Excerpts from Melville's Letters

IN BOSTON for the birth of his son Malcolm, Melville was finally able to read Shakespeare, having acquired "an edition in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every 't' like a musket barrel" (letter to Evert Duyckinck, 24 February 1849).

ALSO IN FEBRUARY Melville heard Emerson lecture in Boston, from the "Mind & Manners in the Nineteenth Century" series. On 3 March 1849 he wrote Duyckinck, "Say what they will, he's a great man. . . . I had only glanced at a book of his once in Putnam's store – that was all I knew of him, till I heard him lecture. . . . I think Emerson is more than a brilliant fellow. Be his stuff begged, borrowed, or stolen, or of his own domestic manufacture he is an uncommon man. . . . I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he dont attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can't fashion the plummet that will. I'm not talking of Mr Emerson now – but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began.
Later in the letter he came back to the subject of Shakespeare: " . . . do not think, my boy, that because I, impulsively broke forth in jubillations over Shakespeare, that, therefore, I am of the number of the snobs who burn their tuns of rancid fat at his shrine. . . . I would to God Shakespeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway . . . that the muzzle which all men wore on their souls in the Elizabethan day, might not have intercepted Shakespeare from articulation. Now I hold it a verity, that not even Shakespeare was a frank man to the uttermost. And, indeed, who is this intolerant universe is, or can be?"

TRAVELING IN EUROPE (where he had gone to try to secure British copyrights for his books) Melville writes Duyckinck on 14 December 1849: "I did not see your say [in The Literary World] 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 devil writes with duns all round him, & looking over the back of his chair – & perching on his pen & diving in his inkstand – like the devils about St. Anthony – what can you expect of that poor devil? – What but a beggarly 'Redburn'! And when he attempts anything higher – God help him & save him! . . . What a madness & anguish it is, that an author can never – under no conceivable circumstances – be at all frank with his readers. . . .
BACK IN NEW YORK, on 1 May 1850 Melville replies to a letter from Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast, to thank him for his favorable comments about Redburn and the recently published White-Jacket, "My Dear Dana, did I not write these books of mine almost entirely for 'lucre' – by the job, as a woodsawyer saws wood – I almost think, I should hereafter – in the case of a sea book – get my M.S.S. neatly & legibly copies by a scrivener – send you that one copy – & deem such a procedure the best publication." A little later in the letter he replies to a suggestion Dana seems to have made about another book he could write: "About the 'whaling voyage' – I am half way in the work, & am very glad your suggestion so jumps with mine. It will be a strange sort of a book, tho', I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho' you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; – & to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be an ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this."

STILL IN NEW YORK, on 27 June 1850 Melville writes Richard Bentley, the London publisher who had brought out the English editions of his earlier novels, to offer him a new book: "In the latter part of the coming autumn I shall have ready a new work; and I write you now to propose its publication in England. The book is a romance of adventure founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author's own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooner." [Melville, who sailed on whaling ships for just over half a year, not two, was never a harpooner.]

FROM THE BERKSHIRES, where he had gone in part to visit Melville, Evert Duyckinck writes his brother on 7 August 1950: "Melville has a new book mostly done – a romantic, fanciful & literal & most enjoyable presentment of the Whale Fishery – something quite new."

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW sends Hawthorne the two issues of The Literary World containing the essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses" on 24 August 1850: "I suppose some other friend has already sent you the inclosed notice of yourself and your writings; but it [is] good enough to have two copies of it. I have rarely seen a more appreciating and sympathising critic; and though I do not endorse all he says about others, I do endorse all he says about you."

FROM LENOX, ALSO IN THE BERKSHIRES, Sophia Hawthorne writes Duyckinck on 29 August 1850 to ask about the author of "Hawthorne and His Mosses": "But, my dear Mr Duyckinck, I cannot speak or think of any thing now but the extraordinary review of Mr Hawthorne in the Literary World. The Virginian is the first person who has ever in print apprehended Mr. Hawthorne. . . . Who can he be, so fearless, so rich in heart, of such fine intuition? Is his name altogether hidden?"

IN THE SAME LETTER, Nathaniel Hawthore writes this to Duyckinck: "I have read the articles in the Literary World with very great pleasure. The writer has a truly generous heart. . . But he is no common man; and, next to deserving his praise, it is good to have beguiled or bewitched such a man into praising me more than I deserve."

FROM PITTSFIELD IN THE BERKSHIRES, where Melville moved with his family in September, he writes Duyckinck on 13 December 1850: "I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship's cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.
"Do you want to know how I pass my time? . . . My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire – then spread my M.S.S. on the table – take one business squint at it, & then fall to with a will. At 2 1/2 p.m. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be."

