Melville, Orwell, and a Brief Theory of Empire
A brief comparison of the work of two authors who lived almost a century apart reveals two literatures driven by a common concern with the processes and consequence of empire.
A review of their lives shows that both Herman Melville and Eric Blair (George Orwell) were disenfranchised children of empire — writers with a foot in both camps, the colonizer and the colonized. In excerpts from their work, we find shared themes in passages from Melville’s master work Moby Dick, Orwell’s essays, and Animal Farm. Through their depictions of everyday labor in the lower reaches of the American commercial empire and the British Raj, these two very different writers were able to capture universal themes.
Melville and Orwell:
Two Sides of Empire
Copyright @2011 T. Durwood
While divergent in many ways, the works of Herman Melville and Eric Blair (who gave himself the pen name George Orwell in 1933 for the publication of Down and Out in Paris and London) share a fascination with the workings of modern empire. The two authors engage with the processes, structures and consequences of the modern English-speaking industrial empire from two very different vantage points, and both come away richer for that engagement.
Melville, writing on the rising slope of global commercial enterprise, sought to break down the component parts and find purpose in the burgeoning maritime industry. Blair, writing seventy years later as a mature empire faced the limitations and dilemmas of colonization, addressed political questions of self-rule, class warfare and assimilation. Melville and Orwell come away with vastly different portraits of empire, yet they share a basic investment in the working classes and the working processes. This investment, we argue, sets them apart from their peers, giving their writing lasting value.
Section 1: Modern Empire and the Literature of Empire
The eighteenth century ushered in a new western world. Beginning with Newcomen’s steam engine (1705), an overlapping series of advances and innovations brought power-driven machinery to manufacturing and farming. This changed life as we knew it. Soon iron-hulled steamships carried goods up and down the western world’s rivers and across its oceans. In 1762, Matthew Boulton built a factory that employed six hundred workers running steam-driven lathes. Soon, a single mechanized farmer could reap more wheat than 18 men working with horses and hand equipment. “Mechanization … is like a mighty river,” wrote economist David Wells, “beyond control.” The agrarian life we knew was transformed, never to return. The capitalist system that drove the industrial revolution invested in “dark Satanic mills” across Europe. By mid-century, half of England lived in cities. The new industrial empire brought huge and permanent changes in Western ways of life and social patterns; it allowed the West to exert its commercial and cultural influence over a huge portion of the world, from South Africa to Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and of course the Raj, where a few thousand British civil servants controlled a nation of 10 million Indians. Using the new technologies, European nations built a global empire of colonies and colonizers. America joined with its economic empire, and by the mid-eighteenth century, English language and culture formed a juggernaut, absorbing “lesser” economies and cultures.
Industrialization was “an incalculable force … It is useless for men to stand in the way of steam-engines.” How did the great English-language authors react as the new clockworks attacked their green fields? Like the Roman empire, the 17th-century commercial Dutch empire, the High and the Classic Maya empire of 300 to 900 A.D., this modern machine empire left a powerful imprint on literature. Shoved into the pastoral landscape, these new machines and their attendant form, logic and language created great ripples among the British Romantics, many of whom reverted to distant settings for their writing. Browning sought Renaissance Italy and Tennyson took refuge in medieval England. Blake questioned the dangers of a mechanical world, asking if the misery of a vast work force was a fair price to pay for the gilded rooms of home and Empire. “The image of the machine … proved to be a complex symbol, increasingly charged with contradictory meanings and implications.”
How can we characterize the response to empire that we see in these two authors?
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American authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne retreated to Italian gardens for imitative tales like “Rappaccini‘s Daughter.” Yet, while so many of his contemporaries shied away from them, Herman Melville embraced the new machineries and the men who manned them, even as he interpreted the new order through the eyes of classic civilization. The operations of whaling served as his milieu, not because they were new or good or evil in themselves, but because they gave him fresh tools with which to reveal the celestial workings of fate. The factory-ship Pequod gave Melville a rich spectrum of language, meter and nomenclature for his striking prose. In this passage he describes the functioning of the ship’s two harpooners:
But these two harpoons, each by its own cord, are both connected with the line; the object being this: to dart them both, if possible, one instantly after the other into the same whale; so that if, in the coming drag, one should draw out, the other may still retain a hold. It is a doubling of the chances. But it very often happens that owing to the instantaneous, violent, convulsive running of the whale upon receiving the first iron, it becomes impossible for the harpooner, however lightning-like in his movements, to pitch the second iron into him.
