Herman Melville’s final years have been thoroughly mythologized by fellow writers seeking to heighten their sense of romanticized neglect. So goes the familiar lament: Artists are misunderstood and unappreciated. When will the boorish public recognize our brilliance? In June 1851, as he labors to finish Moby-Dick, Melville writes to Hawthorne with his customary tone of mingled braggadocio and self-pity:
“Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me, -- I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”
No, just most of them, but the others are glories of American literature and the world’s. That Melville was a difficult character, perhaps a depressive, is obvious. So too that he wrote great books and bad ones. No sane man writes with the expectation of fame, wealth and universal love. Art is not a democracy and its values are not egalitarian. Critical justice is rare and good intentions count for nothing. Bad writers thrive, good ones wither. More rarely, good ones thrive and bad ones wither. It has nothing to do with fairness. The late Frederick Busch’s novel The Night Inspector (1999) includes Melville as a character in his role as customs inspector for the City of New York. That’s the job he secured in 1866, the year he published his poetry collection Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, which surely ranks among his masterpieces. Busch also writes about the author of Moby-Dick in “Melville’s Mail” (A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life, 1998). In another essay in that collection, “The Floating Christmas Tree,” he might be writing with Melville in mind:
“Writing, then, is a test of character; the ones who pass are merely doing what their trade requires, while the ones who fail are doing what comes, alas, quite naturally.”
I’m traveling today to Fredericksburg, Va., to spend a week caring for ailing in-laws. Most days I should get to tramp around the battlefield, keeping in mind Melville’s “Inscription for the Slain [Dead] at Fredericksburgh”:
“A glory lights an earnest end;
In jubilee the patriot ghosts ascend.
Transfigured at the rapturous height
Of their passionate feat of arms,
Death to the brave’s a starry night, —
Strown their vale of death with palms.”
Cynthia Wachtell reminds us that Melville waffled on the wording of this poem, eliding “dreadful” as the modifier for “glory,” among other changes. Either version of the first line seems a prescient comment on Melville’s subsequent quarter-century of life as a writer. The passage quoted at the top comes from near the end of Hershel Parker’s Herman Melville: A Biography Vol. 2, 1851-1891 (2002). As the epigraph to his final chapter, “In and Out of the House of the Tragic Poet,” Parker quotes the Oct. 10, 1891, issue of Harper’s Weekly:
“The name of Herman Melville will not suggest any note of interest to many readers, but it none the less recalls the career of a man of brilliant genius, who practically retired from the pursuit of letters a quarter of a century since, in the prime of his powers.”
Melville died on this date, Sept. 28, in 1891, age seventy-two.