Between North-South Civil War and East-West Manifest Destiny: Herman Melville’s “I and My Chimney” as Geo-Historical Allegory




Herman Melville, allegory, Civil War, chimney, post-structural, Manifest Destiny, spatialization

How to Cite

West, P. L. (2017). Between North-South Civil War and East-West Manifest Destiny: Herman Melville’s “I and My Chimney” as Geo-Historical Allegory. M/C Journal, 20(6).
Vol. 20 No. 6 (2017): north
Published 2017-12-31

Literary critics have mainly read Herman Melville’s short story “I and My Chimney” (1856) as allegory. This article elaborates on the tradition of interpreting Melville’s text allegorically by relating it to Fredric Jameson’s post-structural reinterpretation of allegory. In doing so, it argues that the story is not a simple example of allegory but rather an auto-reflexive engagement with allegory that reflects the cultural and historical ambivalences of the time in which Melville was writing. The suggestion is that Melville deliberately used signifiers (or the lack thereof) of directionality and place to reframe the overt context of his allegory (Civil War divisions of North and South) through teasing reference to the contemporaneous emergence of Manifest Destiny as an East-West historical spatialization. To this extent, from a literary-historical perspective, Melville’s text presents as an enquiry into the relationship between the obvious allegorical elements of a text and the literal or material elements that may either support or, as in this case, problematize traditional allegorical modes. In some ways, Melville’s story faintly anticipates Jameson’s post-structural theory of allegory as produced over a century later. “I and My Chimney” may also be linked to later texts, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which shift the directionality of American Literary History, in a definite way, from a North-South to an East-West axis. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books may also be mentioned here. While, in recent years, some literary critics have produced readings of Melville’s story that depart from the traditional emphasis on its allegorical nature, this article claims to be the first to engage with “I and My Chimney” from within an allegorical perspective also informed by post-structural thinking. To do this, it focuses on the setting or directionality of the story, and on the orientating details of the titular chimney.

Written and published shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-1865), which pitted North against South, Melville’s story is told in the first person by a narrator with overweening affection for the chimney he sees as an image of himself: “I and my chimney, two gray-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” (327). Within the merged identity of narrator and chimney, however, the latter takes precedence, almost completely, over the former: “though I always say, I and my chimney, as Cardinal Wolsey used to say, I and my King, yet this egotistic way of speaking, wherein I take precedence of my chimney, is hardly borne out by the facts; in everything, except the above phrase, my chimney taking precedence of me” (327). Immediately, this sentence underscores a disjunction between words (“the above phrase”) and material circumstances (“the facts”) that will become crucial in my later consideration of Melville’s story as post-structural allegory.

Detailed architectural and architectonic descriptions manifesting the chimney as “the one great domineering object” of the narrator’s house characterize the opening pages of the story (328). Intermingled with these descriptions, the narrator recounts the various interpersonal and business-related stratagems he has been forced to adopt in order to protect his chimney from the “Northern influences” that would threaten it. Numbered in this company are his mortgagee, the narrator’s own wife and daughters, and Mr. Hiram Scribe—“a rough sort of architect” (341). The key subplot implicated with the narrator’s fears for his chimney concerns its provenance. The narrator’s “late kinsman, Captain Julian Dacres” built the house, along with its stupendous chimney, and upon his death a rumour developed concerning supposed “concealed treasure” in the chimney (346). Once the architect Scribe insinuates, in correspondence to the chimney’s alter ego (the narrator), “that there is architectural cause to conjecture that somewhere concealed in your chimney is a reserved space, hermetically closed, in short, a secret chamber, or rather closet” the narrator’s wife and daughter use Scribe’s suggestion of a possible connection to Dacres’s alleged hidden treasure to reiterate their calls for the chimney’s destruction (345):

Although they had never before dreamed of such a revelation as Mr. Scribe’s, yet upon the first suggestion they instinctively saw the extreme likelihood of it. In corroboration, they cited first my kinsman, and second, my chimney; alleging that the profound mystery involving the former, and the equally profound masonry involving the latter, though both acknowledged facts, were alike preposterous on any other supposition than the secret closet. (347)

To protect his chimney, the narrator bribes Mr. Scribe, inviting him to produce a “‘little certificate—something, say, like a steam-boat certificate, certifying that you, a competent surveyor, have surveyed my chimney, and found no reason to believe any unsoundness; in short, any—any secret closet in it’” (351). Having enticed Scribe to scribe words against himself, the narrator concludes his tale triumphantly: “I am simply standing guard over my mossy old chimney; for it is resolved between me and my chimney, that I and my chimney will never surrender” (354).

