Herman Melville: The Problem of Authorship and the Quest for a National Literature
University of Kassel, SS 2003
Class Topic: A Republic of Letters
Lecturer: Prof. Dr. Daniel Göske
by Andrea Sternberg-Holfeld
Table of Contents
2. Problems of authorship in America
3. The quest for a national literature
3.1 The emergence of the "American Adam" as a distinctive national trait
3.2 Movements towards a national literature
3.2.1 Emerson's "American Scholar"
3.2.2 O'Sullivan's Manifest Destiny and literature
4. The problems of authorship mirrored in Herman Melville's letters
4.1 The issue of authenticity
4.2 Copyright law
4.3 Financial situation and the reading public
4.4 The author and the critics
4.5 The author and the critics
5. Nationalism in Melville's "Hawthorn and his Mosses"
The years between the war of 1812 and the Civil War, the so-called 'Era of Good Feelings' and the 'Age of Jackson', were a period of optimism, national fervor and great change within American society, politics and culture. Westward expansion, growing nationalism, urbanization, industrialization, technical and scientific progress, social reform movements (e.g. temperance, public education, slavery's abolition, women's rights), and the establishment of utopian communities, like the transcendentalists' Brook Farm, characterized this highly dynamic era (BOYER 2000: 284-293, STERN 1986: 436). This Zeitgeist contributed highly to a flowering in literature and arts.
But being an author in antebellum America meant also having to face a variety of problems. Many of those problems, like transportation, the non-existence of an international copyright law, censorship, and criticism are reflected in the letters of Herman Melville, whose life and career had been highly influenced by those issues. In addition, the situation of American authors was very special because there was no truly American literary tradition, yet. In 1820, 200 years after the early settlements in the North American colonies, the Edinburgh Review asked in an article: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" In spite of those 200 years of Anglo-American history, literary standards in the United States were still set by European models and European tastes, not by American ones. There were only very few American authors of renown, and they often imitated European models or were, at least, highly influenced by those models.
By the end of the first half of the 19th century, with a general rise in nationalism accompanying expansionist policies and the democrats' doctrine of "Manifest Destiny", considerable efforts were made to further the development of a national American literature. Literary figures like Evert A. Duyckinck and Rufus W. Griswold initiated literary series promoting American authors. Ralph Waldo Emerson published his famous address "The American Scholar", and John O'Sullivan his influential article "The Great Nation of Futurity." Herman Melville also contributed to the call for a national literature. In his essay "Hawthorne and his Mosses," he wrote a fervent plea against imitation of foreign models and for more recognition of American literature and American authors.
This term paper explores Melville's letters in regard to the problems he had to face as an author in America, as well as his nationalism in "Hawthorne and his Mosses."
2. Problems of authorship in America
There were many problems an American author had to face because of the special situation in the United States. One was the problem of book distribution. In contrast to Europe, distances here were enormous; only about 3% of the population was urban, the rest scattered widely, and, during the early national period (after the Declaration of Independence), the infrastructure for transportation and communication was still poorly developed. Publishing was a small business with many small, local publishing houses, which produced and sold books in a few thousand copies. Not only most books were then imported from England but also many devices for printing, e.g. the printing types. Because of the lack of American book reviewing before 1800 and its slow development since then, a novel, once printed, was with difficulty made known to more than a local public. But with better methods of transportation and the invention of new printing techniques, the local publishing business finally transformed into a publishing industry (COWIE 1948: 2-3, DAVIDSON 1986, 12). Major improvements in transportation were the rapid increase of steamboat traffic, the number of steam boats jumping from 17 in 1817 to 727 by 1855, and the construction of numerous canals and railways during the late 1820ies and 30ies (BOYER 2000: 247-248). Important inventions were mechanized printing, and steam-driven presses in the 1830ies, which, together with cheaper paper, drastically lowered the production costs of especially newspapers and thus made a tremendous rise in circulation possible. By the 1840s, cheap paperbacks were mass-produced (BOYER 2002: 212, 221). As the prejudice against the novel was slowly breaking down, there arose an increasing demand for fiction to fill the shelves of the popular circulating libraries. By the second half of the 18th century, large printing houses in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia produced massive quantities of inexpensive books, which could be transported easily and cheaply, and thus could be distributed to a wide audience (COWIE 1948: 335, DAVIDSON 1986: 12). Whereas American writers had produced only a negligible proportion of books issued by American publishers at the beginning of the 19th century, by 1850 they accounted for 75 percent (BOYER 2002, 218).
Another major problem for American authors was competition with English writers. English books could be cheaply printed by American publishers as pirate copies because there was no international copyright law. This also worked the other way round: American authors were not protected from pirating in England unless they made secure that an English edition of their work appeared before or simultaneously with the American edition. This problem was solved as late as 1891 when finally a bill was passed by Congress authorizing reciprocal copyright agreements with foreign nations (HORTH 1993: 133). The copyright issue also contributed to the difficult financial situation many authors had to face. It was nearly impossible to make a living as a serious writer in America. Most writers either came from a wealthy family or married into one, took on a regular job besides writing (Hawthorne, for example, worked at the Customs House in Salem) or earned extra money by lecturing (e.g. Emerson and Margret Fuller). Only Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper were reported to earn enough money from their writings to support their families (PARKER 1996: 476-477).
The popular taste of the reading public was also a very important factor influencing authorship in America. In the early settlements of the British colonies in America, reading was almost exclusively limited to the intensive study of the bible an other basic religious books, if people could read at all. But by the end of the 18th century, however, peoples attitude towards reading slowly changed. Books became more and more important as tools of education. Especially women, who did not have access to higher education, were encouraged to educate themselves by reading the classics and other European literature. With the rise of romanticism, literature became more democratic, because it did not, as the literature of classicism or the neoclassical era, require vast knowledge of classical mythology and thought (BOYER 2002: 218). This reading revolution, which started at the end of the eighteenth and continued until the middle of the nineteenth century, was highly linked to the rising of the middle class, and related to the levels of education and literacy as well as the increasing access of more and more citizens to books that could be read for political and material advantages, but also for mere pleasure. Extensive perusal of novels replaced intensive religious reading, and started prompting a proto-mass consumption. (DAVIDSON 1986: vii, 12). The most popular type of early American fiction was the sentimental novel of the "Charlotte Temple"-kind (by Mrs. Rowson, published 1794 in Philadelphia). And still, in the 1840ies, 50ies and 60ies, sentimental novels written by female authors mainly for a female audience dominated popular fiction. Writing "tearjerkers" even made some writers, like Susan Warner, the author of the highly popular novel "The Wide, Wide World", rich. Nevertheless, most American readers were still rather Anglophile; "imported fiction seemed as much of a necessity as imported tea." (BOYER 2002: 221, COWIE 1948: 122, 412) Besides having to compete with the British novel and the 'second rate' sentimental novel by American female authors - Hawthorne referred to them in exasperation as "the d---d mob of scribbling women," (COWIE 1948: 413), more serious American writers had to face considerable inland competition with cheap magazines, which often printed highly popular serialized novels. All this competition made it very hard for young authors without renown to find a publisher. Often, they had to print their work at their own expenses, like Nathaniel Hawthorne with his first book "Fanshawe" (1828), or they had to publish it in magazines (COWIE 1948: 331).
