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Nov.-Dec. 2005 Post-TERROR Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

As of yesterday, Nov. 15, my 1,100-page novel The Terror is completed, corrected, printed, copied, and e-mailed in pure spirit form and FedExed in hardcopy to my agents on both coasts. Its fate now is – to a great extent – out of my hands.

Not long ago in New York, my literary agent Richard Curtis – one of the few people who’s read the bulk of this new novel – said to me, “I think we’re channeling Herman Melville here.”

No, I don’t think so. But . . . .

Really?

Herman Melville?

Uh-oh.

Well, all right, Melville’s Moby Dick told of the fate of the doomed whaling ship Pequod, and The Terror is about the fate of the two doomed arctic expedition ships Erebus and Terror.

And yes, my novel covers events surrounding that ill-fated expedition from 1845-1851, and Melville published Moby Dick in 1851.

And it’s true the quote on my epigram page for The Terror is from Moby Dick:

“This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathesome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So that not even the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark.”

But so what? All this – plus the fact that I reread Moby Dick while writing The Terror– is pure coincidence. The origins and themes and fates of the two novels have nothing in common.

I hope.

#

Recently, while on a sort of strange sea-adventure myself and during the writing of The Terror, I read Andrew Delbanco’s Melville: His World and Work. Herman Melville has been – as I’m sure you’re aware – rescued from literary oblivion by 20th Century modernist authors and literary critics and continues into the 21st Century as a favorite of postmodernist, deconstructive critics. Along with Billy Budd – a Melville novel unpublished in his lifetime but tremendously popular in academic circles now, not the least of which for the reason that it seems imbued with a simmering homoeroticism – Moby Dick seems to have in it some symbolic, metaphoric, allegorical, or deconstructive sociopolitical gift for just about everyone.

It’s a giant literary piñata. Hit it hard enough and it will spill out something to your liking.

When Melville began working on “the whale book” in 1850, he was already a professional author and making a decent if not outstanding living as such. At the time he was known primarily as the author of Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and its sort-of sequel Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas. These books were largely fiction but were based on some time Melville had actually spent on islands during his sailor days after having jumped ship and gone native for a short while.

The key word in the titles above is, I think, “peep,” since Typee became popular because of the titillating glimpses of uninhibited native women – topless! – and specifically an idealized native girl with the doubtful Polynesian name of “Fayaway.” Fayaway was, to put it in the modern vernacular, a Babe, as evinced by the following description:

Her complexion was rich and mantling olive, and when watching the glow upon her cheeks I could almost swear that beneath the transparent medium there lurked the blushes of a faint vermilion. The face of this girl was a rounded oval, and each feature as perfectly formed as the heart or imagination of man could desire. Her full lips, when parted with a smile, disclosed teeth of a dazzling whiteness; and when her rosy mouth opened with a burst of merriment, they looked like the mild-white seeds of the “arta,” a fruit of the valley, which, when cleft in twain, shows them reposing in rows on either side, imbedded in the red and juicy pulp . . . .

Ahem. No subliminal sexy message there, is there?

Critics, other writers, and readers locked into the whalebone straitjacket of mid-19th Century Victorian sexual repression went bonkers over Typee. No less a discerning critic (and future close friend of Melville’s) as Nathaniel Hawthorne expressed public delight at the book’s “voluptuously colored” descriptions of native girls and quoted the great English critic William Hazlitt in saying that Melville’s writing had that most esteemed of qualities – “gusto.”

Hazlitt had used that term in discussing Titian’s painted nudes – so round, so firm, so fully packed – and this applied well to Melville’s fictionalized sojourns in the South Seas. Added to the titillation of Fayaway’s topless wardrobe and the inevitable question related to her sexually uninhibited behavior – Will she with the stranded sailor? Has she already? Will she again? How does she? – is the almost equally titillating subplot that Fayaway and her band may well be cannibals. Or rather, they are cannibals, Melville makes it all but certain, but are they fattening up our happy, tanned, sex-crazed narrator for a feast in which he’ll be the main course?