Here he describes the lowering of cutting tackles as the onset of the slaughter of whales in Chapter 17 of Moby Dick:
And now suspended in stages over the side, Starbuck and Stubb, the mates, armed with their long spades, began cutting a hole in the body for the insertion of the hook just above the nearest of the two side-fins. This done, a broad, semicircular line is cut round the hole, the hook is inserted, and the main body of the crew striking up a wild chorus, now commence heaving in one dense crowd at the windlass. When instantly, the entire ship careens over on her side; every bolt in her starts like the nail-heads of an old house in frosty weather; she trembles, quivers, and nods her frightened mast-heads to the sky. More and more she leans over to the whale, while every gasping heave of the windlass is answered by a helping heave from the billows; till at last, a swift, startling snap is heard; with a great swash the ship rolls upwards and backwards from the whale, and the triumphant tackle rises into sight, dragging after it the disengaged semicircular end of the first strip of blubber.
Similarly, George Orwell separates from his peers by delving wholeheartedly into the workaday world. Writing like a spy inside the machinery of empire, he tries to capture and understand the daily processes that change and define human values. In his famous essay, “A Hanging,” he describes the scene and procedures of an execution, all the while trying to reveal the subtle workings between British soldiers (including himself) and the native townspeople over whom they rule:
The gallows stood in a small yard, separate from the main grounds of the prison, and overgrown with tall prickly weeds. It was a brick erection like three sides of a shed, with planking on top, and above that two beams and a crossbar with the rope dangling. The hangman, a grey-haired convict in the white uniform of the prison, was waiting beside his machine. He greeted us with a servile crouch as we entered. At a word from Francis the two warders, gripping the prisoner more closely than ever, half led, half pushed him to the gallows and helped him clumsily up the ladder. Then the hangman climbed up and fixed the rope round the prisoner’s neck.
We stood waiting, five yards away. The warders had formed in a rough circle round the gallows. And then, when the noose was fixed, the prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of ‘Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!’, not urgent and fearful like a prayer or a cry for help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell. The dog answered the sound with a whine. The hangman, still standing on the gallows, produced a small cotton bag like a flour bag and drew it down over the prisoner’s face. But the sound, muffled by the cloth, still persisted, over and over again: ‘Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!’
Again, in his essay “Bookshop Memories” (1936), Orwell is concerned with how the shop runs, how the owner makes money, and the consequences of those capitalist rules for himself and the customers:
Like most second-hand bookshops we had various sidelines. We sold second-hand typewriters, for instance, and also stamps – used stamps, I mean. Stamp-collectors are a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women, apparently, fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums. We also sold sixpenny horoscopes compiled by somebody who claimed to have foretold the Japanese earthquake. They were in sealed envelopes and I never opened one of them myself, but the people who bought them often came back and told us how ‘true’ their horoscopes had been. (Doubtless any horoscope seems ‘true’ if it tells you that you are highly attractive to the opposite sex and your worst fault is generosity.) We did a good deal of business in children’s books, chiefly ‘remainders’. Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petrenius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators.
We expect his tone to be patronizing and detached, yet in such phrases as “good business while the season lasts” and “we did a good deal of business in children’s books,” Orwell identifies with the shop and its commercial purpose: while he does not exactly embrace selling calendars and “inferior” books like Peter Pan, he clearly sees the need for it. He is not above all this, but in the thick of it; he is the clerk wrapping your book with a cynical smile.
This eye-level view of the bourgeois, working-class world gives his work its strength. Far from rejecting the inner workings of modern empire, Orwell wants very much to examine them closely, sure they will reveal something of value (and, to him, they do).
Section 3: Two Lives
Both Eric Blair and Herman Melville grew up within the empire that they would later seek to deconstruct. Blair’s father was an opium inspector in colonial India, while Melville came from an established merchant family. Blair served five years in the Indian police force, an experience that he draws directly upon in many of his essays: likewise, Melville artfully transcribed his own sailing experience into Typee and Omoo, which were his most commercially successful books.
Sections of Blair’s life were spent on working farms (Wallington in 1939, Barnhill in 1948, among others), and surely echoes of this can be heard in the effortless charm of Animal Farm’s expositions:
Unfortunately, the uproar awoke Mr. Jones, who sprang out of bed, making sure that there was a fox in the yard. He seized the gun which always stood in a corner of his bedroom, and let fly a charge of number 6 shot into the darkness. The pellets buried themselves in the wall of the barn and the meeting broke up hurriedly. Everyone fled to his own sleeping-place. The birds jumped on to their perches, the animals settled down in the straw, and the whole farm was asleep in a moment.