Censorship was another serious problem many authors had to face. Fiction was still widely considered a threat to morality and religion that "put ideas into girls' heads, gave them grossly inaccurate theories about life, made them discontented with their lot, opened the door to seduction, encouraged suicide, undermined religious beliefs, and vitiated democracy". Presidents, preachers, editors and educators feared that novel reading would unfit the poor to be good workers and women to be good wives. Innumerable were the warnings issued to parents and children from the pulpit, as well as in many magazine and newspaper columns. Religious groups like the Presbyterians had a lot of influence on public opinion, on publishers, and on literary criticism. This forced many authors to write in a way that would be approved by these influential groups. In earnest prefaces they assured their readers that their stories were founded on fact, and they added a great deal of heavy moralizing and didacticism. No rouge story with its emphasis on dupery and sex, no Gothic tale, but a good domestic story calculated to teach unmistakable lessons to the young - that was the most likely to be acceptable (COWIE 1948: 5-6, 10, DAVIDSON 1986: viii). The Power of Sympathy (1789, published anonymously in Boston, today ascribed to William Hill Brown), which has been generally accepted as the first American novel (COWIE 1948: 9, DAVIDSON 1986: 85), written in America by an author born in America, published first in America, set in America, and concerned with issues specifically American, for example, carried its moral promises in its dedication, which announced that the story was "intended to represent the specious causes, and to expose the fatal consequences, of seduction; to inspire the female mind with a principle of self complacency, and to promote the economy of human life." (COWIE 1948: 10) Works of literature which contained passages that would undermine the standards of morality were not allowed to be successful in 19th century society. They were fervently attacked by the critics and had to be expurgated in order to be acceptable.
In addition to the above mentioned problems, American authors also had a considerable problem of national identity. Authors in Europe could extract their themes from rich traditions and a long cultural history. European literature could look back on ancient roots in Greek drama and epics like Homer's Iliad and Oddysse. But what had American authors to look back to in respect to literary traditions and themes, which could distinguish their works from those of their European competitors? Of course, they had the wide American landscape and the American Indian, but before Cooper no American novelist made conspicuously successful use of the Indian. One reason was that by the time the American novel began to flourish, few cultivated Americans were meeting Indians on more intimate terms so that the late-eighteenth-century novelists had no access to first-hand observation. And the many native legends had not yet been written down. So, for decades, American writers had been trying vainly to produce an indigenous literature appropriate to an independent nation of enormous geographical area; the novel, in contrast to the country itself, had yet failed to declare its independence of foreign domination in theme and method (COWIE 1948: 30-31, 115-112). Cooper, though he established the historical romance as the most popular American type of fiction and had become "the first who has deserved the appellation of a distinguished American novel writer" (COWIE 1948: 123), even an "American Scott," apologized for the historical romance on the grounds that America lacked suitable antiquity and aristocracy (COWIE 1948: 22), and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his preface to "The Marble Faun":
No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land. It will be very long, I trust, before romance-writers may find congenial and easily handled themes, either in the annals of our stalwart republic, or in any characteristic and probable events of our individual lives. Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wallflowers, need ruin to make them grow. (in COWIE 1948: 342-343).
But, in spite of these rather pessimistic statements, the foundations for a national American literature had been laid in the historical romance with its vast possibilities (COWIE 1948: 112). Now, authors had to further develop genuinely American themes and forms in order to avoid imitation of European models, to initiate an American literary tradition, to create an independent national book market and to make it possible for American authors to sustain themselves by writing.
3. The quest for a national literature
3.1 The emergence of the idea of the "American Adam" as a distinctive national trait
The development of a distinct American literature took many decades after the first settlements were established.
Doubtless a distinctive American literature could have been postulated at the moment when the first permanent colonist set foot on American soil: a heritage was established and an environment found. Yet generations had to pass before the emergence of those particular traits known as American. (COWIE 1948: 1)
Though there were American novels or attempts to novels before, and authors, like Washington Irving in, among others, "Rip Van Winkle" (1819), used the American environment as stage for their tales and provided colorful descriptions of certain American regions and characters, the first novels which not only used exclusively American settings but also introduced a genuinely American figure, an archetype, the so-called "American Adam", were Cooper's "Leatherstocking" books ("The Pioneers" 1823, "The Last of the Mohicans" 1826, "The Pathfinder" 1840, "The Deerslayer" 1841). The myth of the "American Adam" (the tell-tale name referring to the biblical Adam before the Fall) is based on the concept of America as a totally new and innocent beginning independent of European society and history, a second paradise for a human race free from the Calvinistic doctrines of innate depravity and Original Sin:
Unlike the Roman myth, too - which envisaged life within a long, dense corridor of meaningful history - the American myth saw life and history as just beginning. It described the world as starting up again under fresh initiative, in a divinely granted second chance for the human race, after the first chance had been so disastrously fumbled in the darkening Old World. (LEWIS 1959: 5)
This concept also needed a manifestation in literature, which it found in Cooper's Natty Bumppo. Natty embodies a new set of ideal human attributes: the simple, pure, virtuous, manly, self-reliant, resourceful, selfless, stoic, and innocent forester, a person of genuine simplicity, truthfulness, and bravery. He is the solitary hero, the simple genuine self against the whole world. He is untainted by a corrupt social order, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race and a refined society, which are the typical traits associated with Europe, but not compatible with an ideal and democratic society in the New World (LEWIS 1959: 1, 5, BOYER 2002: 349).
The Adamic hero is the American equivalent of the prince or king in the long tradition of classical drama, but whereas the traditional hero is at the center of society, the symbol of its power and history, the Adamic hero takes his start in a fresh world, outside time and outside society. In contrast to Old World heroes like Scott's mysterious Black Knight, who emerges out of nothing to save the innocent, and then turns out to be King Richard Lionheart taking up his leading role within society again, the "American Adam" remains mysterious, without history, and disappears again into unlimited space, an area of total possibility like the boundless forest, the wide open prairie, or the ocean, after his task is done. The loneliness and tragedy of the American Adam springs from the impact of hostile forces, of the confrontation with products of society and history, upon the hero. He, by chance and because of his sense of honor that forces him to help the innocent (typically beautiful and helpless young ladies), becomes temporarily involved in the realities of society, e.g. the French-Indian War in the middle of the 18th century, but at the end he stays clear of society in order to remain faithful to himself and to preserve his integrity. Closely associated with the characteristics of the "American Adam" are an air of adventurousness, a sense of promise and possibility, themes of romance and contemplation, the figure of the "noble savage", like Uncas and Chingachgook, and the illusion of escape from society and civilization (LEWIS 1959: 1, 5, 91, 99-100, 128).
The Adamic hero is a figure that appears and reappears throughout American literature in different variations, disguises and distortions, from the optimistic and, of course, successful hero on the side of good fighting against evil to the tragic hero, who, in confrontation with evil, looses his innocence. Beginning with Natty Bumppo, he then took the shape of the highly popular figure of the lonesome cowboy of the dime novel, who, like Buffalo Bill, fights hostile Indians and bandits at the frontier, the superman-type of hero who rescues the world from evil with his supernatural powers, the hardboiled detective of the Sam Spade-type, who fights criminals in the underworld of the big cities, the Jack London- and Hemingway-type hero who fights alone against the merciless forces of nature, and the Hawthorne- and Melville-type of hero, who, like Young Goodman Brown, Ishmael or Billy Budd, has to pay the price of his own inexperience and innocence during his encounter with evil (LEWIS 1959: 6, 91).
Melville's initial description of Billy Budd (MELVILLE 1891, Chapter 2) sounds like the very definition of the "American Adam". Billy is a mysterious foundling without history; he is young, naive, honest, merry, illiterate, and has a handsome and noble complexion. And, most of all, he is innocent like Adam before the Fall:
For the rest, with little or no sharpness of faculty or any trace of the wisdom of the serpent, nor yet quite a dove, he possessed that kind and degree of intelligence going along with the unconventional rectitude of a sound human creature, one to whom not yet has been proffered the questionable apple of knowledge.
Melville even uses the comparison with Adam:
Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.
And, as Cooper did, Melville sees the origins of the Fall in civilization and the city whereas Billy's Adamic virtues, like Natty Bumppo's, derive from a time and space prior to civilization and urbanization:
And here be it submitted that apparently going to corroborate the doctrine of man's fall, a doctrine now popularly ignored, it is observable that where certain virtues pristine and unadulterate peculiarly characterize anybody in the external uniform of civilization, they will upon scrutiny seem not to be derived from custom or convention, but rather to be out of keeping with these, as if indeed exceptionally transmitted from a period prior to Cain's city and citified man.
