May 31, 2009
Before I dove into Mody Dick, so to speak, any further, I read a chronology of Melville’s life, then his bibliography, “A Reader’s Companion” which gave me facts I didn’t know, like Herman was a failure as a writer during his lifetime, that the 1851 copy of Moby Dick sold for $1.50 and was thought to be too expensive for the literate public. Herman’s New York Times obituary listed him as ‘Henry’ Melville. The last e in Melville was not even his, it had been added my his mother after his down and out father passed. “Not those poor Melvills, the Melvilles, with an e if you please!!!”
Winslow Homer, by contrast, was well known during Melville’s life (sort of the Norman Rockwell of his day), he did not have to deal with the oppressive financial burdens, nor morals-watch-dog critics on guard for profane and indecent words libel to shock and persuade the reader into God knows what licentious acts; Homer’s subject matter, Victorian America, Civil War soldiers, and the mighty ocean were illustrated as God had intended; clothed, humble and at the mercy of nor’easters and musket shot.
Was Melville’s stalwart wife Lizzie (Elizabeth Shaw Melville) cousin to Robert Gould Shaw, the colonel that led the 54th Massachusetts black regiment out of Boston? I researched the Shaw families on the internet – without seeking out a genalogist – and couldn’t find any connections besides Massachusetts east coast outspoken family members. Lizzie’s father was Chief Justice of Massachusetts Lemuel Shaw, whose grandfather, Abraham Shaw, of Halifax, England, settled in Dedham, Massachusetts. Robert Gould Shaw’s (Lizzie’s contemporary) father was Francis George Shaw, abolitionist and co-sponsor of a well read theory of anti-private property ownership in a quest to end poverty in the 19th century. Robert’s grandfather was a wealthy merchant – I didn’t get his name.
No scholar has made this link – but I still wonder – not that it would have mattered in Melville’s life except for the fact that the man was friendship starved! Since the word was out after Moby-Dick Melville was crazy, a drunk, and a sex maniac, that Hawthorne left him for warmer climes, that he had no one to talk shop with, no connections to the publishing world or critic base.
This brings me to the most upsetting point concerning Melville’s life — the Victorian era literary critics were an absolute rabid bunch! [Faux] morality ruled everyone’s daily life, from the appropriate perambulator (fancy baby carriage) to the length of mourning period determined by degree of relationship to the deceased relative. No wonder so many men answered the call of the sea and even there could not escape the moralist police! Men and women were governed into early graves and there seemed hardly any antidote to the abuses they had to suffer; the most tragic and dilapidating conditions – surely the only person to survive whole may have been Samuel Clemens and to do so he had to cloak himself in the acerbic ribald humor of Mark Twain. Which brings me back again to poor melancholy Melville – he was a contemporary of Twain, Frost, Louisa May Alcott, Dickens, Douglass, Walden, Winslow Homer, he read Emerson and Hawthorne, yet he rarely spent time in their company. They all had Hawthorne in common and they were well read, gathered in salons and spoke their minds without fear of critical rebuke or public outcry. Perhaps Melville wasn’t seen as making the cut – maybe he ostracized himself or thought he was better than his peers – even so, he missed out on further honing of his craft and public acceptance in his lifetime. No one suffers a prima donna, especially a perceived crazy one; no one is there to attend your funeral and remember your name – and worse yet, you are grouped wit the talentless insane miscreants that howl at the moon.
Poor Melville, it took the world 33 years to recognize his greatness through the posthumous publication of Billy Budd in 1924; Moby Dick finally was accepted as the literary “mighty book” that Melville knew it to be.
Had he the technology, would Melville have posted on Twain’s blog? And, more importantly, would anyone have commented?
May 31, 2009