Tuesday, November 06, 2012

`Like a Man Sawing Wood at So Much Per Cord'

“Ladies in full dress by the hundred. A steady stream of two-&-two’s wound thro’ the apartments shaking hands with ‘Old Abe’ and immediately passing on…Of course I was one of the shakers. Old Abe is much better looking than 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.”

The writer is Herman Melville, job-seeker, in a letter to his wife, Elizabeth. The date is March 22, 1861. Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated as the sixteenth president of the United States on March 4, and in less than a month, on April 15, Confederate forces would fire on Fort Sumter. The meeting between Melville and Lincoln, a decade after publication of Moby-Dick and the precipitous plunge of Melville’s literary reputation, took place at the White House. Unlike Whitman, Melville writes with respect and admiration for the president without swooning. 

Melville needed a steady, well-paying job. He’d been pulling strings, starting with his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, who had retired seven months earlier after serving for thirty years as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Melville’s income from his writing had dried up. In what should have been his prime, the author of Pierre (1852) and The Confidence-Man (1857) supported his family largely through Shaw’s generosity. Melville hoped to be named the American consul in Florence, Italy. Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast (1840), wrote a letter of recommendation to U.S. Senator Charles Sumner. So did Julius Rockwell, the Superior Court judge in Berkshire County, Mass., where Melville lived, and other luminaries in Pittsfield. Rockwell wrote of the novelist to Sumner:  “Let his genius--his imperfect health--…his noble wife, and his four children–plead, with trumpet tongues for him.” 

Nothing came of the lobbying, though Sumner, at Melville’s request, sent a memo to the State Department recommending him for consulships in Glasgow, Geneva and Manchester. On March 27, Lincoln named T. Bigelow Lawrence of Boston as consul to Florence. Lemuel Shaw, age eighty, died of a stroke on March 30. In the same letter to his wife, Melville adds of his White House visit: 

Mrs. Lincoln is rather good-looking I thought. The scene was very fine altogether. Superb furniture—flood of light—magnificent flowers—full band of music &c.” 

The job-seeking story has a satisfactory, long-deferred ending of sorts. In 1867, Henry Smythe, collector of customs for the port of New York, nominated Melville for the job of inspector of customs. On Dec. 5, Melville was sworn in. He earned four dollars a day and worked six days a week. He remained in the job for nineteen years. 

[After Lincoln’s assassination, Melville wrote “The Martyr,” collected in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866).]

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