Monday, December 3, 2012

Melville (and Hawthorne!) and Scammon, again!

Recently, I've been giving thought to Hawthorne's Hester Prynne.

This films still is of Lillian Gish as Hester.  She's lovely, but Hawthorne's stubborn broad was dark of hair and eyes.

No doubt this recurrence of such an unapologetic misfit in my daily thoughts comes as a result of staying in a mind-bogglingly small California town where everybody is overly involved in everybody else's business, whether they're Chamber of Commerce types or the local matrons whose faces have been made not-quite-tantalizingly puffy with Restylane.

But it also happens to be the very same small town where I first read The Scarlet Letter in high school, before anyone knew what Restylane was. (Imagine such an innocent era!) That first reading was under the tutelage of God's gift to English students, Mr. Nicholson. (No doubt Mr. N. remains the first crush of many a book-besotted girl.)

Only someone as secretly subversive as Hawthorne could write: "The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame! Despair! Solitude! These had been her teachers!" and manage to get it onto required reading lists for late 20th-century, sophomore English classes. Maybe if we hadn't taken Hawthorne's worship of the sensuous and self-possessed Hester so seriously, we would all have married obstetricians with sturdy practices and would currently be enjoying our very respectable alimony settlements somewhere in the Caribbean.

Throughout the process of working on Garibaldi and The Farallon Egg War, I've often thought of Melville's relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, usually in context of the reports of Hawthorne's lack of enthusiasm for Melville's first draft of Moby-Dick, a novel that would eventually (given much time and the assistance of some meddling French critics) eclipse Hawthorne's own masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter.

Alfred Kazin's introduction to Hawthorne's masterpiece begins: "Why is there no opera of The Scarlet Letter?" (Why indeed, given that there's recently been a whole opera made out of Melville's Moby-Dick, a tale that would, on its face, be far more difficult to stage, if only because of the length of the harpoons, let alone the difficulty in casting a white whale?) Kazin writes that Hawthorne claimed to have discovered inspiration for his tragic novel (America's first proper tragedy which put us on the literary map!) while working in the Customs House...

...the Customs House having been the employer, of somewhat last resort, for two real-life characters who play a role in the Farallon Egg Wars: whaler-turned-marine-mammalogist Charles Melville Scammon, and the mostly ill-fated keeper of the Farallon lighthouse, Amos Clift. (As with all Customs House appointments, the apportionment of jobs was extremely political, particularly for Clift and Hawthorne.)

It was while working in the Customs House that Hawthorne claimed to have discovered not only the actual case on which The Scarlet Letter was based, but to have discovered, in the evidence bin, or the 19th-century version thereof, a worn and faded remnant of the actual scarlet letter.

The worn and faded remnant of one actual scarlet letter? That's like finding the shroud of Turin in a Goodwill box, or one of Judy Garland's ruby slippers at the MTA's lost-and-found locker.

From Kazin's intro:

"(Hawthorne) was fortunate in having as his closest friends Bowdoin classmates who were influential in the Democratic Party. One of them was Franklin Pierce, who in 1852 became fourteenth president of the United States. In 1846 Hawthorne's party friends secured him appointment as Surveyor of Salem, his native town. He needed to show himself in the Custom House only a few morning hours before getting back to his writing. In 1848, however, the Mexican war hero Zachary Taylor, running as a Whig, was elected President, and when he assumed office in 1849, Hawthorne was replaced. 

"This was devastating. Friends - including Longfellow and Lowell - had to raise a subscription for his support. Hawthorne took his dismissal as a summons to begin The Scarlet Letter, long in his mind. The central situation - a young woman punished by the Puritan theocracy for adultery by having to show the letter A on her dress - Hawthorne claimed to have discovered at the Salem Custom House in a file of old papers forgotten at the outbreak of the American Revolution by Loyalists fleeing to Nova Scotia. In the preface to his novel, The Custom-House, Hawthorne pictured himself brooding on the ancient story in the same place where he had to associate with fossilized political hacks. 

