December 8, 2011

Illuminations for Bartleby The Scrivener: Herman Melville’s Inexcusable Insanity


Illustration: From an 1870 edition of the New York Herald, perhaps like the one Barlteby answered a few years before. Clearly someone is still looking for help.

With the release of The Duel x5 earlier this year, Melville House announced a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

Since then, Melville House has begun retrofitting each novella in its celebrated Art of The Novella line as a HybridBook. This means adding specially created Illuminations — additional readings available to both the ebook and print edition — for each title. Where better to begin than with our flagship novella, Bartleby, The Scrivener by Herman Melville? Over the next week we will be sharing some of the readings and illustrations found in the new “hybrid” Bartleby, which we’re just about to release.

It is news to no one that the writings of Herman Melville are some of the finest literature has to offer. Moby-Dick is considered among the world’s great classics and his other novels and stories are nearly universally accepted as influential and important. It was not always so.

Herman Melville’s career as a writer started off well enough. His tales of seafaring adventure, Typee and Omoo were both commercially successful and received critical enough critical acclaim to put him into the ranks of respected authors. Then came his third novel, Mardi. That’s where the petals began to wilt on his yet budding career.

The book was widely panned and it forced Melville to write two novels purely for commercial purposes. Redburn and White-Jacket were both somewhat more successful, but each left Melville with a hollow feeling. He described the writing of the books as, “two jobs which I have done for money—being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood.”

His response to this bowing to commercial pressure was to write to his heart’s content. First came Moby-Dick; or The Whale, which was then followed by Pierre: or, The Ambiguities. The two brooding, deeply philosophical novels of ponderous size were vast departures from the more adventuresome fare he had built his reputation on. They also ruined his career.

The following review was published in Putnam’s Magazine mere months before the same magazine published in two parts (November and December of 1853) the novella Bartleby, The Scrivener. Bartleby appeared on the scene right after Pierre—that is to say right after years of critical disgust over his new “sybaritical” style had arrived on the scene. One has to marvel at Melville’s fortitude and unshakable determination. It is hard to think of another instance where a hatchet job like the one below was published in the same periodical (and same year) as the author’s next major work. Even more difficult is to conceive of a publication that can house within the same year both a vicious attack on a particular style and then publish that same style’s most exemplary form.

Right from the opening salvo you can get a sense of just how revolutionary Herman Melville’s writings were, not to mention how woefully wrong critics and conventional wisdom can be. This article, as well as a few selections from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America, which shed light on the shabby state of American letters at the time of his visit, can be found in the HybridBook and eBook editions of the new Bartleby, The Scrivener we have just published.

Mr. Melville does not improve with time. His later books are a decided falling off, and his last scarcely deserves naming; this however we scarce believe to be an indication of exhaustion. Keats says beautifully in his preface to “Endymion,” that “The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy, but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted.”

Just at present we believe the author of Pierre to be in this state of ferment. Typee, his first book, was healthy; Omoo nearly so; after that came Mardi, with its excusable wildness; then came Moby Dick, and Pierre with its inexcusable insanity. We trust that these rhapsodies will end the interregnum of nonsense to which Keats refers, as forming a portion of every man’s life; and that Mr. Melville will write less at random and more at leisure, than of late. Of his last book we would fain not speak, did we not feel that he is just now at that stage of author-life when a little wholesome advice may save him a hundred future follies. When we first read Pierre, we felt a strong inclination to believe the whole thing to be a well-got-up hoax. We remembered having read a novel in six volumes once of the same order, called The Abbess, in which the stilted style of writing is exposed very funnily; and, as a specimen of unparalleled bombast, we believed it to be unequalled until we met with Pierre. In Mardi there is a strong vein of vague, morphinized poetry, running through the whole book. We do not know what it means from the beginning to the end, but we do not want to know, and accept it as a rhapsody. Babbalanja philosophizing drowsily, or the luxurious sybaritical King Media, lazily listening to the hum of waters, are all shrouded dimly in opiate-fumes, and dream-clouds, and we love them only as sensual shadows. Whatever they say or do; whether they sail in a golden boat, or eat silver fruits, or make pies of emeralds and rubies, or any thing else equally ridiculous, we feel perfectly satisfied that it is all right, because there is no claim made upon our practical belief. But if Mr. Melville had placed Babbalanja and Media and Yoomy in the Fifth Avenue, instead of a longitude and latitude less inland; if we met them in theatres instead of palm groves, and heard Babbalanja lecturing before the Historical Society instead of his dreamy islanders, we should feel naturally rather indignant at such a tax upon our credulity. We would feel inclined to say with the Orientals, that Mr. Melville had been laughing at our beards, and Pacha-like condemn on the instant to a literary bastinado. Now Pierre has all the madness of Mardi, without its vague, dreamy, poetic charm. All Mr. Melville’s many affectations of style and thought are here crowded together in a mad mosaic. Talk of Rabelais’s word-nonsense! there was always something queer, and odd, and funny, gleaming through his unintelligibility. But Pierre transcends all the nonsense-writing that the world ever beheld.

Thought staggers through each page like one poisoned. Language is drunken and reeling. Style is antipodical, and marches on its head. Then the moral is bad. Conceal it how you will, a revolting picture presents itself. A wretched, cowardly boy for a hero who from some feeling of mad romance, together with a mass of inexplicable reasons which, probably, the author alone fathoms, chooses to live in poverty with his illegitimate sister, whom he passes off to the world as his wife, instead of being respectably married to a legitimate cousin. Everybody is vicious in some way or other. The mother is vicious with pride. Isabel has a cancer of morbid, vicious, minerva-press-romance, eating into her heart. Lucy Tartan is viciously humble, and licks the dust beneath Pierre’s feet viciously. Delly Ulver is humanly vicious, and in the rest of the book, whatever of vice is wanting in the remaining characters, is made up by superabundant viciosities of style.

Let Mr. Melville stay his step in time. He totters on the edge of a precipice, over which all his hard-earned fame may tumble with such another weight as Pierre attached to it. He has peculiar talents, which may be turned to rare advantage. Let him diet himself for a year or two on Addison, and avoid Sir Thomas Browne, and there is little doubt but that he will make a notch on the American Pine.

Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862), from “Our Young Authors – Melville.” O’Brien’s scathing review of the recently published Pierre echoed a growing discomfort with Melville’s increasingly philosophical fiction. If Moby Dick had been a strain to his reputation then Pierre had proven all the more radical to Melville’s contemporaries, leading reviewers to actually question his sanity. Ironically, it was Putnam’s Monthly Magazine that published both O’Brien’s vitriolic review in April and then Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener in November and December of the same year.


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.