Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A few words in defense of Helen Maria Melville Griggs

In HERMAN MELVILLE’S MALCOLM LETTER Hennig Cohen and Donald Yannella are harsh toward Helen Maria Melville, Herman's older sister, describing her as "superficial and conventional." After quoting her preference for "solid reading, really enlarging and cultivating the mind" over a slight novel or even history romantically written, they ask: "How could the creative, imaginative, intellectually, and artistically gifted Herman have responded to such observations that so clearly flew in the face of his own theory of fiction? Our suspicion is that her remarks, which were not untypical of popular thinking, would have been yet another reason for his turning inward" (after Malcolm's death).

They scold her: "Such views from one's own sister carried greater weight by virtue of their very source: a family member, a sister, with whom he had shared their parents' roof and whom he had also helped provide a roof for when he was first married." When Yannella at the 17 May 1991 Berkshire Athenaeum Panel on biography described Helen as "the least capable, intellectual, of the brothers and sisters," I am recorded as crying, "Oh no . . . Oh no!"

Helen was brilliant, verbally inventive, the intellectual equal of Gansevoort and Herman, I would think, the first three children getting the most attention and thriving from it, despite later deprivations, or perhaps just innately superior. Herman loved writing to her more than any other family member because he knew she would understand his humor. Here is Helen on 20? June 1854, telling Augusta about her settling into a new house:

. . . it is more than three weeks since Herman's letter reached me . . .
You ask about the wardrobe--two able-bodied, but by no means Samsonic looking men, carried it up stairs, without much apparent effort; but I thought it my duty to restore their expended strength by a glass of wine after the feat was performed. Tell Herman (for Mama's edification) that they gulped it down at one swallow, and did not stop "to sip and taste the flavor as gentlemen do who are accustomed to drink wine daily,"--I quote from the maternal--perhaps they did wisely, considering the quality of the liquid, our vintner cheated us in that last pipe.
I am truly sorry that Demosthenes broke his back--his neck I mean--in trying to assist its descent--but never mind--you shall have a marble bust of Judge George Griggs on the same pedestal one of these days.

Here is Helen on 14 January 1855:
Herman's letter with the spirited etching as a vignette at the close, afforded us much amusement, George is well acquainted with the unfortunate individual left in the Cimmerian darkness of the depot, but until Herman's letter arrived, had no idea that his more happy brother, about to leave it for the opening realms of day, had condescended to bid adieu to the last sojourner in the confines of gloom. He fully reciprocates the love, or respects, whichever sentiment he intended for him, and looking upon him (Herman) as a glorious leader, has followed his illustrious footsteps even to the counter of the Ship-Bread-Baker, where he purchased a half-barrel of the self same flinty abomination; which three times a day, he essays to bite, break, soak, or otherwise subdue its innate hardness of nature, and crunches, and munches, the vile concentrated essence of bread-stuff, with so much apparent gusto, that my teeth stand on edge, and my throat feels dry and husky, in pure sympathy with what I imagine to be the state of his chewing & swallowing apparatus. In mercy to his elbows (the cloth ones, I mean) and his hands, please get from Herman a full, true, minute, and succinct account of the process of breaking these adamantine biscuits. George proposes that I shall say masticating instead of chewing--deglutinating instead of swallowing--take your choice . . . .

Herman's drawing has been lost, but the evidence of the loving badinage of brother and sister has emerged in the Augusta Papers.

Helen had been under a financial cloud all the time when she might otherwise have profited by being sheltered in the house of the Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw for so many months in the early 1840s. Her husband George Griggs was a gruff man even when younger, and was not a young man when he finally proposed to Helen. By then she was so far past her youth that the boy she carried almost to full term died in her womb. Yes, she could express herself conventionally on occasion, but she was much brighter than her other sisters, and treasured by Herman (if not, something I puzzle about, by her brother Gansevoort; the problem is that so little evidence survives, probably). She should have been the wife of a splendid man like John Hoadley, the engineer-poet, whom her anxious, precisionist younger sister Kate did not deserve. Every biographer who submerges himself or herself into the archives would have made better marital decisions than some of their characters did. My heart ached for Helen, and year after year I wished her better than she was experiencing. Here, a few words in her favor.

No comments:

Post a Comment