"Hawthorne even claimed to have found a "rag of scarlet letter" with still visible traces of the letter A. The enduring cruelty done to a woman possessed him, as did every record and relic of the Puritan period in which two of his ancestors had been particularly brutal condemning women who were 'witches' and Quakers.... he now pursued the story to the depths of his secretly erotic imagination." 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Brief Note from The Melville Society. (Yes, THAT Melville Society.)

Charles Melville Scammon, by eva

Last winter I was given the opportunity to lecture at San Francisco's Maritime Museum Library on one of the real-life men who played a role in the 1863 Farallon Egg War: Charles Melville Scammon.  

Scammon was the premier whaler on the West Coast, and the man who very nearly made the gray whale extinct.  He was also, and paradoxically, the man who wrote "THE" landmark book on marine mammalogy in the 19th century. He entered the egg war's fray only because he'd taken a job with the customs office patrolling the waters of the Bay and beyond.  Being a boat cop wasn't exactly his life's vocation but it was steady work for a guy working on a book project who had a family to support. 

Scammon is a character whose life is so fascinating and whose talents diverged in so many different directions that he really deserves his own book. Separately, I'd always wondered about the middle name - was there any family connection to Herman Melville, the author of the American masterpiece Moby-Dick, or, The Whale

Beside the name, there was another significant similarity:  Both men, with notable early successes under their belts, had each written a landmark book that would only be appreciated after their deaths.  And the process of writing those books had exacted a significant financial and spiritual toll on their individual lives. Failure was not just a major theme in Moby-Dick, it's a major theme in the later lives of both Scammon and Herman Melville.

Herman Melville.

Shortly before I gave the presentation at The Maritime Museum Library, I contacted the Melville Society in New York as a last-ditch effort to find a connection between the two men. I was pretty sure no one at the Melville Society would get back to me - after all, THEY are Melvillists (Herman Melvillists, at that!) and I am... a cartoonist. At the time I knew that Herman Melvill was originally a Melvill (and not a Melville), and that the shared name may not imply any family connection whatsoever, but I thought it was worth asking.

Within an hour, I had received several responses from the board at The Melville Society. Here are excerpts of some of the informal, but fascinating, responses:

"Thanks very much for this request. I learned about (Scammon) a few years ago when reading Dick Russell’s book Eye of the Whale, which documents both Scammon’s slaughter of whales in the birthing lagoons in Baja Mexico in the mid-1850s and his subsequent work as a natural biologist giving us our first comprehensive scientific view of the gray whale.  The change he made from a killer of whales to a person determined to understand and celebrate them parallels to some degree the change of consciousness Ishmael goes though in the process of narrating Moby-Dick as well as the evolution American and world culture toward the whale ever since."

Another Melvillist wrote back more specifically on the geneology:

"As far as I know Charles is not related directly, but chances are there is a link somehow. Since Charles was born in 1825, well before Herman became famous, we can rule out the possibility that he was named after Herman.  This actually happened a couple times later in the century, usually former shipmates recalling Herman, named a child after him.  Melville is French but Scots, and HM's father, uncle, and grandfather were, in their day, fascinated by the prospect that the Melvill's (without the e) were related to the Earl of Leven and Melville residing in Fife, north of Edinburgh.  And indeed they were, so one way to pursue this is to follow the assumption that Charles might also be related to the Scots lineage.  Robert Dundas, Viscount Melville, stands atop a column in Edinburgh, son (I think) of a hero of Culloden, so it was a name that had some history attached to it."

And then more from the first Melvillist:

"I would be FASCINATED to know whether Scammon knew anything about Moby-Dick (whether he was related to Herman or not).  The fact that he was a whaler a few years after the book came out in 1851 makes it possible.   If it were the case, then one wonders if Ishmael’s evolving attitude toward the whale within the book affected Scammon’s own conscious evolution or not. 