So this was Melville’s background when he sat down to write a book he titled The Whale. In a sense, he was the equivalent of a modern “genre writer” who suddenly forgets his place and writes something transcending genre, transcending even the standards of literature of his day. In simple terms, the novel got away from him and he followed it where it led. In that sense, the self-taught (and not very well educated) Melville may have been like Shakespeare when the Bard created the minor character of Falstaff – a fictional character whose preternatural wit and energy immediately outgrew the play that tried to confine him. Eventually escaping completely from Shakespeare’s control, Falstaff – the man with infinite appetite (for life, for food, for drink, for lying, for women, for wit) – ended up devouring the play and all the other characters.

It’s quite arguable that Shakespeare’s ultimate genius was in how he learned to create such self-creating, self-overhearing, and self-sustaining characters -- personalities such as Falstaff, Rosalind, Iago, and Hamlet who could not be contained in any existing mimetic forms –– and then turned them loose precisely to devour and transcend the very genre forms they’d been born for and released into.

That’s fine for dead playwrights, but Melville’s publisher and readership were going to be very disappointed. Books cost money and – as Yosemite Sam once explained while holding his six-shooters on Bugs Bunny – “I paid my two bits to see the high-diving act and – consarn it! – I’m going to see the high-diving act!”

#

On May 1, 1850, Melville reported in a letter to writer Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (Two Years Before the Mast) that he was about “half way” into “a strange sort of book” about a whaling voyage. He would be finished by fall, he told his publisher. But this was before the novel galloped away from him. The actual Moby Dick we know today was created in a fever-dream of almost incessant work and obsession from the summer of 1850 to the late summer of 1851 at Pittsfield in the Berkshires.

Melville always liked to write as if the knowledge on any subject was his, the experiences his, the understandings his – and Ishmael in Moby Dick starts as a limited if gabby first-person narrator before evolving into a sort of all-seeing, all-knowing god – but although Melville had spent a short time on an American whaler, most of the details and inspiration for “the whale book” came from other books. (This is usually the truth of it with writers.)

It’s quite possible that the origins of Captain Ahab – one of the greatest obsessed villain-heros since Iago and certainly the driving force and brilliant center of the novel – came from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Specifically, it may have originated in a scene (which we know Melville read because he bought Shelley’s book in London and wrote in the margins of it) in which Dr. Frankenstein, who has commandeered a scientific expeditionary ship headed to the Arctic gives the terrified men an Ahab-level buck-up talk when they are lost in the ice –

Are you so easily turned from your design? Did you not call this a glorious expedition? And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because, at every new incident, your fortitude was to be called forth, and your courage exhibited; because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome . . . Oh! Be men, or be more than men . . . This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts may be; it is mutable, and cannot withstand you, if you say that it shall not.

Those of you who know Moby Dick may be reminded of Ahab’s violent and charismatic speech in “The Quarter Deck” chapter – “What say ye men . . . I think ye do look brave.”

(Note here: I’d love to think that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with its literally chilling arctic chapters owes something to the actual events of the Sir John Franklin Expedition about which I write in The Terror, but Shelley first published Frankenstein in 1818 and Sir John didn’t have the decency of disappearing with his expedition until 1845. Ah, well.)

In a sense, Melville went berserk in the writing of Moby Dick. Autodidacts such as Melville (and certain other writers I know today) love to share everything they learn – everything they’ve taught themselves – and Melville throws it all into this book – facts, digressions, classic analogies, sexual metaphors, a sense of the epic derived from Homer, more facts, digressions from more digressions, comments on the writing of the book within the book, political analogies, racial commentaries, more sex, more facts . . . no wonder academics love this thing.

Stephen King has said that writing a short story is like going on a date while writing a novel is like getting married.

But there’s another analogy that may apply to Melville (and certain other authors and their recent books) here: writing some novels is like being in a torrid relationship with a beautiful, passionate but demanding woman, while writing other novels is like living with a vampire. Both situations are exhausting, but perhaps for different reasons.

When Melville later looked back at his labors writing Moby Dick he said that he saw “two books . . . being writ . . . the larger book, and the infinitely better, is for my own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink.”

All real writers have some novels which demand only ink, others which drain us of our blood. Indeed, one writer – I forget who – once summarized writing as – “A very simple process. I merely open my vein and dip my pen in.”

Melville knew, when finished, that he had written something that would confound the expectations of all his faithful readers . . . perhaps of all readers of that age. In September 1851, as publication was only days away, he wrote to Sarah Morewood:

Don’t you buy it – don’t you read it, when it does come out, because it is by no means the sort of book for you. It is not a piece of fine feminine Spitafields silk – but is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ship’s cables & hausers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.

