Thursday, March 31, 2016
March 31, 2016: 19th Century Humor: Melville’s Chimney
[For this year’s installment of my annual April Fool’s Day series, I wanted to AmericanStudy some 19th century humorists. I’d love to hear your humorous responses and nominations in comments. I’m serious!]
On the deeply strange story that proves that ambiguity and allegory can be funny.
Before doing the research for this post, I had only read Herman Melville’s short story “I and My Chimney” (1855) once, some 20 years ago as a second-year college student. Yet Melville’s text had stuck with me across those decades, far more fully and deeply than have other texts I’ve read much more recently. It didn’t do so because of its quality, necessarily—like Pierre (1852), the novel with which Melville followed up his masterpiece Moby-Dick (1851), “Chimney” is a text I would describe with words like “interesting” and “provocative” rather than “successful” or “good.” And indeed, perhaps the most interesting thing about “Chimney” is how much it refuses to give in to audience expectations—the story of an unreliable (possibly unhinged) narrator obsessed with his titular home furnishing, and of an evolving war between the narrator and his wife over that chimney and what seems to be a hidden room inside it, seems destined to head into the terrifying territory of Poe’s “The Black Cat”; but no such thrills or chills ever appear, and the story ends as ambiguously as it began.
So if “I and My Chimney” isn’t a Gothic horror, what is it? In part, it seems to be an experiment in narration, an opportunity for Melville to create a first-person narrator far more consistently central to his story, yet at the same time far stranger and harder to sympathize with, than Moby-Dick’s Ishmael. That narrator, in turn, is involved in an extended experiment of his own: identifying himself with the oversized chimney that dominates his home and life (and marriage), and taking that personal analogy to depths of detail and philosophy that need to be read to be believed. So thorough is the analogy between man and chimney, in fact, that it seems fair to describe it as an allegory—only I admit to having very little idea, upon this second reading of the story (and I remember feeling the same back when I first read it), about what that allegory might mean or illustrate. There seems to be some theme of how we come to be linked to our homes or settings, but that point alone feels far too pedestrian to which to devote such an extended text.
So I don’t think “Chimney” is a great story, and I don’t really know what (if anything) it means. But I do know this: it’s pretty darn funny. Take the story’s opening paragraph: “I and my chimney, two grey-headed old smokers, reside in the country. We are, I may say, old settlers here; particularly my old chimney, which settles more and more every day.” Or these lines from a couple paragraphs in: “When in the rear room, set apart for that object, I stand to receive my guests (who by the way call more, I suspect, to see my chimney than me) I then stand, not so much before, as, strictly speaking, behind my chimney, which is, indeed, the true host. Not that I demur. In the presence of my betters, I hope I know my place.” Indeed, hardly a paragraph in “Chimney” goes by without producing at least one wry smile, and I laughed out loud a handful of times as well—no small feat for a 160 year old story written in the style and language of its time (and its notoriously challenging author). Whatever else Melville’s strikingly odd story is, it’s most definitely humorous—and as this week’s posts can help remind us, that’s a significant and meaningful thing to be.
Last humorist tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other humorists you’d highlight?