Melville and Maugham

Herman Melville’s Redburn was published on this day in 1849. This was the fourth of the five sea books that Melville published in quick succession from 1846 to 1850, with Moby-Dick coming out in 1851. In a letter to his publisher several months earlier, Melville described the novel as “a plain, straightforward, amusing narrative of personal experience—the son of a gentleman on his first voyage to sea as a sailor—no metaphysics, no conic-sections, nothing but cakes & ale.” The apologetic tone resurfaces in a letter written a week after publication in which Melville describes Redburn and White-Jacket, his previous sea tale, as “two jobs, which I have done for money, being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood.” He goes on to describe his “earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to fail”—one of the most famous “careful what you wish for” comments in American literature, given the failure of the Moby-Dick during Melville’s lifetime and the decades of obscurity that followed.

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Melville’s description of Redburn as a “cakes & ale” crowd-pleaser is an allusion to Twelfth Night, in which Sir Toby Belch, up late and very much in his cups, wonders why the rest of the world isn’t: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale was published on this day in 1930. The narrator, a popular novelist, is every bit as dubious as Sir Toby. The opening sentences:     

I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it’s important, the matter is more often important to him than to you. When it comes to making you a present or doing you a favour most people are able to hold their impatience within reasonable bounds.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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