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
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.