On Melville: The Best from American Literature

On Melville: The Best from American Literature

by Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady

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From 1929 to the latest issue, American Literature has been the foremost journal expressing the findings of those who study our national literature. The journal has published the best work of literary historians, critics, and bibliographers, ranging from the founders of the discipline to the best current critics and researchers. The longevity of this excellence lends a special distinction to the articles in American Literature.
Presented in order of their first appearance, the articles in each volume constitute a revealing record of developing insights and important shifts of critical emphasis. Each article has opened a fresh line of inquiry, established a fresh perspective on a familiar topic, or settled a question that engaged the interest of experts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379997
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Series: The Best from American literature
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 300
File size: 439 KB

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On Melville

The Best from American Literature

By Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1988 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-0867-6


The Anatomy of Melville's Fame

O. W. Riegel

THE extraordinary enthusiasm for Herman Melville in recent years among persons who had not previously heard of him has led to two erroneous conclusions: first, that Melville's contemporaries were blind to the significance of his work, and, second, that until the beginning of the revival of the last decade Melville was completely forgotten.


There is sufficient evidence to show that Melville's contemporaries were fairly well aware of his intentions. The sea romances, Typee and Omoo, are praised today for the same virtues that were observed in the 1840's, and the attacks upon Melville's later and more philosophical works arose not so much from a lack of comprehension in the critics as from a dislike for the philosophy which they understood only too well. For instance, The Democratic Review (July, 1849) pointed out that "Mardi is an allegory that mirrors the world," but the critic was "saddened" because Melville "seems to think that the race is in a vicious circle, from which we cannot escape." A similar point of view was expressed by The Literary World (August 21, 1852) in a review of Pierre: "The most unmoral moral of the story ... seems to be the impracticability of virtue.... But ordinary novel readers will never unkennel this loathsome suggesstion."

Melville was attacked by his contemporaries, it is true, for the failure of his later work as literature, but modern critics at the height of the Melville boom have passed virtually the same unfavorable judgments. Compare, for example, the critique published in The Athenæum in 1852, which called Pierre "a prairie in print, wanting the flowers and freshness of the savannahs, but almost equally puzzling to find a way through it," with Lewis Mumford's comment, "It is the failure of Pierre as literature that draws our attention to Melville's predicament as a man," or with H. M. Tomlinson's description of Pierre as "a tragic and noteworthy failure." The tone of the modern critics is more sympathetic, but the judgment of Pierre as literary art remains much the same.

An apparent exception to the general comprehension of Melville's meaning was the inability or the unwillingness of British critics to see in Moby Dick anything more than a poorly constructed whaling story. As early as December, 1851, Harper's Magazine, an American journal, said that "beneath the whole story the reader may find a pregnant allegory," but the British, with an amazing stupidity, never recognized the possibility of a philosophical interpretation. They tested Moby Dick by the canons of unity, coherence and emphasis, and found it wanting. The London Examiner, for instance, found that in Moby Dick "all the regular rules of narrative or story are spurned and set at defiance." The London Spectator remarked that "such a groundwork is hardly natural enough for a regular-built novel, though it might form a tale, if properly managed." The Spectator censured Melville for "beginning in the autobiographical form and changing ad libitum into the narrative."

Indeed, there was always a sharp difference of opinion between British and American criticism of Melville during his creative period, a fact which has not hitherto been stressed by Melville's biographers. Ill feeling, national pride, and a patronizing attitude toward America help to explain the severe condemnation by the English of Melville's "Yankeeisms" and "Go-ahead method." They also help to explain the unexpected English praise of The Confidence Man, a book which nearly every one else has whole-heartedly damned. For instance, The Westminster Review (July, 1857) said: "Perhaps the moral is, the gullibility of the great Republic when taken on its own tack." Had Americans felt more cultural pride and less inclination to grovel before British oracles, Melville might have become then, as he is now, a great hero of American national consciousness.

