Has America a literature? I am inclined to think it a grave mistake to argue seriously with those afflicted persons who periodically exercise themselves over this idlest of academic questions. It is wiser to meet them with a practical counter-thrust, and pointedly inquire, for example, whether they are familiar with the writings of Herman Melville. Whereupon, confusion will in most cases ensue, and you will go on to suggest that to criticise Hamlet, with the prince's part omitted, would be no whit more fatuous than to demonstrate the non-existence of an American literature, while taking no account of its true intellectual giants. When it was announced, a few months ago, that "Mr. Herman Melville, the author," had just died in New York at the age of seventy-two, the news excited but little interest on this side of the Atlantic; yet, forty years ago, his name was familiar to English, as to American readers, and there is little or no exaggeration in Robert Buchanan's remark that he is "the one great imaginative writer fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with Whitman on that continent."

It was in 1846 that Melville fairly took the world by storm with his Typee: the Narrative of a four months' residence in the Marquesas Islands, the first of a brilliant series of volumes of adventure, in which reality was so deftly encircled with a halo of romance that readers were at once captivated by the force and freshness of the style and puzzled as to the personality of the author. Who and what was this mysterious sojourner in the far islands of the Pacific -- this "Marquesan Melville," as a writer in Blackwood denominated him? Speculation was rife, and not unaccompanied by suspicion; for there were some critics who not only questioned the veracity of Herman Melville's "Narratives," but declared his very name to be fictitious. "Separately, " remarked one sagacious reviewer, "the names are not uncommon; we can urge no valid reason against their juncture; yet in this instance they fall suspiciously on our ear."

Herman Melville, however, was far from being a mythical personage, though in his early life, as in his later, he seems to have instinctively shrunk from any other publicity than that which was brought him by his books. He was a genuine child of nature, a sort of nautical George Borrow, on whom the irresistible sea-passion had descended in his boyhood, and won him away from the ordinary routine of respectable civilised life, until, to quote his own words, to travel had become a necessity of his existence, "a way of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation."...

There is no doubt that Melville's characteristic reticence on personal matters, together with his increasing love of retirement, was in large measure the cause of his otherwise unaccountable loss of literary fame; for even the well-merited failure of such books as Pierre and The Confidence Man, would be in itself insufficient to explain the neglect of his genuine masterpieces. It is true that for a few years he was induced to lecture, in various parts of the States, on the subject of his voyages to the South Seas; but, as a rule, he could not, or would not, cultivate the indispensable art of keeping his name before the public. The man who could win the affections of a cannibal community in the Pacific was less at home in the intricacies of self-advertisement and "business." "Dollars damn me," he remarks in one of his letters. "When 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." That he felt keenly mortified at the ill success of Pierre, is beyond question. When, on the occasion of a tour in Europe, in 1856, he visited Hawthorne at the Liverpool consulate, he told his friend that "the spirit of adventure had gone out of him." He is described by Hawthorne as looking "a little paler, perhaps, and a little sadder, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner.... He has suffered from too constant literary occupations, pursued without much success latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind."

In 1863, Melville found it necessary, for the better education of his children, to leave his home at Pittsfield, and to take up his quarters at New York, where for many years he held an inspectorship in the custom-house. His life became now altogether one of quietude and retirement; content to let the noisy world go by, he made no attempt to recover the fame which had once been his, and to which he still possessed an inalienable title. During these years, however, he published two volumes of poetry; Battle Pieces, which deals mainly with incidents of the civil war, and Clarel, a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, described by Melville himself, in a letter to an English correspondent, as "a metrical affair, a pilgrimage or what not, of several thousand lines, eminently adapted for unpopularity." More interesting than these is a little story, John Marr and other Sailors, issued in 1888, and limited to twenty-five copies -- a limitation which affords a pathetic and significant comment on the acumen of a "reading public" which had allowed itself to become almost entirely oblivious of the author of Typee and The Whale! We need not doubt, however, that Melville found ample compensation for this neglect in that assurance of ultimate and lasting recognition which is seldom denied to men of genius....

His love of literature was fully sustained to the end. I have before me a most interesting batch of letters, dated between 1884 and 1888, addressed by him to Mr.James Billson, of Leicester, and mostly dealing with the poems of James Thomson ("B.V."), of which he was a great admirer. Some of these comments and appreciations are in Melville's best style. " 'Sunday up the River,' " he writes, "contrasting with the 'City of Dreadful Night,' is like a Cuban humming-bird, beautiful in faery tints, flying against the tropic thundercloud. Your friend was a sterling poet, if ever one sang. As to pessimism, although neither pessimist nor optimist myself, nevertheless I relish it in the verse, if for nothing else than as a counterpoise to the exorbitant hopefulness, juvenile and shallow, that makes such a muster in these days -- at least in some quarters."

"Exorbitant hopefulness" could indeed have been hardly otherwise than distasteful to one who, like his own "John Marr" (a retired sailor whose fate it was to live on a "frontier-prairie," among an unresponsive inland people who cared nothing for the sea), had so long experienced the solitude of disappointed genius. But it is impossible to believe that this undeserved neglect can be permanent. The opinion of those competent judges who are students of Melville's works is so clear and emphatic in his favour, that it is not too much to say that to read his books is generally to appreciate them; nor is it only those who have what is called an "educated taste" who are thus impressed, for I have been told of instances in which English working-men became his hearty admirers. It is satisfactory to know that a new edition of his best books is forthcoming, both in America and England, and that the public will thus have an opportunity, I will not say of repairing a wrong done to a distinguished writer, for, as I have already shown, the decay of his fame was partly due to circumstances of his own making, but at least of rehabilitating and confirming its earlier and truer judgment. Herman Melville will then resume his honourable place in American literature (for, to end as I began, I hold that the existence of an American literature is a fact and not a supposition), as the prose-poet of the Pacific....

Return to Contemporary Estimates
Return to Melville Home Page

Please address all correspondence on this Site to jmadden@mail.multiverse.com
The Life and Works of Herman Melville is brought to you by Multiverse.