But, typical for Melville's pessimism, his hero has an inherent and finally fatal flaw, an "occasional liability to a vocal defect", "a stutter or even worse" as a sign of that good always is mixed with evil, that
the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden, still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet of earth. In every case, one way or another he is sure to slip in his little card, as much as to remind us -- I too have a hand here.
Without doubt, during the 19th century, American authors had, probably without knowing it to the full, finally found a distinctive national hero and trademark for a national American literature in the figure of the "American Adam" in all his variations.
3.2 Movements towards a national literature
After the War of 1812 and within a rapidly transforming society, an air of hopefulness about the future of their new country and a sense of enormous possibility became apparent in American life and letters (LEWIS 1959: 13). This special atmosphere was very favorable for a flowering of art and literature in antebellum America, especially in New England (Longfellow, Whittier, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Fuller, Dickinson, Alcott) and New York (Cooper, Irving, Whitman, Melville), resulting in the so-called 'American Renaissance.' Hand in hand with this cultural flourishing went a burst in nationalism. In politics, nationalism expressed itself in expansionist ambition, with increasing westward movement, American settlements in Texas, California, New Mexico and Oregon, and finally in the Mexican War of 1846-1848 which resulted in Mexico's cession of Texas, New Mexico, and California to the United States (BOYER 2002: 218-219, 258-259). In literature, nationalism manifested itself in the call for a genuinely American literature freed of European models and standards. Prominent figures voicing this call were Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leader of transcendentalism, in his famous pamphlet "An Oration, Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, August 31, 1837", later renamed "The American Scholar", and John L. O'Sullivan, founder and editor of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review and coiner of the term 'Manifest Destiny', in his equally famous article "The Great Nation of Futurity" (The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, November 1839). Other influential figures were the editor Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who, because of his Poets and Poetry of America (1842), The Prose Writers of America (1847), and The Female Poets of America (1848), had the reputation as the leading advocate of ‘Americanism’ in literature, but was also a controversial figure on the New York literary scene (HORTH 1993: 215), and the publicist Evert A. Duyckinck, editor of the Literary World, the Library of Choice Reading, the Cyclopedia of American Literature, initiator of the Library of American Books, and the nucleus of the Young American literati (WIDMER 1999), the literary wing of the Young America movement (an amorphous group representing the most vigorous manifestation of the Democratic party’s anglophobic tendencies, which sought to establish New York City as the center of an authentically national culture (The Journal of American History, Vol 87, No 1, June 2000)).
3.2.1 Emerson's "The American Scholar"
Emerson's address "The American Scholar", first delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Camebridge in August 1837, but later expanded to adress all American college students and scholars, was an important step into the direction of a national literature. Oliver Wendell Holmes even referred to it as "our literary Declaration of Independence" (WIDMER 1999).
In the first paragraph of his address, Emerson voices the conviction that "Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close", that "The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests", that "Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves." He sees this emerging American poetry as leading into a new age, and even compares it with the rise of a flaming new pole-star in a new world.
"In the light of this hope", he then discusses the factors which influence the scholar's, "Man Thinking's," mind, and his role within society. Important influences upon the scholar's mind are nature, as well as books as a representation of "the mind of the Past," and action, which provides the "raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products." Concerning books, Emerson emphasizes that they "are for nothing but to inspire," and warns from over-influence by past genius, from "Shakespearizing", from becoming mere bookworms, from a "book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution." Genius, the "active soul," free and sovereign, which sees, utters, or creates truth, "always looks forward," not backward to old utterances of genius, old dogmas and principles. Essential for genius is action, experience in the world, because "Without it, thought can never ripen into truth." "The office of the scholar," says Emerson, "is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances." Important for this task is the scholar's self-trust, his being free and brave, and never deferential to the popular cry. The individual, "man as a sovereign state", in whom "is the law of all nature," in whom "slumbers the whole of Reason," is the central key to genius. And genius and truth "every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him." Likewise, it is not the sublime and the beautiful, the great, the remote, and the romantic, but the near, the common, the familiar, the "philosophy of the street," and "the meaning of household life" that should be explored and made the topics of the time (EMERSON 1837, in BAYM 1998: 1101-1114).
By these statements, Emerson's address comprises a radically individualistic, and therefore very American view on science, arts, and literature. In essence, every free and self-trusting individual can find and create truth in himself by looking forward, studying and experiencing nature and the ordinary American life, the low and common. But genius cannot be achieved by solely studying and imitating the lore of old. The address is a call for the American scholar to leave the stuffy libraries, and the study of old dogmas and principles and, instead, to experience American life and nature and create new truth from these fresh and genuine sources. By this, America will become the culturally leading nation in the world.
3.2.2 O'Sullivan's Manifest Destiny and literature
When, in 1837, O'Sullivan founded The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, the first nationwide magazine unmistakably affiliated with the Democratic party, the goal was "to strike the hitherto silent string of the democratic genius of the age and country as the proper principle of the literature of both." In this magazine, democratic policies were inseperably intertwined with a new vision of American culture, one that was fundamentally different from the genteel and anglophil tradition of the American literary establishment. An entire intellectual system of great art, literature, and philosophy was supposed to spring from the same impulse that had declared all men created equal. And indeed, the Democratic Review attracted the finest writing of any American periodical of its day; Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, wrote some of his most famous stories for the Review (WIDMER 1999).
In the November 1839 issue of the Democratic Review, O'Sullivan published his famous and influential article "The Great Nation of Futurity". It was almost revolutionary in its conceptualization of the nation's destiny (GRAEBNER 1968: 15) proclaiming that the United States of America were chosen by God to be "the great nation of futurity", the one to bring progress, individual freedom, and equality to the world, because the American constitution was rooted in the perfect and universal principle of human equality (O'SULLIVAN 1839, in GRAEBNER 1968: 12-17, 21). This pseudo-messianic vision of democracy expressed in the doctrine of 'Manifest Destiny' (derived from O'Sullivan claiming "the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent." in his New York Morning News (WIDMER 1999)) was a means to justify U.S. American expansionism under the administration of the democratic party in the 1840s, and has influenced American thought ever since. But the article was not restricted to political destiny and supremacy, but was also concerned with condemning the imitation of European models in the fields of jurisprudence, economy, and culture:
Taught to look abroad for the highest standards of law, judicial wisdom, and literary excellence, the native sense is subjugated to a most obsequious idolatry of the tastes, sentiments, and prejudices of Europe. (O'SULLIVAN 1839, in GRAEBNER 1968: 18)
A whole paragraph is designated to literature, addressing the literati of America and calling for a genuine and independent national literature devoid of imitation, a literature which expresses the principles and the spirit of democracy as the innate essence, the soul of American society (WIDMER 1999):
And our literature! - Oh, when will it breathe the spirit of our republican institutions? When will it be imbued with the God-like aspiration of intellectual freedom - the elevating principle of equality? When will it assert its national independence, and speak the soul - the heart of the American people? Why cannot our literati comprehend the matchless sublimity of our position amongst the nations of the world - our high destiny - and cease bending the knee of foreign idolatry, false tastes, false doctrines, false principles? When will they be inspired by the magnificent scenery of our own world, imbibe the fresh enthusiasm of a new heaven and a new earth, and soar upon the expanded wings of truth and liberty? Is not nature as original - her truths as captivating - her aspects as various, as lovely, as grand - her Promethean fire as glowing in this, our Western hemisphere, as in that of the East? And above all, is not our private life as morally beautiful and good - is not our public life as politically right, as indicative of the brightest prospects of humanity, and therefore as inspiring of the highest conceptions? Why, then, do our authors aim at no higher degree of merit, than a successful imitation of English writers of celebrity? (O'SULLIVAN 1839, in GRAEBNER 1968: 19-20)
Like Emerson, O'Sullivan requests that the American literati draw their inspiration from the American scenery and the American private and public life instead of imitating famous English authors. Both Emerson's and O'Sullivan's calls for a democratic national literature surely stimulated already existing nationalism and contributed to an "explosion of nationalist culture" in the middle of the 1840ies. Without doubt, these issues were widely discussed in the literary circle around Evert Duyckinck, who was well acquainted with O'Sullivan (WIDMER 1999), and thus also influenced the thinking and writing of Herman Melville, who voiced comparable ideas in his "Hawthorne and his Mosses."