#

One of the great strengths of Moby Dick, I think, is that it defies closure.

Now “closure” is one of those current buzzwords which I so hate and avoid. It has been debased to mean some sort of emotional finishing – such as “getting over” the grief from the death of someone close to us or the loss of a great love. Why the hell should we get over such things? But this is the 21st Century, so if we don’t “find closure” soon, we call in professional help and drugs to get the job done. Time to move on. The apotheosis of this self-help absurdity in the debasement of a once subtle and important word may have arrived when Mayor Nagin of New Orleans, when asked why he wanted to rush tens of thousands of evacuees back to the city when their homes were destroyed and the city still underwater and inoperative, announced ponderously – “So that they can find closure.”

No, closure is something else indeed. Closure is that urge we all have to close the circle if a slight gap is left in the drawing. If you want to see an example of closure in the driver’s seat of behavior, do as I often did (almost always deliberately) as an elementary teacher – try standing in front of 26 sixth graders on a Friday afternoon at the end of the school day and saying, “Well, see you all tomorrow.”

“Monday!” shouted a goodly number of the kids. “You mean Monday!” These were students who almost never shouted or spoke without being recognized in class, but the drive to closure was too great to resist.

Readers – especially of genre fiction – are creatures of closure. Inconsistencies in the text, however small, drive them bugfuck. (And their outraged protests of perceived inconsistencies fill the e-mail bins and web site forums of most writers.) They seem to forget that the entire novel (or play or movie) is one giant fictional construct, so eager are they to see none of the contradictions or anachronisms or seeming incompletenesses that make up the bulk of actual life.

When, years ago, I told “the Garden Story” to fourth graders (and some years later, in modified form, to sixth graders) – the Garden Story being a fantasy-SF oral tale, told half hour a day for 182 school days, and the Ur-document precursor to much of my HYPERION saga – the kids’ sense of closure would show itself in outraged indignation if, on one day, I mentioned that the sorceror ape Dobby Su-Lan’s beret was purple where, a mere three months (and a million spoken words) earlier, I had said that it was red. Few things illustrate righteous indignation as much as a fourth-grader’s or sixth-grader’s face and voice when you mess up or mix up the facts in the tale you’re telling them.

To the upset student, I would say, “Remember, Dobby’s a sorceror-ape. Maybe he used his stage magic to change colors on the beret. Or maybe Gernisavien, the neo-cat tutor, or Raul the centaur dyed it as a joke.”

The kids – like my current readers -- were rarely mollified at such crude attempts to cover up continuity errors.

Moby Dick is a sloppy mass of such “mistakes.”

Take, for instance, the fact that all through the book, Melville tells us that the Pequod has a crew of thirty (standard for a whaleship of the era.) But as his novel and characters literally got away from him, Melville – while insisting that the Pequod carried thirty souls -- gave us forty-four distinguishable characters (each with a “backstory,” as Hollywood lamebrains like to phrase it) on that boat. And those are just the important characters with names and thoughts and tales of their own. In the background all through the novel are dozens more unnamed crewmen, spear-carriers – or harpoon carriers I guess one should say – doing little more than watching and reacting to events and, finally, dying with those others lucky enough to have earned a name by the time Moby Dick gets tired of being chased and finally bashes the ship to splinters.

Or take the case of the Wandering Point of View. What do you say to that?

As mentioned previously, Moby Dick begins with a yackety-yack but still properly limited first-person point-of-view (Ishmael’s) in which he quite properly reports on things he sees and hears or knows through indirect sources. But by Chapter 25, Ishmael’s point-of-view has become so godlike that it wanders all over the ship and into his shipmates’ minds, seeing and hearing and knowing things that the narrator could not possibly know – what sailors mutter to each other beneath the howling wind while Ishmael is not around, what the captain says to his three mates over dinner in his cabin (and which before-the-mast regular hand Ishmael could not possibly have overheard.)

