Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Passing the Torch by Hershel Parker

In discussing the appeal of Melville to the British admirers from the last decades of his life through the 1920s  it is essential  to remember the way William Morris read the book and immediately began quoting it with “gusto and delight.” The “bold and nervous lofty language” that Melville had created in the book, and the humbler but equally memorable quaintness of phrasings, took rank in his admirer’s minds with phrases from Shakespeare and were irresistibly sharable.

In the next generation Melville’s most famous admirers would include men (D. H. Lawrence and T. E. Lawrence are obvious examples) who devoted as much passionate writing to male-male relationships as to male-female relationships, as well as bisexual women, most notably Virginia Woolf.  Even though Melville did not come, as Whitman and Thoreau did, with a social program in hand, the British admirers saw him as having learned to think the way they wanted to think, “untraditionally and independently.”  Equally appealing to these writers was his intense awareness of his own “moods of thought”, his phrase in Pierre, and his capacity for analyzing and evoking complicated moods of body-and-mind, often in relationship to the physical universe and to the fellowship of all human beings (among whom, as many of his admirers were keenly aware, were well muscled men whose appeal was not diminished by their not always being of the white race and not always being altogether fluent in the English language).

Part of Melville’s special appeal to his British admirers came from specific scenes of male bonding as well as from his more general underlying feeling of brotherhood with all men. A substantial set of Mevilleans from late in his own time to the present has consisted of male (and sometimes female) homosexuals or bisexuals, men and women who can become influential out of proportion to their absolute numbers (however high those numbers are) in artistic and literary circles – journalistic critics, academic critics, editors, bibliographers, rare book dealers, publishers, and writers as diverse as Carl Van Vechten, Lawrence of Arabia, E. M. Forster, W .H. Auden, Malcolm Lowry, and Angus Wilson.  I issue a challenge to queer theory and gay studies professors to abandon the Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick -  []-  stereotypes and look at American and English admirers of Melville in their full family, societal, and cultural contexts.

Little enough is known about the relationship between sexual orientation and the cherishing and sharing of literary works (certainly not in relation to Melville).  Little was said until recently about the much larger topic of the the relationship between aesthetic responses, sexual stimulation, and social and cosmic questionings – a topic that must form a part of any history of the reputation of The Whale and Moby-Dick. In his supercharged psychological, aesthetic, and intellectual unfolding which culminated in 1851 and early 1852, Melville recognized something very like what modern French literary theorists call the pleasures of the text and devised a style which he thought would allow him to write about such a forbidden topic. Very likely the first literary writing he did after finishing Moby-Dick was the opening of Pierre as we know it, where Pierre simultaneously thrills from the onset of puberty and the effect of imaginative eroticism in literature, The Faerie Queene recognized as pornographic.

The Melville Revival which began in nineteenth-century London simmered there until the centennial of Melville’s birth, 1919. The term was justifiably used in the New York Times Saturday Review of Books on July 22, 1899, where “T.B.F.” reported in “Books News in London” on “a conspicuous revival of interest in America’s sea author,”  the result of W. Clark Russell’s “repeated glowing tributes.” Russell deserves much of the credit, but it took dozens of men and women over the course of four decades to bring about the rediscovery of Melville and Moby-Dick.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century John Masefield repeatedly praised Moby-Dick in his books and interviews.  Not all his early tributes to Melville have been located, but in A Mainsail Haul (1905) he put an evocative prose fantasy into the mouth of an old sailor named Blair: In this “Port of Many Ships” the “great white whale, old Moby-Dick, the king of all whales,” leads all the other whales of the world in raising all the sunken ships and drowned sailors and towing them “to where the sun is.” Then “the red ball will swing open like a door, and Moby-Dick, and all the whales, and all the ships will rush through it into a grand anchorage in Kingdom Come.”

During this time W.H. Hudson was as loyal as an admirer as Masefield, and, as I have mentioned, Melville’s influence was plain in the writings of James Barrie. Many of the admirers from the 1890s survived for decades –G. B. Shaw, H. S. Salt, and other Fabians spanned literary generations – but did they talk much about Melville to younger friends in the 1910s? There were living links between Pre-Raphaelite admirers of Melville and the Bloomsbury crowd (around 1915 Ford Madox Hueffer encouraged D. H. Lawrence and introduced him to Edward Garnett, who had corresponded with Melville – but did they mention Melville to each other?) Little evidence has yet been brought forth, but a surprising number of Lady Ottaline Morrell’s friends came to know The Whale or Moby-Dick.  Among them were Augustine Birrell (born like Salt in mid-century) and younger literary people – Walter De Mare,, D. H. Lawrence, J. D. Beresford (in whose Cornwall cottage Lawrence fist read The Whale, in 1916), later Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Aldous Huxley. De la Mare knew Alice Meynell (mother of Viola Meynell, who emerged as an enthusiast in 1920) and John Freeman, who in 1926 became the first Englishman to write a book about Melville.  We know that some of these people were among the secret sharers of The Whale or Moby-Dick in the 1910s, but the proof is yet fragmentary and elusive.

