Like Shakespeare, Herman Melville was a book-suffused writer. He read largely in order to write, a quality that belies his one-time reputation as a composer of South Sea romances and yarn-spinner for children. During his visit to London in 1849, the year he published Redburn and Mardi, and was gestating Moby-Dick, Melville kept a record of the books he acquired. On his list is popular gothic junk like Frankenstein, The Castle of Otranto and Vathek, but also Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Sir Thomas Browne, Shakespeare, Charles Lamb and De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. (See Melville’s Journals, eds. Howard C. Horsford and Lynn Horth, Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1989). In a journal entry dated Dec. 16, 1849, Melville notes:
“We had some coffee, music, dancing & after an agreeable evening I came away at 11 o’clock, & walking to The Cock near Temple Bar drank a glass of Stout & home & to bed, after reading a few chapters in Tristam [sic] Shandy, which I had never yet read.”
In a note on this passage, the Journals editors report Melville “must have read deeper into the work in coming months, for its influence on Moby-Dick has often been noted . . . And is unmistakable in the last paragraph of Chapter 26.”
The editors further note that the narrator of Melville’s story “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!” (1853) is reading Tristram Shandy, and attempts to tell his creditor “a fine joke about my Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman!” Nor was Melville above literary tourism while in London. On Nov. 16, 1849, he meets a friend at the Mitre Tavern, off Fleet Street, “the place where Dr Johnson used to dine.” There he sees the portrait bust of Johnson modeled from life by the sculptor Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823). Melville continues:
“Had a `stewed rump steak’—very fine, & bread & cheese, & ale (of course). Then upstairs & smoked a cigar. Cosy, & comfortable place enough. No cursed white walls. Stopped in at the `Dr Johnson Tavern’ over the way & drank a glass of ale. Bust of him there, also. Go to the place thro’ a court, where the Dr used to live. Some rivalry between the two places. The last the darkest.”
In our day, writers seem to read little beyond the work of their contemporaries, and usually not even the best among them – one explanation for why much current writing seems flat and parochial, as though born into an intellectual and literary vacuum. In his two-volume biography of Melville, Hershel Parker discusses his deep reading of various poets (Dante, Spenser, Milton) in 1860, when Melville was turning away from prose to write poetry. Melville called it “methodical reading.” Parker writes: “Melville was not reading in order to acquire knowledge for its own sake,” but rather, “his evident purpose in reading epics of Western civilization was to learn how to write great poetry in his own time.”
Melville, the most bookish of writers and thus an education for attentive readers, was born on this date, Aug. 1, in 1819, and died on Sept. 28, 1891, at age seventy-two.