Tuesday, January 25, 2011
April 2007 talk on "Melville and the Berkshires"
Melville and the Berkshires
28 April 2007
I'll start with Melville's love of the Berkshires from childhood through his years at Arrowhead. Then I'll look at Melville as a working writer at Arrowhead. After that I will talk about the curious phenomenon of his reputation as a Berkshire author, and finally how Melville felt about his Berkshire neighbors and how they felt about him.
Melville’s associations with the Berkshires stretched far back. As a boy of 9 he witnessed the affectionate meeting of his father, Allan Melville, and his father's brother, Thomas Melvill, at the farm which was later called Broadhall, and is now the Pittsfield Country Club. They embraced, he recalled around 1872, with the affection of boys, such boys as Van Dyck painted. In the years after 1832, when his father, the farm became his “first love,” a cousin recalled in 1848. Until I worked out the dating from Julia Maria Melvill's letters to Augusta, we did not know how few times Melville got to see this "first love," and how short the visits were. The year he spent the greater part of in Pittsfield with his uncle turned out to be the year his uncle was not there--the year his uncle left him to run the farm. In 1837, as a youth of eighteen, managing the farm, Melville chose an outjutting of rock along the present Route 7 for brooding upon the steeples of Pittsfield and Mount Greylock beyond, and, of course, for reciting Byron. (Ask Lion Miles to lead you there, or near there.) Since he was running the farm in the summer and then in the fall was teaching in a rural school in the Sikes District, Melville may not have explored the Berkshires as much as we might think. In the summer of 1850, when he started off with his Cousin Robert on the agricultural inspection tour, he may have been wanting to visit places he had never seen as well as to revisit places he already knew.
We organize our annual excursion in honor of Melville, but we don't really follow him around the Berkshires, using what we know now of the years between 1850 and 1863. Sarah Morewood recorded what Melville said on the excursion to Lake Pontoosuc in September 1851: "each time he came there he found the place possessing new charms for him." He felt that way about many places. A lot of his routes are easy to trace using Clark W. Bryan's The Book of Berkshire, where Bryan identifies "Some of the Drives and Distances In and Around Berkshire." Someday the Berkshire County Historical Society, can we hope?, is going to print up a gorgeous little book, not a flyer or a pamphlet, identifying all of Melville's known excursions in the region and illustrating them with 19th century and present-day engravings, paintings, and photographs (photographs of places, not photographs of out-of-breath English professors, please). How I would love to see a picture of the "inn" or "hotel" that was at Bash Bish in 1863! I volunteer to supply the text from the 9000 page electronic The New Melville Log. Persuade Lion Miles and Ruth and Dick Degenhardt to direct a small army of volunteers and we can make something you can use for years in promoting Arrowhead, the Berkshire County Historical Society, and the Berkshire Athenaeum.
Returning to the Berkshires while he was far along in writing Moby-Dick was emotionally arousing for Melville as he felt present colliding with past. It was in his nature to acknowledge and brood over his feelings at being in the same place where something else important had occurred. Caught unawares, sometimes, the famous author now stumbled into himself as an impoverished youth and backwoods schoolteacher. What with his manuscript and what with the importance of the Berkshires to him, he was already in a heightened state of excitement before he met Hawthorne on the 5th of August.
We have not been fully aware of the dynamics of that 1850 climb when Melville and Hawthorne met. We should have more paid attention to the 1871 Yesterdays with Authors, where James T. Fields stressed that "Hawthorne was among the most enterprising of the merry-makers" at the Icy Glen and at dinner behaved abnormally, raying out "in a sparkling and unwonted manner." He "never saw Hawthorne in better spirits," he concluded. Yet ever since Luther Mansfield published Evert Duyckinck's 1850 letters in 1937, we have fallen into saying that Melville was the excited one. He bestrode a peaked rock, showing off, risking his life in sailor gymnastics, while Hawthorne contented himself with looking "mildly about" for his Great Carbuncle (the jewel of his old short story). Hawthorne meant more to Melville than Melville meant to Hawthorne, we say, and there's some truth in that. But finally, two years after Vol. 1 was out, I re-transcribed the Duyckinck letters and discovered that Hawthorne had been looking "wildly" about for his Great Carbuncle. Hawthorne had already been hamming it up on Monument Mountain, very much as Fields had described him as acting at the Icy Glen and at dinner afterwards. How excited was he? The man who snuck out the back door to avoid visitors invited Melville to visit him, and stay overnight! He was as excited about meeting Melville as Melville was excited about meeting him.
