Monday, February 22, 2016

Melville at the Paper Mill

Winding along at the bottom of the gorge is a dangerously narrow wheel-road, occupying the bed of a former torrent. Following this road to its highest point, you stand as within a Dantean gateway. From the steepness of the walls here, their strangely ebon hue, and the sudden contraction of the gorge, this particular point is called the Black Notch. The ravine now expandingly descends into a great, purple, hopper-shaped hollow, far sunk among many Plutonian, shaggy-wooded mountains. By the country people this hollow is the called Devil's Dungeon. Sounds of torrents fall on all sides upon the ear. These rapid waters unite at last in one turbid, brick-colored stream, boiling through a flume among enormous boulders. They call this strange-colored torrent Blood River. Gaining a dark precipice it wheels suddenly to the west, and makes one maniac spring of sixty feet into the arms of a stunted wood of gray-haired pines, between which it thence eddies on its further way down to the invisible lowlands.

— Herman Melville, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (emphasis added)
Herman Melville, we are told by biographer Hershel Parker, made an excursion to Carson's Old Red Mill in Dalton, Massachusetts in January 1851 in order to obtain "a sleigh-load of paper." One result was the writing of a curious narrative diptych, the second (and far more interesting) half of which — "The Tartarus of Maids" — is devoted to the narrator's fictional passage across a landscape of deep snow in order to procure supplies for his mail-order seed business from a paper factory near the aptly-named "Woedolor Mountain." It's an extraordinary (and extraordinarily odd) piece of bravura writing, marked by obsessive and blatantly allegorical use of color imagery and swirling with affinities not only to other Melville works and those of his contemporaries, but also to things as far afield as Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" and The Castle and Fritz Lang's silent-film masterpiece Metropolis.

Until around the beginning of the 19th century, paper was handcrafted in small workshops. The invention and perfection of the Fourdrinier Machine changed all that, and by Melville's time a paper mill had become, at least in his eyes, a monstrous inhuman industrial machine, "menially served" by a chilly host of pale, spectral virgins who, like their product, were spotless, blank sheets themselves:
At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.
The Carson's mill was acquired, even before Melville's visit, by the Crane & Co. stationery company, which still exists and which operates a museum in Dalton dedicated to the history of papermaking. Lothar Müller's White Magic: The Age of Paper, among its other rewards, includes a quite interesting discussion of the Melville story.


Michael Leddy said...

"Blankly folding blank paper": that's great.

Have you been to the Crane Museum? We were there some years ago, on a day or at an hour when the museum was closed. They opened for us anyway (someone was working inside, I think) and gave us a private tour, and a pad of "blank paper" for each family member. I had no idea that Melville was in the backstory (or if I once did, I'd forgotten).

Chris said...

I have not been, but I'd like to go. There are some other papermaking-related sites within an hour or two of us, so it might make an interesting themed excursion (interesting for me, at least!). I think the Crane museum has very limited opening hours.