Despite its inherent interest, literary critics have largely overlooked “I and My Chimney”. Katja Kanzler observes that “together with much of [Melville’s] other short fiction, and his uncollected magazine pieces in particular, it has never really come out of the shadow of the more epic texts long considered his masterpieces” (583). To the extent that critics have engaged the story, they have mainly read it as traditional allegory (Chatfield; Emery; Sealts; Sowder). Further, the allegorical trend in the reception of Melville’s text clusters within the period from the early 1940s to the early 1980s. More recently, other critics have explored new ways of reading Melville’s story, but none, to my knowledge, have re-investigated its dominant allegorical mode of reception in the light of the post-structural engagements with allegory captured succinctly in Fredric Jameson’s work (Allison; Kanzler; Wilson). This article acknowledges the perspicacity of the mid-twentieth-century tradition of the allegorical interpretation of Melville’s story, while nuancing its insights through greater attention to the spatialized materiality of the text, its “geomorphic” nature, and its broader historical contexts.

E. Hale Chatfield argues that “I and My Chimney” evidences one broad allegorical polarity of “Aristocratic Tradition vs. Innovation and Destruction” (164). This umbrella category is parsed by Sealts as an individualized allegory of besieged patriarchal identity and by Sowder as a national-level allegory of anxieties linked to the antebellum North-South relationship. Chatfield’s opposition works equally well for an individual or for communities of individuals. Thus, in this view, even as it structures our reception of Melville’s story, allegory remains unproblematized in itself through its internal interlocking. In turn, “I and My Chimney” provides fertile soil for critics to harvest an allegorical crop. Its very title inveigles the reader towards an allegorical attitude: the upstanding “I” of the title is associated with the architecture of the chimney, itself also upstanding. What is of the chimney is also, allegorically, of the “I”, and the vertical chimney, like the letter “I”, argues, as it were, a north-south axis, being “swung vertical to hit the meridian moon,” as Melville writes on his story’s first page (327). The narrator, or “I”, is as north-south as is his narrated allegory.

Herman Melville was a Northern resident with Southern predilections, at least to the extent that he co-opted “Southern-ness” to, in Katja Kanzler’s words, “articulate the anxiety of mid-nineteenth-century cultural elites about what they perceive as a cultural decline” (583). As Chatfield notes, the South stood for “Aristocratic Tradition”; the North, for “Innovation and Destruction” (164). Reflecting the conventional mid-twentieth-century view that “I and My Chimney” is a guileless allegory of North-South relations, William J. Sowder argues that it

reveals allegorically an accurate history of Southern slavery from the latter part of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth—that critical period when the South spent most of its time and energy apologizing for the existence of slavery. It discloses the split which Northern liberals so ably effected between liberal and conservative forces in the South, and it lays bare the intransigence of the traditional South on the Negro question. Above everything, the story reveals that the South had little in common with the rest of the Union: the War between the States was inevitable. (129-30)

Sowder goes into painstaking detail prosecuting his North-South allegorical reading of Melville’s text, to the extent of finding multiple correspondences between what is allegorizing and what is being allegorized within a single sentence. One example, with Sowder’s allegorical interpolations in square brackets, comes from a passage where Melville is writing about his narrator’s replaced “gable roof” (Melville 331): “‘it was replaced with a modern roof [the cotton gin], more fit for a railway woodhouse [an industrial society] than an old country gentleman’s abode’” (Sowder 137).

Sowder’s argument is historically erudite, and utterly convincing overall, except in one crucial detail. That is, for a text supposedly so much about the South, and written so much from its perspective—Sowder labels the narrator a “bitter Old Southerner”—it is remarkable how the story is only very ambiguously set in the South (145). Sowder distances himself from an earlier generation of commentators who “generally assumed that the old man is Melville and that the country is the foothills of the Massachusetts Berkshires, where Melville lived from 1850 to 1863,” concluding, “in fact, I find it hard to picture the narrator as a Northerner at all: the country which he describes sounds too much like the Land of Cotton” (130).

