Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cody Marrs and the Conspiracy (?) to Minimize or Deny Melville's POEMS

In the March 2010 "American Literature" Cody Marrs quotes from "Melville: The Making of the Poet" but engages in verbal gymnastics to avoid treating "Poems" (1860) as a real part of Melville's career. Marrs says not a word about the disappointment Melville might have felt about having Harpers refuse two of the poems (as they seem to have done) and about having at least two publishers reject "Poems," so that it, like his "The Isle of the Cross," went unpublished and lost, at least as a collection. Marrs's minimization starts in this summary:
Let us begin with the facts: upon completing the "Piazza Tales" (1856) and "The Confidence-Man" (1857), Melville plunged himself into verse, studying the poetry of Dante, Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich Heine, John Milton, Matthew Arnold, and John Keats, among others. He began experimenting with his own poems, producing a slim volume in 1860 that did not find a publisher; and then, in 1866, one year after the fall of Richmond, Virginia, he published his first book of verse, 'Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War.'"

The mention of "The Piazza Tales" is strange, since only the introductory sketch dates from 1856, and the mention of The Confidence-Man seems not as important as the financial disaster of May 1856 and the long trip to the Scotland, England, the Mediterranean, and back to England--a trip in which Melville had time to reflect on his future. Instead of writing more fiction, he began late in 1857 an abortive career as a lecturer, delivering the last of the third lectures early in 1860.

All the evidence suggests that by late 1857, certainly by 1858 and 1859, Melville was writing poetry. When the opportunity came to sail with his brother Thomas, captain of the clipper ship "Meteor," bound for Calcutta, Melville hastily tried to assure that his "Poems" would be published soon after he sailed. There is direct evidence that there was a page 111 in the manuscript and no indication of the number of the last page. Cody Marrs's phrasing "slim volume" is wholly unsupported by any documentary evidence. Perhaps it is an echo of Andrew Delbanco who in 2005 referred to the "small manuscript" Melville tried to publish. Delbanco was contemptuous of Melville's 1859 poetic epistle to Daniel Shepherd ("this bit of drinking doggerel") and positive that many of the poems Melville wrote in the late 1850s and hoped to publish in 1860 "were not much stronger." Perhaps this contempt lies behind Marrs's phrasing "experimenting with his own poems" (that is, writing poems). In Giles Gunn's "A Historical Guide to Herman Melville" (2005) Robert Milder had similarly minimized the contents of Poems as the work of "a fledgling poet" unlikely to write "thematically and technically accomplished" poems. If Melville was a fledgling poet in 1857 or early 1858, what might he have been in 1860? what, given his advance from "Redburn" to "Moby-Dick" in 2 years from publication to publication, but in only six or seven months between finishing the former and staring the latter?

Critics deny the existence of lost books or else minimize the significance of those books, as when Milder calls "The Isle of the Cross" a "narrative" which Melville "evidently" wrote and when Delbanco (after implying in 2002 that I had made up "Poems") says in 2005 the suddenly real "Poems" was a "small" volume or when Marrs calls it a "slim" volume. Marrs elaborates a theory of Melville's turning to poetry in which the chronology is wildly altered, in which the shift to poetry takes place during the Civil War: "Melville understood poetry first and foremost as a mode and medium of worldly engagement. As such, we should grasp the birth of his poetic career not as a withdrawal but as a politico-aesthetic realignment--and as a profoundly situated one at that. One of the most glaring shortcomings of Spengemann's and Parker's counternarratives is that neither one acknowledges the degree to which the Civil War reshaped Melville's career, despite the fact that his first book of published poems is not about imaginary islands or sailors in the Pacific but about America's descent into 'Nature's dark side,' that 'conflict of convictions' which brought about unprecedented national bloodletting. The fact that Melville's inaugural public verses are war lyrics is indispensable to our understanding of his shift from prose fiction.¶ . . . What we discover in the structures and meanings of "Battle-Pieces" is nothing less than an immanent account of Melville's poetic turn, an inside narrative revealing that Melville's adoption of verse originates in his experience and understanding of the Civil War as a historical event."

To begin at the end of this quotation: No, Melville's adoption of verse originated in the years before the Civil War when he was apparently preoccupied with the Risorgimento in Italy (particularly as it had entered poetry in English), preoccupied with classical literature and classical values, and constantly steeping himself in the finest poets working in the English language, among them contemporary poets including Tennyson and the Brownings. The honorific word "inaugural" itself seems selected precisely to deflect attention from the lost but very real "Poems," the contents of which Melville labored on for at least two years, very likely for at least two and a half years.

To call "Battle-Pieces" "Melville's inaugural public verses" is sleight-of-hand meant to deflect attention from "Poems," which Melville meant to be his "inaugural public verses" and which he thought for months had indeed been published as his "inaugural public verses." Only the rejection of "Poems" by publishers kept it from marking the "birth" of Melville's "poetic career." What went into making Melville a poet had taken place before May, 1860.

What anything could stimulate Melville critics to take account of the simple fact that he thought he was a poet by the late 1850s and in 1860 was ready to face the world as a poet? Marrs refers to my "meticulous account of Melville's reading and writing habits" but pays no attention to what I said about the damage done by the failure of critics to visualize his lost books as real, as products of months or years of his working life. What will it take to encourage critics to think about Melville as a human being?

Will scholarship on American literature and will the journal AMERICAN LITERATURE recover from Cathy Davidson's editorship during which she cobbled together a Politically Correct "New Melville" issue the motive of which, it was clear, was to drive Melville from the classrooom (as an allegedly abusive husband) while launching a pre-emptive strike against all ongoing archival scholarship and my forthcoming biography in particular: "WE ALREADY HAVE FULL-SCALE BIOGRAPHIES OF MELVILLE"? Has there ever been a more damning sentence in a learned journal?

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