Modern readers (and too many current writers) are so unaware of the requirements of a consistent point of view that they can read (or write) something like The Da Vinci Code where the author has no understanding of or control over point-of-view whatsoever – where the narration leaps from mind to mind in each scene for no reason at all, like a grasshopper in a hot skillet, with no benefit to the story – and they (the readers, the writer) don’t even seem to notice. I mention The Da Vinci Code not to dis one particular writer – it is a common, almost universal malaise among current popular writers not skilled in their craft – but because in one chapter, which may be the ultimate example of out-of-control viewpoint inanity, we view a long scene through the viewpoint of the arch-villain who, in his own thoughts, does not seem to know that he is the arch-villain! Or a villain at all. He chats with our heroes and thinks his thoughts about recent outlandish events without ever once acknowledging – in his own mind – that he has been the architect of all this villainy. What a cheat! What horse puckey! What sales!! (“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public” – P.T. Barnum.)

Where was I?

Melville’s out-of-control viewpoint and continuity errors were of a radically different sort.

Moby Dick is, to the point of both the writer’s and the reader’s exhaustion, a profoundly generous novel. It gives us everything, including a new evolution of the novel itself – something now called postmodernism.

Melville’s dear (but ultimately disappointing) friend and confidante, Hawthorne, understood the frustrating limits of writing fiction. In his journal, the older writer once wrote – “When we see how little we can express, it is a wonder that any man ever takes up a pen a second time.” And toward the end of his life, in The Marble Faun, Hawthorne – a brilliantly disciplined writer in a way which is hard for most contemporary writers and readers even to understand – compared writing to the hopeless task of “gathering up and piecing together the fragments of a letter which has been torn and scattered to the winds.”

Precisely. Did I mention the postmodernist connection?

Melville’s answer in Moby Dick to overcoming this limitation of fictional structures and convention was to show and share with us the actual act of the composition within the tale itself.

If this makes no sense, consider Bulkington.

Bulkington is a member of the crew of the Pequod whom Ishmael meets early, during the inn scenes on land, who is obviously destined for a starrring role in the book. A sailor “with a chest like a coffer-dam” whom Melville introduces with important dialogue, much fanfare and a flurry of heroic descriptors, there’s no doubt that Bulkington is the heroic figure being set up to be the courageous foil and opponent to the obsessive and self-destructive Ahab.

Only, for whatever reasons, Melville forgets about Bulkington, assigning his counterpart-to-Ahab role to a much lesser character, Starbuck. Now it’s possible – but doubtful – that Melville sensed that this character would someday give rise to yuppie coffee houses by the same name on every streetcorner in America and just didn’t think that we’d want to pick up our lattes at Bulkington’s (“who has a chest like a coffee-dam.”)

Sorry.

Whatever the reasons for Melville’s abandoning the Bulkington character and assigning his literary duties to the lesser (far less impressive and courageous) Starbuck, the only decent thing to do – for the sake of all those readers with their closure-meters ticking – is to get rid of him. Go back and write him out of the tale. Edit.

Does Melville do this? Nooooooooo . . . . .

All Melville did with poor Bulkington was to go back to the set-up scenes he’d written with Ishmael and Bulkington in the Spouter Inn and add the odd parenthetical disclaimer – “This man interested me at once; and since the sea-gods had ordained that he should soon become my shipmate (though but a sleeping partner one, so far as this narrative is concerned), I will here venture upon a little description of him.”

Only a sleeping-partner!!?? If Melville had known how many hours of gleaming-eyed lecture and how many volumes of modern literary criticism would pour out on “the homoerotic overtones” of Ishmael’s first “sleeping-partner” – the tattooed, filed-toothed, cannibal-harpooner Queequeg – he might have put these voyeuristic deconstructive salivators out of their misery by telling us more about this second accidental “sleeping-partner.”

Melville does come back to the poor written-out-of-contention character of Bulkington some twenty chapters after he introduces him, and that brief reglimpse of this literary phantom is fascinating:

Some chapters back, one Bulkington was spoken of, a tall, new-landed mariner, encountered in New Bedford at the inn.

When on that shivering winter’s night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves, who should I see standing at her helm but Bullkington! I looked with sympathetic awe and fearfulness upon the man, who in midwinter just landed from a four year’s dangerous voyage, could so unrestingly push off again for still another tempestuous term. The land seemed scorching to his feet. Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.

Say what??? The hell!!!

First Melville banishes this unnecessary character for a Bible’s length (as Ned says to young Will Shakespeare in the wonderful “Shakespeare in Love”) and now he hauls Bulkington back into our awareness just to bury him again?! What’s that about?