4. The problems of authorship mirrored in Herman Melville's letters
4.1 The issue of authenticity
Works of fiction still had a somewhat dubious reputation by the time Melville started his career as an author. Genuine narratives and histories, on the other hand, attracted readers who disdained fiction as frivolous, and they also seemed to be preferred by publishers. When Melville submitted the manuscript of "Typee" to Harper and Brothers, they rejected it because "it was impossible that it could be true and therefore was without real value", even though they compared it favorably with "Robinson Crusoe". But Melville's older brother Gansevoort managed to arrange publication of "Typee", on assurance that it was a true relation, in John Murray's new series of inexpensive and wholesomely factual books, the Colonial and Home Library, London, and, after a recommendation by Washington Irving, also with George P. Putnam of Wiley and Putnam, New York. (http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/melvillebio.html). By choosing a first person narrator, a very intimate style, and, in contrast to most American travel writers, by neglecting to use a pseudonyme, Melville convinced at least parts of the reading public of the truthfulness of his novels, and readily, his person was identified with the narrator of "Typee". But skepticism never ceased completely. Especially, British reviewers had difficulty in believing that a common sailor could write so well and suspected Melville of being a gentleman-Münchhausen (CHARVAT 1992: 263-264). In democratic America, it was not an uncommon occurence for educated males to hire as common sailors, but in aristocratic Britain this was considered highly unlikely and therefore not trustworthy at all.
How important the issue of authenticity was, can be measured by the public interest in the unexpected emergence of Richard Tobias Greene, the Toby of "Typee". Many newspapers and magazines commented on it, and public interest for the fate of Toby was so high that Melville included "The Story of Toby" as a postscript in subsequent editions of "Typee" (PARKER 1996: 434-442). The reappearance of Green provided valid evidence to assure the still doubting readers and critics, as well as the skeptical Duyckinck and Murray, of "Typee"'s veracity. In his letter of July 3rd, 1846 to Evert Duyckinck, Melville writes:
There was a spice of civil scepticism in your manner, My Dear Sir, when we were conversing together the other day about "Typee" - What will the politely incredulous Mr Duyckinck now say to the true Toby's having turned up in Buffalo [...].
Seriously, My Dear Sir, this resurrection of Toby from the dead - this strange bringing together of two such places as Typee & Buffalo, is really very curious. - It can not but settle the question of the book's genuineness. (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 50)
When arranging for the publication of his second novel, "Omoo", with Murray, Melville again had to assure that his novel is a genuine description of Polynesian life. On January 29th, 1847, he writes to Murray:
In their dances the Tahitians much resembled the Marquesans (the two groups of islands are not far apart) & thus is the description faithful in both instances." (Melville, in HORTH 1993: 78)
The novel was advertised as "the true sequel and counterpart of the author's popular production- Typee." (MINNIGERODE 1922: 130, in COWIE 1948: 372). Murray again repeatedly requested evidence for the authenticity of the story. But, by now, Melville seemes to have become irritated and impatient about those request. In his letter of March 25th, 1848 to Murray, Melville bluntly refuses to give further evidence for the authenticity of his novels only because of the British skepticism:
- By the way, you ask again for "documentary evidence" of my having been in the South Seas, wherewithall to convince the unbelievers - Bless my soul, Sir, will you Britons not credit that an American can be a gentleman, & have read the Waverly Novels, tho every digit may have been in the tar-bucket? - You make miracles of what are commonplaces to us. - I will give no evidence - Truth is mighty & will prevail - & shall & must. (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 107)
In the same letter, which Bezanson called Melville's "virtual declaration of literary independence" (BEZANSON 1986: 176), Melville explains why he now is planning to write an adventure romance instead of a narrative of fact, like Typee and Omoo. The many voices that had doubted the authenticity of both books and had seen Melville rather as a romancer than as a narrator of fact seem to have irked him into trying to write a real romance instead of another travel adventure of his:
To the blunt: the work I shall next publish will in downright earnest [be] a "Romance of Polynesian Adventure" - But why this? the truth is, Sir, that the reiterated imputation of being a romancer in disguise has at last pricked me into a resolution to show those who may take any interest in the matter, that a real romance of mine is no Typee or Omoo, & is made of different stuff altogether. (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 106)
Melville is well aware of that this decision might cause problems with his readers who will expect a new novel of his to be of the same type as the two preceding works. But, as he writes, he cares little for the question of the prudence of this policy:
As for the policy of putting forth an acknowledged romance upon the heel of two books of travel which in some quarters have been received with no small incredulity - that, Sir, is a question for which I care little, really. (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 106)
He also makes it obvious that he now feels much more inclined to write a romance than another "Typee", which would provide him with little intellectual and artistic challenge and freedom of imagination, the chance for a "flight", but would fetter him to the "dull common places" of his own factual experience. He has outgrown this phase of his literary career and has even developed "an invincible distaste for the same." At the same time, he, in anticipation of a negative response to his new project by Murray, distances his romance in progress from the typical sentimental novel of the time, that was so popular with the circulating libraries, and assures his publisher that it is something new and original, worth publishing in spite of being a romance:
Well: proceeding in my narrative of facts I began to feel an invincible distaste for the same; & a longing to plume my pinions for a flight, & felt irked, cramped & fettered by plodding along with dull common places, - So suddenly abandoning the thing altogether, I went to work heart & soul at a romance which is now in fair progress, since I had worked at it with an earnest ardor. - Start not, nor exclaim "Pshaw! Puh!" - My romance I assure you is no dish water nor its model borrowed from the Circulating Library. It is something new I assure you, & original if nothing more. [...] - (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 106)
But obviously, Murray was not convinced. He "refused "Mardi" because it was "fiction" (HORTH 1993: 123).
