November 8, 2021
Century-old critics consulted; Melville’s mastery mentioned
by Mike Lindgren
We were rooting around in the digital archives of the Brooklyn Public Library—an eccentric if benign habit practiced by some ’round these parts—when we came across an intriguing essay concerning our namesake and inspiration, the great Herman Melville himself. Intrigued, we slugged down another gulp of lukewarm off-brand instant coffee and dove in to our latest archival acquisition.
The essay that swum to the surface of the veritable ocean of archival materials was titled “A Claim for American Literature,” by one W. Clark Russell, and appeared in the February 1892 issue of the North American Review. It quickly proved to be many-faceted delight, posing perhaps as many questions as it answered, while providing a valuable illustration of how literary reputations rise and fall over the years.
Somewhat in the spirit of an undergraduate term paper, Mr. Russell constructed a compare-and-contrast analysis of Melville and Richard H. Dana, the author of the once-lauded, now largely ignored yawner Two Years Before the Mast. Perched smugly at the distance of over a century, we found a modicum of amusement in Mr. Russell’s assertion that Dana is the superior artist; “I know of no American writer whose style is so good” as Dana’s, he wrote.
This inexplicable lapse aside, Russell proved downright prescient in his literary taste. Melville’s books, Russell (“Dub-C” to his friends) said,
are now but little read… men who could give you the names of fifty living poets and perhaps a hundred living American novelists owned that they had never heard of Herman Melville… Famous he was; now he was neglected; yet his name and works will not die. He is a great figure in shadow; but the shadow is not of oblivion.
From a historiographical perspective, this is impressive; Melville’s reputation was indeed in deep eclipse by the 1890s. As the scholar Paul Lautner observed in 1994, it wasn’t until the 1920s that “Melville was transformed … from an obscure teller of South Sea island tales into the pre-eminent American novelist.” Moby-Dick’s famous density and idiosyncratic perspective shifts may, Lautner implies, have been too much for the genteel critics of the 19th century.
The now-forgotten Clarkster had the last word. “Melville wrote out of his heart,” the Dubster opined, “and out of wide and perhaps bitter experience; he enlarged our knowledge of the life of the deep.” Now that’s news that never goes out of style!
Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.