Quite obviously, the narrator of any literary text does not necessarily represent its author, and in the case of “I and My Chimney”, if the narrator is not inevitably coincident with the author, then it follows that the setting of the story is not necessarily coincident with “the foothills of the Massachusetts Berkshires.” That said, the position of critics prior to Sowder that the setting is Massachusetts, and by extension that the narrator is Melville (a Southern sympathizer displaced to the North), hints at an oversight in the traditional allegorical reading of Melville’s text—related to its spatializations—the implications of which Sowder misses.

Think about it: “too much like the Land of Cotton” is an exceedingly odd phrase; “too much like” the South, but not conclusively like the South (Sowder 130)! A key characteristic of Melville’s story is the ambiguity of its setting and, by extension, of its directionality. For the text to operate (following Chatfield, Emery, Sealts and Sowder) as a straightforward allegory of the American North-South relationship, the terms “north” and “south” cannot afford to be problematized. Even so, whereas so much in the story reads as related to either the South or the North, as cultural locations, the notions of “south-ness” and “north-ness” themselves are made friable (in this article, the lower case broadly indicates the material domain, the upper case, the cultural). At its most fundamental allegorical level, the story undoes its own allegorical expressions; as I will be arguing, the materiality of its directionality deconstructs what everything else in the text strives (allegorically) to maintain.

Remarkably, for a text purporting to allegorize the North as the South’s polar opposite, nowhere does the story definitively indicate where it is set. The absence of place names or other textual features which might place “I and My Chimney” in the South, is over-compensated for by an abundance of geographically distracting signifiers of “place-ness” that negatively emphasize the circumstance that the story is not set definitively where it is set suggestively. The narrator muses at one point that “in fact, I’ve often thought that the proper place for my old chimney is ivied old England” (332). Elsewhere, further destabilizing the geographical coordinates of the text, reference is made to “the garden of Versailles” (329). Again, the architect Hiram Scribe’s house is named New Petra. Rich as it is with cultural resonances, at base, Petra denominates a city in Jordan; New Petra, by contrast, is place-less.

It would appear that something strange is going on with allegory in this deceptively straightforward allegory, and that this strangeness is linked to equally strange goings on with the geographical and directional relations of north and south, as sites of the historical and cultural American North and South that the story allegorizes so assiduously. As tensions between North and South would shortly lead to the Civil War, Melville writes an allegorical text clearly about these tensions, while simultaneously deconstructing the allegorical index of geographical north to cultural North and of geographical south to cultural South.

Fredric Jameson’s work on allegory scaffolds the historically and materially nuanced reading I am proposing of “I and My Chimney”. Jameson writes:

Our traditional conception of allegory—based, for instance, on stereotypes of Bunyan—is that of an elaborate set of figures and personifications to be read against some one-to-one table of equivalences: this is, so to speak, a one-dimensional view of this signifying process, which might only be set in motion and complexified were we willing to entertain the more alarming notion that such equivalences are themselves in constant change and transformation at each perpetual present of the text. (73)

As American history undergoes transformation, Melville foreshadows Jameson’s transformation of allegory through his (Melville’s) own transformations of directionality and place. In a story about North and South, are we in the south or the north? Allegorical “equivalences are themselves in constant change and transformation at each perpetual present of the text” (Jameson 73). North-north equivalences falter; South-south equivalences falter.