4.2 Copyright law
The issue of the copy right law recurs in many of Melville's letters to his publishers. It then was a never ending problem for American authors. From today's point of view it is almost ridiculous what precautions and troubles Melville had to take in order to secure the copyright for his English publishers. He again and again had to make sure that his books would not be published in the United States before publication in England in order to avoid any possible piracy. What made the trouble worse was the problem of communication between the continents. There was no intercontinental telegraph connection yet, the first intercontinental telegraph cable being installed by the end of the 1850ies. All those negotiations between author and publishers were carried out by letters transported by ship and therefore very slow and dependent on the time schedules of the steamers crossing the Atlantic ocean. And, in order to catch a certain steamer, the work had sometimes to be finished in a hurry, thus causing printing errors. The letter of January 29th, 1847, to John Murray illustrates the difficulties of these transactions:
I beleive that I informed you in my last that I had made it a positive condition with the Harpers - my publishers here - that the work should not be published by them until I advise them so to do. Of course, this is with the view of securing a copyright for the English publisher. And I shall not instruct them to publish until I hear definitively from England as to the day upon which publication will take place in that country. It is most important, however, that the work should be published as soon as possible. The stereeotype plates are cast, & publication held here in suspence. - The steamer which carries out the proof sheets to Mr Brodhead, will arrive about the 20th of February - perhaps before that time - leaving ample time for arrangements for publication to be made in London, so as to send me definite advices by the steamer which leaves your shores on the 4th of March next. [...] - I deem it proper to state that every possible precaution has been taken to prevent the getting abroad of any of the proof sheets - & that not the slightest apprehension is to be entertained that it will come out here before it does in London. [...] I am desirous that the book shall appear in England, just as I send it: altho' there may be some minor errors - typographical - as the plates have been hurried in order to get them ready in time for the steamer. (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 77-78)
Again, in his letters of July 20th, 1849, June 27th, 1850, July 20th, 1851, and April 12th, 1852 to Richard Bentley, his new publisher in England, Melville had to assure that his new books, "Redburn", "White-Jacket", "Moby Dick", and "Pierre" would not be published in America before publication in England:
... & that you shall be enabled to publish a few days previous to the appearance of the book in America - and this, I hereby guarantee. [...] And ere long, doubtless, we shall have something of an international law - so much desired by all American writers - which shall settle this matter upon the basis of justice. the only marvel is, that it does not now exist. (MELVILLE July 20th, 1849, in HORTH 1993, 134)
In case of arrangement, I shall, of course, put you in early & certain possession of the proof sheets, as in previous cases. (MELVILLE June 27th, 1850, in HORTH 1993, 124)
And upon your receipt of it, I suppose you will immediately proceed to printing; as, of course, publication will not take place here, till you have made yourself safe. (MELVILLE July 20th, 1851, in HORTH 1993, 198)
At all events, I shall suspend the publication at the Harpers' till I have concluded some satisfactory negotiation in London. So you may be sure that if you undertake the book, your publication will not be anticipated here by the Harpers. (MELVILLE April 12th, 1852, in HORTH 1993: 227)
Whereas in his letter of July 20th, 1849, Melville is optimistic that there soon will be an international copyright law, which will make business much easier for both authors and publishers, in his letter of July 20th, 1851 (exactly two years later), he seems to have lost all hope concerning the forthcoming of an international copyright law unless Britain makes the first generous moves. He also is very pessimistic in respect to the importance of literature and the author in American society and the prospects of the present-day writer in his home country. After the failure of "Mardi", he seems to be disillusioned about the majority of the reading public, who does not care about a national literature, as well as about American politicians, who are not interested in literature and the rights of the authors at all, but only in newspapers and magazines:
And here let me say to you, - since you are peculiarly interested in the matter - that in all reasonable probability no International Copyright will ever be obtained - in our time, at least - if you Englishmen wait at all for the first step to be taken in this country. Who have any motive in this country to bestir themselves in this thing? Only the authors. - Who are the authors? - A handful. And what influence have they to bring to bear upon any question whose settlement must necessarily assume a political form? - they can bring scarcely any influence whatever. This country & nearly all its affairs are governed by sturdy backwoodsmen - noble fellows enough, but not at all literary, & who care not a fig for any authors except those who write those most saleable of all books nowadays - ie - the newspapers, & magazines. And tho' the number of cultivated, catholic men, who may be supposed to feel an interest in a national literature, is large & every day growing larger; yet they are nothing in comparison with the overwhelming majority who care nothing about it. This country is at present engaged in furnishing material for future authors; not in encouraging its living ones.
Nevertheless, if this matter by any means comes to be made nationally conspicuous; and if you in England come out magnanimously, & protect a foreign author; then there is that sort of stuff in the people here, which will be sure to make them all eagerness in reciprocating. For, be assured, that my countrymen will never be outdone in generosity. - Therefore, if you desire an International Copyright - hoist your flag on your side of the water, & the signal will be answered; but look for no flag on this side till then. (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 197-198)
In his letter of December 2nd, 1849 to Evert Duyckinck, Melville complains about the financial loss the absence of an international copyright law was responsible for. During the weeks of travel through England and France, he ran out of money due to the fact that English publishers paid much less to American authors than to English ones because of the insecure copyright situation and the involved risk:
- Now my travelling "tail" has been cut off in like manner, by the confounded state of the Copyright question in England. It has prevented me from receiving an inundative supply of cash - I am going home within three weeks or so. (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 148)
4.3 Financial situation and the reading public
Many of Melville’s letters to his publishers reveal his strained financial situation having to sustain not only his own growing family, but also his mother and several sisters. He could not write exclusively what literature he wanted to write and publish it regardless of monetary aspects like the gentleman-authors of the previous century, but he had to make money with his books, and therefore he had to subordinate other aspects to the pecuniary one, though this was seemingly hard for him. One aspect was the choice of publishers. As his letters of October 29th, 1847 and January 1st, 1848 to his first English publisher, John Murray, indicate, Melville was forced to chose whichever publisher would pay the most for his new book, Mardi, regardless of former business associations, friendships or other personal ties or preferences:
With regard to the new book, let me say that my inclinations lead me to prefer the imprimature of "John Murray" to that of any other London publisher; but at the same circumstances paramount to every other consideration, force me to regard my literary affairs in a strong pecuniary light. (MELVILLE October 29th, 1847, in HORTH 1993: 99)
And without seeking the direct offers of any other London publisher, wait till the book is completed - then forward it to you, & see whether your offer is not increased by the sight - materially. thus much is due to you in courtesy [...]. But should your views of the book, not coincide with mine in reference to its pecuniary value, of course, I shall then pursue such other course as may seem advisable. (MELVILLE January 1st, 1848, in HORTH 1993: 102)
Melville also had to press on publication because of money matters, as his letter of March 25th, 1848 to John Murray indicates:
And would you, under the circumstances, deem it advisable to publish at that season of the year, - bearing in mind, that there are reasons that operate with me to make as early a publication as possible, a thing of much pecuniary importance with me? (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 107)
But the most troubling aspect of his financial situation was obviously that Melville was forced to adapt his way of writing to popular taste in order to produce a book that would sell and thus fill his empty purse. His first books, "Typee" and "Omoo", were "calculated for popular reading" (Melville, letter of January 29th and July 15th, 1847 to John Murray in HORTH 1993: 78, PARKER 1996: 442). And both "Redburn" and "White-Jacket" he considered poor books written solely to make money. To Judge Lemuel Shaw, Melville's father-in-law, he wrote about those books that "These are two jobs which I have done for money - being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood." (http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/melvillebio.html) Both were indeed favorably received by the reading public which expected exactly this kind of Robinson Crusoe-like adventure-novels from the author of "Typee" and "Omoo". But Melville aimed at higher themes than plain sea-adventures. The fancy-packed and highly allegorical and philosophical "Mardi" was the kind of novel he wanted to write, but to the reading public and most of the critics it was a terrible disappointment, and a total failure regarding sales. Despite a few laudatory notices, one by Evert Duyckinck (WIDMER 1999), it was generally damned as "a rubbishing rhapsody" (Blackwood's Magazine) and as "one of the darkest, most melancholy, most deplorable and humiliating perversions of genius in the language" (The Dublin University Magazine) (MINNIGERODE 1922: 40, in COWIE 1948: 373). In his letter of June 5th, 1849 to Richard Bentley, the London publisher of "Mardi", Melville admits that writing a book like "Mardi" instead of writing another one in the same formula as his two preceding popular novels might appear unwise, but that he cannot help it, since he, due to "a certain something unmanageable" in him, must write according to his inner impulses regardless of the consequences for his success as an author. So, he was well aware of the risk:
