Doctor Long Ghost

One good thing about being in Iso is you have plenty of time for reading. I was in my study for a week, and in that time I was talking to my books and, better still, they were talking back to me. A few days ago Herman Melville’s Omoo leapt out of the shelves into my hands and so I read, or rather re-read, his second ‘novel’. A trade paperback copy re-published in the early 1990s by a short-lived venture from Routledge Kegan Paul called KPI Books. Some idea someone had of doing a series of Pacific Rim classics. It’s generously made but not well proofed and, given the dubious nature of the early editions of all of Melville’s books, textually unconvincing. There is also the spectacularly inappropriate cover (see above), to contend with. For all that, an entertaining read.

It was meant to be the second volume of a trilogy, all set in the Pacific in the early 1840s. Typee, the first, takes place in the Marquesas. Omoo, (the word means ‘beachcomber’), mostly in Tahiti. The third, unwritten book was going to be about Hawai’i, where Melville went after leaving Tahiti. The reasons he didn’t write it are complex but they all revolve around two questions. The first is whether the books he was writing were fiction or non-fiction; the second, the ‘morality’ of what he was doing. The two are connected. Many of his American readers were scandalised by his treatment of a/sex and b/missionaries; his English readers, not so much. They were more concerned to discover whether his books were ‘true’ or not. This because, in England, they were considered to be non-fiction.

In America, however, most people thought they were novels; which made Melville culpable for his ‘inventions’. Horace Greeley, in his review, while admitting their readability, said that both Typee and Omoo were ‘unmistakably defective if not positively diseased in moral tone.’ Both pre and post publication, Melville removed material critical of the missionaries from these books. It’s likely he would have had far worse things to report about what he’d observed in Hawai’i, where most of the men of god were American Protestants. He saw, for instance, missionaries going about Honolulu in carts pulled by their Hawai’ian ‘servants’. He decided to keep his mouth shut about all that and wrote a fable, Mardi, instead. I tried it once and found it impenetrable.

Anyway, these days, neither the somewhat arch, nudge-and-wink descriptions of Tahitian sexuality, nor the passages critical of the missionaries, are controversial or even very interesting. But the fiction / non-fiction divide still is; or at least it is to me. Melville didn’t keep a journal or a diary, nor did he make notes, during his four years at sea. But he did, evidently, spend quite a bit of time telling the stories of his adventures to his ship mates. These yarns he re-told when he went back home and eventually, it seems, someone told him he should write them down. Or perhaps he always intended to do so. His problem then became one of memory: always fallible, always unreliable, always defective in some sense or another. So what he did was augment his recall with material culled from various literary and anthropological sources. He was quite open about this; and why not? Those who have interested themselves in the matter have mostly concluded that he improved what he took.

What propels the narrative in Omoo, as in Typee, isn’t the story per se but the voice in which it is told. Walt Whitman understood: ‘The question whether these stories be authentic or not has, of course, not so much to do with their interest. One can revel in such richly good natured style, if nothing else,’ he wrote in his review. Omoo is a comic novel and much of its comedy revolves around the extraordinary figure of Doctor Long Ghost, Melville’s companion ashore in Tahiti.

He’s a Sydney-sider whom the unnamed narrator meets on board the Australian whaler that takes him off from the Marquesas. The ship’s doctor, he has had some kind of dispute with the captain and resigned his position, going forward to live amongst the increasingly surly and obstreperous crew; who, eventually, refuse to work the ship any more and are first clapped in irons in the hold of a French Man of War, then put in the stocks in a so-called ‘prison’ ashore. Later the two men ‘escape’ and wander from place to place until the narrator (but not Long Ghost) enlists on an American whaler and sails for the East.

The Doctor is tall and thin, garrulous and unscrupulous, motived entirely by his appetites – for food, drink and sex. He is averse to any kind of work and infinitely devious in his attempts to avoid it. And yet, because he is a kindly man and believes in keeping up appearances, he is often the unwitting cause of his own downfall. All this his mate observes, records and (occasionally) editorialises upon. Long Ghost is far travelled: he has been everywhere and done everything and is full of stories (none of which we ever actually hear). They are most likely lies anyway.

He always brings to mind someone I knew in my early days in Sydney, when I was working as proof-reader for an outfit called Rotary Offset Press (‘Rot Off’) down in Camperdown, opposite where the Children’s Hospital used to be. Darcy Waters was famous in the small world of the Sydney Push and he moved in accord with the knowledge of his unique distinction. His obsessions were horse-racing, drinking and a kind of anarchism which didn’t hesitate to lay down rules of conduct which must be obeyed. He hung out at Café Sport in Leichhardt and referred to his home (where I never went) as ‘the hovel’.

Before I left the job, or before he did, he gave me a book which I still have. It’s a biography of the Spanish anarchist Francesc Sabaté, written by Antonio Tellez. When he gave it to me, Darcy told me the story of how he had gone to Paris to meet Tellez; it was a kind of pilgrimage. And he did meet him: only to find that Tellez, an anarchist himself, and a journalist and writer, didn’t know who he was and didn’t care. I gather Darcy turned up at his door, book in hand, and was told to go away. It isn’t signed.

I think that’s why he gave it to me: Tellez was a god who failed. Darcy’s vanity was wounded in the same way Doctor Long Ghost’s is when things don’t go according to plan. For instance, the time he tries to make love to a fourteen year old Tahitian girl and she responds by stabbing him (it isn’t clear where) with a thorn. Long Ghost, like Darcy Waters, despite all his vanities, his absurdities and his peccadillos, is impossible to dislike.

I got a lot out of re-reading Omoo, not least because I recognised, in its modus operandi, some of the techniques I’ve used in writing ‘non-fiction’; specifically, the augmenting of memory using written sources of various kinds. And, I suppose, an understanding of the primary importance of authenticity of voice as a means of telling a story and keeping a reader’s attention.

I also wondered when I’d first read it and that question was answered when, between pages 288 and 289, I found a newspaper clipping, from the Sydney Morning Herald, dated in my own hand: 11.2.91. The clipping, which is very short, is headed: ‘Rare Parrots Seized’ and reports the arrest of an Austrian national at Perth Airport with three rare Asian Rose Ringneck parrots hidden in his luggage. They were worth $5000 each back then. The man had flown in from Singapore with the birds but the article doesn’t say where in his baggage they were found. I was writing a screenplay with a director friend at the time, about bird smuggling; that’s why I would have clipped it. After we applied, unsuccessfully, for funding, someone who must have seen our script stole the idea and made a not very good film out of it.

To return to Doctor Long Ghost. The original of the character was a man called John Troy, a Sydney-sider, not a doctor, but a steward, who’d been banished to the forecastle on the Australian whaler the Lucy Ann for some misdemeanour – fraud, or petty theft, or something of that nature. Ship’s stewards did sometimes carry remedies with them and that’s probably where Melville got the idea of making him a doctor. His roguishness, however, seems to have been native to the man.

In my quest to find out more, I came across a book an American scholar spent twenty-five years assembling and yet left unfinished at his death. His heirs have completed it and a copy of Herman Melville’s Whaling Years, by Wilson Heflin, is on its way to me as I write. I’m hoping there’s more about John Troy in there. He’s probably implicated in the invention, some years later, of Long John Silver.

images : a poor photo of my copy of Omoo; a Rose Ringneck parrot

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