As noted above, the chimney of Melville’s story—“swung vertical to hit the meridian moon”—insists upon a north-south axis, much as, in an allegorical mode, the vertical “I” of the narrator structures a polarity of north and south (327). However, a closer reading shows that the chimney is no less complicit in the confusion of north and south than the environs of the house it occupies:

In those houses which are strictly double houses—that is, where the hall is in the middle—the fire-places usually are on opposite sides; so that while one member of the household is warming himself at a fire built into a recess of the north wall, say another member, the former’s own brother, perhaps, may be holding his feet to the blaze before a hearth in the south wall—the two thus fairly sitting back to back. Is this well? (328)

Here, Melville is directly allegorizing the “sulky” state of the American nation; the brothers are, as it were, North and South (328). However, just as the text’s signifiers of place problematize the notions of north and south (and thus the associated cultural resonances of capitalized North and South), this passage, in queering the axes of the chimneys, further upsets the primary allegory. The same chimney that structures Melville’s text along a north-south or up-down orientation, now defers to an east-west axis, for the back-to-back and (in cultural and allegorical terms) North-South brothers, sit at a 90-degree angle to their house’s chimneys, which thus logically manifest a cross-wise orientation of east-west (in cultural and allegorical terms, East-West). To this extent, there is something of an exquisite crossover and confusion of cultural North and South, as represented by the two brothers, and geographical/architectural/architectonic north and south (now vacillating between an east-west and a north-south orientation). The North-South cultural relationship of the brothers distorts the allegorical force of the narrator’s spine-like chimney (not to mention of the brother’s respective chimneys), thus enflaming Jameson’s allegorical equivalences. The promiscuous literality of the smokestack—Katja Kanzler notes the “astonishing materiality” of the chimney—subverts its main allegorical function; directionality both supports and disrupts allegory (591). Simply put, there is a disjunction between words and material circumstances; the “way of speaking… is hardly borne out by the facts” (Melville 327).

The not unjustified critical focus on “I and My Chimney” as an allegory of North-South cultural (and shortly wartime) tensions, has not kept up with post-structural developments in allegorical theory as represented in Fredric Jameson’s work. In part, I suggest, this is because critics to date have missed the importance to Melville’s allegory of its extra-textual context. According to William J. Sowder, “Melville showed a lively interest in such contemporary social events as the gold rush, the French Revolution of 1848, and the activities of the English Chartists” (129). The pity is that readings of “I and My Chimney” have limited this “lively interest” to the Civil War. Melville’s attentiveness to “contemporary social events” should also encompass, I suggest, the East-West (east-west) dynamic of mid-nineteenth century American history, as much as the North-South (north-south) dynamic.

The redialing of Melville’s allegory along another directional axis is thus accounted for. When “I and My Chimney” was published in 1856, there was, of course, at least one other major historical development in play besides the prospect of the Civil War, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny ran, not to put it too finely, along an East-West (east-west) axis. Indeed, Manifest Destiny is at least as replete with a directional emphasis as the discourse of Civil War North-South opposition. As quoted in Frederick Merk’s Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History, Senator Daniel S. Dickinson states to the Senate, in 1848, “but the tide of emigration and the course of empire have since been westward” (Merk 29). Allied to this tradition, of course, is the well-known contemporaneous saying, “go West, young man, go West” (“Go West, Young Man”).

To the extent that Melville’s text appears to anticipate Jameson’s post-structural theory of allegory, it may be linked, I suggest, to Melville’s sense of being at an intersection of American history. The meta-narrative of national history when “I and My Chimney” was produced had a spatial dimension to it: north-south directionality (culturally, North-South) was giving way to east-west directionality (culturally, East-West). Civil War would soon give way to Manifest Destiny; just as Melville’s texts themselves would, much later admittedly, give way to texts of Manifest Destiny in all its forms, including Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. Equivalently, as much as the narrator’s wife represents Northern “progress” she might also be taken to signify Western “ambition”.

However, it is not only that “I and My Chimney” is a switching-point text of geo-history (mediating relations, most obviously, between the tendencies of Southern Exceptionalism and of Western National Ambition) but that it operates as a potentially generalizable test case of the limits of allegory by setting up an all-too-simple allegory of North-South/north-south relations which is subsequently subtly problematized along the lines of East-West/east-west directionality. As I have argued, Melville’s “experimental allegory” continually diverts words (that is, the symbols allegory relies upon) through the turbulence of material circumstances.

North, or north, is simultaneously a cultural and a geographical or directional coordinate of Melville’s text, and the chimney of “I and My Chimney” is both a signifier of the difference between N/north and S/south and also a portal to a 360-degrees all-encompassing engagement of (allegorical) writing with history in all its (spatialized) manifestations.


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Author Biography

Patrick Leslie West, Deakin University

Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature in the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne Campus.