Tuesday, July 19, 2011

`Of Horrors That Happen So'

The book’s cover is an attractive shade of coppery brown, reminiscent of an old saddle, unblemished but for some fading on the spine. The leaf size is 7-7/16 by 4-7/8 inches, and its 272 pages have turned faintly brown but not brittle. Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War was published Aug. 17, 1866, by Harper and Brothers, the New York house that had published Moby-Dick fifteen years earlier. The collection was never reprinted during Melville’s life. On Monday I read among the poems in the first edition of Battle-Pieces in the the Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center at Rice University.

On the inside cover is an Ex Libris bookplate for George Frisbie Whicher (1889-1954), associate professor of English at Amherst College and author of This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson (1938). On the facing page, “$8.50” is written in pencil, and this is stamped twice in purple ink: “From H.C. Clarke, Stationer, Book and Music Dealer, Vicksburg, Miss.” In 1866, Harper and Brothers had priced the book at $1.75.

See Published Poems, Volume 11 of The Writings of Herman Melville (Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 2009), for authoritative texts of Battle-Pieces, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon Etc. (May 1891, in an edition of twenty-five copies. Melville died Sept. 28). The book’s nine-hundred forty pages are stuffed with annotations and textual history, including a two-hundred-page “Historical Note” by Hershel Parker, author of a two-volume biography of Melville. Parker writes:

“Basing `Lee in the Capitol’ on newspaper articles, Melville mythologized the man [Robert E. Lee] who had endured a public renunciation of military glory—something parallel to the grandeur of his own renunciation, for years now, of literary glory: informing the poem is Melville’s profound though covert identification with Lee.”

One of the editors of Published Poems, G. Thomas Tanselle, reports Battle-Pieces had a print run of 1,260 copies, compared with 3,000 to 4,500 for most of Melville’s earlier books with Harper and Brothers. In twenty years, only 471 copies were sold, “leaving the publisher with over 500 copies on hand (or more than half of the edition, after the review copies are taken out). The total income from sales amounted to about $537…not much more than half of the production costs.” Tanselle’s next sentence is grim:

“Of the 500 copies unsold in 1887, those still unbound were surely destroyed, and the 360 or so that were bound either went to a publisher’s trade sale for remaindering or were also destroyed.”

In its review of Battle-Pieces dated Sept. 26, 1866, the National Quarterly Review wrote:

“There is much more truth than poetry in this volume; the author is a sensible man with respectable literary talents, but not a poet.”

The sentiment is a common one. I’ve written before about Battle-Pieces and its centerpiece, “Lee in the Capitol,” and Helen Pinkerton, a poet and critical champion of Melville’s poetry. She is author of Melville's Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s (Archon Books, 1987) and Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South (University of Tennessee Press, 2009). Helen has encouraged me to reread and reevaluate Melville’s poetry, which is so often dismissed as a dilettantish afterthought or footnote to his prose accomplishment. Consider conventional critical wisdom when reading “The Apparition (A Retrospect)” and its chilling final stanza:

“So, then, Solidity’s a crust—
The core of fire below;
all may go well for many a year,
But who can think without a fear
Of horrors that happen so?”

Helen wrote me over the weekend:

“The Melville book took 10 years of my life, which I much enjoyed, traveling East to find the illustrations, and reading countless biographies of American politicians. Melville's mind I found almost endlessly fascinating, and reading about the period made it even more so. Today, we think we have political problems. We should try dealing with an issue of the magnitude of slavery. Melville grew intellectually enormously in pondering the problem. He also grew into a philosophical pessimist about human nature and a political conservative, which the current PC Melvillians refuse to recognize.”

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