The only short story most people are required to read in the Melville anthology is “Bartleby, the Scrivener”–a completely depressing novella about a man gone gloomy in Wall Street. People really do like Melville, and he’s gained the critical respect of the academy for his complex and vast allusive knowledge, as well as his unprecedented voyages into the realms of the post-modern (check out The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade for a sampling!)–and for these reasons and more, he’s also become something of a pop-culture doll these days.
“The Happy Failure” is the 12-page gem I wish I had started with, before Ahab, before Bartleby, before Kish. Its subtitle (Melville loves his subtitles!) is “A Story of the Hudson River,” which has a lot to say about the story come the ending. The story centers around a narrator, his aged-for-ambitions uncle, and his uncle’s black underling Yorpy, all of whom undergo taking the Hudson upstream to a secret location to test out the uncle’s long-awaited, long-suffering invention. The invention is the culmination of his uncle’s work as well as the culmination of the age of reason: a machine that will suck the water from the river and dry the swamps, man over nature, man directing his fate. Paddling against the current, strange apparatus in tow, the narrator asks his cranky uncle what it’s required:
“I am glad, dear uncle, you have revealed to me at last the nature and end of your great experiment. It is the effectual draining of swamps; an attempt, dear uncle, in which, if you do but succeed (as I know you will), you will earn the glory denied to a Roman emperor. He tried to drain the Pontine marsh, but failed.”
“The world has shot ahead the length of its own diameter since then,” quoth my uncle, proudly. “If that Roman emperor were here, I’d show him what can be done in the present enlightened age.”
Seeing my good uncle so far mollified now as to be quite self-complacent, I ventured another remark.
“This is a rather severe, hot pull, dear uncle.”
“Glory is not to be gained, youngster, without pulling hard for it–against the stream, too, as we do now. The natural tendency of man, in the mass, is to go down with the universal current into oblivion.”
“But why pull so far, dear uncle, upon the present occasion? Why pull ten miles for it? You do not propose as I understand it, to put to the actual test this admirable invention of yours. And could it not be tested almost anywhere?”
“Simple boy,” quoth my uncle, “would you have some malignant spy steal from me the fruits of ten long years of high-hearted, persevering endeavor? Solitary in my scheme, I go to a solitary place to test it. If I fail–for all things are possible–no one out of the family will know it. If I succeed, secure in the secrecy of my invention, I can boldly demand any price for its publication.”
Melville seems to be saying the glory-seeking of “enlightened” man is an upstream pursuit, a “hot pull” to a solitary place. Because you’ve worked to right-handedly make the world, you see spies on every corner trying to steal your agency. The greed of self-fulfillment blinds your good senses. You seek privacy to fulfill your dreams. You think, If I can just get rid of all the variables, I can’t go wrong.
Melville’s uncle has checked the variables over and under. All things secured, the reader has been brought into the apex of a man’s ambition, the reader is about to experience the invention at work, the culmination of a life’s pursuit in all its glory…except for the one thing the uncle forgot: Melville’s subtitle! That subtitle! Not the variables but the constant–the river itself–against which he is determined. It is the constant, the mighty Hudson–and not the checked variables–that force the direction, and not a poor man’s sad contraption. Putting the invention into the water, the river throttles the apparatus into “curious little fragments,” utterly destroying a life’s work in a pitiable tick. The uncle’s defeat is a reckoning blow, but one which forcibly–and graciously–disarms the man of his agency. The river takes over:
How swiftly the current now swept us down! How hardly before had we striven to stem it! I thought of my poor uncle’s saying, not an hour gone by, about the universal drift of the mass of humanity toward utter oblivion.
“Boy!” said my uncle at last, lifting his head. I looked at him earnestly and was gladdened to see that the terrible blight of his face had almost departed. “Boy, there’s not much left in an old world for an old man to invent…Boy, take my advice, and never try to invent anything but–happiness…But it’s all over now. Boy, I’m glad I’ve failed. I say, boy, failure has made a good old man of me. It was horrible at first, but I’m glad I’ve failed. Praise be to God for the failure!”
His face kindled with a strange, rapt earnestness. I have never forgotten that look. If the event made my uncle a good old man, as he called it, it made me a wise young one. Example did for me the work of experience.
When some years had gone by, and my dear old uncle began to fail, and, after peaceful days of autumnal content, was gathered gently to his fathers–faithful old Yorpy closing his eyes–as I took my last look at his venerable face, the pale resigned lips seemed to move. I seemed to hear again his deep, fervent cry–“Praise be to God for the failure!”