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Nov.-Dec. 2005 Post-TERROR Message
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 . . . .
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.
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with Billy Budd – a Melville novel unpublished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
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
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
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
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.”)
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
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
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
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
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
the reviews and sales figures came in, Melville’s “unspeakable
joy” at Hawthorne’s kind words faded fast. He
“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.