Now, I know John Bryant in Fluid Text (2002), says that when he reads a word as "promotion" and I read it as "peroration" it's because he has his "rhetorical agenda" and I have my differing "rhetorical agenda." Stupid me, if I thought my efforts had anything to do with trying to read bad handwriting and recovering what the writer wrote! Stupid me, for struggling to get every word in every letter I could find by Melville's mother or Cousin Priscilla!
At Tanglewood one scene, unrevealed for a century, is now sacred to lovers of literature. Early in September 1850 Herman Melville visited the normally reclusive Hawthorne and his wife Sophia. Melville, thirty-one years old, was still the first American literary sex symbol, on the basis of his Polynesian books, Typee and Omoo; Sophia saw Fayaway in his face. He was, as I have said, still the first American literary sex symbol. Melville took long walks with his host, doing almost all the talking. He also had what his hostess called “some delightful conversations” about the subject dearest to her, her husband. On the veranda of Highwood, Melville declared that “Mr Hawthorne was the first person whose physical being appeared to him wholly in harmony with the intellectual & spiritual.” For her part, Sophia Hawthorne was enraptured with a man who so admired her husband: “His truth & honesty shine out at every point.” Such grand emotions befitted the grand setting of Highwood, the year before Hawthorne idealized it as Tanglewood. Meeting Hawthorne in the Berkshires confirmed Melville's conviction that an American writer, particularly a writer with deep links to the Berkshires, might be as great as Byron, or even Shakespeare.
The Hawthornes left the Little Red Cottage late in November 1851, just after The Wonder Book (with a compliment to Melville written into it) and Moby-Dick (dedicated to Hawthorne) were published. A memorable event in American literary history, unrevealed for a century and a half, until the early 1990s, took place in the Little Red Inn (in 1851 called the Wilson Hotel and a little later the Curtis Hotel), surely, in Lenox a week earlier, in mid-November. Melville had been unsociable in Pittsfield, and ordinary citizens in Lenox were outraged that Hawthorne was so aloof. A resident of Lenox, newly arrived from Vermont, wrote home to the Windsor Journal that the two reclusive authors had “in some unaccountable way, gotten a mutual desire to see one another,” and had violated local custom by eating together in the hotel, “as if neither had a home to which he could invite the other.” In Lenox, men did not “do lunch”; hotels were for hotel guests, and the locals were agog: “What a solemn time they must have had, those mighty conjurors in the domain of the imagination, all alone in the dining-room of a hotel! In the small talk of the flippant beaux and light-headed belles of Berkshire, the solemn attempt of two of the greatest characters of which the county could boast, towards an acquaintance, was made a subject of infinite merriment.” In 1851 Melville was still a sex symbol, as he had been since the publication of Typee, and Hawthorne was newly famous as the author of The Scarlet Letter, that Puritan analysis of penance and penitance. No wonder the Lenoxites were titillated. The occasion was solemn: Melville had booked the dining room, after the guests had dined, so he could give a copy of Moby-Dick to his friend, who had not known it would be dedicated to him.
Professors are so dumb, so dependent on documents. Well, most of them don't go to the archives to look at documents. Those who do depend on documents instead of using common sense. Show me a paper bag and I'll show you something we can't think our way out of. When Hayford made his list of the times Melville and Hawthorne met he did not know some meetings revealed by the Augusta Papers, the fragment of his sister's archive discovered in 1983 and going mainly to the NYPL. But neither Hayford nor any other scholar ever said, “Hey, what you do when you dedicate a book to someone is to give him a copy and watch his face when he sees the dedication page.” No one ever said, “Hey, the only way for Hawthorne to have gotten a copy in mid-November 1851 was for Melville to have given him a copy.” Now, book dealers live in the real world, unlike scholars. Let's don't even talk about the fantasy world critics live in. Years ago the great book dealer in New Haven, Bill Reese, talked about wanting to see the presentation copy of Moby-Dick, the copy Melville inscribed to Hawthorne when he gave it to him in mid November. Reese did not need a document to tell him Melville presented a copy to Hawthorne. Now at least I have an account of a meeting which by the timing just has to be the meeting at which Melville gave the book to Hawthorne.
Merton Sealts (everyone's dead, except Walter Bezanson and Nathalia Wright, and I am so old the only time Dan Rather ever read my name was on the Radio). Mert did the best work on what Melville wrote at Arrowhead. I added a little while Mert was alive, and a little new information has come to light since his death. A few pages of Moby-Dick were written at the house later called Broadhall. We know where: Melville wrote Evert Duyckinck on 16 August 1850: "I write you this from the garret-way, seated at that little embrasure of a window (you must remember it) which commands so noble a view of Saddleback." Helen Plunkett climbed up into the attic with me to see what reconfigurations were visible. At Arrowhead, we all know, Melville finished all of the rest of Moby-Dick which he did not write at Allan's house in New York City. Now we know that he finished the first version of Pierre in the last days of 1851 but enlarged it greatly, in New York, before 21 January 1852. He wroteThe Isle of the Cross (what we knew about as "the Agatha story") at Arrowhead between mid December 1852 and on or around 22 May 1853.
