependent on adults to guard their freedom. The general economic condition of the vast majority of free blacks, however, was quite poor, and their children’s security was under constant threat. They were, in effect, luckless children, not unlike Pip, the cabin boy.

The sense of abandonment that Captain Ahab ascribes to Pip toward the end of Moby-Dick, would not, then, have been considered unusual or odd, given the condition of most African American children in antebellum America. One might examine Pip’s particular “lucklessness” from several perspectives. It could derive from his status as a black child in antebellum America, or his status on board the Pequod, as well as from his lack of family ties, and the nurturing that a child might be expected to receive. In Chapter 93, Ishmael notes that he is “…the little negro Pippin by nick-name, Pip by abbreviation.” Here we discover that the lowly Pip’s true nickname, “Pippin,” has been condensed yet again to “Pip,” a foreshortening that further illustrates his lack of status and importance.

His correct genealogy is confusing as well, since it appears that Melville has given two locations for his birth. There are several implications for each of these places, in terms of what Melville’s intentions might have been.

Pip first appears at the end of Chapter 27, titled “Knights and Squires,” and fittingly so. After describing in detail the mates and harpooneers who make up the multiracial crew of the whaling ship, narrator Ishmael ends the chapter with a final meditation on these “Isolatoes,” as he calls them, all “…accompanying old Ahab in the Pequod to lay the world’s grievances before that bar from which not very many of them ever came back. Black Little Pip—he never did! Poor Alabama boy!”

In this first reference to Pip as an “Alabama boy,” Ishmael’s exclamation suggests that he might be a fugitive from the slave-holding state of Alabama. His status as a slave is further compounded by his status as a child. Ishmael’s comments continue, foreshadowing the larger role that Pip will play:

On the grim Pequod's forecastle, ye shall ere long see him, beating his tambourine; prelusive of the eternal time, when sent for, to the great quarter-deck on high, he was bid strike in with angels, and beat his tambourine in glory; called a coward here, hailed a hero there!

Ishmael notes that Pip beats his tambourine like an angel—an image that Melville might have seen (blacks playing tambourines and singing spirituals), an image that continues to be reflected in African American iconography to this day. The “great quarter-deck on high” is a direct reference to a celestial/heavenly future. “Called a coward here, hailed a hero there!” evokes the Christian admonition toward pacifism over confrontation.


Pip is thus made a part of the future of Melville’s America—intertwined with the possibly tragic future of a nation headed on a dangerous path. Ishmael’s lament gives the reader a first glimpse of Pip, who is consigned to the fateful voyage am ong the other “isolatoes,” and yet is doomed not to return.


Pip is not what he seems at first—he is not an Alabama slave child, he is no runaway, and he has no identifiable family ties—what, then, brought him to the Pequod? Whaling ships sailed for months, even years, before returning to their homeports. Had Pip been on board the Pequod previous to this journey? Had he been picked up along the way? Where was he from? Was he a runaway? I’ll take this up in the next post.


Best, Rebecca



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 clich├ęs 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