Melville's genius was, indeed, recognized by the critics who undertook to evaluate his work as a whole: Philarète Chasles (Revue des Deux Mondes, May 15, 1849), Fitz-James O'Brien (Putnam's Monthly, February, 1853), "Sir Nathaniel" (The New Monthly Magazine, July, 1853), and others clearly apprehended Melville's power, although they might quarrel with him over stylistic excesses or his offenses against the proprieties and evangelical morality, such as references to smoking the vile weed, drinking spirituous liquors, and cohabiting with Polynesian maidens.


The second myth, that after the close of the first productive period Melville was almost completely forgotten, is simply false. It is true that little evidence of the continuation of an enthusiasm for Melville can be found in the literary histories and text-books. Beginning with the Duyckincks' Cyclopædia of American Literature and Gostwick's Hand-book of American Literature, Melville found a place in a considerable number of academic works; but these notices, in general, reveal a dismal ignorance both of the man and of his work. Academic criticism abounded in plagiarism and paraphrase of previous criticism, and it was apparent that few of the literary historians bothered to read Melville with any degree of critical insight, if at all. More important as indicative of an abiding interest in Melville were the references to him by men of letters and literary amateurs on both sides of the Atlantic. The extent of the interest in Melville among the reading public can never be determined accurately, because the opinions of ordinary readers do not often find their way into print; but a sufficient number of professional writers left comments on Melville to prove the existence of a following, however small it might be. Among the more important men who were admirers of Melville at one time or another during the "dark" periods before 1919 may be mentioned Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Warren Stoddard, Sir Alfred Lyall, John LaFarge, Robert Buchanan, Henry S. Salt, Arthur Stedman, Titus Munson Coan, W. Clark Russell, J. M. Barrie, Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., Archibald MacMechan, William Morris, and Theodore Watts.


Contrary to the popular impression, the recent revival of interest in Melville is not the first, nor even the second or third, attempt to rehabilitate the author's reputation. It is possible to demark at least four or five movements which sought to reawaken a general interest in Melville. The first occurred in England in the middle 1880's, with Robert Buchanan and Henry S. Salt as the chief advocates. Another occurred in England and America after Melville's death (1891), when new editions of four of the books were published. Professor William P. Trent mentioned a "revival of interest" in Melville—and deprecated it—in 1903. Another revival, which resulted in the acknowledgment of Moby Dick as Melville's masterpiece and one of the greatest sea books in all literature, began in 1914 with Professor Archibald MacMechan's essay on the White Whale. The last revival began with the Melville Centenary in 1919 and still continues.

The divergent character of the various revivals is important. In the first two or three Melville was talked of only as a writer of "travel books," the author of the charmingly exotic Typee and Omoo. H. S. Salt's comment in The Scottish Art Review (November, 1899) was typical: "Typee takes precedence of all his other writings, in merit no less than in date." When Moby Dick emerged in 1914, it was as a glorified sea and whaling story. MacMechan, who set the tone of this revival, was not interested in the philosophy and allegory of Moby Dick so much as in its "expansiveness" and "freedom from rules and conventions." The Whitman vogue was in full swing. To MacMechan, Melville was the "Walt Whitman of prose."

The most recent Melville boom began with a repetition of orthodox judgments, and a new note did not enter criticism until the publication of Frank Jewett Mather's articles on Melville in The Review in August, 1919. The Centenary reawakened interest in Melville both in England and in America, but again there were important national differences. The English have always been interested in Melville as a writer of travel literature and of books about the sea. Since 1919 English criticism has concerned itself chiefly with style and story. Its main characteristic has been its enthusiasm for Moby Dick, an enthusiasm which partly atones for former blindness. But it is an enthusiasm for Moby Dick as the whaling epic. English criticism has been, therefore, stylistic and literary, and it is a significant fact that John Freeman's most original contribution to Melville criticism has been his analysis and literary appraisal of the poems. Carl Van Doren could speak in 1921 of the "greater revival interest" in England, but he was not speaking of the great Melville boom which is still going on in this country. The "new" Melville criticism, the reinterpretation of the character of Melville and of his work in the light of modern psychology and philosophy, is essentially an American phenomenon.


