july 20, 2012
(Similar columns ran in Berkshire Eagle and North Adams Transcript)
By Rinaldo Del Gallo III
While Herman Melville’s interactions with Berkshire County, most notably his time spent at Pittsfield’s Arrowhead, are common knowledge among locals, one fact often overlooked is the quiet end to the iconic author’s career that came not long after his time here.
At the young age of 23, Melville’s first book “Typee” (1842) was published. It was a best seller. Overnight, Melville was an up-and-coming author.
“Typee” was a novel, based on Melville’s own similar adventures, about being a captive of natives on a South Pacific island.
His next book, published when he was 28, was “Omoo.”
It was a sequel to “Typee” and also autobiographical.
“Omoo” was about a mutiny on a whaling ship, where the majority of the crew was imprisoned in Tahiti.
Melville had gained a reputation as a writer of maritime adventure based on the adventures of his youth. In 1849, at the age of 30, Melville had published his third novel and his first non-autobiographical work, “Mardi.” It was a milestone in his life in terms of his writing style. Like “Moby-Dick,” which was to follow, “Mardi” was highly philosophical. While “Typee” and “Omoo” could not rightly be described as without moral themes, they did not possess the symbolism, philosophizing and allegory of his later works. Melville biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant wrote “Melville knew the risk he was taking by allowing himself to soar into a metaphysical stratosphere.” Contemporary critics panned him and “Mardi” was not a commercial success.
With the failure of “Mardi,” and with a family to support, Melville went back to publishing adventure stories of a semi-autobiographical nature.
Melville “sold out” in an attempt to be commercially successful when he wrote “Redburn” (1849) and “White-Jacket” (1850). While he thought that his work “Mardi” was one of genius, a missive to his father-in-law revealed that he thought “Redburn” and “White-Jacket” were “two jobs, which I have done for money – being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood.”
To his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne he wrote in 1851, “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, – it will not pay.”
The aforementioned letter to his father-in-law read, “So far as I am individually concerned, & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to ‘fail.’ – Pardon this egotism.”
In 1851, Melville wrote the book he always wanted to write – the book that did not pay, the book that “failed”: “Moby-Dick.”
It is loaded with allegory, symbolism and metaphor.
Melville’s magnum opus, which he no doubt regarded it, was panned by Melville’s contemporaries and was a relative commercial failure.
In 1851, Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables” was being written. While Hawthorne wrote letters in defense of Melville to those that publicly criticized “Moby-Dick,” to Melville’s dismay, Hawthorne never wrote a review that might have saved the contemporary reputation of the work. After the publication of “Moby-Dick,” Melville’s literary reputation waned and was to never recover in his lifetime.
Melville was to live at Arrowhead for 13 years, trying to eke out a living as an author and attempting to supplement his income as a lecturer. Robert Weaver, largely responsible for the Melville revival of the 20s and Melville’s first biographer, wrote in his 1921 biography, “Herman Melville: Mystic and Mariner,” that an “uncircumspect critic” wrote on the centennial of Melville’s birthday in 1919 that “Owing to some odd psychological experience, that has never been definitely explained, his style of writing, his view of life underwent a complete change. From being a writer of stirring, vivid fiction, he becomes a dreamer, wrapping himself up in a vague mysticism, that rendered his last few books such as Pierre, and The Confidence Man quite incomprehensible and certainly most uninteresting for the average reader.”
“Pierre” (1852), written at Arrowhead, was a critical and financial disaster. “Israel Potter” was published in installments (1854-1855) in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, and was also slammed by the critics. “The Confidence Man,” the last major novel by Melville and also written at Arrowhead, was published in 1857 and sold poorly. Melville also published 15 short stories while at Arrowhead. Melville had come into such disrepute as an author that his 1853 novel, “Isle of the Cross,” was never published; the manuscript has never been found.
Melville left Arrowhead in 1863 and he went to work in a customs house in New York for the next 19 years. In his off hours he wrote poetry. Few people attended his funeral in 1891. The New York Times commented that “he has died an absolutely forgotten man.”
While he was writing “Moby-Dick,” Melville prophetically wrote to Hawthorne, “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”
Rinaldo Del Gallo is a frequent contributor to the Transcript.