Raymond Weaver in 1921 did not know about this book. Hayford in 1946 laid out the likelihood that Melville started it and the possibility that he finished it. Davis and Gilman in The Letters of Herman Melville (1960) said flatly that Melville finished it and offered it to the Harpers. Mert Sealts in 1987 in the "Historical Note" to the NN volume containing The Piazza Tales laid out the evidence again (although they oddly slighted Maria Melville's statement in April 1853 that Melville was almost finished with his new book). Then later in 1987 I found the title and the exact or closely approximate date of publication. Merrell and Bill were long dead, but I had the great joy of telephoning Hayford, first, then Mert, and telling them the title. Can you imagine how rare it is to build that way on old scholarship, and fill your mentors with your joy at discovery?
The short stories that he started writing that summer take on a new light now that we know that Melville wrote an entire book between Pierre and the first of the stories, a book he had been prevented from publishing. We have to allow for his honing his craft as a regular storyteller, not as a writer of South Sea adventure books, in a missing book. The evidence is lost with The Isle of the Cross, but never before had he written a book without learning something significant from it. The challenge for readers, now that we know the story of the lost book, is to imagine how writing it allowed Melville to grow from Pierre to "Bartleby." Before he finished The Isle of the Cross his mother thought he was wearing himself out (take that literally); then and after he finished it and took it to New York, where he could not publish it, the whole family was anxious about the strain on his health, his widow recalled.
It is instructive to look at Melville's literary work at Arrowhead in the light of his indebtedness and his illnesses. Besides the mortgage held by Dr. Brewster, the previous owner, Melville owed his Lansingburgh friend T. D. Stewart $2,050 dollars--an enormous some. The equivalent of you last year's income. In 1852 Melville missed the May and November interest payments to Stewart. In 1853 he again missed both payments. Mert listed the following stories as written in "Spring and summer of 1853": "Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!" and probably "The Happy Failure" and "The Fiddler." And "Bartleby the Scrivener." I would change that to Summer, not Spring and Summer. On 14 September 1853, the day before Kate's big wedding, Melville defaulted on the interest payment he owned Dr. Brewster on Arrowhead; he paid it on 8 December out of the advance for the book on Tortoises and Tortoise Hunting. For "Autumn of 1853 and winter of 1853-54" Mert listed work on the "Tortoise Book," which was apparently never finished, although some of it was probably deflected into "The Encantadas." Also: "Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs," "The Two Temples," and "The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids." In February 1854 Melville had a "Horrid week" of pain in his eyes. That year he again missed two interest payments. For the start of Israel Potter Mert said Spring and early summer of 1854, but it's probably just "Early summer" or very late Spring and early Summer, since we now have the full text for the 7 July 1854 letter to Putnam in which Melville says he is sending some "sixty and odd" pages of Israel Potter along with "The Lightning-Rod Man." Melville could have written the sixty-odd pages after summer had started. For winter 1854-55, more work on Israel Potter, and the composition of "Benito Cereno." In February 1855 he had his first attack of severe rheumatism in his back, so that he was helpless. More from Mert: Spring of 1855: "The Bell-Tower" and "I and My Chimney." That year, 1855, he missed two more interest payments. This year or early next year Stewart began talking about having to seize Arrowhead to collect on the loan, since Melville was not making the interest payments. In June 1855 Melville was so ill with sciatica that Lizzie called in Dr. Holmes. Summer or fall 1855: "The Apple-Tree Table." Fall 1855: Starting The Confidence-Man. January -February 1856: "The Piazza." Winter-Spring, maybe Summer 1856: finishing The Confidence-Man. Around May, when he had to confess his financial plight to Judge Shaw, he was suffering from "ugly attacks."