The recent revival of interest in Melville has been attributed by some to "the spirit of the age." This is undoubtedly true, but "spirit of the age" is a term difficult to define, and one that leaves the inquirer groping for more ponderable reasons. Some have emphasized the appeal of Melville's boldness and expansiveness, which were the same qualities that attracted Professor MacMechan in 1914. A more distinctive characteristic of the third decade of the twentieth century may be its devotion to psychological history, to "case histories" of spiritual struggle and conflict, to the spectacle of man against the world, to all evidences of psychological maladjustment: a devotion induced by the recent enthusiasm for psychology as well as by the post-war psychosis of futility, of futility and defiance.

Mather's importance as a tiritic of Melville arises from the fact that he was one of the first to see clearly Melville's personal struggle with a perspective on the Victorian age. The point of view was elaborated by Professor Weaver in his biography: "Indeed, Melville's complete works, in their final analysis, are a long effort towards the creation of one of the most complex, and massive, and original characters in literature: the character known in life as Herman Melville." This sentence, indeed, sounds the keynote of the new criticism. For what that "Herman Melville" character is which has been discovered by recent critics, and its meaning to modern life, one must go to the works and the biographies. The important point is that the new interest in Melville is not so much belletristic as biographical, and it is the biographical interest that is responsible for the gradual reclamation of the literary "failures." The unpopular works, even Pierre and The Confidence Man and Clarel, have been brilliantly gilded and festooned and illuminated with modern effects, and so rescued from the limbo.

The biographical enthusiasm reached its climax in D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1922), Carl Van Vechten's essay in The Double Dealer (January, 1922), and especially, in Lewis Mumford's Herman Melville (1929). Van Vechten clearly revealed the attitude of this group of critics:

In spite of all the detractors, I think ... the day may come when there will be those who will prefer the later Melville just as there are those who prefer the later James, those who will care more for the metaphysical, and at the same time more self-revealing works, than for the less subtle and more straightforward tales.

The excitement over Melville as a man may be held responsible for the sometimes excessive praise of his writing, for the elaboration of awful but often improbable "hidden meanings," and for the amusing contradictory opinions among enthusiastic critics. To Lewis Mumford, for instance, Melville is always a conscious artist; to Van Wyck Brooks he is an unconscious artist. To M. Josephson, Melville is an "escape" writer; to Mumford he is a realist in the deepest sense. Other examples may be found in the criticism of the last ten years, but these will suffice to show the lack of agreement on the more strictly literary aspects of Melville's work.


In spite of the enthusiasm of the Melville boom, there has been, and there still is, a strong dissenting opinion. Pierre, it seems, is as difficult to read as ever. Here again there seems to be a difference between English and American criticism, the conservative American critics being suspicious of blurb and exaggeration, and the English being unwilling to evaluate Melville on other grounds than those of intrinsic literary merit. A reviewer in The Freeman (October 26, 1921) expressed the cynical American point of view:

Well it was only a question of time: sooner or later the darkness that surrounds this extraordinary man was certain to yield before our indefatigable national appetite for investigation and research. Next year Melville will have been forgotten again.... But for the next six months there is to be a Melville boom. Ishmael is to emerge at last: he is to have his little hour. And there will be a few hundred or a few dozen readers, moreover, who, discovering him for the first time in this limelight, will seize upon his gift as a permanent possession.

Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., commenting on Lewis Mumford's biography, said: "Indeed there is some exaggeration in the general envisagement of Herman Melville as a Prometheus too lonely even to attract the vultures." Professor Weaver limits Melville's claim to fame to three exploits: the literary discovery of the South Seas; the creation, with Dana, of a new world of literature of the sailor; and Moby Dick, which reveals a great imagination. But Professor Weaver seems to be doubtful, as he revealed in private conversation, of Melville's claim as a literary artist.