That proof will come in large part from the Internet, but sometimes old-fashioned book searching will produce surprises.  I buy copies of Raymond Weaver’s biography when I can.  After all, he never returned Melville’s drawing of Arrowhead to his granddaughter Eleanor Metcalf, so the nearest thing to it is the reproduction in Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic.  Maybe, just maybe, Melville’s original drawing is tuck in some copy. I bought a copy on eBay around 2002, one Weaver had inscribed to Thomas Monro, who had stashed clippings in it.  Among the discolored and torn clippings was an article entitled “Passing the Torch”, a partial reprint from the “Gossip Shop” in The Bookman of February 1922, presumably by John Farrar. (Now you can easily find it online.)  Here is the full text, italicized to emphasize the extraordinary claims set forth in it:

The history of “Moby Dick”, Melville’s titanic dramatization of human fortitude and implacable resolve, has been the history of a book’s laudation by literary artists who recognize in Melville an artist who transcended all they themselves could do in words.  The most interesting genealogy of “book recommending,” the passing on of a torch from one hand to another, was supplied one day recently by James Stephens, the wizard who wrote “The Crock of Gold,” “Mary, Mary” and “The Demi-Gods.” Reveling over “Moby-Dick” with Samuel McCoy, who has just returned from Ireland, Stephens said:

“Did I ever tell you how I first heard of the book? George Meredith, who was about twenty years old when ‘Moby-Dick’ was first published, read it, recognized a master in Melville, and passed the book on to Watts-Dunton. Watts-Dunton, equally enthralled, urged Dante Gabriel Rossetti to read it.  Rossetti ran with it to Swinburne, crying out that Swinburne must read it. Swinburne, finding in it the roar of the sea described as he himself could not, with all his music, silently passed it on to Oscar Wilde, then the most glittering star among the literary lights of London. Wilde, A Dubliner, handed to book on to another Irishman, young William Butler Yeats, making, as he did so, an epigram on Melville’s greatness that would be worth repeating – if I could remember it.  Yeats, coming back from London to Dublin, brought a copy of the book with him and presented it to George Russell, ‘A. E.,’ essayist, poet, painter, and seer, commanded him by all the ancient gods of Eire to read it at once. And ‘A. E.,’ chanting solemn rhapsodies through his beard, handed it on to us, his disciples,  I pass it on to all I know, as the greatest prose work in the English tongue.

“Melville,” added Stephens thoughtfully, “was the last of the bards. He was wider than Shakespeare.”

Pronounced on the afternoon of August 7, 19212, in the dingy little dining room of the hotel in Galway town on the west coast of Ireland, where bearded sailors from all the ports of the world once drank Spanish wine in the Galway inns.

 I knew the story of how around the turn of the last century Sir Alfred Lyall had casually passed The Whale to friends along with other books, making no special mention of it. If they returned it with perfunctory thanks, he had taken their measure. IF they came back raving, they were to be clasped as lifelong friends. I had made my connections already, identifying those who were known to have passed The Whale or Moby-Dick on to a friend, and the Kennedy’s had made others.  This account in The Bookman is so wonderfully specific that I want to believe the whole of it. I want to know how much truth there is in a story of what was sworn to in the dingy little dining room of the hotel in Galway town on the west coast of Ireland. Who will go to the archives and to the databases and expose it as a fabrication or triumphantly verify it in the course of writing a fine book on what the Melville Revival owes to such loving readers?


  1. “All in all, the recent well-nigh obsessive interest in sexuality in Melville has been disproportionally focused on homosexuality, sometimes with extreme Marxist ramifications, as in Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s inclusion of Ishmael and Queequeg among ‘ same-sex interracial homosocial couples’ who represent ‘transgressive paradigms of homosocial brotherhood and male intimacy that challenge and seek to subvert the soulless, misogynistic competitive construction of masculinity dictated by the new market capitalism and industrialization.’ Whew! Not one of the British admirers of Melville I memorialize in this chapter could write like that.”

    1. johnshaplin, please can you make it clear that the comment also consists of words from my MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE? I worked hard on the "Whew!" construction (think of the synonyms I rejected!) and want full credit!

    2. Hershel Parker, for sure, an extraordinary fine pierce of writing for which I take no credit whatsoever. And no one should take the short excerpts I copy on my blog as in anyway sufficient to convey the full cornucopia of interest and learning contained in the books I site. I offer, simply, homage.