Tuesday, May 22, 2018

'I Think This Is a Bigger Man'

Melville’s cautionary tale is well known to scholars and common readers alike. At the time of his death in 1891, his best work, including Moby-Dick, was largely forgotten. In his final decades, Melville published only poetry. He worked as a customs inspector in New York City. Only after World War I was his reputation rekindled. His grand-daughter discovered the manuscript of Billy Budd in a bread box in the attic of her house in Cambridge, Ma. The Melville Revival was underway. Raymond Weaver published Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, the first biography, in 1921.

I’ve never been certain how far outside a small circle of Eastern academics interest in Melville spread in those early years. When did bookstores and libraries routinely begin stocking Moby-Dick? When, among non-academic readers, was it judged an “American classic” and recognized as chief among our contributions to world literature? One early reader was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., then an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. In the Holmes-Laski Letters (ed. Mark DeWolfe Howe, Harvard University Press, 1953), he writes to Harold Laski on April 14, 1921:

“Did I mention my revelation . . . ? Herman Melville and Moby Dick—an account of sperm whaling with a story superadded. Anyhow I have finished it now and can say more certainly than ever that, with longueurs, it is, yet, I think, a mighty book.”

Is Holmes purposely echoing Ishmael’s boast in Chapter 104, “The Fossil Whale”: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme”? He seems intuitively to understand Melville's principal influence and the grandeur of his ambition:

“Not Shakespeare had more feeling of the mystery of the world and of life. There are mountain peaks and chasms and – the whole is as thick with life at first hand now as the day it was written – as Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter seemed to me thin, 20 years ago. (W. James replied to me when I said so, Because it is an original book.)”

Let’s applaud Holmes’ recognition that Hawthorne is “thin.” The Scarlett Letter may be the most overrated book in the American canon. Tedious stuff. Holmes continues:

“Incidentally, it pleases me that he takes his fellow-sailors, a cannibal, an Indian, a negro and old Nantucket mates and captain with the same unconscious seriousness that common men would reserve for Presidents and Prime Ministers. And my, but he nobly exalts the Nantucket Whalemen, the Macys, the Coffins and the rest. I don’t want to say too much but if you like George Borrow as I do I think this is a bigger man.”

I’m not convinced by the Borrow comparison but Holmes, to his credit, recognizes Melville’s very American, very democratic impulses.

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