Herman Melville's Obituary Notices

A page from The Life and Works of Herman Melville

Melville died at home, of a heart attack, shortly after midnight on September 28, 1891. He was seventy-two years old; his last novel, The Confidence-Man, had been published more than three decades earlier. As the following notices suggest, he had been almost totally forgotten by all but a small group of admirers in Great Britain and the United States. In an article written about a year before his death (included below), columnist Edward W. Bok went so far as to state that most of those who could remember Melville in 1890 thought he had died long before.

Melville is buried next to his wife Elizabeth Shaw in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.


There are more people to-day, writes Edward Bok, who believe Herman Melville dead than there are those who know he is living. And yet if one choose to walk along East Eighteenth Street, New York City, any morning about 9 o'clock, he would see the famous writer of sea stories -- stories which have never been equalled perhaps in their special line. Mr. Melville is now an old man, but still vigorous. He is an employee of the Customs Revenue Service, and thus still lingers around the atmosphere which permeated his books. Forty-four years ago, when his most famous tale, Typee, appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. Publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And to-day? Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best-informed literary men in this country laughed recently at my statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two city blocks. "Nonsense," said he. "Why, Melville is dead these many years!" Talk about literary fame? There's a sample of it!


Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East Twenty-sixth Street, this city, of heart failure, aged seventy-two. He was the author of Typee, Omoo, Mobie Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville.


There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines. Yet forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event, not only throughout his own country, but so far as the English-speaking race extended. To the ponderous and quarterly British reviews of that time, the author of Typee was about the most interesting of literary Americans, and men who made few exceptions to the British rule of not reading an American book not only made Melville one of them, but paid him the further compliment of discussing him as an unquestionable literary force. Yet when a visiting British writer a few years ago inquired at a gathering in New-York of distinctly literary Americans what had become of Herman Melville, not only was there not one among them who was able to tell him, but there was scarcely one among them who had ever heard of the man concerning whom he inquired, albeit that man was then living within a half mile of the place of the conversation. Years ago the books by which Melville's reputation had been made had long been out of print and out of demand. The latest book, now about a quarter of a century old, Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, fell flat, and he has died an absolutely forgotten man.

In its kind this speedy oblivion by which a once famous man so long survived his fame is almost unique, and it is not easily explicable. Of course, there are writings that attain a great vogue and then fall entirely out of regard or notice. But this is almost always because either the interest of the subject matter is temporary, and the writings are in the nature of journalism, or else the workmanship to which they owe their temporary success is itself the produce or the product of a passing fashion. This was not the case with Herman Melville. Whoever, arrested for a moment by the tidings of the author's death, turns back now to the books that were so much read and so much talked about forty years ago has no difficulty in determining why they were then read and talked about. His difficulty will be rather to discover why they are read and talked about no longer. The total eclipse now of what was then a literary luminary seems like a wanton caprice of fame. At all events, it conveys a moral that is both bitter and wholesome to the popular novelists of our own day.

Melville was a born romancer. One cannot account for the success of his early romances by saying that in the Great South Sea he had found and worked a new field for romance, since evidently it was not his experience in the South Sea that had led him to romance, but the irresistible attraction that romance had over him that led him to the South Sea. He was able not only to feel but to interpret that charm, as it never had been interpreted before, as it never has been interpreted since. It was the romance and the mystery of the great ocean and its groups of islands that made so alluring to his own generation the series of fantastic tales in which these things were celebrated. Typee and Omoo and Mardi remain for readers of English the poetic interpretation of the Polynesian Islands and their surrounding seas. Melville's pictorial power was very great, and it came, as such power always comes, from his feeling more intensely than others the charm that he is able to present more vividly than others. It is this power which gave these romances the hold upon readers which it is surprising that they have so completely lost. It is almost as visible in those of his books that are not professed romances, but purport to be accounts of authentic experiences -- in White Jacket, the story of life before the mast in an American man-of-war; in Moby Dick, the story of a whaling voyage. The imagination that kindles at a touch is as plainly shown in these as in the novels, and few readers who have read it are likely to forget Melville's poetizing of the prosaic process of trying out blubber in his description of the old whaler wallowing through the dark and "burning a corpse." Nevertheless, the South Pacific is the field that he mainly made his own, and that he made his own, as those who remember his books will acknowledge, beyond rivalry. That this was a very considerable literary achievement there can be no question. For some months a contemporaneous writer, of whom nobody will dispute that he is a romancer and a literary artist, has been working in the same field, but it cannot seriously be pretended that Mr. [Robert Louis] Stevenson has taken from Herman Melville the laureateship of the Great South Sea. In fact, the readers of Stevenson abandon as quite unreadable what he has written from that quarter.