— Animal Farm
Orwell knows his subject. Jones does not “shoot his gun” but “lets fly a charge of number 6 shot” into the darkness: the specificity of Orwell’s references builds the narrator’s credibility. He is able to depict farm life and farm labor accurately from his own childhood, from the inside, almost lovingly, as only a farmer can.
At one end of the big barn, on a sort of raised platform, Major was already ensconced on his bed of straw, under a lantern which hung from a beam. He was twelve years old and had lately grown rather stout, but he was still a majestic-looking pig, with a wise and benevolent appearance in spite of the fact that his tushes had never been cut. Before long the other animals began to arrive and make themselves comfortable after their different fashions. First came the three dogs, Bluebell, Jessie, and Pincher, and then the pigs, who settled down in the straw immediately in front of the platform. The hens perched themselves on the window-sills, the pigeons fluttered up to the rafters, the sheep and cows lay down behind the pigs and began to chew the cud. The two cart-horses, Boxer and Clover, came in together, walking very slowly and setting down their vast hairy hoofs with great care lest there should be some small animal concealed in the straw.
— Animal Farm
Neither Blair nor Melville fared particularly well at the hands of empire.
A bout of scarlet fever in 1826 left Herman Melville with permanently weakened eyesight, and he left school at an early age to learn on his own. When Mardi, Redburn, and White Jacked (among several other works) proved less than popular with the reading public, Melville tried to get a government post like that of his friend Hawthorne. Steady work proved hard to come by, so his father-in-law helped support Melville’s family. The author regarded himself as a tradesman of words. In his often-quoted 1849 letter to his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, he makes his laborer status quite clear:
No reputation that is gratifying to me, can be possibly achieved by either of these two books. They [Redburn and White-Jacket] are two jobs, which I have done for money – being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood … Being books, then, written in this way, my only desire for their ‘success’ (as it called) springs from my pocket & not from my heart.
Melville eventually found work as a customs agent, but his financial hardships left their mark: stories like Bartleby the Scrivener reflect a bleak view of society and materialism. Melville’s oldest son (Malcolm) committed suicide in 1867, and another son (Stanwix) died after a long and debilitating illness in 1886. When Melville died in 1891, his last major work (Billy Budd) was unpublished and his masterpiece (Moby Dick) was unrecognized.
Blair did not fare much better. Born in Bengal, India, in 1903, he was educated in England at Eton (while he often referred to hardships at Eton, his classmates dispute these claims). Here is Orwell’s succinct summation of his early years from his 1946 essay, “Why I Write”:
I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays.
— Orwell, Why I Write
He served in the Indian Imperial Police for five years, an experience that is cited by his many biographers as the flowering of the finely-pointed anti-imperialism which may have begun as schoolboy anti-authoritarianism at Eton. His middle-class parents reacted poorly to his decision to leave civil service and bum his way through northern England (to research his book The Road to Wigan Pier), expatriate Paris and Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War on behalf of socialist causes. His earnings from writing on these excursions were not enough to support young Blair, who suffered from asthma, so he took jobs teaching Spanish in private schools and working in bookshops. He saw the primary significance in World War II as an agent for domestic change. During World War II, he wrote scripts for BBC radio newscasts. His first wife, Eileen, died young, leaving Blair to raise their adopted son with a series of nannies. Success came late, with Animal Farm, and he spent much of his energy in the months before he died asking female acquaintances to marry him (to care for his son and his legacy). He died from tuberculosis in 1950.
Blair can be seen to have derived specific literary benefits from his time in the machineries of the British empire: had he spent his entire life teaching Spanish at the Hayes School, his writing would be the poorer for it. Clear lines can be drawn between his Socialist travels and his essays and between his BBC years and the mad bureaucrats of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but a more subtle connection may exist between his working experiences and the less politically charged observances of the daily human and mechanical processes of empire which we find throughout his writings. This diary entry shows his appreciation of his co-workers’ habits:
The only time when one hears people singing in the BBC is the early morning, between 6 and 8. That is the time when the charwomen are at work. A huge army of them arrives all at the same time. They sit in the reception hall waiting for their brooms to be issued to them and making as much noise as a parrot house, and then they have wonderful choruses, all singing together as they sweep the passages. The place has a quite different atmosphere at this time from what it has later in the day.
— Orwell diary entry
We can see traces of the BBC bureaucracy in the following passage from Chapter 5 of Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift.