In 1857, in the Levant and Europe, Melville suffered. In February he had very bad neuralgic pain on the top of his head from days of sleeplessness. He was sometimes in such pain from his eye or eyes in Rome that he did not go out. Melville wrote his first lecture, "Statues in Rome," around September 1857, at Arrowhead. In February 1858 a severe cold interfered with his delivery of the lecture. The second, "The South Seas," was not written at Arrowhead but at his mother's house in Gansevoort, New York, in March 1858, while he was laid up with a severe attack of what he called a crick in his back. He wrote the third, "Travel: Its Pleasures, Pains, and Profits" (corrected by Steven Olsen-Smith from the title in Sealts) at Arrowhead around September or October 1859. This is the one that begins with a description of the valley called the Hopper, below Mt. Greylock, an image of isolation. He was weak all the last months of 1859. In November Sarah Morewood wrote to George Duyckinck: "Herman Melville is not well--do not call him moody, he is ill." In January 1862 he lay a week in bed, rheumatism bound. In March 1862 he was too sick to go to Uncle Herman's funeral. In the summer of 1862 he was so infirm that he could not walk from Arrowhead to the village. Then that November the carriage accident left him with a broken shoulder blade, injured ribs, his "whole system badly jarred," so that he was never again as strong as he had been.
Already, in 1857 or 1858, Melville had begun writing poetry. In May, 1860, he had a book of poetry called simply Poems ready to submit to publishers, and it was in fact submitted in the next weeks, after Melville sailed with his brother Tom on the Meteor for Cape Horn and, they thought, the Orient. Some of these poems almost surely survive, and some may have been published in Timoleon, in the last year of his life. Some of his best known poems may have been in the 1860 volume--"After the Pleasure Party," for example. For this you can see the second volume of the biography, or, better, my book forthcoming from Northwestern University Press, Melville: The Making of the Poet. Very likely, Melville wrote some Battle-Pieces poems at Arrowhead. At least, I would think, he wrote some of the "Inscriptions" there. But this cannot now be proven.
Again, Raymond Weaver did not know about Poems in 1921. In 1922 Meade Minnegerode published a mass of evidence about the volume including Melville's 12-point "Memo to Allan on the publication of my verses." From the documents it was clear that Evert Duyckinck had offered the book to publishers and it had been rejected. Thereafter everyone knew about Poems. In 1938 Willard Thorp reprinted many of the documents, as Jay Leyda did in The Melville Log (1951), and Leon Howard. Davis and Gilman printed the Memo in Letters because it was in fact a letter to Allan, and it is in the NN Correspondence. Everyone who had read any Melville scholarship since Weaver's 1921 biography knew all about it.
The fact that The Isle of the Cross was lost, the fact that some parts of the Tortoise book were written but are not known, the fact that the 1860 Poems was rejected and not published and that some of the poems in it may have been lost--all these facts have distorted our view of Melville as a working writer. I wish I could afford to have dummies made up for THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and POEMS in the Northwestern-Newberry black and red bindings, so I could stick them into my set of The Writings of Herman Melville, the first between Pierre and Israel Potter, the second between The Confidence-Man and Battle-Pieces. It's hard to visualize them, it's hard to remind ourselves that they existed. People keep talking about Melville turning from poetry to prose in Battle-Pieces (1866). No, that was in 1857 or 1858.
What are the most significant factors in Melville's stopping writing fiction? The fact that he could not make a living from writing, so that he had to borrow money in 1851--money he could not pay back. And after the December 1853 fire the Harper brothers did the single most despicable thing I have ever heard of in the publishing world: they charged him all over again for their expenses, to the tune of about $1000 dollars, at a time when he was deeply in debt and defaulting on his interest payments. After his Uncle Herman's formidable Quackenboss wife died at the end of October, 1855, Uncle Herman could give a home to Melville's mother and to her daughter Frances, immediately, and to Melville's copyist Augusta as soon as she could free herself. She was in both places the following months, apparently back at Arrowhead in the early summer of 1856 to copy Herman's The Confidence-Man and remaining on until Lizzie closed up the house that Fall, when Herman left for Europe and the Levant. Never after Augusta left Arrowhead did Melville have a copyist except his wife, who by then had four children to care for. Getting printer's copy for a long manuscript would have been extremely difficult. No one in this room, of course, has ever made a momentous life-altering decision on the basis of a trivial change in circumstances. Melville's giving up fiction had something to do with his not making a penny from The Confidence-Man, one would think. But if he had wanted to keep writing long works who would have copied his manuscripts for him?