Herman Melville, one of the most original and virile of American literary men, died at his home on Twenty-sixth street, New York, a few days ago, at the age of 72. He had long been forgotten, and was no doubt unknown to the most of those who are reading the magazine literature and the novels of the day. Nevertheless, it is probable that no work of imagination more powerful and often poetic has been written by an American than Melville's romance of Moby Dick; or the Whale, published just 40 years ago; and it was Melville who was the first of all writers to describe with imaginative grace based upon personal knowledge, those attractive, gentle, cruel and war-like peoples, the inhabitants of the South Sea islands. His Typee, Omoo and Mardi made a sensation in the late forties, when they were published, such as we can hardly understand now; and from that time until Pierre Loti began to write there has been nothing to rival these brilliant books of adventure, sufficiently tinged with romance to enchain the attention of the passing reader as well as the critic. Melville wrote many books, but ceased to write so long ago as 1857, having since that date published only two volumes of verse which had no obvious relation to his previous work, and gave no addition to his literary reputation....

Herman Melville later was appointed to a clerkship in the New York custom-house, and since then his home has been in New York city, where in the society of a few friends he has been content to see the world go by. He published a volume of war poems in 1866, and 10 years later his versified record of travel, Clarel, a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Mr. Melville has not gained a place as poet, yet no one can read his book of Battle Pieces without much admiration for the vigor of the verse, and the frequent flashes of prophetic fire which they show.... The book is exceptional in that its verse was not suggested and put forth at the time of the events it wraps in rhythmic guise, but after the fall of Richmond Melville wrote nearly all of the poems; they show, nevertheless, such differences of proportion as might have occurred from the spontaneity of immediate impulse. The verses on Worden, "In the Turret," on Cushing, "At the Cannon's Mouth," are not ordinary writing nor is the poem "Chattanooga" on the battle fought in November, 1863....

Yet the better evidence of the divine afflatus that was in him appeared in his South Sea romances and in Moby Dick; his Clarel cannot be read except as a task, and contains probably nothing worth quoting, although some very patient reader might discover here and there lines of some consequence. Melville was very interesting in his personality, -- a man above the ordinary stature, with a great growth of hair and beard, and a keen blue eye; and full of vigor and quickness of thought in his age, -- which he felt and yielded to earlier than would have been expected of one of so stalwart a frame.

Although as aforesaid Melville's early novels are not now read, they are as well worth reading as the more sensuous stories of Pierre Loti, or the vivacious ventures of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose scenes are laid in the same region of "lotus eating," to describe in a fit phrase the common life of the Pacific islands. Typee, particularly, would be found to retain its charm for even the sophisticated readers of to-day. But the crown of Melville's sea experience was the marvelous romance of Moby Dick, the White whale, whose mysterious and magical existence is still a superstition of whalers, -- at least such whalers as have not lost touch with the old days of Nantucket and New Bedford glory and grief. This book was dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Hawthorne must have enjoyed it, and have regarded himself as honored in the inscription. This story is unique; and in the divisions late critics have made of novels, as it is not a love-story (the only love being that of the serious mate Starbuck for his wife in Nantucket, whom he will never see again), it is the other thing, a hate-story. And nothing stranger was ever motive for a tale than Capt Ahab's insane passion for revenge on the mysterious and invincible White whale, Moby Dick, who robbed him of a leg, and to a perpetual and fatal chase of him the captain binds his crew. The scene of this vow is marvelously done, and so are many other scenes, some of them truthful depictions of whaling as Melville knew it; some of the wildest fabrications of imagination. An immense amount of knowledge of the whale is given in this amazing book, which swells, too, with a humor often as grotesque as Jean Paul's, but not so genial as it is sardonic. Character is drawn with great power too, from Queequeg the ex-cannibal, and Tashtego the Gay Header, to the crazy and awful Ahab, the grave Yankee Starbuck, and the terrible White whale, with his charmed life, that one feels can never end. Certainly it is hard to find a more wonderful book than this Moby Dick, and it ought to be read by this generation, amid whose feeble mental food, furnished by the small realists and fantasts of the day, it would appear as Hercules among the pygmies, or as Moby Dick himself among a school of minnows.


A remarkable man of letters recently passed away in the person of Mr. Herman Melville at the age of 72. If he had died forty years ago his death would have attracted as much attention as the death of Mr. Lowell at that time, for his books were of a kind that was more widely read than those of Mr. Lowell.... The early career of Mr. Melville was adventurous enough to make him famous among his countrymen, who, less literary in their tastes and demands than at present, were easily captivated by stories of maritime life like Omoo and Typee, and Moby Dick.