It ought to be remembered that the epic hero, the "Herman Melville" of the modern critics, is an American created by Americans. Differences in national psychology may account for the failure of the English to catch the spark of enthusiasm for this figure. Much of the English criticism has been, therefore, literary and conservative. Michael Sadleir said in 1922: "Apart from Moby Dick, the neo-Melvillian has little beyond patronizing approval for the books of his hero." Even Moby Dick was over-praised:

In some degree the worship of Moby Dick and the comparative neglect of the other work are inevitable corollaries to the Melville boom at its present stage. During the first period of any new æsthetic wonder, the peculiar transcends the normal in the imagination of disciples.... In years to come, when the glamour of oddity has paled a little, it will be admitted that the book labours under a sad weight of intolerable prolixity.

Probably the most sober appraisal of Melville's work has come from an Englishman, H. P. Marshall. Moby Dick is in a class by itself. Redburn, Typee, Omoo, and some of the Piazza Tales deserve to be read for their style as well as their matter. Badly written but interesting, Mardi and Pierre are books that publishers would call "human documents." But Israel Potter has only moments, White Jacket is ordinary, and The Confidence Man is "extremely dull and monstrously constructed."


One may suspect that the Melville culte is not so large as the mass of recent notices of Melville would seem to indicate. It may be limited, indeed, to those who find in the "Herman Melville" of the recent biographies a kindred spirit, or a life which embodies their own psychological conflicts. The whole subject of Melville's reputation is extremely interesting because it has unusually sharp contrasts and because it permits us to see the complicated process of literary apotheosis going on all around us at the present moment. Perhaps the "spirit of the age" will soon become sufficiently corporeal to enable us to see why there has been such a strong Melville revival in this generation. Although Herman Melville has a throne in our literary Valhalla, it may perhaps be seen, after the rosy clouds have rolled away from the pedestal, that he is balanced precariously on a chair with a single leg, and that made of whale-bone, like the leg of Captain Ahab.


Excerpted from On Melville by Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady. Copyright © 1988 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Series Introduction vii

The Anatomy of Melville's Fame (1931) / O.W. Riegel 1

Herman Melville's "I and My Chimney" (1941) / Merton M. Sealts 10

Meville's "Sociality" (1945) / R. E. Watters 23

Melville's "The Town-Ho's Story" (1949) / Sherman Paul 40

Melville's " 'Soiled' Fish of the Sea" (1949) / John W. Nichol 50

Melville on Homer (1950) / R. W. B. Lewis 52

Some Notes on the Structure of The Confidence-Man (1957) / John G. Cawelti 62

Hawthorne, Melville, and "Blackness" (1965) / Hubert H. Hoeltje 73

The Domestic Adventures in Melville's Tales (1965) / Judith Slater 84

Redburn and the Faillure of Mythic Criticism (1967) / James Schroeter 97

"Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!" and Some Legends in Melville Scholarship (1968) / Sidney P. Moss 116

Melville and the Negro: From Typee to "Benito Cereno" (1969) / Eleanor E. Simpson 135

Melville's Bachelors and Maids: Interpretation Through Symbol and Metaphor (1969) / Beryl Rowland 155

Melville and the Theme of Timonism: From Pierre to The Confidence-Man (1972) / Charles N. Watson, Jr. 172

Vera's Use of the "Forms": Means and Ends in Billy Budd (1975) / Christopher W. Sten 188

The Composition of Moby-Dick (1975) / James Barbour 203

Form as Vision in Herman Melville's Clarel (1979) / Bryan C. Short 221

Moby-Dick: The Transformation of the Faustian Ethos (1979) / Gustaaf Van Cromphout 238

Melville's Comic Debate: Geniality and the Aesthetics of Repose (1983) / John Bryant 254

Index 275

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