Sunday, November 11, 2001

So much has been written, at many different levels, about Herman Melville, that it is revealing and wise to turn back, without any interpreter, to what he wrote himself.
This latest Melville anthology of fiction, poetry and letters, an easily accessible volume in the Modern Library series, makes this possible. It is dedicated to Melville’s readers, “all over the world,” and is divided into 10 parts “Starting Out”; “The Art of Telling the Truth”; “Tales and Sketches”; “Statues in Rome” and early verses; “From Battle- Pieces”; “From Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land”; “Prose and Poem: John Marr, and Others”; “Billy Budd”; “From Timoleon, etc.”; and “From Weeds and Wildings, Chiefly: With a Rose or Two.”
“Herman Melville: Tales, Poems and Other Writings,” is a rich collection, for Melville is known to most readers, if not to Academe, for at most three books only “Moby Dick” everywhere acknowledged as a masterpiece, “Billy Budd,” the only one of the three represented here and only in Ur-form, and “Typee,” his top-selling novel. Some of the poems and stories appeared in a variety of periodicals: Others were found in manuscript, and were not published until after his death.
Melville had written nine novels and 18 stories before he completed “Poems by Herman Melville” in 1860. It did not find a publisher. Always experimental in his writings, Melville continued to combine poetry and prose, as in the novella “Billy Budd.” The editor of this anthology, John Bryant, compares Melville’s “prose and poem” pieces with collages looking ahead to Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. It would be more appropriate to compare them with opera. “Billy Budd” was brought back to life by Benjamin Britten.
Mr. Bryant, the latest in a sequence of anthologists of Melville, had his own purpose in mind in selecting tales, poems and other writings, and he explains this clearly and with conviction in his introduction, subtitled “A Writer in Process.” Melville wrote because he “he could not keep from writing,” but he rewrote so frequently, even after he had sent his work to the printer, that any lover of Melville is almost inevitably drawn into examining his “fluid text.” For Mr. Bryant, “multiple versions can give us tremendous insight into the writer’s creative process and how a piece of writing evolves.”
In interposing himself between Melville and his readers, Mr. Bryant is “unfolding” Melville, therefore rather than interpreting him. Earlier compilers had other purposes in mind, and Mr. Bryant praises their “sagacity of selectivity.” One of them, Warner Berthoff in his “The Example of Melville” (1962), made the most basic of interpretative points. “In Melville’s writings, the particulars of the work itself themes, ideas, procedures, forms came to seem to a degree incidental. We grow aware of something further, of a continuous imaginative presence and energy sustaining these particulars and positively generating them.”
Back to Melville himself, not to his text, but to his texts. The letters catch his mood. “I go to New York,” he tells Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851, “to bury myself in a thirteen story room and work and slave on my ‘Whale.’” Five years earlier, he had written to a leading English publisher, John Murray, about a sequel to “Typee” which Murray had brought out in London and which Melville wished to have bound together with a new revised edition. Since, in Melville’s opinion, “the intrinsick merit” of “Typee” lay in the narrative alone, he had rejected “passages altogether foreign to the adventure.” “They may possess a temporary intent now, to some, yet so far as the wide and permanent popularity of the work is conserned, their exclusion will certainly be beneficial.”
The many spelling mistakes in this letter, revealing though they may be are less revealing than Melville’s sense of posterity. In fact, he could play with words (“odd”: “deranged”) while seeking “secrets,” one of his favorite words; and in contrasting scenes he loved dyptichs. “The Two Temples,” fully reproduced in this anthology, compares as well as contrasts not only a “sumptuous sanctuary” in New York and a “special theatre” in London but the narrator’s feelings in each of them.
There is no such narrative in the compelling tale “Benito Cereno,” although we weave our way through a ship taken over by mutineer slaves through the eyes and thoughts of an American trader, Captain Delano. This is a tale of ambivalences, far more as Delano eventually realizes “in a flash of revelation,” than the tale of a strange craft, a strange history and strange folks.
For Melville the adjective “strange” always hides secrets, and it can shape a narrative. “The nature of narrative” in “Benito Cereno,” besides rendering the intricacies in the beginning unavoidable, has more or less required that many things instead of being set down in the order of occurrences, should be retrospectively, or irregularly given. Here we are looking forward not to opera but to film.
There is the same love of the dyptich in two of Melville’s poems, “Camoens” (Before) and “Camoens” (After), which Mr. Bryant prints in two versions, never published in his lifetime but possibly composed in the first version in 1860. In “Camoens” (version one) the great Portuguese poet “flame to the height of epic song”: In version two “epic” becomes “ancient,” and “Thought” not “Fancy,” “evokes,” not “yields” “new worlds of dreams.” This was more than “tinkering” with text. The creative process is observed in another poet in these two poems which at the same time uncover Melville’s creative process also. The word “ancient” recurs in two other poems “The New Ancient of Days,” which uncomfortably contrasts Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” and “The Conflict of Convictions” in “Battle-Pieces”:

The Ancient of Days forever is young,
Forever the scheme of Nature thrives;
I know a wind in purpose strong
It spins against the way it drives.

In these poems “themes, ideas, procedures, forms” are not “incidental.” Nor are the bells that ring out in much of Melville’s early prose. Images are often common to both. In “Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street,” we end not with letters that still live, like Melville’s to Murray, but with “dead letters,” kept in a Dead Letter Office in Washington. “Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men?” This seems the right place to end a review, for Melville could be “crushed” by reviews, and for the most part it is posterity, not contemporary comment (or sales), that has kept him alive

Lord Briggs is the author of numerous books, including “A Social History of England” and “Victorian England.”

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