They read Marryatt then, and Cooper, and Dana, and it was natural that they should read Melville, whose gifts in writing were rather those of a sailor of genius than a landsman of talent. He knew the sea as only sailors know it, for, beginning before the mast at the age of 18, he went to Liverpool and London and elsewhere in England, and then returned to New York, where he was born and lived, and where he was not content to remain long. A descendant of a member of the Boston "tea party," there was that in his blood which chafed at the limitations of modern city life, its artificial conventionalities and proprieties, and a spirit in his feet, which, spurning the ground, impelled him to seek again the life and freedom, the delights and dangers, that are so dear to those who go down to the sea in ships....

Popular among his own countrymen, who read him without quite knowing why, except that he entertained them, for they were not critical, though they had persuaded themselves that they were, Mr. Melville was a revelation to the English, who as a people have never grown weary of reading the stories of adventurous navigators, whether they were written in the days of Drake and Cavendish, or are written in our more prosaic days of ocean steamers that beat the record, and who could not but be charmed, critics and all, with the wild, and spirited, and picturesque prose poetry of Mr. Melville. It was as new in their literature as it was in ours, and they admired it accordingly, not more ardently, perhaps, than we, but more lastingly, for the fame of Melville, as we were assured a few years ago by Mr. Clark Russell, is still perennial in the mother country.

It cannot be said to be so here, for after Mardi (1849), a clumsy attempt at an allegory, which was a great disappointment to Mr. Melville's readers, and still more after Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), his reputation declined. Not that he was other than he had been from the beginning, but that a new king had arisen who knew not Joseph; not that he was written out, for a man of genius is never written out so long as he understands what is best in himself, but that writing like his was no longer cared for or read....

Mr. Melville was a man of great genius, but he cannot be said to have understood the limitation of his genius, or the things which it could, or could not, accomplish, and he cannot be said to have understood, or to have cultivated, literature as an art. He wrote as he felt, following out his moods and whims, confessing himself to his readers, of whose condemnation, or absolution, he took no thought, satisfied to be what he was, and to do what he did. Typee and Omoo are full of light and color, of sensations that seem to be reflections, and of the restlessness of thought that seems to imply activity of mind. We drift with him through his Pacific splendors and dangers as if we had partaken of the lotus plant; everything about us is wonderful, is marvelous, is miraculous, but nothing is tangible, real, "of the earth, earthy."

There was a wealth of imagination in the mind of Mr. Melville, but it was an untrained imagination, and a world of the stuff out of which poetry is made, but no poetry, which is creation and not chaos. He saw like a poet, felt like a poet, thought like a poet, but he never attained any proficiency in verse, which was not among his natural gifts. His vocabulary was large, fluent, eloquent, but it was excessive, inaccurate and unliterary. He wrote too easily, and at too great length, his pen sometimes running away with him, and from his readers. There were strange, dark, mysterious elements in his nature, as there were in Hawthorne's, but he never learned to control them, as Hawthorne did from the beginning, and never turned their possibilities into actualities. The suggestive comparison with Hawthorne reminds us that Mr. Melville and that great writer, who were personal friends, were at one time neighbors or nearly such, the one living at Pittsfield and other at Lenox, on the brink of the Stockbridge Bowl, and that in Mr. Julian Hawthorne's memoir of his parents -- Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife -- there are references to this friendship, besides several letters that passed between them at this time.

As none of these letters have as yet (so far as we know) been quoted in any literary notice of Mr. Melville, we copy one of them, which was written at Pittsfield in the summer of 1851, after the finishing of The House with the Seven Gables on the one hand, and during the composition of Moby Dick on the other, and which represents the peculiarities of the writer with a force and a faithfulness which leaves nothing to be desired:

[quotes most of Melville's letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851]

This is a very curious letter, and a very interesting one, from a personal point of view; but it is a strange and sad one, for a man of 32, who had written four or five remarkable books, and whose promise of fame was voluble in mouths of wisest censure. But, whatever it was, it was unfortunately prophetic, for, whether its writer knew it or not, his development had "come to the inmost leaf of the bulb" when he wrote Moby Dick. He wrote other books afterward -- four in prose, stories and what not, and three in verse -- but they added nothing to his reputation; why, it is not easy to determine, since they were conceived in the same spirit, and informed with the same qualities, as Omoo and Typee, which are landmarks in American literature, in which the name of Herman Melville must ever hold an honorable place. --Richard Henry Stoddard

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