— Orwell, 1984
It is easy to see Melville’s life in his work. In search of adventures, Melville shipped out in 1839 as a cabin boy on the whaler Acushnet. He later joined the US Navy and sailed on long voyages over both the Atlantic and the South Seas. During these years he was a clerk and bookkeeper at a general store in Honolulu and lived briefly among the Typee cannibals in the Marquesas Islands until another ship took him to Tahiti. His first book, Typee, is a fictionalized autobiography featuring postcard passages in which the young writer encounters the “bizarre joys” of the Orient, like the following:
I sought to diversify my time by as many enjoyments as lay within my reach. Bathing in company with troops of girls formed one of my chief amusements. We sometimes enjoyed the recreation in the waters of a miniature lake, to which the central stream of the valley expanded. This lovely sheet of water was almost circular in figure, and about three hundred yards across. Its beauty was indescribable. All around its banks waved luxuriant masses of tropical foliage, soaring high above which were seen, here and there, the symmetrical shaft of the cocoanut tree, surmounted by its tufts of graceful branches, drooping in the air like so many waving ostrich plumes.
— Melville Typee
Section 4: The Clockworks of Empire
“Eliot has remained aloof,” wrote George Orwell is in his wide-ranging essay, “Inside the Whale,” and while he meant aloof specifically from the political fray of the times, he also meant aloof from the everyday world (15). We can expand that observation to suggest that Eliot and other neo-classicist contemporaries of Orwell’s such as Ezra Pound and W.H. Auden all remained aloof from the working classes and their participation in the subsystems of industrial life, the clockworks of the modern empire. These brilliant authors stuck to classical themes and topics, and conspicuously avoided the workings of everyday life and commerce. They chose to disregard empire, the elephant under the carpet: if they wrote eloquently of the consequences of war and modernity, they chose to avert their gaze from the apparatus that generated war and modernity, like painters hoping to capture light and shadows reflected on a cave wall. Today their work seems uniformly period-bound, while Orwell’s retains the vitality of the marketplace. As Orwell himself said about Kipling:
During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.
— Orwell’s “Rudyard Kipling” essay, 1942
In contrast to Eliot’s , Orwell’s prose carries the tempo and rhythm of piston-driven industrial life. Here he examines a policeman witnessing the hanging of a criminal in a colonial village:
Suddenly the superintendent made up his mind. Throwing up his head he made a swift motion with his stick. ‘Chalo!’ he shouted almost fiercely.
There was a clanking noise, and then dead silence. The prisoner had vanished, and the rope was twisting on itself. I let go of the dog, and it galloped immediately to the back of the gallows; but when it got there it stopped short, barked, and then retreated into a corner of the yard, where it stood among the weeds, looking timorously out at us. We went round the gallows to inspect the prisoner’s body. He was dangling with his toes pointed straight downwards, very slowly revolving, as dead as a stone.
The superintendent reached out with his stick and poked the bare body; it oscillated, slightly. ‘He’s all right,’ said the superintendent. He backed out from under the gallows, and blew out a deep breath. The moody look had gone out of his face quite suddenly. He glanced at his wrist-watch. ‘Eight minutes past eight. Well, that’s all for this morning, thank God.’
— from Orwell’s “A Hanging”
This is how our world works, here and now, reported in the cadences of the imperial marketplace. From such early writings as The Road to Wigan Pier all the way through Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell shows a consistent interest in patterns of labor in the empire, whether it is that of coal miner, policeman, bookshop clerk, plow horse, or “minister of information.” He seeks to depict what a job is like, what pressures are brought to bear on the worker, and what the employment “costs” the individual emotionally and spiritually. Orwell depicts a typical scene from the colonial wars, a working man doing his job who runs into larger issues (his version of Starbuck or Flask) in one of his most powerful essays, “Killing an Elephant”:
Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.
— from Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”
Herman Melville was similarly fascinated with labor patterns in the commercial empire. Melville embraced the new machineries and the men who manned them.
But these two harpoons, each by its own cord, are both connected with the line; the object being this: to dart them both, if possible, one instantly after the other into the same whale; so that if, in the coming drag, one should draw out, the other may still retain a hold. It is a doubling of the chances. But it very often happens that owing to the instantaneous, violent, convulsive running of the whale upon receiving the first iron, it becomes impossible for the harpooneer, however lightning-like in his movements, to pitch the second iron into him. Nevertheless, as the second iron is already connected with the line, and the line is running, hence that weapon must, at all events, be anticipatingly tossed out of the boat, somehow and somewhere; else the most terrible jeopardy would involve all hands. Tumbled into the water, it accordingly is in such cases; the spare coils of box line (mentioned in a preceding chapter) making this feat, in most instances, prudently practicable. But this critical act is not always unattended with the saddest and most fatal casualties.
