A failure at business and a failure at life, Jimmy Rose was a lot like the rest of his generation–drowning in change.
Melville's Short Stories, Part Seven
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Herman Melville’s “Jimmy Rose” was first published in Harper’s, 1855, smack in the middle of the most raucously expansionary and transformative decade in American history to that date. During the 1850s, increasingly massive corporations and their hordes of hired laborers cut huge swathes of land for railroads. Telegraph cables stretched like some magic, invisible creature’s tendrils across the country. Wherever it seemed sensible to build a railroad, they needed a telegraph to go with it. It was the boomingest time, for the boomiest people, in the most booming country the world had ever seen, and it all seemed fantastical. For the generation of artists and intellectuals who experienced this transformative era over its entire span–America was truly young again. A democratic, entrepreneurial, eternally hopeful spirit pervaded the country and swept Whigs and Jacksonians alike into frenzies for progress, reform, and expansion. In so many ways, Jacksonian history was a thirty or forty year‐long stream of change in practically every area of life and no one who was alive at the beginning could have predicted what sort of world they’d have by the end. Jacksonians who might once have taken weeks to sail from New York to New Orleans now transmitted their thoughts instantly in the form of electronic signals over wires. Within a few decades more, and the cables stretched undersea across the oceans.
This was Melville’s world, and incredible as it was, unpredictability and change can both cause great pain. Our story’s main character is the era’s archetypical petty entrepreneur, for better and for worse. “Poor Jimmy Rose,” Melville writes with half a dose of sorrow and half a dose of sternness, “was a ruined man.” Our narrator begins by describing his quite high‐society dwelling (which sounds very much like a hodge‐podge attempt to copy what an American upstart thinks European mansions are supposed to look like). The unfortunate Jimmy Rose was both one of the narrator’s “earliest acquaintances” and one of the home’s former owners. Rose was given no great start in life, but was of significant enough origins and had a handsome enough figure that life for him was awfully sweet. Whatever success he wanted was his, “but times changed.” The Jacksonian economy was a bit of a rollercoaster already, but when storms sank Rose’s trading vessels packed full of goods from China his ruination was assured. Poor Jimmy Rose, now with nothing but his poverty, became a recluse fearful of all and trusting no one. He lived as an outcast, pursued endlessly by creditors and pitied by those who knew him before. As he lived on charity, he clung–perhaps in desperation–to earlier affectations to aristocracy. Maybe that was all he knew, or maybe that’s all he felt he ever did well. Like everyone else, Jimmy Rose eventually died, and our narrator is left looking at the splendorous peacocks strolling about Rose’ old residence. In their glorious fans, he sees Jimmy’s high point, the crest of his achievements; and through Jimmy Rose’s sad life our narrator glimpses himself, his own fleeting life and legacy of material acquisitions, and his own pretensions to success–sobering reflections in an age of short‐sighted conquerors.
By Herman Melville. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1855.
A TIME ago, no matter how long precisely, I, an old man, removed from the country to the city, having become unexpected heir to a great old house in a narrow street of one of the lower wards, once the haunt of style and fashion, full of gay parlors and bridal chambers, but now, for the most part, transformed into counting‐rooms and warehouses. There bales and boxes usurp the place of sofas; daybooks and ledgers are spread where once the delicious breakfast toast was buttered. In those old wards the glorious old soft‐warfle days are over.
Nevertheless, in this old house of mine, so strangely spared, some monument of departed days survived. Nor was this the only one. Amidst the warehouse ranges some few other dwellings likewise stood. The street’s transmutation was not yet complete. Like those old English friars and nuns, long haunting the ruins of their retreats after they had been despoiled, so some few strange old gentlemen and ladies still lingered in the neighborhood, and would not, could not, might not quit it. And I thought that when, one spring, emerging from my white‐blossoming orchard, my own white hairs and white ivory‐headed cane were added to their loitering census, that those poor old souls insanely fancied the ward was looking up—the tide of fashion setting back again.
For many years the old house had been occupied by an owner; those into whose hands it from time to time had passed having let it out to various shifting tenants; decayed old townspeople, mysterious recluses, or transient, ambiguous‐looking foreigners.
While from certain cheap furbishings to which the exterior had been subjected, such as removing a fine old pulpit‐like porch crowning the summit of six lofty steps, and set off with a broad‐brimmed sounding‐board overshadowing the whole, as well as replacing the original heavy window shutters (each pierced with a crescent in the upper panel to admit an Oriental and moony light into the otherwise shut‐up rooms of a sultry morning in July) with frippery Venetian blinds; while, I repeat, the front of the house hereby presented an incongruous aspect, as if the graft of modernness had not taken in its ancient stock; still, however it might fare without, within little or nothing had been altered. The cellars were full of great grim, arched bins of blackened brick, looking like the ancient tombs of Templars, while overhead were shown the first‐floor timbers, huge, square, and massive, all red oak, and through long elm, of a rich and Indian color. So large were those timbers, and so thickly ranked, that to walk in those capacious cellars was much like walking along a line‐of‐battle ship’s gun‐deck.
