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Archival Crying

In 1860, Herman Melville, 40 and with all of his published novels behind him, took a trip to San Francisco.  A lifetime before a canal would be carved through Panama, and some few years before railroads would connect the continent overland, the good ship Meteor took Melville around Cape Horn and into the Pacific.  The journey lasted just over four months, from May 30 to October 12, with his younger brother Thomas Melville as captain.

One-hundred and fifty-eight years later, I, 39 and with hopefully some amount of my career as an English professor in front of me, took a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I went to read through the papers that Melville’s granddaughter had bequeathed the Houghton Rare Books Library at Harvard, one item of which was a letter that Melville wrote during his voyage in 1860.  I spent two working days at the library; my train trip took four hours each way.

Two days after the 2016 US Presidential election, Masha Gessen published “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” in the New York Review of Books.  She reminded us that when things aren’t normal, resistance to them has to be.  But the sixth and final point of very good advice she enumerates there felt and still feels to me a bit strained by the extreme times through which we’re living.  Gessen writes: “Remember the future.”  Nearly two years into that future, I am instead reading Melville’s papers, contemplating the past.

Connections among these three sets of events are loose at best.  Each set can, of course, simultaneously be true without bearing on the others in any meaningful way.  But it seems to me that some overwhelming connection might exist here, because while I was reading in the archive of Melville’s papers, I cried.  And though I have a lot of feelings about the things I study, the work I do, and the world in which I live, crying in archives should be added to the dispiritingly long list of things in 2018 that are not normal.


The Meteor was approaching Cape Horn from the Atlantic on August 9, 1860, when one of its crew, whom Melville describes in his journal only as “Ray, a Nantucketeer, about twenty-five years old, a good honest fellow (to judge from his face & demeanor during the passage)” fell from the top mast and was killed instantly upon striking the spars.  The winds were rough and the footholds were no doubt slippery, as ice and sleet belong to that part of the Southern Hemisphere in August. The world was upside down, or at least the Meteor was in the upside down part.  The next day’s entry in Melville’s journal was the last.  Crisis has a way of unsettling the progress of a narrative.

I went to the library to engage in acts of historical reconstruction, an avowedly rational set of processes practiced in Europe and its spheres of influence for more than two hundred years.  First, I would look at documents, read them and if necessary interpret them; then I’d summarize something about their general gestalt; finally I’d write up a narrative that showed the evidence on which I was basing my conclusions.  The work of establishing historical facts requires that we demonstrate connections, causes and effects. It’s not a perfect system, but those are the rules. So I guess I’m writing what you’re now reading to break the rules. At least, the rules don’t allow me fully to explain why looking through these papers in 2018 made me cry.

“Remember the future” is excellent political advice.  Nearly two years on, it’s also enviable in its moral clarity. Constant resistance turns out to be difficult. Some aspects of life are harder to interrupt than others.  Not all crisis has the dramatic dignity of a fall to the death. Shifts in the political and cultural landscape since late 2016 have been unmistakably large and also hard to pinpoint.  Where does that leave us? In transition, decidedly. But transition to what? That part feels so, so undecided.

Survival lately seems unlikely to me.  I say so not out of some nihilistic temperament, but because a number of people I love and things that matter to me have ceased to exist since 2016.  In most cases these deaths and disappearances are not any direct result of the election or the waves of xenophobic terror and malign neglect it has unleashed, though causes are also sometimes more complicated than historical narratives admit, and anyway personal drama and political despair maintain no gentleman’s agreement to appear distinct.  Mostly, I keep these feelings to myself. It’s not super helpful to the resistance to have some asshole reminding his comrades that we’re all going to die. But, in broad strokes, I doubt I’m alone in the experience of walking around for the better part of two years unsure how to square my actions and my emotions as I resist the new normal. I want us to resist, but can you blame me for doubting that “resist” means “survive”?


Melville’s last journal entry from the 1860 voyage is dated August 10 and in its entirety reads:

–––– Calm: blue sky, sun out, dry deck.  Calm lasting all day –––– almost pleasant enough to atone for the gales, but not for Ray’s fate, which belongs to that order of human events, which staggers those whom the Primal Philosophy hath not confirmed. –– But little sorrow to the crew –– all goes on as usual –– I, too, read & think, & walk & eat & talk, as if nothing had happened –– as if I did not know that death is indeed the King of Terrors –––– when thus happening; when thus heart-breaking to a fond mother –– the King of Terrors, not to the dying or the dead, but to the mourner –– the mother. –– Not so easily will his fate be washed out of her heart, as his blood from the deck.