You may think, in your own mind that a man is unwise, - indiscreet, to write a work of that kind, when he might have written one perhaps, calculated merely to please the general reader, & not provoke attack, however masqued in an affectation of indifference or contempt. But some of us scribblers, My Dear Sir, always have a certain something unmanageable in us, that bids us do this or that, and be done it must - hit or miss. (Melville, in HORTH 1993: 132)
Melville's letter of December 14th, 1849, to Evert A. Duyckinck bitterly comments on this personal dilemma between public taste, financial imperative, and what he truly felt compelled to and even destined to write, a dilemma he, by now, found himself inevitably caught up in:
Yesterday being at Mr Bentley's I enquired for his copies of the last "Literary Worlds" - but they had been sent on to Brighton - so I did not see your say about the book Redburn, which to my surprise (somewhat) seems to have been favorably received. I am glad of it - for it puts money into an empty purse. But I hope I shall never write such a book again - Tho' when a poor devel writes with duns all round him, & looking over the back of his chair - & perching on his pen & diving in his inkstand - like the devels about St: Anthony - what can you expect of that poor devel? - What but a beggarly "Redburn!" And when he attempts anything higher - God help him & save him! for it is not with a hollow purse as with a hollow balloon - for a hollow purse makes the poet sink - witness "Mardi" but we that write & print have all our books predestinated - & for me, I shall write such things as the Great Publisher of Mankind ordained ages before he published "The World" - this planet, I mean - not the Literary Globe. - What a madness & anguish it is, that an author can never - under no conceivable circumstances - be at all frank with his readers. (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 148-149)
Melvilles 1851 letter, probably of June 1st, to his friend and fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne again expresses this tantalizing dilemma, that was reinforced by the failure of "Moby Dick", which had been condemned as an amorphous story in which "all the regular rules of narrative or story are spurned and set at defiance" (The Examiner, November 8, 1851: 709, in COWIE 1948: 378). Money is haunting him, depriving him of the atmosphere of leisure and calm which an author should compose in. And, his writing record with, so far, six published books within six years plus criticisms, reviews, satires, etc. indicates that he indeed was lacking this atmosphere most of the time. Melville seems extremely pessimistic and almost despairing now about his situation as an author, who is split (or, to use his livid image, like a nutmeg-grater worn out and grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the nutmeg) between the necessity of pleasing the popular taste for money's sake and the inner drive that makes him write books like "Mardi" and "Moby Dick" which were only appreciated by a few friends, but not by the public at all. Even his friend Evert Duyckinck wrote a negative review on "Moby Dick" for his Literary World in November 1851. Melville reacted by canceling his subscription to the magazine, which had been very important for him during all the years of his literary development (GILES 1998: 227). Melville, in his pessimistic state of mind, even utters that all his books are "botches," a "final hash," because it is impossible for him to write what he feels moved to write since it will not sell, but it is exactly as impossible for him to write solely for popular taste. The ensuing mixture is not satisfactory to him:
The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, - that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me, - I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, - it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993, 191)
His bitterness about this situation is obvious in his statement that even if he wrote the Gospels in this century, he should die in the gutter: "What's the use of elaborating what, in its very essence, is so short-lived as a modern book? Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter." (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 192) The reading public would never be able to discern and appreciate greatness and truth in literature, and, as he wrote in his November 1851 letter to Hawthorne (17th ?) recognition was not to be expected: "... - for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them." (Melville, in HORTH 1993: 212)
In spite of the bitterness and despair that are obvious in those letters, Melville tried, with "Pierre", to write a novel that would please the popular taste. Instead of a new sea-adventure, a "bowl of salt water," he projected a popular domestic romance, "a rural bowl of milk" (Melville's letter to Sophia Hawthorne, January 8th, 1852, in HORTH 1993, 219). At least, this is what Pierre was originally supposed to be and what Melville announced to Bentley in his letter of April 12th, 1852:
...- and, as I beleive, very much more calculated for popularity than anything you have yet published of mine - being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, & stirring passions at work, and withall, representing a new & elevated aspect of American life -... (Melville, in HORTH 1993: 226)
But seemingly, it was indeed impossible for Melville to altogether write the other way. The final novel turned out to be another disaster in respect to its critical and public reception, its sales, and its devastating impact on Melville's reputation as an author.
4.4 The author and the critics
In his letters of April 23rd, 1849 to Lemuel Shaw and June 5th, 1849 to Richard Bentley, Melville comments on the critical reception of Mardi. In spite of "that Mardi has been cut into", "burnt" and "fired quite a broadside into", he tries to find some consolation in the fact that not all reviews had been negative and that the attacks on the book could be explained rather by the misexpectations and misconceptions of both the critics and the public, which were partially caused by publishing the book in the usual cheap novel form, than by deficiencies in the work itself. He is aware of the fact that his "metaphysiks" do not appeal to the common reader, who reads for entertainment only. Nevertheless, he is convinced that those, who can see (but not the blind critics) will sooner or later understand and appreciate "Mardi". Melville even says that negative criticism is "essential to the building up of any permanent reputation":
I see that "Mardi" has been cut into by the London Atheneum, and also burnt by the common hangman in the Boston Post. However the London Examiner & Literary Gazette; & other papers this side of the water [Literary World, Home Journal] have done differently. These attacks are matters of course, and are essential to the building up of any permanent reputation - if such should ever prove to be mine. - "There's nothing in it!" cried the dunce, when he threw down the 47th problem of the 1st Book of Euclid - "There's nothing in it! -" - Thus with the posed critic. But Time, which is the solver of all riddles, will solve "Mardi." (Melville, April 23rd, 1849 to Lemuel Shaw, in HORTH 1993: 130)
- The critics on your side of the water seem to have fired quite a broadside into "Mardi"; but it was not altogether unexpected. In fact the book is of a nature to attract compliments of that sort from some quarters; and as you may be aware yourself, it is judged only as a work meant to entertain. And I can not but think that its having been brought out in England in the ordinary novel form must have led to the disappointment of many readers, who would have been better pleased with it, perhaps, had they taken it up in the first place for what it really is. - Besides, the peculiar thoughts & fancies of a Yankee upon politics & other matters could hardly be presumed to delight that class of gentlemen who conduct your leading journals; while the metaphysical ingredients (for want of a better term) of the book, must of course repel some of those who read simply for amusement. - However, it will reach those for whom it is intended; and I have already received assurances that "Mardi", in its higher purposes, has not been written in vain. (Melville, June 5th, 1849 to Richard Bentley, in HORTH 1993: 131-132)
But Melville's hopes and explanations given in the above mentioned letters seem not to have convinced and consoled him. His letters of December 14th, 1849, and December 13th, 1850, to Evert A. Duyckinck show, how deeply hurt Melville was by the harsh criticism hurled at "Mardi". He regrets ever having written something negative about another man's book, because he now knows how it feels like when a book receives devastating criticism. And he does not want to inflict any such wounds upon other authors as he has received following the publication of "Mardi". He even reflects upon whether a book might be better off if it is never published, because then it (and the author) will be save from criticism:
In a little notice of "The Oregon Trail" I once said something "critical" about another man's book - I shall never do it again. Hereafter I shall no more stab at a book (in print, I mean) than I would stab at a man. - I am but a poor mortal, & I admit that I learn by experience & not by divine intuitions. Had I not written & printed "Mardi", in all likelihood, I would not be as wise as I am now, or may be. For that thing was stabbed at (I do not say through) - & therefore, I am the wiser for it. (Melville, in HORTH 1993: 149)
- But I dont know but a book in a man's brain is better off than a book bound in calf - at any rate it is safer from criticism. (Melville, December 13th, 1850 to Evert A. Duyckinck, in HORTH 1993: 174)
Considering the critical reception of "Pierre", it might indeed have been better for his career if Melville had not published it.
Melville had to deal with censorship soon after publication of his first book, "Typee". The first American edition had been published in a hurry on recommendation of George P. Putnam, but without being checked by John Wiley or Evert Duyckinck. Melville's criticism of missionaries and passages which dwelt too freely on the charms of the Polynesian girls arouse harsh criticism in the religious press like the Christian Parlor Magazine and the New Englander. Wiley, a religious Presbytherian, requested that passages which might offend the religious public had to be expurgated. It was Duyckinck's task to mediate these expurgations with the author (PARKER 1996: 432-433). Melville had to consent to these expurgations in the American edition and even recommended a revised edition to Murray, though the British critics were not as much in favor of the missionaries as were the American ones. In his letter of July 15th, 1847 to Murray, he writes:
I am pursuaded that the interest of the book alone wholly consists in the intrinsick merit of the narrative alone - & that other portions, however interesting they may be in themselves, only serve to impede the story. The book is certainly calculated for popular reading, or for none at all. – If the first, why then, all passages which are calculated to offend the tastes, or offer violence to the feelings of any large class of readers are certainly objectionable. – Proceeding on this principle then, I have rejected every thing, in revising the book, which refers to the missionaries... (Melville, in PARKER 1996: 442-443)
But, in "Omoo", he stubbornly repeats his criticism of the missionaries. So, seemingly, this was a topic which was really important to him, a truth that had to be voiced and, at least, had to be given another try.