That, my friends, is about – for the want of a better term (and there should be a better term) – metafiction. It is about the writing of the tale writing about the writing of the tale within the tale itself. It is the direct precursor to such pleasant moments in modernist-post-modernist fiction as the scene in John Fowles’s (may he rest in peace) novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman where near the end of the novel – as Charles is taking a train somewhere in an attempt to find his missing love and falls asleep – we see a bearded stranger enter his compartment, a burly man dressed uncomfortably in the clothes of the 1850’s, who stares earnestly, perhaps unhealthily, at our sleeping character and who then takes out a coin and flips it, staring at the face that came up. The unnamed character, of course, is our author from 1969 – a certain John Fowles – come into the book to look at his character while deciding Charles’s fate by a coin toss.

This is metafiction. What Melville does with Bulkington – introducing a character while almost simultaneously telling us that he shall have no use for him, then much later reminding us of his sketch of that character, what Freud would call a “memory trace” so important to the act of literary creation – and then again dismissing him at once, is also metafiction. It is sharing the act of writing with the reader in a way that transcends the “closure-conventions” of writing itself. In a real way, it’s the equivalent of Hamlet (now there’s a piece of writing full of continuity errors and anachronisms!) letting us know that he knows he’s a fictional character set within a revenge-play far too small for his consciousness.

With Bulkington, as the poor sod disappears in the rain and stormy night, Melville the author cries out to his character – “Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of the ocean-perishing – straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!”

Whatever. This ejaculation (and Moby Dick is filled with ejaculations – for example, see the “A Squeeze of the Hand” chapter – “Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules . . .”) probably didn’t make Bulkington feel any better. It was a classic “don’t call us, we’ll call you” rejection after an actor’s reading. (I can picture poor Bulkington looking a bit like the lantern-jawed and dimwitted sidekick character in the disappointing movie “Sideways.”)

Melville allowed himself to be so carried away on this flood of ideas, cross-pollinated ideas, and ejaculations of words and images that by December of 1850 he wrote to Evert Duyckinck, his editor at Putnam’s –“send me about fifty fast-writing youths” so he, Melville, could dictate the thoughts that were flooding his mind faster than he could write them down.

Why didn’t he edit and revise better? Why did he allow these scores of characters on a ship he kept insisting held a crew of only thirty? Why did he allow so many unneeded, rough-sketch characters to remain – not just Bulkington but others like Peleg, who was obviously an early sketch and name for the peg-legged captain eventually to be called Ahab – rather than just tidy them up in revision?

He did try.

When the book was being copyedited and readied for publication in England (where they published it under a title not of his choosing and graciously rewrote it for him, leaving out the ending where Ishmael is saved – thus allowing critics to make fun of a novel narrated in the first-person by a dead man -- and otherwise botching up his best prose), Melville went to New York and rented a room there in the sweltering days of August and September, ready to give “revising and correcting” the sprawling tale the old college try.

But in the end he said to hell with it and went home to Pittsfield. To get an idea of his state of mind at the time, we can look into his next novel, Pierre, where he has this to say about the eponymous writer’s process –

The proofs . . . were replete with errors; but preoccupied by the thronging, and undiluted, pure imaginings of things, he became impatient of such minute, gnat-like torments; he randomly corrected the worst, and let the rest go; jeering with himself at the rich harvest thus furnished to the entomological critics.

When I first read this I thought it was another Melvillean error, writing “entomological” for “etymological” since the former deals with the study of bugs and the latter with the study of words. But no, Melville wrote exactly what he meant. (For what are critics and future literary scholars to writers other than ants and maggots scurrying on and in the corpus of their creations?)

So what was the reaction to this grand ejaculation of generous postmodernist prose when it was published in 1851? What was the literary cogniscenti’s response to a writer finally including in the fiction itself the inevitable fact that writing fiction is like “gathering up and piecing together the fragments of a letter which has been torn and scattered to the winds?”

Even though Ishmael himself in the novel tries to head off criticism by saying “ . . . there are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method”, the critics weren’t buying it.

“ . . . the idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again,” condescendingly wrote one reviewer of Moby Dick.

His former publisher at Putnam’s called the novel a kind of “intellectual chowder.”

But at least some of the reviewers of the time saw something they liked – or at least understood that they did not understand – in the big book about the pale whale. The public, on the other hand – Herman Melville’s eager readership – just hated it a lot.