FROM CHAPTER 85 OF MOBY-DICK, "The Fountain": ". . . and yet, that down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 185[0]." (The first American edition of the novel prints 1851, although the novel was published in November 1851, so most editions, including the one I ordered for our course, correct the year.)
FROM PITTSFIELD in mid-April, Melville writes Hawthorne, as if he were writing a review of The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne's recently published romance: "There is a certain tragic phase of humanity which, in our opinion, was never more powerfully embodied than by Hawthorne. We mean the tragicalness of human thought in its own unbiassed, native, and profounder workings. We think that into no recorded mind has the intense feeling of the visible truth ever entered more deeply than into this man's. By visible truth, we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things as they strike the eye of the man who fears them not, though they do their worst to him. . .
"There is a grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie . . . "

FROM PITTSFIELD, probably sometime in May 1851, Melville writes Hawthorne: "But I was talking about the 'Whale.' As the fishermen say, 'he's in his flurry' when I felt him some three weeks ago. I'm going to take him by his jaw, however, before long, and finish him up in some fashion or other. What's the use of elaborating what, in its very essence, is so short-lived as a modern book? Tho' I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter. . . .
"I am so pulled hither & thither by circumstances. 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 & perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most most 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. . . . All Fame is patronage. Let me be infamous: there is no patronage in that. What 'reputation' H. M. has is horrible. Think of it! To do down to posterity is bad enough, any way; but to go down as a 'man who lived among the cannibals'! When I speak of posterity, in reference to myself, I only mean the babies who will probably be born in the moment immediately upon my giving up the ghost. . . . 'Typee' will be given to some of them, perhaps, with their gingerbread. I have come to regard this matter of Fame as the most transparent of vanities. I read Solomon more and more, and every time see deeper and deeper and unspeakable meanings in him. . . . It seems to me now that Solomon was the truest man who ever spoke, and yet that he a little managed the truth with a view to popular conservatism."

AFTER A TRIP TO NEW YORK, from Pittsfield, Melville writes Hawthorne on 29 June 1851: "(The 'Whale' is only half thro' the press; for, wearied with the long delays of the printers, and disgusted with the heat & dust of the Babylonish brick-kiln of New York, I came back to the country to feel the grass and end the book reclining on it, if I may. . . .
"Shall I send you a fin of the 'Whale' by way of a specimen mouthful? The tail is not yet cooked – tho' the hell-fire in which the whole book is broiled might not unreasonably have cooked it all ere this. This is the book's motto (the secret one), Ego non baptiso te in nomine – but make out the rest yourself."

ON MELVILLE'S BIRTHDAY, 1 August 1851, Hawthorne writes an entry in his journal about what happened as he made his way back from the Lenox post office with his son Julian : "While thus engaged, a cavalier on horseback came along the road, and saluted me in Spanish; to which I replied by touching my hat, and went on [reading] the newspaper. But the cavalier renewing his salutation, I regarded him more attentively, and saw that it was Herman Melville! So, hereupon, Julian and I hastened to the road, where ensued a greeting, and we all went homeward together, talking as we sent. Soon, Mr Melville alighted, and put Julian into the saddle; and the little man was highly pleased, and sat on the horse with the freedom and fearlessness of an old equestrian, and had a ride of at least a mile homeward.
"I asked Mrs. Peters [Hawthorne's servant] to make some tea for Herman Melville; and so she did, and he drank a cup, but was afraid to drink much, because it would keep him awake. After supper, I put Julian to bed; and Melville and I had a talk about time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters, that lasted pretty deep into the night, and if the truth must be told, we smoked cigars even within the sacred precincts of the sitting room. At last, he arose, and saddled his horse (whom we had put into the barn) and rode off for his own domicile; and I hastened to make the most of what little sleeping-time remained for me . . ."

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, WRITING SARAH MOREWOOD, an acquaintance and neighbor in the Berkshires: "Concerning my own forthcoming book – it is off my hands, but must cross the sea before publication here. Dont you buy it – dont you read it, when it does come out, because it is by no means the sort of book for you. It is not a piece of fine Spitalfields silk – but is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships' cables & hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it. Warn all gentle fastidious people from so much as peeping into the book – on risk of a lumbago & sciatics."

FROM PITTSFIELD, JUST BEFORE MOBY-DICK WAS PUBLISHED IN THE U.S., he replies to a letter from Evert Duyckinck, in which his friend had told him about the news that a whale had rammed and sank the whaleship Ann Alexander in the Pacific: "Your letter received last night had a sort of stunning effect on me. For some days past busy engaged in the woods with axe, wedge, & beetle, the Whale had almost completely slipped me for a time (& I was the merrier for it) when Crash! comes Moby Dick himself (as you justly say) & reminds me of what I have been about for part of the last year or two. It is really & truly a surprising coincidence – to say the least. I make no doubt it is Moby Dick himself, for there is no account of his capture after the sad fate of the Pequod about fourteen years ago. — Ye Gods! What a Commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster."

IN MID-NOVEMBER, Hawthorne reads Moby-DIck and writes Melville. That letter is not extant, but this is part of Melville's reply to it, written about 17 November: "A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable socialities are in me. I would sit down & dine with you & all the gods in old Rome's Pantheon. . . .
"Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips – lo, they are yours & not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling. . . . You did not care a penny for the book. But, now & then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book – and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon, – the familiar, – and recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes.
". . . Lord, when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessings, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; – I have heard of Krakens."

SOURCE: Jay Leyda, The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, vol. 1 (New York: Gordian Press, 1969)