All the rooms in each story remained just as they stood ninety years ago with all their heavy‐moulded, wooden cornices, paneled wainscots, and carved and inaccessible mantels of queer horticultural and zoological devices. Dim with longevity, the very covering of the walls still preserved the patterns of the times of Louis XVI. In the largest parlor (the drawing‐room, my daughters called it, in distinction from two smaller parlors, though I did not think the distinction indispensable) the paper hangings were in the most gaudy style. Instantly we knew such paper could only have come from Paris—genuine Versailles paper—the sort of paper that might have hung in Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. It was of great diamond lozenges, divided by massive festoons of roses (onions, Biddy the girl said they were, but my wife soon changed Biddy’s mind on that head); and in those lozenges, one and all, as in an over‐arbored garden‐cage, sat a grand series of gorgeous illustrations of the natural history of the most imposing Parisian‐looking birds; parrots, macaws, and peacocks, but mostly peacocks. Real Prince Esterhazies of birds; all rubies, diamonds and Orders of the Golden Fleece. But, alas! the north side of this old apartment presented a strange look; half mossy and half mildew; something as ancient forest trees on their north sides, to which particular side the moss most clings, and where, they say, internal decay first strikes. In short, the original resplendence of the peacocks had been sadly dimmed on that north side of the room, owing to a small leak in the eaves, from which the rain had slowly trickled its way down the wall, clean down to the first floor. This leak the irreverent tenants, at that period occupying the premises, did not see fit to stop, or rather, did not think it worth their while, seeing that they only kept their fuel and dried their clothes in the parlor of the peacocks. Hence many of the glowing birds seemed as if they had their princely plumage bedraggled in a dusty shower. Most mournfully their starry trains were blurred. Yet so patiently and so pleasantly, nay, here and there so ruddily did they seem to hide their bitter doom, so much of real elegance still lingered in their shapes, and so full, too, seemed they of a sweet engaging pensiveness, meditating all day long, for years and years, among their faded bowers, that though my family repeatedly adjured me (especially my wife, who, I fear, was too young for me) to destroy the whole hen‐roost, as Biddy called it, and cover the walls with a beautiful, nice, genteel, cream‐colored paper, despite all entreaties, I could not be prevailed upon, however submissive in other things.
But chiefly would I permit no violation of the old parlor of the peacocks or room of roses (I call it by both names) on account of its long association in my mind with one of the original proprietors of the mansion—the gentle Jimmy Rose.
Poor Jimmy Rose!
He was among my earliest acquaintances. It is not many years since he died; and I and two other tottering old fellows took hack, and in sole procession followed him to his grave.
Jimmy was born a man of moderate fortune. In his prime he had an uncommonly handsome person; large and manly, with bright eyes of blue, brown curling hair, and cheeks that seemed painted with carmine; but it was health’s genuine bloom, deepened by the joy of life. He was by nature a great ladies’ man, and like most deep adorers of the sex, never tied up his freedom of general worship by making one willful sacrifice of himself at the altar.
Adding to his fortune by a large and princely business, something like that of the great Florentine trader, Cosmo the Magnificent, he was enabled to entertain on a grand scale. For a long time his dinners, suppers and balls, were not to be surpassed by any given in the party‐giving city of New York. His uncommon cheeriness; the splendor of his dress; his sparkling wit; radiant chandeliers; infinite fund of small‐talk; French furniture; glowing welcomes to his guests; his bounteous heart and board; his noble graces and his glorious wine; what wonder if all these drew crowds to Jimmy’s hospitable abode? In the winter assemblies he figured first on the manager’s list. James Rose, Esq., too, was the man to be found foremost in all presentations of plate to highly successful actors at the Park, or of swords and guns to highly successful generals in the field. Often, also, was he chosen to present the gift on account of his fine gift of finely saying fine things.
“Sir,” said he, in a great drawing‐room in Broadway, as he extended toward General G— a brace of pistols set with turquoise, “Sir.” said Jimmy with a Castilian flourish and a rosy smile, “there would have been more turquoise here set, had the names of your glorious victories left room.”