"What was it that got you thinking of Scammon and Melville together?  I was excited to see your question because of the accidental way I had come to relate Scammon and Guert Gansevoort with each other.   I am guessing you already know The Eye of the Whale.  If not, Russell himself uses Melville, as well as Scammon, as a touchstone through that book.

"One more thing.  Herman Melville was in San Francisco for several weeks, at least, in 1860.  I don’t remember seeing Scammon among people he is known to have met then, but maybe there are some mutual acquaintances whose names a person who knows about Scammon would recognize.  The place to start on that would be the appropriate chapter in volume 2 of Hershel Parker’s two-volume biography of Melville."

I'll post later on one of the characters who seems to be the link between Scammon and Herman Melville.  Later, because that man's life is surely as interesting as the great adventurers and writers Herman Melville and Charles Scammon.

One more note:  Last week, leaving the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at UC Berkeley where I was researching background scenes for Ah Toy (another real-life character who appears in Garibaldi and The Farallon Egg War), I ran into Jon Von Kowallis, the author of The Lyrical Lu Xun, who had quite a bit to say about the environment Ah Toy came out of in 19th-century China. But more about that later...
Ah Toy, by eva

Friday, July 27, 2012

click on any of the images below to expand:

You Don't Have To Be Italian To Want To Correct The Historical Record....

(click on image to expand)

In the spring of 2010, I began research for a graphic novel about the 19th-century poaching battles on San Francisco’s Farallon Islands. The monumental devastation wrought by that poaching – and the deadly battles that ensued – eventually led to federal protection of the islands’ fragile ecosystem.

Many of the archival documents characterized the poachers as Italian immigrants with criminal backgrounds. And as recently as 2005, author Susan Casey described the poachers as “mafioso” in her best-selling non-fiction book, The Devil’s Teeth.

Yet the larger historical record shows that Italian immigrants in San Francisco had a lower crime rate during that era than their European and Anglo-American peers.  The archives also document their commitment to Giuseppe Garibaldi’s visionary ideals, including his pro-feminist, anti-slavery and anti-Vatican positions.

The weapons of choice in the Italian-American community of 19th-century San Francisco weren’t firearms or knives, but newspaper editorials and fundraising drives.

Would this population really be likely to risk their lives fighting other men for the privilege of collecting seabird eggs on the Farallon Islands? And how did their progressive ideals fit into the larger history of wildlife conservation in California?

Garibaldi and the Farallon Egg War attempts to answer that question by taking a panoramic view of the forgotten progressivism of 19th-century San Francisco – and its obverse. From abolitionist Italian aristocrats to groundbreaking amateur scientists to French arms dealers to the desperate skirmishes on the Farallon Islands, the question is asked: If we had fulfilled Garibaldi’s goal of taking greater care of mankind, would mankind then have taken greater care of the wild?

My illustrated reports have previously been published in The New Yorker Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Observer. Over the past year I have compiled a truly unique set of historical documents regarding both the Farallon battles and San Francisco’s 19th-century community, which serve as the basis for the graphic novel’s narrative.  An earlier version of Garibaldi and The Farallon Egg War was warmly received in its debut at the California Academy of Sciences in October 2010, and at The Randall Museum in August, 2011 as part of their Natural History Lecture Series.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Marine Mammal Center T-shirts

The Marine Mammal Center asked me to design their 28th Annual Run for the Seals t-shirt as a comics panel. I did one in color for the adults, and one in black and white for the kiddies to color in. They apparently had a record number at the race this year... over 1,250 participants at last count.

Here's a link to one of the photos of the kids doing a masterful job of coloring in the t-shirts after the event. If only I had such a great sense of color! And here's the whole flickr file on the great RUN FOR THE SEALS!

Here's the final:

Here's are some of the sketches for the t-shirt design:
Here are a few panels from the comic book I designed for TMMC last December:

Some more...