How do you go about your day in a world where going about your day is an act of complicity with the world’s terrors?  It’s a far-reaching, philosophical question one might contemplate in long, lonely hours at sea. But it’s also the kind of thing that, since the end of 2016, people increasingly feel the need to chat about while walking the dog, or going to class, or making small talk, or posting on Facebook.  Melville asked this question to try to remember the future.  The present tense of his reflection is one of extremes: the philosophical fact of death weighed against the insolvency of love.  Our present tense too is one of extremes, with the added mindfuck that it’s often nearly impossible to sort out which extreme a given situation tends toward.

I’ve been reading Melville my whole adult life.  Every couple of years I teach a lecture class devoted just to his works.  My students––my wonderful students––come to appreciate Melville too. It was a collaborative project with one former student, now a writer and researcher in his own right, that compelled me to spend a few afternoons in the Melville papers in Cambridge to begin with.  It sounds like I’m teaching the next generation about the things I was taught. It sounds like I’m remembering the future. And that used to be how it felt, but not lately.

What we might do and what we might feel stand at odds, powerfully, in the face of things like death and tragedy, but also structurally in a transitional political moment like ours.  Jokes aren’t funny.  We aren’t nostalgic for the same objects.  Some of things we lean on give out.  The work of living is the work of repair, but that work is always smaller––because we are––than the enormity of the task.  How could going about my day not feel like an act of complicity? But what’s the alternative?  I’ve spent most of 2018 living uncomfortably with my remaining comforts, yet I hesitate to try and shake this feeling off or dismiss it as guilt, because, I think, such unease is a big part of what’s holding open a space for resistance, at least until the slower-moving institutions like law, electoral politics, or journalism finally catch up to the ways that the world in 2018 feels to those of us who are committed to feeling it.


Along the long way that was also the only way to California, Melville stopped keeping his journal but began writing letters to his children, the second youngest of whom, Elizabeth––“My Dear Bessie”—turned seven a week before her father set sail. Melville tried to write to her in printed letters, so that she might read his missive herself, but he kept slipping back into cursive, and he concluded by drawing a picture of a hill on which she and her baby sister might walk, “hand in hand.”  What Bessie could not read, it seemed, she might handle, and so her father also included the rippled, bony fin of a leaping fish that landed on deck somewhere between the antipodes and the port of San Francisco where he posted the letter.

In the same cardstock file folder at Houghton where this letter is stored, I found another little packet marked “Fragile,” marked again “Keep on Top.”  Curious, I peeled back several layers of cardstock, the bottom of which was reinforced with a piece of matt board, to find a thin layer of tissue. My reward for heeding these warnings and peeling these layers was to glimpse a disintegrating thing.  The fish fin. It was translucent but exquisitely textured, about an inch long, and fused partially to the paper in which it was stored. It had survived.

The editors of the scholarly edition of Melville’s letters go to great lengths not only to transcribe Melville’s letter to Bessie, but also to reproduce the printing and cursive, the small picture he drew for her.  And though I have read these letters carefully over many years, I was unaware that the fin survived. What else, I sat in the reading room wondering, might? The question is overdetermined. It’s melodramatic. It’s not rational––not admissible to my narrative according to the rules of history writing that I had come to the library to engage.  But I had uncovered a very small thing that was also an astonishing thing. It didn’t know what to feel and that felt, for once lately, not only overwhelming but also right.

What do you do with such a discovery in 2018?  I teared up. I took a photo. I texted it to some friends. They responded with comments like “WHOA.”  No one volunteered to interpret whether I was handling the past or remembering the future. It’s not clear what my small archival find means, if it means anything at all.  An object’s survival in an archive doesn’t, in and of itself, prove anything. Its survival isn’t easily classed as resistance. All I know for sure is that I didn’t used to cry in archives, overburdened by some heightened inability to distinguish between their history and ours.  All I know is, the work is to remember a future where once again I might not.

Jordan Stein: Not always the theory guy

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