Sunday, August 19, 2012


               In MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE I comment on being scooped in this passage, or one that survives in final form much like it: “Two or three of the handful of active Melville researchers like to sit on their discoveries just until they have tied up the episode neatly, but electronic databases have made even brief sitting on documents riskier than ever before: sit too long (unless you have a unique document in your pocket) and you get scooped. Dennis Marnon, Geoffrey Sanborn, George Monteiro, Scott Norsworthy, Warren Broderick, and I have all been scooped. We are in an era of simultaneous discovery unlike any since the day in the 1940s when Jay Leyda and Wilson Heflin collided in the National Archives, having both filled out call slips for the log of the USF United States. To make great Internet discoveries you don’t have to be a lifelong Melville researcher, either. You can have a Ph.D. in medieval literature and a non-academic day job and be an Internet surfer and archive raider like Scott Norsworthy—but then you would also need his exceptionally keen nose for the highest class of buried Melvillean truffles.” I had to go to print in August 2012 without being able to mention a colleague’s wonderful little discovery even though yet another researcher had found the long belated clue that led almost straight to the story. May my eminent friend publish his account soon!
               Nothing recent compares with the high Melvillean drama of 1947. One starting point was my mid-1970s reading of Henry Murray’s letters to Jay Leyda at UCLA. A four-aspirin headache day, I called it after suffering from Murray’s sadistic kindness to Leyda—his informing him that he had ruined his life and that he was sending a small check in the letter. Clare Spark has looked long and hard at the Leyda and Murray papers and in HUNTING CAPTAIN AHAB (2001) tells some grim stories. Here I am interested in the book Harvard published in 1992, Forrest G. Robinson’s LOVE’S STORY TOLD: A LIFE OF HENRY A. MURRAY.
               Murray, it needs to be said, had talked for decades about his great project, a biography of Herman Melville which he never wrote. My opinion? Well, judging from the treatment of biographical material in his Hendricks House edition of PIERRE, any biography of Melville from Murray would have been unintentionally hilarious, the way Edwin H. Miller’s is. Murray had a huge organ of acquisitiveness but lacked a node of self-discipline.
               Here is the background according to Robinson: Harry's wavering commitment to Melville's life was further com­plicated by the advent of Jay Leyda, a former student of Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film director. Leyda's interest in Eisenstein's use of color symbolism led him to Moby-Dick and thence, just after the war, to an interest in Melville's life that grew rapidly into a major biographical undertaking. It was inevitable, of course; that the enthusiast's hunting and gathering would lead him to his prin­cipal predecessor in the field. Harry was not pleased to learn that he had a competitor: he was unhappier still when it became clear that the newcomer was active, resourceful, and very determined in his pursuit of all there was to know about the novelist. Still, he assured himself that his main source of information, Melville's great-niece Agnes Morewood, would honor her promise to give him first priority on all the materials in her possession. But Leyda found Miss Morewood in the spring of 1947 and apparently seduced her with a pleasing fiction about his interest in her family history. Harry was at first furious to learn that his secret hoard had been discov­ered. He and Leyda had a heated meeting in Stockbridge at which the guilty interloper agreed to delay his own work that Harry might have time to finish first.
               Here Jay Leyda is the Great Seducer! The version Leyda told me was very different. He called on Agnes Morewood without an appointment and found her all dressed up and irritated: some local hostess had just telephoned her to tell her some crisis had occurred which forced her to cancel the dinner party for that night. Agnes was all dressed up with nowhere to go, so she entertained her guest. That night or the next day she laid out on a table or tables the family papers she had inherited from Milie Morewood, her mother, and from her grandfather, Allan Melville, and ultimately from members of the generation previous to that. Jay Leyda was invited to look at anything, and did, for a day or two, until Murray heard of his presence and stormed across the state to the Berkshires. Was Agnes then living in Stockbridge? [Hmmmm. To be checked.] Here was no seduction, no sneakiness. Leyda had every right to interview anyone who might have possessed Melville papers and might have even retained personal memories of Melville.
               Robinson saw Leyda as the encroacher who ultimately kept Murray from writing the biography which he had been promising to write for decades. Now, there are two kinds of biographers, the great accumulators and the doers. Carvel Collins was a great accumulator, I say in MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY. So was Murray. Neither was a great doer. Sometimes native intelligence and industry have nothing to do with finishing a work. Can you be a great accumulator (an obsessively secretive accumulator) and a great biographer? The impulses are warring: the tell-everyone-the-news impulse (which I am governed by) and the hold-it-to-the-waistcoat impulse (which Murray was controlled by). When you possess something in secret, you control all the rest of the world. I never wanted that kind of power: that's why I broke my practice and published in AMERICAN LITERATURE in 1990 news about THE ISLE OF THE CROSS, this year (2010) so oddly listed as one of the great 10 books "lost to time." When you possess something in secret, I said, you are master of the world: then you die with your secret and someone comes along and realizes that you were not smart enough, did not know enough, did not have imagination enough, to make sense of the great document you had been clutching to your bosom for decades. I exemplify that in MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE.
               Here is Robinson again:  But as the Pierre project [the Hendricks House Edition] drew to a close, Harry's approach to Leyda began to reflect his divided feelings about the biography it­self, which he was now free to complete. On one side, he com­plained of delays in progress, thus obliging Leyda to slow his own pace. . . . Then, in June 1948, having put Leyda deeply in his debt, Harry threw up his hands in defeat. "I have not been able to bring myself back to Melville since seeing you," he wrote. "I am satisfied that your book will be an outstand­ing landmark & that further labors on my part would be a waste of time." Leyda responded remorsefully to the "cruel announcement," pleading with Harry to reconsider. “I’ll always blame myself more than you can blame me," he claimed.  