In later works of his, Melville still had problems with censorship because of religious issues. His article "The Two Temples", for example, though it contained "some exquisitely fine description, and some pungent satire," was rejected by Putnam's editor Briggs, because "my editorial experience," as he wrote, "compels me to be very cautious in offending religious sensibilities of the public, and the moral of the Two Temples would array against us the whole power of the pulpit, to say nothing of Brown, and the congregation of Grace Church." (in HORTH 1993: 636) And Putnam himself wrote a letter regretting having to reject the article because "some of our Church readers might be disturbed by the point of your sketch" (May 13th, 1854 letter from George P. Putnam to Melville, in HORTH 1993: 637). In contrast to Melville's rather optimistic statement in his letter of March 3rd, 1849 to Evert Duyckinck ("For I hold it a verity, that even Shakespeare, was not a frank man to the uttermost. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be? but the Declaration of Independence makes a difference." (MELVILLE, in HORTH 1993: 122)), the Declaration of Independence did not seem to make much of a difference.
5. Nationalism in Melville's "Hawthorn and his Mosses"
In "Hawthorn and his Mosses" (Melville, in HAYFORD 1987), written during a summer vacation in the Berkshires and published in Duyckinck's Literary World in August 1850, a review highly praising Hawthorne's tales, Melville inserted a long passage propagandizing a national American literature and the authors behind it (pp. 245-249). Though he himself ardently admires Shakespeare, as, for example, his letter of February 24th, 1849 ("the divine William") to Evert Duyckinck reveals, he strongly criticizes the common doctrine of Shakespeare's unapproachability. Especially for Americans, this doctrine should be unacceptable:
You must believe in Shakespeare's unapproachability, or quit the country. But what sort of a belief is this for an American, a man who is bound to carry republican progressiveness into Literature, as well as into Life? (245)
Instead, Melville claims that Shakespeare has already been approached. And, in agreement with Emerson's democratic view on the "American Scholar," he says that everybody is capable of similarly great thoughts as Shakespeare voiced in Hamlet:
But Shakespeare has been approached. There are minds that have gone as far as Shakespeare into the universe. And hardly a mortal man, who, at some time or other, has not felt as great thoughts in him as any you will find in Hamlet. (245)
Furthermore, Melville announces the advent of American-borne "Shakespeares" and the necessity of a superior national literature - equaling American superiority in other fields - which will soon supersede the primacy of English literature in the English speaking world. Convinced that this will sooner or later happen, he even inverts Sydney Smith's notorious rethoric question of 1820: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?":
Believe me, my friends, that Shakespeares are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio. And the day will come, when you shall say who reads a book by an Englishman that is a modern. [...] This, too, I mean, that if Shakespeare has not been equalled, he is sure to be surpassed, and surpassed by an American born now or yet to be born. For it will never do for us who in most other things out-do as well as out-brag the world, it will not do for us to fold our hands and say, In the highest department advance there is none. (245-246)
Most probably, when writing this, Melville was also thinking of himself as one of the American Shakespeares to come. But, as "Each age [...] must write its own books" (Emerson 1837, in BAYM 1998: 1104), these new Shakespeares would have to be different from old traditions and concepts, they might not meet the backwards looking expectations of the people, and thus might not be recognized for what they are, like Jesus who was not recognized as being the Messiah by most of his people. And even Shakespeare's genius was not fully recognized during his lifetime:
The great mistake seems to be, that even with those Americans who look forward to the coming of a great literary genius among us, they somehow fancy he will come in the costume of Queen Elizabeth's day, - be a writer of dramas founded upon old English history, or the tales of Boccaccio. Whereas, great geniuses are parts of the times; they themselves are the times; and possess a correspondent coloring. It is of a piece with the Jews, who while their Shiloh was meekly walking in their streets, were still praying for his magnificent coming; looking for him in a chariot, who was already among them on an ass. Nor must we forget, that, in his own life-time, Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, but only Master William Shakespeare of the shrewd, thriving, business firm of Condell, Shakespeare & Co., proprietors of the Globe Theatre in London; [...] (246)
Melville harshly criticizes the all-successful authors of "smooth" literature, who imitate famous English writers and avoid everything that could impair their reputation. Those who merely write after successful formulas and never try something original, risking failure, would never become real great authors, even if they were the most popular writers. Continual success thus is a proof for limited scope, not for great imaginative power and genius:
But that graceful writer, who perhaps of all Americans has received the most plaudits from his own country for his productions, - that very popular and amiable writer, however good, and self-reliant in many things, perhaps owes his chief reputation to the avoidance of all topics but smooth ones. But it is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great. Failure is the true test of greatness. And if it be said, that continual success is a proof that a man wisely knows his powers, - it is only to be added, that, in that case, he knows them to be small. Let us believe it, then, once for all, that there is no hope for us in these smooth pleasing writers that know their powers. (247-248)
American authors should be different, not imitating, becoming American Goldsmiths and Miltons, but daring and original, risking failure and growing with it, like a real man, not like the typical English gentleman writer:
Without malice, but to speak the plain fact, they but furnish an appendix to Goldsmith, and other English authors. And we want no American Goldsmiths; nay, we want no American Miltons. It were the vilest thing you could say of a true American author, that he were an American Tompkins. Call him an American, and have done; for you can not say a nobler thing of him. - But it is not meant that all American writers should studiously cleave to nationality in their writings; only this, no American writer should write like an Englishman, or a Frenchman; let him write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American.
Here again, Melville was surely thinking of himself and his own career. He did not consider himself a "smooth", imitating writer, but a daring and manly one. And, indeed, if he had stuck to the successful travel-adventure formula of "Typee" and "Omoo" instead of, with "Mardi", writing something totally different and unexpected, he would surely have had more success as an author. But he would not have been content with this at all, as show his comments on "Redburn" (see 4.3). So, he defines his failure with "Mardi" as a necessary step on the way to real greatness (compare also his letter of April 23, 1849 "These attacks are matters of course, and are essential to the building up of any permanent reputation.") And now, with "Moby Dick", Melville was about to write another non-smooth and challenging novel, another risk in respect to success, but exactly for that reason a work of originality and manliness, a truly American novel. One could compare Melville in the department of literature, in a way, to the genuine American American character of the westward-moving frontiersman or settler, who leaves the secure East and risks everything in order to establish a new life in a yet unknown and unexplored territory.
Melville's recent negative experiences with American critics might also have induced him to discuss their attitude towards new tendencies in American literature. He expresses his discontent with the present situation regarding the critical reception of American authors in their home country. He complains of that American authors often enough receive more appreciation in England than in America, and that the few existing American critics are "asleep" and are not yet aware of the rising of a talented new generation of American writers. They totally fail in "patronage", so that now American authors patronize America by gaining renown in foreign countries instead of being patronized by their home country. Though Melville claims that American genius in literature (including his own) will develop and expand even without patronage, he urges the public to be more attentive and appreciative toward the aspiring literary scene, not for the sake of the authors, but because it would be a shame if other countries discovered promising American writers before America did:
Not that American genius needs patronage in order to expand. For that explosive sort of stuff will expand though screwed up in a vice, and burst it, though it were triple steel. It is for the nation's sake, and not for her authors' sake, that I would have America be heedful of the increasing greatness among her writers. For how great the shame, if other nations should be before her, in crowning her heroes of the pen. But this is almost the case now. American authors have received more just and discriminating praise (however loftily and ridiculously given, in certain cases) even from some Englishmen, than from their own countrymen. There are hardly five critics in America; and several of them are asleep: As for patronage, it is the American author who now patronizes his country, and not his country him. And if at times some among them appeal to the people for more recognition, it is not always with selfish motives, but patriotic ones. (247)
Melville wants the American reading public to prize, cherish, and glorify her own, so far rather few native authors ("It is true, that but few of them as yet have evinced that decided originality which merits great praise." (247)) instead of English writers. Among the American authors of renown he counts Hawthorne, Emerson, Whittier, Irving, Bryant, Dana, Cooper, and Willis (but not himself, though the review was published anonymously, so he could have mentioned Melville, too). But even without those, even if there were only American authors of mediocrity, much inferior to the ones in Europe, the critics and the public should praise and appreciate those native ones over "alien" foreign writers and thus promote a national literature:
Let America then prize and cherish her writers; yea, let her glorify them. They are not so many in number, as to exhaust her good-will. And not lavish her embraces upon the household of an alien. [...] But even were there no Hawthorne, no Emerson, no Whittier, no Irving, no Bryant, no Dana, no Cooper, no Willis [...] - were there none of these, and others of like calibre among us, nevertheless, let America first praise mediocrity even, in her own children, before she praises (for everywhere, merit demands acknowledgment from every one) the best excellence in the children of any other land. Let her own authors, I say, have the priority of appreciation. (247)
Surely, Melville himself would not have minded some more appreciation by his countrymen either.