Ah, Jimmy, Jimmy! Thou didst excel in compliments. But it was in‐wrought with thy inmost texture to be affluent in all things which give pleasure. And who shall reproach thee with borrowed wit on this occasion, though borrowed indeed it was? Plagiarize otherwise as they may, not often are the men of this world plagiarists in praise.
But times changed. Time, true plagiarist of the seasons.
Sudden and terrible reverses in business were made mortal by mad prodigality on all hands. When his affairs came to be scrutinized, it was found that Jimmy could not pay more than fifteen shillings in the pound. And yet in time the deficiency might have been made up—of course, leaving Jimmy penniless—had it not been that in one winter gale two vessels of his from China perished off Sandy Hook; perished at the threshold of their port.
Jimmy was a ruined man.
It was years ago. At that period I resided in the country, but happened to be in the city on one of my annual visits. It was but four or five days since seeing Jimmy at his house the centre of all eyes, and hearing him at the close of the entertainment toasted by a brocaded lady, in these well‐remembered words: “Our noble host; the bloom on his cheek, may it last long as the bloom in his heart!” And they, the sweet ladies and gentlemen there, they drank that toast so gayly and frankly off; and Jimmy, such a kind, proud, grateful tear stood in his honest eye, angelically glancing round at the sparkling faces, and equally sparkling, and equally feeling, decanters.
Ah! poor, poor Jimmy—God guard us all—poor Jimmy Rose !
Well, it was but four or five days after this that I heard a clap of thunder no, a clap of bad news. I was crossing the Bowling Green in a snow‐storm not far from Jimmy’s house on the Battery, when I saw a gentleman come sauntering along, whom I remembered at Jimmy’s table as having been the first to spring to his feet in eager response to the lady’s toast. Not more brimming the wine in his lifted glass than the moisture in his eye on that happy occasion.
Well, this good gentleman came sailing across the Bowling Green, swinging a silver‐headed rattan; seeing me, he paused: “Ah, lad, that was rare wine Jimmy gave us the other night. Sha’n’t get any more, though. Heard the news? Jimmy’s burst. Clean smash, I assure you. Come along down to the Coffee‐house and I’ll tell you more. And if you say so, we’ll arrange over a bottle of claret for a sleighing party to Cato’s to‐night. Come along.”
“Thank you,” said I, “I—I—I am engaged.”
Straight as an arrow I went to Jimmy’s. Upon inquiring for him, the man at the door told me that his master was not in; nor did he know where he was; nor had his master been in the house for forty‐eight hours.
Walking up Broadway again, I questioned passing acquaintances; but though each man verified the report, no man could tell where Jimmy was, and no one seemed to care, until I encountered a merchant, who hinted that probably Jimmy, having scraped up from the wreck a snug lump of coin, had prudently betaken himself off to parts unknown. The next man I saw, a great nabob he was too, foamed at the mouth when I mentioned Jimmy’s name. “Rascal; regular scamp, Sir, is Jimmy Rose! But there are keen fellows after him.” I afterward heard that this indignant gentleman had lost the sum of seventy‐five dollars and seventy‐five cents indirectly through Jimmy’s failure. And yet I dare say the share of the dinners he had eaten at Jimmy’s might more than have balanced that sum, considering that he was something of a wine‐bibber, and such wines as Jimmy imported cost a plum or two. Indeed, now that I bethink me, I recall how I had more than once observed this same middle‐aged gentleman, and how that toward the close of one of Jimmy’s dinners he would sit at the table pretending to be earnestly talking with beaming Jimmy, but all the while, with a half furtive sort of tremulous eagerness and hastiness, pour down glass after glass of noble wine, as if now, while Jimmy’s bounteous sun was at meridian, was the time to make his selfish hay.
At last I met a person famed for his peculiar knowledge of whatever was secret or withdrawn in the histories and habits of noted people. When I inquired of this person where Jimmy could possibly be, he took me close to Trinity Church rail, out of the jostling of the crowd, and whispered me, that Jimmy had the evening before entered an old house of his (Jimmy’s), in C— Street, which old house had been for a time untenanted. The inference seemed to be that perhaps Jimmy might be lurking there now. So getting the precise locality, I bent my steps in that direction, and at last halted before the house containing the room of roses. The shutters were closed, and cobwebs were spun in their crescents. The whole place had a dreary, deserted air. The snow lay unswept, drifted in one billowed heap against the porch, no footprint tracking it. Whoever was within, surely that lonely man was an abandoned one. Few or no people were in the street; for even at that period one fashion of the street had departed from it, while trade had not as yet occupied what its rival had renounced.
