Bowling with Melville

During the summer of 1843, when he was twenty-three and had not yet published a word, Herman Melville worked as a pinsetter in a bowling alley in Honolulu and, according to the Melville authority Hershel Parker, “at quiet times picked up some skill as a bowler.” During the ensuing years, Melville, whose 200th birthday we are celebrating this year, became our most eloquent poet of the dead-end job. Billy Budd is hung from the yardarm; Moby-Dick drags the crew of the Pequod to the bottom of the sea. Bartleby, who goes blind mindlessly copying legal documents, worked previously as “a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office” in Washington, D.C. “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness,” Melville writes, “can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames?”

True enough, but in the annals of futility, the Sisyphean job of setting up pins in a bowling alley seems particularly pointless. You set up the pins; they’re knocked down; you set them up again, politely returning the ball to the bowler. Before the invention of the automatic pinsetting machine, adopted during the 1950s, pins were reset by poorly paid pinsetters, also known as pinboys or pin-monkeys. The sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine, documenting child labor for a decade from 1908, took several pictures of anxious boys watching for balls barreling down the alleys, as though they themselves were the pins.

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