Melville rejects the common notion that America does not provide new great themes for great literature. On the contrary, he proclaims that there is a superabundance of material provided by American nature and life, which can and should be explored by contemporary writers, and that it is rather this overwhelming superabundance that paralyzes modern authors than the lack of exploitable material. The comparison of the Vermont dew being as wet to Melville's feet as Eden's dew to Adam's again reflects the idea of America as the second paradise, one which is as worthy of poetry as the first paradise:
Nor will it at all do to say, that the world is getting grey and grizzled now, and has lost that fresh charm which she wore of old, and by virtue of which the great poets of past times made themselves what we esteem them to be. Not so. The world is as young today, as when it was created; and this Vermont morning dew is as wet to my feet, as Eden's dew to Adam's. Nor has Nature been all over ransacked by our progenitors, so that no new charms and mysteries remain for this latter generation to find. Far from it. The trillionth part has not yet been said; and all that has been said, but multiplies the avenues to what remains to be said. It is not so much paucity, as superabundance of material that seems to incapacitate modern authors. (246)
Before turning back to Hawthorne and his tales, Melville fervently repeats his criticism of imitation and unwholesome devotion - he calls it flunkeyism - for English literature: "Let us away with this Bostonian leaven of literary flunkeyism towards England." (248) And again, he calls for the public to generously support American authors who do not imitate, even if they are not as refined, and even if they fail. They should not be stabbed at like Melville was after Mardi, but given a second chance:
Let us boldly contemn all imitation, though it comes to us graceful and fragrant as the morning; and foster all originality, though, at first, it be crabbed and ugly as our own pine knots. And if any of our authors fail, or seem to fail, then [...] let us clap him on the shoulder, and back him against all Europe for his second round.
The complex influence of "Manifest Destiny" on Melville's discussion again becomes obvious. Like O'Sullivan, Melville often mixes religious language with his democratic policies and claims, for example, that America would not only become the prophetically destined leading nation in politics before the turn of the century, but he also predicts that the time that England has to look up to American literature will not be far off. And that even though America is not yet wholly prepared for it:
If either must play the flunkey in this thing, let England do it, not us. And the time is not far off when circumstances may force her to it. While we are rapidly preparing for that political supremacy among the nations, which prophetically awaits us at the close of the present century; in a literary point of view, we are deplorably unprepared for it; and we seem studious to remain so. Hitherto, reasons might have existed why this should be; but no good reason exists now. (248)
In Melville's opinion, there are no acceptable reasons anymore for refraining from claiming this destined supremacy also in the field of literature. In order to achieve it, American writers who "breath that unshackled, democratic spirit of Christianity in all things, which now takes the practical lead in this world" (248) should receive due recognition. Even some boasting is allowed for the purpose:
The truth is, that in our point of view, this matter of a national literature has come to such a pass with us, that in some sense we must turn bullies, else the day is lost, or superiority so far beyond us, that we can hardly say it will ever be ours. (248)
As kind of a conclusion from his nationalist discourse, Melville comes back to Hawthorne and how he fits into the picture. He recommends Hawthorne as one of the newly emerging superior American authors who do not merely imitate Old World models but whose work breathes the spirit of America itself. Hawthorne's tales thus serve as a model for an American national literature:
And now, my countrymen, as an excellent author, of your own flesh and blood, - an unimitating, and, perhaps, in his way, an inimitable man - whom better can I commend to you, in the first place, than Nathaniel Hawthorne. He is one of the new, and far better generation of your writers. The smell of your beeches and hemlocks is upon him; your own broad praries are in his soul; and if you travel away inland into his deep and noble nature, you will hear the far roar of his Niagara. (248-249)
But what fascinates Melville most about Hawthorne are his "lights and shades", his "great power of blackness," his depth ("He is immeasurably deeper than the plummet of the mere critic"), and his seeking for truth (243-244, 250). These are, for Melville, the essentials that make great literature.
Melville's nationalism in his review expresses a very similar vein of thinking as Emerson and O'Sullivan voiced before. But in contrast to both, as a new aspect, he does not only discuss the authors and the issue of imitation versus originality, but he also approaches the critics and the reading public and their treatment of the authors of the new literary generation. His plea for more appreciation, encouragement and recognition is more than understandable from Melville's personal negative experience with the critics and the reading public after his failure with "Mardi".
Herman Melville's private correspondence mirrors many of the problems an American author of his time had to cope with. The letters illustrate his efforts to convince the publishers, the critics and the reading public of the authenticity of his first novels, the insecure copyright situation, Melville's struggles to support a growing family by his income as an author, and his pervasive problems with criticism, censorship and the popular taste of the time which called for plain travel adventures and sentimental domestic novels rather than for books like "Mardi", "Moby Dick", or "Pierre".
In "Hawthorne and his Mosses", Melville, like Emerson and O'Sullivan before him (and, most likely, highly influenced by them), calls for a genuine national and democratic literature free from imitation of Old World models, which would ultimately take on supremacy in the world, and he announces the advance of American Shakespeares, most probably also with himself and his great project "Moby Dick" in mind. With the nationalistic passages in "Hawthorne and his Mosses," an imbedded "Manifest Destiny of literature," Melville wrote what Duyckinck and his literary circle wanted, but other major essays in the same vein there are none (at least I have not found any). Herman Melville was not, in contrast to his brother Gansevoort (a democratic orator) or Nathaniel Hawthorne, much involved in politics, especially not after he moved to the Berkshires. But his "Moby Dick", featuring the supreme American whaling fleet (and emphasizing its suprimacy in various encounters of the Pequod with ships of other nations, and, most pointedly, in her meeting the Rose-Bud), and, as Alexis de Tocqueville had predicted for literature in a democracy, exploring the hidden depths of the immaterial nature of man rather than the mere appearances or superficial distinctions such as class and status (VANSPANCKEREN), undoubtedly breathes exactly this democratic and adventurous American spirit he calls for in his review.
Nevertheless, Melville's hopes of playing an important role in the quest for a national literature, of becoming and being recognized as a New World Shakespeare, would not come true in his lifetime. Though he definitely developed and explored themes that would later be considered typical for American literature, like his Adamic figures Billy Budd or Ishmael and the eternal topics of truth, and good and evil, his career as an author came to an end after the disastrous reception of "Pierre", and he was mostly forgotten for the next decades. Only in the 1920s, Melville was rediscovered, and today, he is counted among the most important authors America has ever brought forth. His "Moby Dick" is considered one of the most important novels in American literature and a regular part of the literary canon. With the aid of the movie and the children's book versions (which are beggarly nothings compared to the original novel!) "Moby Dick" has probably even become more famous than Shakespeare's "Hamlet".
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