During Melville’s entire lifetime – and he was to live a goodly number more years, although mostly not as a published writer – Moby Dick came nowhere close to selling out its initial print run of 3,000 copies. Melville earned total royalties of $556.37 from the book, far less than his earlier Typee-style titillating confections. When, some years later, all the unsold copies of Moby Dick – as well as the printing plates – were destroyed in a fire at the publisher’s warehouse, no one cared.

In the face of such destruction of ego and hope for one’s masterpiece, writers often say that it is the opinion of only a few – usually their writer peers – that means anything to them. We don’t know what Nathaniel Hawthorne said about the book that Melville had dedicated to him, but we know it cheered Melville up for a while. Hawthorne’s note was lost, but we have Melville’s quick response to it in the late fall of 1851:

Your letter was handed me last night on the road going to Mr. Morewood’s, and I read it there . . . I felt pantheistic . . . A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable socialities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome’s Pantheon . . . . I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satsifaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.

But Melville was a melancholic man, probably depressive, and – from all accounts – frequently manic-depressive. Another genius with a similar disposition, John Keats, some decades earlier -- soon after the perceived failure of his first epic poem, Endymion – had written -- “There is not a fiercer hell than the failure in a great object.”

And Gustave Flaubert, when he was only nineteen, had recorded the only essential question that all creative artists ask themselves – “Am I to be a king, or just a pig?”

As the reviews and sales figures came in, Melville’s “unspeakable joy” at Hawthorne’s kind words faded fast. He wrote –

“In me, divine magnanimities are spontaneous and instantaneous – catch them while you can.The world goes round, and the other side comes up. So now I can’t write what I felt.”

Nor could he any longer write what he felt like writing. He learned the Eternal Truth of Professional Writing – i.e. that one’s publishers love and honor you as long as you are bringing in money for them. Fail once – even by writing something so brilliant the audience and world just isn’t ready for it -- and you’re history. So long, and thanks for all the fish. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.

Harpers, his next publisher, offered him a royalty of only twenty cents per copy for his next book, far below his previous arrangements of splitting profits fifty-fifty. Melville negotiated hard, but with the failure of Moby Dick looming over the negotiations like . . . well, like a great white whale . . . he finally had to agree to their terms.

At the low point during this period, Melville made the pathetic suggestion that perhaps the next book would sell better if he wrote it under a pseudonym.

The next book, Pierre, was about sex and was also experimental (despite Melville’s promises to the publisher that it would be a return to the bestseller pablum of Typee) and in it – in the properly sexual metaphor that Melville had once used about Shakespeare’s writing – he attempted to make “short, quick probings at the very axis of reality.” Its subtitle was – the Ambiguities.

One major review of Pierre appeared under the headline MELVILLE IS CRAZY.

By the end of August, 1852, a cousin of Hawthorne’s wrote to a friend that “ the Harpers think Melville is a little crazy.”

So, to make a long, sad denouement as short as possible, Herman Melville’s career disintegrated and his life went to hell.

Rumors are that he took to drink and began beating his wife.

After a few more attempts, he quit writing novels and got a political patronage “day job” as a Customs Office inspector – a job that demanded giving and receiving bribes and thus the worst possible employment for a man as deeply honest as Herman Melville.

Still wanting to write something, even though he had neither time nor energy to compose, he spent decades writing epic poems. Each night he would be so exhausted from the day's work that he could manage only four or five lines. But these slowly built themselves into huge poems over the years and decades. They were awful.

Moby Dick and his other novels were forgotten, not to be fully recovered by critics or readers until deep into the 20th Century.

When he died in New York City on September 28, 1891, most people around him at the end had no idea he’d once been a published author. The local folks knew him as that weird old man who walked so much every day and who puttered around his tiny garden, which never seemed to get enough sunlight.

The death notice in the New York Times listed him as Henry Melville. There was no mention that he’d ever written anything. His complete obituary that ran in Harper’s Magazine in December, 1891, reads:

“September 27th – In New York city, Herman Melville, aged seventy-three years.”

So . . . have a happy Thanksgiving and a Merry Christmas. And, if I don’t talk to you before then, have a Happy New Year. Think carefully about what you wish for. And be careful about what you write.

Sincerely,

 

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