“Worked throughout with a fine and careful hand. Figures of mere ostentation. Show-pieces of fine writing. Nature is not confined to conciseness, but at time amplifies. Too sententious & strained a diction. The solidity of the structure is apt to prove oppressive to the ordinary reader. Too great uniformity.”
Long deemed a sort of literary wild man who hunted whales and cavorted with South Sea natives, Melville was in fact the most bookish of writers. Without Shakespeare, Milton and Thomas Browne, he would not have become the writer we know. An autodidact who never went to college, he could claim with Ishmael that “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” It’s tempting to read the passage quoted above (as reported in Hershel Parker’s Melville: The Making of the Poet, 2008), as a self-critique. The notion that Melville renounced fiction after publishing The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) is mistaken, though by 1862 he was concentrating on writing poetry. Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War appeared in 1866, Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land in 1876 and Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse, self-published in an edition of twenty-five shortly before his death in 1891.
It’s interesting to measure Melville’s work against his observations on Jeffery’s essay. He seldom wrote “showpieces of fine writing,” if we assume Melville is dismissing “fine writing” with contempt. Moby-Dick is a model of an elastic “American” prose style, at once colloquial and Elizabethan. Readers, common and otherwise, have likened it to poetry. Saul Bellow learned from the Shakespearean rhythms of Moby-Dick and updated them a century later in The Adventures of Augie March. There is little that’s concise about Moby-Dick, nor is it sententious. Ishmael, for all the suffering and madness he witnesses, is a comedian who gets away with a lot of jocularity while keeping afloat an adventure story and a running metaphysical gloss.
With Moby-Dick, Melville transcended his status as a merely American writer and entered world literature. Among our fiction writers, he ranks with Henry James and Willa Cather. Among nineteenth-century American poets, his only rival is Emily Dickinson. My favorite among Melville’s poems is “Art” from Timoleon:
“In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.”
Melville was born on this date, Aug. 1, in 1819.