January 22, 1885

Herman Melville “Disinters” a Rare Copy of “Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land” to Send It to an Admirer

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Writing to a British admirer who had “unearthed several of [his] buried books," Melville says that there was one his spade had not yet succeeded in exhuming: Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. He would never get at it by himself, the author predicts, so he has disinterred a copy for him, which he sends along with this note.

Clarel, Melville’s long narrative poem based on his 1857 trip to the Holy Land was, as he once described it “a pilgrimage or what not, of several thousand lines, eminently adapted for unpopularity.” Indeed, unlike other 19th century Holy Land travel literature, in which Palestine was viewed through the lens of Divine Revelation, Melville saw Palestine as strange, alienated and disjointed. Instead of the Bible being brought to life there, he found a “caked, depopulated hell.” He spent only nineteen days in Palestine, but nineteen years writing about it: Clarel was an incubus of a book, his wife said, which undermined all their happiness.  If the purpose of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was to give substance to hope, Melville’s experience stood in stark contradiction: the City of David was a skull of a place, the fatal embrace, he mused, of the Deity. No wonder, then, that some nine years after Clarel’s publication, he could only speak of it as a corpse… It was his last book.

Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pages, octavo, 104 East 26th St. New York City [New York], no date [January 22, 1885]. To James Billson in Leicester, England.

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Transcript

104 East 26th St.
N.Y.

Dear Sir:

I am grateful for the last volume you kindly sent me, received yesterday. – “Sunday up the River,” contrasting with the “City of Dreadful Night”, is like a Cuban humming-bird, beautiful in fairy tints, flying against the tropic thunder-cloud. Your friend was a starling [sterling?] poet, if ever one sang. As to his pessimism, altho’ neither pessimist nor optomist [sic] myself, nevertheless I relish it in the verse if for nothing else than as a counterpoise to the exorbitant hopefulness, juvenile and shallow, that makes such a bluster in these days – at least, in some quarters.

- In a former note you mentioned that altho’ you had unearthed several of my buried books, yet there was one – “Clarel” – that your spade had not yet succeeded in getting at. Fearing that you never will get at it by yourself, I have disinterred a copy for you of which I ask your acceptance and mail it with this note.
It is the sole presentation-copy of the issue.

Repeating my thanks for both the rare volumes you have been kind enough to send me, and thanking you also for your last note,

I am very truly yours

HERMAN MELVILLE

Mr. James Billson

Jan. 22nd '85