Melville's posthumous greatness

Sunday July 22, 2012


At the young age of 23, Herman Melville’s first book, "Typee" (1842), was published. It was a bestseller. Overnight, Melville was an up and coming author.

"Typee" was a novel, based on Melville’s own adventures, about being held captive on a South Pacific Island by natives. His next book, published when he was 28, was "Omoo." It was a sequel to "Typee" and also autobiographical. "Omoo" was about a mutiny on a whaling ship, where the majority of the crew was imprisoned in Tahiti.

Melville had gained a reputation as a writer of maritime adventure based on the adventures of his youth. In 1849, at the age of 30, Melville had published his third novel and his first non-autobiographical work, "Mardi." It was a milestone in his life in terms of his writing style. Like "Moby-Dick," which was to follow, "Mardi" was highly philosophical. While "Typee" and "Omoo" could not rightly be described as without moral themes, they did not possess the symbolism, philosophizing, and allegory of his later works. Laurie Roberston-Lorant wrote, "Melville knew the risk he was taking by allowing himself to soar into a metaphysical stratosphere."

Contemporary critics panned him and "Mardi" was not a commercial success. With its failure and with a family to support, Melville went back to publishing adventure stories of a semi-autobiographical nature.

Melville "sold out" in an attempt to be commercially successful when he wrote "Redburn" (1849) and "White-Jacket" (1850). A missive to his father-in-law revealed that he thought "Redburn" and "White-Jacket" were "two jobs, which I have done for money -- being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood." Melville added, "[M]y only desire for their ‘success’ as it is called springs from my pocket, & not from my heart."

Melville wrote in a journal entry that he knew "Redburn" "to be trash" and that he "wrote it to buy some tobacco with." To his friend, Hawthorne, he wrote in 1851, "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned -- it will not pay." The aforementioned letter to his father-in-law read, "So far as I am individually concerned, & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to ‘fail.’ -- Pardon this egotism."

In 1851, Melville wrote the book he always wanted to write -- the book that did not pay; the book that "failed." "Moby-Dick" was published. Melville’s magnum opus, which he no doubt regarded it, was panned by Melville’s contemporaries and was a relative commercial failure.

Lorant wrote, "With Moby-Dick" [Melville] had succeeded in accomplishing what he set out to do; yet it had made no difference to either his reputation or his bank account."


In 1851, Hawthorne’s "House of Seven Gables" was being written at the little red house that overlooked the Stockbridge Bowl. While Hawthorne wrote letters in defense of Melville to those who publically criticized "Moby-Dick," to Melville’s dismay, Hawthorne never wrote a review that might have saved the contemporary reputation of the work. Hawthorne was to die regarded as a great author, with his pallbearers being literary giants such as Longfellow, Emerson, and Holmes. After publication of "Moby-Dick," Melville’s literary reputation waned and was to never recover in his lifetime.

Melville was to live at Arrowhead for 13 years, trying to eke out a living as an author and attempting to supplement his income as a lecturer. Robert Weaver, largely responsible for the Melville Revival of the ‘20s and Melville’s first biographer, wrote in his 1921 biography "Herman Melville: Mystic and Mariner" that an "uncircumspect critic" wrote on the centennial of Melville’s birthday (1918), "Owing to some odd psychological experience, that has never been definitely explained, his style of writing, his view of life underwent a complete change. From being a writer of stirring, vivid fiction, he becomes a dreamer, wrapping himself up in a vague mysticism, that rendered his last few books such as ‘Pierre,’ and ‘The Confidence Man’ quite incomprehensible and certainly most uninteresting for the average reader."

"Pierre" (1952), written at Arrowhead, was a critical and financial disaster. "Israel Potter" was published in installments (1854-1855) in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, and was also slammed by the critics. "The Confidence Man," the last major novel of Melville and also written at Arrowhead, was published in 1957 and sold poorly. Melville had come into such disrepute as an author, his 1853 novel, "Isle of the Cross" was never published. The manuscript has never been found.

There are many critics, whom Weaver describes as "too considerable in size and substance to be so cavalierly dismissed," who thought Melville went insane. Weaver described Melville’s career as "paradoxical" given "its brilliant early achievement, [and] its long and dark eclipse."

Melville left Arrowhead in 1863, having lived there for 13 years, and he went to work in a customs house in New York for the next 19 years. In his off hours, he wrote poetry. Few people attended his funeral in 1891. The New York Times commented that "he has died an absolutely forgotten man."

While he was writing "Moby-Dick," Melville prophetically wrote to Hawthorne, "Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter." Then as Elizabeth Hardwick puts it, "a shower of gold coins clanks down on the tomb in the 1920s."

Rinaldo Del Gallo, III is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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