The Bicentennial of Herman Melville’s Birth

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | August 1, 2019

August 1, 2019
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Failure, like so much in life, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Evanescence can be illusory; public opinion fickle; critics, wrong. Take Melville. He wrote the greatest American novel of the 19th century, Moby Dick – and without a single good review, it didn’t even sell out the initial first printing. But failure that he was, Melville still kept writing. It wasn’t until he visited the Holy Land and wrote the longest poem in American literature about it, that he gave up the idea of ever publishing again. He was finished: Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land did him in. This letter tells that story –  or at least, the part of it he knew. 200 years after his birth, we know otherwise: Clarel is now regarded as a great poem.

Indeed, this rare Melville letter about a masterwork ignored a full seventy-five years after its publication, may soon be seen, on display, at the New-York Historical Society’s upcoming exhibition, Mark Twain and the Holy Land (October 25, 2019 – February 2, 2020), to which it is key.

Nineteenth century photo of the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem's old city.
Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate in Melville's time.

“We took a pretty long walk together… and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated;” but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists – and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before – in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, Journal entry, recording visit with Melville in Liverpool prior to Melville’s Holy Land sojourn,  November 12,  1856.

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:

“… 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.”

Painted portrait of Herman Melville.
A portrait of Herman Melville, done in 1870 by Joseph Oriel Eaton. Houghton Library at Harvard University, Wikimedia Commons.

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, and sold so poorly, it was pulped by its publisher.

Herman Melville died in 1891, a retired customs inspector for the City of New York, at the age of seventy-two. Even his own generation, a New York obituary noted, had long thought him dead. It wasn’t until the centennial of his birth in 1919 that Melville was, critically, resurrected. From there, of course, it was up all the way. As the narrator spoke in the Clarel’s “Epilogue,”

Who in life’s pilgrimage have baffled striven –

Even death may prove unreal at the last,

And stoics be astounded into heaven

HERMAN MELVILLE. 1819 – 1891. Great American novelist. The first line of his classic, Moby Dick, is perhaps the most famous in English literature: “Call me Ishmael.”

Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pages, octavo, 104 East 26th St. New York City [New York], [January 22, 1885]. To James Billson (a young British solicitor and political and religious radical with whom Melville corresponded for some eight years)  in Leicester, England. Rare.