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Of course, English publication should not be left out of account; it could win for a nineteenth-century American author more prestige and no less profit than native publication, and was usually arranged to fall earlier.
He worked in a room of a New York household that included his mother, four unmarried sisters, a married brother with his pregnant wife, and two children, plus domestic help. 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 ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves.
We first hear of his new book in a letter of May 1, 1850, to another literary sailor, Richard Henry Dana, Jr.: About the “whaling voyage”—I am half way in the work. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.
In the mythology of American letters, the popular and critical failure of “Moby-Dick,” and Melville’s subsequent withdrawal into wounded silence, is a central image, ranking with Henry James’ self-exile to England and Mark Twain’s final phase as a white-suited pet of the rich, and with Fitzgerald’s alcoholic crackup and early death and Hemingway’s spendthrift exercises in celebrity.
Something is wrong, these images tell us, with being a writer in America; one of Melville’s biographers, Newton Arvin, calls his subject’s treatment by the public “the heaviest count in our literary annals against the American mind.” Inspection of Melville’s books after “Moby-Dick” and of the biographical particulars framing his famous silence yields, however, a few surprises.
“Moby-Dick” eighteen months after its publication had sold a not inconsiderable twenty-three hundred copies, but “Pierre,” for which Melville had received a five-hundred-dollar advance, eight months after its publication had sold a miserable two hundred and eighty-three copies of a hopeful edition of twenty-three hundred and ten.
In Melville’s entire lifetime, royalties on the “bowl of milk” amounted to a hundred and fifty-seven dollars.In the midsummer of that year, while a friend, Evert Duyckinck, was informing his brother that “Melville has a new book mostly done—a romantic, fanciful & literal & most enjoyable presentment of the Whale Fishery—something quite new,” Melville almost all at once visited his cousin Robert’s farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; was given a copy of Hawthorne’s “Mosses from an Old Manse;” decided to bring his wife and young son from New York to Pittsfield for a summer vacation; met Hawthorne at a picnic on Monument Mountain; wrote an enraptured anonymous appreciation of Hawthorne for the Duyckinck brothers’ journal and decided to buy the farm, six miles from Hawthorne’s new home near Lenox, that Melville called Arrowhead, and where he and his family were to live for the next thirteen years.That first year, he was stimulated and emboldened by the proximity of the older author, of whom he had written in his review, “I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. The author writes with the gusto of true genius, and it must be a torpid spirit indeed that is not enlivened with the raciness of his humor and the redolence of his imagination.” thought “Moby-Dick” “not lacking much of being a great work,” and offered criticism that even the most reverential modern Melvillean might admit to be sound: that the seamen don’t talk like seamen, and that the central character of Captain Ahab has been “grievously spoiled, nay altogether ruined, by a vile overdubbing with a coat of book-learning and mysticism.” reported that “the result is a very racy, spirited, curious and entertaining book, which affords quite an amount of information, while it enlists the curiosity, excites the sympathies, and often charms the fancy.” asserted that “Moby-Dick” “in point of richness and variety of incident, originality of conception, and splendor of description, surpasses any of the former productions of this highly successful author.” Enough, perhaps, has been quoted to show that even those with strong reservations about “Moby-Dick” spoke respectfully of the author’s talent, and that a number of early enthusiasts for this willful and extravagant work were among the reviewers.The third of the world that is dry land and the half that is the female sex turned the compass of his imagination away.Never again, after “Pierre,” will he attempt to make significant characters of women, and hereafter the ground beneath his extended fictions will be watery, if not the sea then the Mississippi of “The Confidence-Man” or the Palestinian desert of “Clarel,” transformed by innumerable nautical metaphors into a ghost ocean. He has assassinated the natural day; how then can he eat with an appetite?The first surprise that greets us is how young Melville was when he wrote “Moby-Dick.” He was thirty when, on the first day of February, 1850, he returned to New York from a four-month excursion to England whose ostensible purpose was to settle the details of the British publication of his fifth book, “White-Jacket.” He had been married not three years before, to Elizabeth Shaw; his first child, Malcolm, was not quite a year old.Shortly after his return, he, who had written “White-Jacket” and “Redburn” together in a mere five months, settled to compose a sixth book based upon his seafaring days—his whaling experiences in this case.Sometimes the intent ear of Isabel in the next room, overhears the alternate silence, and then the long lonely scratch of his pen. In the heart of such silence, surely something is at work. Upon the pretence of writing a popular novel for us, you have been receiving cash advances from us, while passing through our press the sheets of a blasphemous rhapsody, filched from the vile Atheists, Lucian and Voltaire.” Among the reviews of “Pierre,” that warned, “If one does not desire to look at virtue and religion with the eye of Mephistopheles . “Typee” and “Omoo” successfully took up the engaging manner of a purveyor of romance and adventure. 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.”Melville, like Norman Mailer and Lord Byron, began, in his mid-twenties, with a success that ever after he had to live up to.It is as if she heard the busy claw of some midnight mole in the ground. With the enormous intellectual expansion and relative commercial failure of “Mardi,” Melville entered into a bitter relation with his prospective readers. On both sides of the Atlantic, “Typee” created a sensation that still resonated when all else of Melville’s production had been forgotten.Pierre, we are tardily told, is something of a writer; eloping to New York with not only Isabel but another country waif, Delly Ulver, and then acquiring as one more dependent the wronged but faithful Lucy (much as Melville’s Berkshire household was composed of a multiplication of women), Pierre hopes to support them all by writing a book. Here we have a book describing its own composition, and that of all the hurried and bulky books before, which yet have secured the writer no sure immortality, and no lasting income.The description of his labors is horrendous and heartfelt: He will not be called to; he will not be stirred. or does the Pale Haggardness unbuild the lungs and the life in him? In “Pierre,” to judge by his comments in the letters just quoted, Melville imagined he was concocting “a regular romance,” “calculated for popularity.” When the book upon which poor Pierre so painfully labors is rejected by the publisher, it is with the note “Sir:—You are a swindler. he had better leave ‘Pierre or The Ambiguities’ unbought on the shelves of the bookseller.” Author and hero alike are unable to turn their pens to the necessary task, sinking instead into “blasphemous rhapsody.” “Pierre” both in style and in action verges on parody—a quality that some recent critics have sought to make a virtue but modern readers are apt to find as disorienting as did the novel’s few contemporary reviewers.