Hawthorne had been happy enough, at the end of November 1851, never to see the Berkshires again. In some ways Melville never got away from his first two years in the Berkshires, even though he moved back to New York City for good in 1863, the year before Hawthorne’s death. By that time, he and Hawthorne were linked forever in the popular press as Berkshire authors, a circumstance that helped to keep Melville’s reputation alive through his last decades. Melville's public connection to the Berkshires began in 1850, took firm shape in 1851. It was not Hawthorne, it was not Melville, who brought literary celebrity to the Berkshires--it was Catharine Maria Sedgwick, famous in the 1820s and 1830s as novelist, tale-writer, and advice-giver. The real notoriety came after Sedgwick’s guest Fanny Kemble Butler made the Berkshires her summer retreat, beginning in the mid 1830s. I can’t name a year when the Berkshires became a writers’ colony and artists’ colony. These things tend to occur earlier than we think. It certainly did not hurt that Longfellow vacationed here at Broadhall in 1848 (when I think the Melvilles must also have vacationed here, after the Longfellows had left). Here is the earliest item I know on the Berkshires as a literary and artistic center. I found it in the New York Evening Mirror of 11 September 1849, reprinted from the Worcester Aegis; earlier that year Fanny Kemble Butler had been giving her Shakespearean performances: Mrs. Fanny Kemble Butler is quite a topic in Berkshire, at the present time. * * * It is her masculine costume when out on a hunting excursion, and her skill in the management of a fleet steed, or in driving a pair of fast trotters, which attracts almost as much attention as her versatile genius in developing the mysteries of Shakspeare. There is at Lenox a highly intellectual and cultivated society, both permanent and transient, and this extraordinary lady is "the bright particular star." That's As You Like It, of course.
The 5 August 1850 picnic on Monument Mountain brought full publicity to the Berkshires as a haunt of literary people--through William Allen Butler’s article in the Washington National Intelligencer 31 August 1850, and through Cornelius Mathews’s three-part series in the Literary World in late August and September. The next year, 1851, Evert Duyckinck fixed the formula, "The Berkshires as Home of Writers," that survives almost unchanged in the travel section of the Sunday New York Times. This is from the Literary World for 27 September 1851, the third of Duyckinck’s articles on "Glimpses of Berkshire Scenery": "Miss Sedgwick, as is well known to all readers of American literature, is there, and near by arose for the world, doubtless, first painted on the mists of the valley, the vision of The House with the Seven Gables. Herman Melville, in the vistas of his wood and the long prospective glance from his meadows to the mountains, blends the past and the future on his fancy-sprinkled page."
Dozens of such articles followed. For many years of Melville's obscurity, when Moby-Dick was not mentioned from year to year in newspapers, magazines, or books, when even Typee was seldom mentioned, Melville’s name was brought before the public, again and again, in two interrelated ways--first, because he had been a Berkshire author, and second (this starts several years after Hawthorne's death, when Sophia began publishing his notebooks), because he was a man who had known Hawthorne. Some of the younger generation may have known him only as a Berkshire author. I have found one statement, in 1892, that the writer had first encountered Melville’s name in Hawthorne’s Passages from the American Notebooks. These topics are impossible to separate, of course, as when the Hawthornes’ daughter Rose writes an article on her parents in Lenox and uses Melville’s letters to Hawthorne for information. Some years these articles on Berkshire authors were about the only thing being published on Melville.
Now, the people who lived in a five mile radius of Arrowhead in the 1850s did not like Melville and he did not like them, except for the occasional "gem." Melville knew all about the Berkshire natives as celebrity watchers from what happened when his Uncle Thomas and Edward Newton would meet at the Pittsfield tavern: "The exchange of salutations . . . presented a picture upon which the indigenous farmers there assembled, gazed with eager interest, and a kind of homely awe. It afforded a peep into a world as unknown to them as the Vale of Cashmere to the Esquimaux Indian. To the ensuing conversation, also, they listened with the look of steers astonished in the pasture at the camel of the menagerie passing by on the road." Mainly, the locals hated Melville because he would not go to church--or went once, and no more. Before they even saw copies of Moby-Dick they were gossiping that it was "More than Blasphemous." Titus Munson Coan and his companion took a public opinion poll before he wrote his parents in 1859: "he is evidently considered worse than a heathen by the good folks of Pittsfield." V2.399. In 1869 the Pittsfield Sun exclaimed over the "fine specimen of Oats, grown on the 'Arrowhead Farm' of Allan Melville, Esq.," and added, "Mr. Melville has made the former unsightly lot north of his mansion one of the most beautiful plats in the Berkshire Valley." In 1862 Melville marked up what William Hazlitt had to say about Wordsworth's Excursion. "All country people hate each other." Melville annotated: "That's a great truth." Hazlitt went into a three page diatribe against the narrowness of villagers--"You cannot do a single thing you like; you cannot walk out or sit at home, or write or read, or think or look as if you did, without being subject to impertinent curiosity. . . . There is a perpetual round of mischief-making and backbiting, for want of any better amusement. . . .They hate all strangers . . . ." Melville annotated "True True True. . . . All this is drawn from the life." Melville loved the Lake District but he had no illusion that it was populated by fine genial free-spirited intellectuals--people such as those who inhabit it early in the 21st century.