Herman Melville: Representative selections, with introduction, bibliography

Following some threads that I uncovered while reading Moby-Dick, I was led to Willard Thorp’s 1938 book that encompasses snippets from Melville’s work along with a 100+ page introduction by Thorp. I skipped over the pieces of M’s novels since I plan to read them in their entirety and gobbled up the letters, criticism, and poetry.

The reprints of his literary criticism include M’s thoughts on Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1847) and a near-love-letter to Hawthorne’s Mosses from an old Manse, fairly oozing with adoration. This last was written on the eve of the two men meeting for the first time, and apparently Hawthorne was reading M as well, saying “I have read Melville’s works with a progressive appreciation of the author. No writer ever put the reality before his reader more unflinchingly than he does in ‘Redburn,’ and ‘White Jacket’ ‘Mardi’ is a rich book, with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life. It is so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded long over it, so as to make it a great deal better.” (Hawthorne to Duyckinck, August 1850).

The selections of letters are too sparse for my liking, but the ones that were included were a gem. In his 1861 letter back home to his wife, he talks about meeting President Lincoln in Washington: “A steady stream of two-&-twos wound thro’ the apartments shaking hands with ‘Old Abe’ and immediately passing on. This continued without cessation for an hour & a half. Of course I was one of the shakers. Old Abe is much better looking that [sic] I expected & younger looking. He shook hands like a good fellow—working hard at it like a man sawing wood at so much per cord.”

M’s letters to Hawthorne once they become fast friends are a whirlwind. “There is the 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; and all men who say no, —why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego.” (March 1851)

The whole June 1851 letter is amazing, M writing in the heat of battle as he finishes up Moby. Some choice parts:

“In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my “Whale” while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, – I am so pulled hither and 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 and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What 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.”

“If ever, my dear Hawthorne, in the eternal times that are to come, you and I shall sit down in Paradise, in some little shady corner by ourselves; and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won’t believe in a Temperance Heaven), and if we shall then cross our celestial legs in the celestial grass that is forever tropical, and strike our glasses and our heads together, till both musically ring in concert, –then, O my dear fellow-mortal, how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold which now so distress us, –when all the earth shall be but a reminiscence, yea, its final dissolution an antiquity. ”

“Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

“My development has been all within a few years past. I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil, it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould. So I. Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life.”

“P.S. You must not fail to admire my discretion in paying the postage on this letter.”