            Look at the great bitterness in this letter of April 1947 from Murray to Christiana Morgan about a message from Agnes Morewood: “As Leyda has arranged with his publisher to turn in his MSS in October, this means that all my 20 years of reserach will be published in one volume before I have finished my work. Since I had inplicit faith in Agnes Morewood’s promise that she would show nothing to anybody until I had completed my book, Fortune seems to be intent on showing me soething about the frailty of human nature, & the impossibility of putting one’s faith in the potential for relationship in any creature on this earth. The image of God, I surmise, has come out of just such experiences—occurring for the most part, at an earlier age.”
           Robinson continued with a put-down of the LOG which echoed the unholy war waged against it by Charles Feidelson Jr  and others since 1951: “Leyda in time overcame his guilt sufficiently to finish his omnium-gatherum of biographical lore, THE MELVILLE LOG, which fi­nally appeared in 1951.” “Omnium-gatherum of biographical lore”!!!! Robinson quotes Leyda: "I feel sure," he wrote, "that if you came to your senses & got down to tough, scheduled work on the job of saying everything you have to say about HM . . . much good would come of it. While if you continue to enjoy the sensations of being deprived & cheated by a shark-pack of rivals, nothing but harm will come of that." For his part, Robinson says, Murray "privately condemned Leyda for his dishonest, ‘cut-throat’ methods and blamed him—and the other Melville ‘hounds’ who followed him—for the demise of his great work. On the other side, Leyda’s conscience continued to bother him, but he was sure nonetheless that Harry had used him as an excuse for his own mysterious failure to follow through. ‘I think that was what griped me most,’ he wrote in 1971—‘Harry’s accusation that I had killed his greatest work.’” [The other "hounds" were of course Wilson Heflin and (mainly) Stanley T. Williams's Yale students such as Bezanson, Hayford, Sealts, Davis, and Gilman. Some of them played to Murray's notion of them as industrious dullards whose mission ought to be to lay their discoveries at his feet so he could pronounce judgment on their value. I caught on pretty fast that Hayford was Murray's intellectual superior. I did not tell all in MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY, although it is an "inside narrative." Before it's too late I may tell the story of the fantastic lengths Murray went to drag me into the pen of hounds; in the course of his efforts he gave a collaborator of mine a detailed and absolutely false history which I learned about only when the collaborator felt he had to tell me what Murray had said. I had the documentary proof if I had needed it--telephone records. That episode confirmed everything I had felt for years about the way Murray loved treating the Williams students in his letters and personal contacts with them and the way he loved having them respond as they did. I should put this on record.]

            Robinson concluded: “Leyda was never a serious threat to the heart and soul of the Melville biography, to the novelists’s story as it moved in secret union with their own”—“their own” meaning Christiana Morgan’s and Murray’s. The great projected biography had not, for many years, been about Herman Melville at all.

1 comment:

  1. And Conrad Aiken told Murray that his work-in-progress was just "awful." However, Murray's intro to Pierre impressed Kerouac enough that it transformed the approach to his writing style and ultimately allowed him to write his masterpiece which isn't On the Road, but Visions of Cody, not to be published until four years after his death in 1969.