Saturday, March 26, 2016

1912 Report of a Conversation Melville had with C. F. Briggs during his Custom House years

There is plenty of evidence that young EJE knew CFB well. presumably in the early or mid 1870s. So the story could be true, in substance, though put on record 40 odd years after Edwards heard it.

I would like to find out more about Elisha Jay Edwards (1847-1924) and Melville. I was scanning to get a sense of what to say in a paragraph of the preface to the 3rd Norton Critical Edition of MOBY-DICK when I found what purports to be Edwards's recollection of a conversation with Charles F. Briggs (1804-1877). Edwards reports a conversation between Briggs and Melville during Melville's Custom House years. It's not that great a story that Melville tells to Briggs, as Edwards recalls it, but there it is in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette 8 February 1912. Did anyone ever hear of this?
Edwards quotes Briggs as saying to him: "I suppose that until Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin there was no work by an American, in the nature of a romance, which equaled in popularity Herman Melville's Typee," said to me the late Charles F. Briggs, a contemporary of Melville, himself a famous novelist of that time and a co-worker of Edgar Allan Poe on the New York Broadway Journal. "It was not only popular in the United States, but it also attracted general attention in England, and was, I believe, translated into French and German." Edwards proceeds to tell about a time when Briggs queried Melville: "Melville took employment in the New York custom house in the late sixties, and one day, when I was chatting with him there, I asked him what had inspired him to write his great romance." That is, Briggs was chatting with Melville, and asked him about Typee, and what follows is put into Melville's words, as told to Briggs. It contains one "interesting if true" passage. Melville was telling his adventures to sailors on the Lucy Ann when one of them asked if he had ever read Two Years Before the Mast: "I replied that I had and had been fascinated by it. Then the sailor told me that I had material for a better book--because the adventures were more thrilling--than Dana had. That gave me the inspiration to write the story of my adventures; and as I wrote along I found that I was doing it very well . . . ."

There is no reason this could not be "true," allowing for vagaries of memory, since we have Melville's testimony that his story excited the warmest sympathies in sailors he told it to. Is Edwards' piece known already? If not, it's proof of my point, that we need to do what Scott Norsworthy is doing--search the newspaper databases from the comfort of our homes rather than what I did in the 60s and 70s--starve myself for funds to go to distant libraries and turn through bound volumes and spool through microfilms. 

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