What could be more gratifying than a friend becoming a friend with another of one’s friends? So it is when we learn a much-admired writer has among his favorite writers one of our favorites: Herman Melville loved the works of Charles Lamb.
On May 1, 1850, recently returned from a visit to England and the Continent, Melville wrote to Richard Henry Dana Jr., who had written a letter of introduction to Edward Moxon, his publisher in England, and given it to Melville before his departure. Moxon was Lamb’s friend and publisher, and in London gave his American visitor The Works of Charles Lamb (1848) and Thomas N. Talfourd’s Final Memorials of Charles Lamb (1848). Melville writes to Dana:
“But knowing the nature of these foggy English, &; that they are not altogether impenetrable, I began a sociable talk, and happening to make mention of Charles Lamb, and alluding to the warmth of feeling with which that charming punster is regarded in America, Mr Moxon brightened up—grew cordial—hearty;--&; going into the heart of the matter—told me that he (Lamb) was the best fellow in the world to `get drunk with’ (I use his own words) &; that he had many a time put him to bed. He concluded by offering to send me a copy of his works (not Moxon’s poetry, but Lamb’s prose) which I have by me, now. It so happened, that on the passage over, I had found a copy of Lamb in the ship’s library--&; not having previously read him much, I dived into him, &; was delighted—as every one must be with such a rare humorist &; excellent hearted man. So I was very sincere with Moxon, being fresh from Lamb.”
[From Correspondence, Vol. 14 of The Writings of Herman Melville, edited by Lynn North, 1993.]
We understand Melville’s fondness for Lamb. Both were “punsters” and otherwise comically disposed, albeit in different keys. Both fashioned a rich prose gumbo and reveled in the prose of Burton, Browne and Coleridge. Both knew suffering and loss. Among the epigraphs Melville appends to Moby-Dick (he calls them “Extracts”) are six lines from Lamb’s “Triumph of the Whale”:
“Io! Paean! Io! sing
To the funny people's King.
Not a mightier whale than this
In the vast Atlantic is;
Not a fatter fish than he
Flounders round the polar sea.”
Within months of reading Lamb and meeting Moxon, Melville was writing Moby-Dick. Lamb worked in the accounts department of the East India Company for thirty-three years, an experience he writes about in “The Superannuated Man” (The Last Essays of Elia, 1833). I fancy that the dedication Melville gives to “Etymology (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)” at the start of Moby-Dick is a stylized portrait of Lamb:
“The pale Usher--threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”
Might Bartleby have something in him of Lamb?