— Moby Dick, Chapter LXII “The Crotch”
In his essay “Good Bad Books,” Orwell makes reference to a “literary vitamin” present in the enduring literary works:
Enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been poured into Wyndham Lewis’s so-called novels, such as Tarr or Snooty Baronet. Yet it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books right through. Some indefinable quality, a sort of literary vitamin, which exists even in a book like If Winter Comes, is absent from them.
— from Orwell’s essay, “Good Bad Books”
This paper concludes that it is their willingness to directly face the dominant development of their times – man’s part in the modern empire – which lends Melville and Orwell their literary vitamin. While it is a very small element in two vast bodies of work, the willingness to work as laborers in the mines of empire provides a vital quality to the work of these two fine writers. Their fearlessness in jumping into empire’s maw with their lives as well as their writing gives both a disarming honesty.
Both tried and tried, often to the detriment of their careers and personal comfort, to grapple with the elusive, monstrous changes that industry and empire brought to mankind. If they suffered personally from taking up this challenge, the work of each gained immeasurably: it gave their best writing a stature and depth it would not have otherwise have had.
A General Theory of Literature and Empire
This consideration of Melville and Orwell in light of empire might lead us to a general theory of empire and literature. This brief theory is in three parts:
a) that literature and the workings of empire are connected.
b) that specific works fall within the four quadrants of empire’s cycle: roots of empire; rising empire; high empire; and falling or mature empire.
c) that a work’s enduring value derives from its capacity to address the workings of empire.
In Melville’s case, early works like Typee are clearly fall in Roots of Empire (Quadrant One). In it, he is dealing with the first encounters between two civilizations; each civilization reacts to the unfamiliar customs of the other, neither is yet above the other. Moby Dick is clearly Quadrant Two, in which one civilization is gaining the upper hand, incorporating the other civilization in its commerce, language and culture. A book like Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is an example of High Empire (Quadrant Three), a celebration of all the joys of empire (language, good food, poetry, mechanized toys, doing battle against foes of inferior breeding) with no reference to its underlying complexities. Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” is a work of Mature Empire (Quadrant Four), where those deeper quandaries of an entrenched empire come to the surface. A play like Terence McNally’s 1977 Emperor of the Sun depicts a Quadrant One encounter but is clearly written from a perspective of Quadrant Four – McNally is already regretting the eventual outcome of the meeting.
Here is how other authors’ works might land in such a cycle: Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would score very high, as would Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and The Painted Word; most of John Updike’s work would not. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby might score high: his close attention to the workings of class mobility and the specific habits of the landed class might roughly be compared to Melville’s close attention to the maritime working class. Fitzgerald’s fantasy story The Diamond as Big as the Ritz would not. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises might score high; The Old Man and the Sea might not. Frank Herbert’s Dune would score high; Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes would not.
We might then widen the theory to include architecture:
We might add an axis of “folk” and “imperial” – that is, which side of empire a work lands on – as the inner and outer borders of the circle. Phillip Johnson’s PPG Place skyscraper is a work of imperial architecture, celebrating all the wonders of modernity, while the teepee is folk architecture. The Virginian is a work which follows an imperial narrative, while Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a folk or counter-imperial narrative. Wagner’s The Nibelungenlied is an imperial work, while Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is fiercely counter-imperial.
This theory is as clumsy as it is sketchy. It cannot really discern between accomplished empire-rich works (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) and mediocre empire-rich content. Almost all works can be easily pinned to their respective quadrants merely by the decade in which they were written. Certain works seem to defy the theory: it does not work at all with an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, unless you break him down piece by piece (the Guggenheim might be imperial, but I can’t really tell).
The third component of this little theory – the empire theory of value – is particularly suspect. While it covers the same ground as Orwell’s “vitamin” theory – explaining why Kipling is remembered while some more elevated authors like T.S. Eliot are not – it cannot accommodate an author like John Irving, who seems beyond or beside all consideration of empire.
Despite its limitations, this crude theory or cycle of empire might prove useful for students, especially as they compare works across eras and across cultures.
Tom Durwood is editor and publisher of the Journal of Empire Studies. Tom currently teaches Public Speaking and Basic Communications as guest lecturer for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group at the Dam’s Neck Annex of the Naval War College. Tom also teaches English Composition and Literature at Valley Forge Military College, where he has won the Teacher of the Year Award twice. His recent ebook on Theodore Roosevelt and the 25th Infantry has been called “the debut of a promising new voice in history” by journalist Tim Pritchard. Tom earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard University, where he edited an undergraduate arts journal and studied with David McClelland (the author of The Roots of Consciousness, 1964). He also holds an MBA from New York University.