Looking up and down the sidewalk a moment, I softly knocked at the door. No response. I knocked again, and louder. No one came. I knocked and rung both; still without effect. In despair I was going to quit the spot, when, as a last resource, I gave a prolonged summons, with my utmost strength, upon the heavy knocker, and then again stood still; while from various strange old windows up and down the street, various strange old heads were thrust out in wonder at so clamorous a stranger. As if now frightened from its silence, a hollow, husky voice addressed me through the keyhole.
“Who are you?” it said.
“Then shall you not come in,” replied the voice, more hollowly than before.
Great heavens! this is not Jimmy Rose, thought I, starting. This is the wrong house. I have been misdirected. But still, to make all sure, I spoke again.
“Is James Rose within there?”
Once more I spoke:
“I am William Ford; let me in.”
“Oh, I can not, I can not! I am afraid of every one.”
It was Jimmy Rose!
“Let me in, Rose; let me in, man. I am your friend.”
“I will not. I can trust no man now.”
“Let me in, Rose; trust at least one, in me.”
“Quit the spot, or—”
With that I heard a rattling against the huge lock, not made by any key, as if some small tube were being thrust into the keyhole. Horrified, I fled fast as feet could carry me. I was a young man then, and Jimmy was not more than forty. It was five‐and‐twenty years ere I saw him again. And what a change. He whom I expected to behold—if behold at all—dry, shrunken, meagre, cadaverously fierce with misery and misanthropy—amazement! the old Persian roses bloomed in his cheeks. And yet poor as any rat; poor in the last dregs of poverty; a pauper beyond almshouse pauperism; a promenading pauper in a thin, threadbare, careful coat; a pauper with wealth of polished words; a courteous, smiling, shivering gentleman.
Ah, poor, poor Jimmy—God guard us all—poor Jimmy Rose !
Though at the first onset of his calamity, when creditors, once fast friends, pursued him as carrion for jails; though then, to avoid their hunt, as well as the human eye, he had gone and denned in the old abandoned house; and there, in his loneliness, had been driven half mad, yet time and tide had soothed him down to sanity. Perhaps at bottom Jimmy was too thoroughly good and kind to be made from any cause a man‐hater. And doubtless it at last seemed irreligious to Jimmy even to shun mankind.
Sometimes sweet sense of duty will entice one to bitter doom. For what could be more bitter now, in abject need, to be seen of those—nay, crawl and visit them in an humble sort, and be tolerated as an old eccentric, wandering in their parlors—who once had known him richest of the rich, and gayest of the gay? Yet this Jimmy did. Without rudely breaking him right down to it, fate slowly bent him more and more to the lowest deep. From an unknown quarter he received an income of some seventy dollars, more or less. The principal he would never touch, but, by various modes of eking it out, managed to live on the interest. He lived in an attic, where he supplied himself with food. He took but one regular repast a day—meal and milk—and nothing more, unless procured at others’ tables. Often about the tea‐hour he would drop in upon some old acquaintance, clad in his neat, forlorn frock coat, with worn velvet sewed upon the edges of the cuffs, and a similar device upon the hems of his pantaloons, to hide that dire look of having been grated off by rats. On Sunday he made a point of always dining at some fine house or other.
It is evident that no man could with impunity be allowed to lead this life unless regarded as one who, free from vice, was by fortune brought so low that the plummet of pity alone could reach him. Not much merit redounded to his entertainers because they did not thrust the starving gentleman forth when he came for his alms of tea and toast. Some merit had been theirs had they clubbed together and provided him, at small cost enough, with a sufficient income to make him, in point of necessaries, independent of the daily dole of charity; charity not sent to him either, but charity for which he had to trudge round to their doors.
But the most touching thing of all were those roses in his cheeks; those ruddy roses in his nipping winter. How they bloomed; whether meal or milk, and tea and toast could keep them flourishing; whether now he painted them; by what strange magic they were made to blossom so; no son of man might tell. But there they bloomed. And besides the roses, Jimmy was rich in smiles. He smiled ever. The lordly door which received him to his eleemosynaiy teas, know no such smiling guest as Jimmy. In his prosperous days the smile of Jimmy was famous far and wide. It should have been trebly famous now.
Wherever he went to tea, he had all of the news of the town to tell. By frequenting the reading‐rooms, as one privileged through harmlessness, he kept himself informed of European affairs and the last literature, foreign and domestic. And of this, when encouragement was given, he would largely talk. But encouragement was not always given. At certain houses, and not a few, Jimmy would drop in about ten minutes before the tea‐hour, and drop out again about ten minutes after it; well knowing that his further presence was not indispensable to the contentment or felicity of his host.
