Sunday, November 22, 2020

Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs

Herman Melville (1819–1891)
From Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, & Uncollected Prose

Feeding the Hungry after The Lord Mayor's Banquet, Interior of Guildhall, 1882, oil on canvas by French artist Marie Adrien-Emmanuel (1848–1891). Image from ArtNet. The tone of the annual event depicted in the painting had changed dramatically in the years since the free-for-all melee described in Melville’s tale, but Adrien nevertheless romanticizes the service, highlighting the virtues of charity over the hardships of poverty witnessed by other observers. The tradition of feeding the leftovers from the banquet to the poor continued into the early 1900s.
In the fall of 1849, Melville was in London looking for a publisher for his next novel, White-Jacket. On Friday, November 9, he witnessed the “bloated pomp” of the outdoor festivities for Lord Mayor’s Day and the following morning, while touring the city, Melville asked an “officer of the Fire Department” for directions to St. Swithin’s, a church designed by Christopher Wren. The officer escorted him to his destination and asked him if he’d also like to visit “the house where Whittington was born.” Richard Whittington—who was actually born in Gloucestershire in the 1350s—was lord mayor of London four times and the real-life inspiration for the popular folk tale, Dick Whittington and His Cat. Melville’s guide probably took him to a building known popularly as “Whittington’s house,” located on Swithin’s Passage.

To the south of this house was Guildhall, where the prestigious Lord Mayor’s Banquet had taken place the previous evening and where an event of a different nature was now on display. As Melville wrote in his journal:
. . . Thence, thro’ the influence of the Fire Officer, I pushed my way thro cellars & anti-lanes into the rear of Guildhall, with a crowd of beggars who were going to receive the broken meats & pies from yesterday’s grand banquet (Lord Mayor’s Day). — Within the hall, the scene was comical. Under the flaming banners & devices, were old broken tables set out with heaps of fowls hams &c &c pastry in profusion — cut in all directions — I could tell who had cut into this duck, or that goose. Some of the legs were gone — some of the wings, &c. (A good thing might be made of this)
Four years later, back in the United States, Melville was deeply in debt; his heavily mortgaged farm was threatened with foreclosure; his previous two novels, The Whale [Moby-Dick] and Pierre, had been commercial and critical debacles; no publisher was interested in his latest novel, The Isle of the Cross; and his family’s efforts to secure him a post in a foreign consulate had failed. Desperately needing cash, Melville wrote tales and essays for several publications. Between the summer of 1853 and the following spring, Melville wrote three diptychs for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, each a pair of stories set first in America and then in England. One of them, “The Two Temples,” was rejected by the editors, because the target of Melville’s satire in the first “temple”—Grace Church in Manhattan—was the sexton of the church, who would have been identifiable to readers. The other two, “Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs” and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” were accepted and appeared anonymously (as did many of Melville’s short stories).

By mocking and contrasting American and British attitudes toward both poverty and charity, the twinned tales of “Poor Man’s Pudding” aim their satire more generally than did the unpublishable “Two Temples.” Melville dusted off the memory of the banquet of leftovers he had witnessed in Guildhall and made a “good thing” of it. He moved the setting back to the year 1814, borrowed from Charles Knight’s six-volume work London certain details of a banquet held that year, and put his reimagined historical event at the center of the second part of the diptych. Although there are no occasions or persons overtly serving as inspirations for the first episode of “Poor Man’s Pudding,” scholars have long contended that certain aspects were written in reaction to various writings by Melville’s contemporaries—particularly to a novel by his friend Catharine Maria Sedgwick and to the sermons of one of his Berkshire neighbors, the Unitarian minister Orville Dewey.

Sedgwick’s novels (with the notable exception of Hope Leslie) have been largely forgotten, even though she was one of the most prominent and popular of early American writers. Evoked by Melville in the very title of his story, her novel The Poor Rich Man, and the Rich Poor Man, garnered much acclaim upon its publication in 1836, with reviewers in many national publications praising the message it sent to the poor. The critic in The North American Review extolled Sedgwick for showing readers “how to be very rich with very little,—how to be entirely respectable and happy, and abundant in resources for serving others, with only such means as day-labor can supply, and of course such as every man in this country can command.” Few day-laborers would ever come across Sedgwick’s books; she was instead writing for those Americans who were in a position to offer charity. “The rich here can make no separating lines which the poor cannot pass,” she assured her readers. “It is the poor who fence themselves in with ignorance, and press themselves down with shiftlessness and vice.”

Orville Dewey offered his audiences a similar message. As Melville scholar Herschel Parker points out, Dewey’s memoir shows he “had long lamented that begging was permitted on the streets of New York, knowing full well that any misery felt by the poor was ‘not owing to the rich, but mainly to themselves.’” Dewey’s Discourses on Human Nature, Human Life, and the Nature of Religion is filled with passages about the “divine favours” and “natural gifts” available to everyone:
The beauty of the earth; the glories of the sky; the vision of the sun and the stars; the beneficent laws of universal being; the frame of society and of government; protecting justice and almighty providence . . . [Which] one of these would you part with for the wealth of the Indies, or all the splendours of rank or office?. . . Is he poor to whom the great storehouse of nature is opened? or does he think himself poor because it is God who has made him rich?
It is this type of high-flown “poetry” that Melville mocks, the didactic stories and admonishing sermons claiming that a simple shift in perspective is all one needs to see the poor or the working class as flourishing with America’s natural abundance. As the literary historian William B. Dillingham puts it, “the contrast Melville establishes is not so much between the poor and the rich as between poverty of the soul and glibness of the mouth. ‘Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs,’ then, is very much a story about language.”

Notes: Philip Doddridge was an eighteenth-century British minister and hymnwriter. The lone book by Doddridge in the Coulters’ cabin is probably The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745). Melville begins the second part of the tale with an anachronism; he establishes the year of the story as 1814 (which is also the year of the banquet described in Charles Knight’s London), but the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1815. The neighborhood of Five Points was a crime-ridden slum along the Bowery in lower Manhattan, recently depicted in the movie Gangs of New York (2002). Gog and Magog are two statues of Albion giants that have graced Guildhall, in various forms, for centuries.

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“You see,” said poet Blandmour, enthusiastically—as some forty years ago we walked along the road in a soft, moist snow-fall, toward the end of March—“you see, my friend, that the blessed almoner, Nature, is in all things beneficent; and not only so, but considerate in her charities, as any discreet human philanthropist might be. . . .” If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

1 comment:

The Triumph of the Thrill said...

Melville's short stories are always worth the read.