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Titian and the Sketch of Daniel Orme

Melville’s last known allusion to Titian in advance of his own death in 1891 comes in the opening sentence of “The Story of Daniel Orme,” left unpublished at his death. The allusion to Titian begins the story itself: “A profound portrait-painter like Titian or our famous countryman Stuart, what such an observer sees in any face he may earnestly study, that is the man.” The visible truth such an artist can directly convey, the narrator goes on to suggest, is much more accurate than what can be conveyed about a person in either a prose sketch or spoken gossip. Melville’s Daniel Orme is himself a retired sailor. Orme was not a naval hero like the commander celebrated in “Commemorative of a Naval Victory” twenty-five years earlier, but simply “a man of war’s man.” He does resemble the commander at the end of Melville’s poem, and Melville himself, in that he had outlived the lives of those former contemporaries who would have known him for what he had then been at is best (“of whose earlier history, it may verily be said, that nobody know anything but himself”). In the course of has naval career Orme had been demoted from “Captain of a top” to a lowly position of at the foot of the mast until he “belays his last halyard and slips into obscure moorings ashore.” That last modest service had been "long, long ago” (NN BBO 232-35).

Visually, Danie Orme is picturesque: his face is “peppered all below the eyes with dense dottings of black-blue,” the result of “a cartridge explosion.” Somewhat less picturesque, perhaps, was his “iron-gray beard broad as a commodore’s pennant, and, about the mouth, indelibly streaked with the moodily dribbled tobacco juices of all his cruises.” Most picturesque of all were the dramatic markings engraved on the front of his body that he kept to himself as much as possible. These included “a crucifix in indigo and vermillion tattooed on his chest and on the side of his heart. Slantwise crossing the crucifix, and paling the pigment there ran a whitish scar long and thin, such as might ensue from the slash of a cutlass imperfectly parried or dodged” (NN BBO 233-34).

Orme protected the privacy of those personal markings so tenaciously during his life on shore that one resident of the "obscure" boarding house in which he had "moored" resorted to drugging him to get a unobstructed look which then led to unfounded rumors and much speculation as to their source or meaning. Yet so withdrawn had Orme chosen to be from commonplace social discourse that he had remained unaware of either this invasion of his personhood or its gossipy ramifications. He remained an isolato to the end of his unremarkable life: “He lies buried among other sailors for whom also strangers performed the last rites in a lonely plot, overgrown with wild eglantine, uncared for by man” (234-35).

At one point in the surviving manuscript of “Story of Daniel Orme” Melville refers to the story itself as his “present essay at a sketch” of a man (232). In this context the word “essay” conveys an attempt to achieve through expository prose the kind of reality depicted in a visual “sketch.” The story he is writing is, in essence, an ekphrastic prose poem about a painted portrait that does not exist. Melville is writing with the explicit recognition that such a portrait, if painted by a Titian or a Stewart, could convey, immediately, much more reality that any portrait in words. This prose sketch that Melville presently essayed in words, surrounded by his impressive library and print collection in the last years of his life, was his own acknowledgement of the familiar saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

The “Story of Daniel Orme” as we have it today consists of about five hundred words that the editors of the Northwestern Newberry edition have meticulously disentangled and artfully salvaged from the complex maze of layers and stages in the manuscript leaves Melville left behind (see NN BBO 858-74). The text preserves many of those picturesque images and phrases Melville used to suggest the kind of peppered complexion, streaks within a beard, colors and shapes tattooed across a chest, and slash marks “paling the pigment” that a gifted portrait painter might seize upon in the alchemical process of converting visible truth into that which lies beneath.

It is hard to know exactly what Melville might have made of the uncompleted, unpublished "Story of Daniel Orme." We know that he was still working on it during the last years of his life because its surviving manuscript includes passages that had been borrowed from the surviving manuscript of Billy Budd. In Melville’s career as a writer, this manuscript of a prose sketch relates most closely to the magazine fiction he had published in the mid-1850s after the crushing commercial failure of Pierre. In this sense, Daniel Orme joins such unsung isolatos as Bartleby, the scrivener who mindlessly copied other people’s documents, as a pioneering white-collar employee of a Wall Street office in New York City (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 1853): Hunilla, the Cholo widow who was abandoned on an island in The Encantadas after she watched, through a picturesque oval in the foliage, her husband and brother drown in a rip-tide (Putnam’s Monthly Magazine 1854); Israel Potter, consigned to a life of abject poverty in London after being shuttled between warring ships in America’s War of Independence from the British (Putnam’s 1854-55); the unnamed young New England women tethered to the paper-making machine producing blank sheets of paper in “The Tartarus of Maids” (Harper’s 1855); and Marianna, the young woman abandoned in a rotting cottage on the side of Mount Greylock after the agile America industrial machine had extracted whatever was commercially convertible from its natural resources before moving on (Piazza Tales, 1856).

In addition to relating thematically to Melville’s magazine fiction about abandoned, alienated, abject isolatos from forty years before, his Daniel Orme manuscript also relates in multiple ways to the imaginary aesthetic debate Melville had himself been conducting among Old Master painters on the nature of the picturesque in "At the Hostelry," the unpublished narrative poem on which he had worked intermittently since returning from Italy in 1857. The picturesque markings on Daniel Orme’s face, beard, and chest would presumably have caught the eye of all the Old Master painters in this open-ended pictorial symposium, whereas Orme’s declining social status and boarding house companions are likely to have been of particular interest to the “low” Dutch realists such as Adriaen Brouwer, Jan Steen, and Adriaen von Ostade among the cosmopolitan pictorial crowd. The most lively sessions in Melville’s imagined aesthetic debate are presided over by Paolo Veronese, the most socially accomplished of Titian’s artistic colleagues and successors in Venice, one of whose portraits is the subject of our next entry.