How forlorn it was to see him so heartily drinking the generous tea, cup after cup, and eating the flavorous bread and butter, piece after piece, when, owing to the lateness of the dinner hour with the rest, and the abundance of that one grand meal with them, no one besides Jimmy touched the bread and butter, or exceeded a single cup of Souchong. And knowing all this very well, poor Jimmy would try to hide his hunger, and yet gratify it too, by striving hard to carry on a sprightly conversation with his hostess, and throwing in the eagerest mouthfuls with a sort of absent‐minded air, as if he ate merely for custom’s sake, and not starvation’s.
Poor, poor Jimmy—God guard us all—poor Jimmy Rose!
Neither did Jimmy give up his courtly ways. Whenever there were ladies at the table, sure were they of some fine word; though, indeed, toward the close of Jimmy’s life, the young ladies rather thought his compliments somewhat musty, smacking of cocked hats and small clothes—nay, of old pawnbrokers’ shoulder‐lace and sword belts. For there still lingered in Jimmy’s address a subdued sort of martial air; he having in his palmy days been, among other things, a general of the State militia. There seems a fatality in these militia generalships. Alas ! I can recall more than two or three gentlemen who from militia generals became paupers. I am afraid to think why this is so. Is it that this military learning in a man of an unmilitary heart—that is, a gentle, peaceable heart—is an indication of some weak love of vain display? But ten to one it is not so. At any rate, it is unhandsome, if not unchristian, in the happy, too much to moralize on those who are not so.
So numerous were the houses that Jimmy visited, or so cautious was he in timing his less welcome calls, that at certain mansions he only dropped in about once a year or so. And annually upon seeing at that house the blooming Miss Frances or Miss Arabella, he would profoundly bow in his forlorn old coat, and with his soft, white hand take hers in gallant‐wise, saying, “Ah, Miss Arabella, these jewels here are bright upon these fingers; but brighter would they look were it not for those still brighter diamonds of your eyes !”
Though in thy own need thou hadst no pence to give the poor, thou, Jimmy, still hadst alms to give the rich. For not the beggar chattering at the corner pines more after bread than the vain heart after compliment. The rich in their craving glut, as the poor in their craving want, we have with us always. So, I suppose, thought Jimmy Rose.
But all women are not vain, or if a little grain that way inclined, more than redeem it all with goodness. Such was the sweet girl that closed poor Jimmy’s eyes. The only daughter of an opulent alderman, she knew Jimmy well, and saw to him in his declining days. During his last sickness, with her own hands she carried him jellies and blanc‐mange; made tea for him in his attic, and turned the poor old gentleman in his bed. And well hadst thou deserved it, Jimmy, at that fair creature’s hands; well merited to have the old eyes closed by woman’s fairy fingers, who through life, in riches and in poverty, was still woman’s sworn champion and devotee.
I hardly know that I should mention here one little incident connected with this young lady’s ministrations, and poor Jimmy’s reception of them. But it is harm to neither; I will tell it.
Chancing to be in town, and hearing of Jimmy’s illness, I went to see him. And there in his lone attic I found the lovely ministrant. Withdrawing upon seeing another visitor, she left me alone with him. She had brought some little delicacies, and also several books, of such a sort as are sent by serious‐minded well‐wishers to invalids in a serious crisis. Now whether it was repugnance at being considered next door to death, or whether it was but the natural peevishment brought on by the general misery of his state; however it was, as the gentle girl withdrew, Jimmy, with what small remains of strength were his, pitched the books into the furthest corner, murmuring, “Why will she bring me this sad old stuff? Does she take me for a pauper? Thinks she to salve a gentleman’s heart with Poor Man’s Plaster?”
Poor, poor Jimmy—God guard us all—poor Jimmy Rose!
Well, well, I am an old man, and I suppose these tears I drop are dribblets from my dotage. But Heaven be praised, Jimmy needs no man’s pity now.
Jimmy Rose is dead!
Meantime, as I sit within the parlor of the peacocks—that chamber from which his husky voice had come ere threatening me with the pistol—I still must meditate upon his strange example, whereof the marvel is, how after that gay, dashing, nobleman’s career, he could be content to crawl through life, and peep about the marbles and mahoganies for contumelious tea and toast, where once like a very Warwick he had feasted the huzzaing world with Burgundy and venison.
And every time I look at the wilted resplendence of those proud peacocks on the wall, I bethink me of the withering change in Jimmy’s once resplendent pride of state. But still again, every time I gaze upon those festoons of perpetual roses, mid which the faded peacocks hang, I bethink me of those undying roses which bloomed in ruined Jimmy’s cheek.
Transplanted to another soil, all the unkind past forgot, God grant that Jimmy’s roses may immortally survive!