Sunday, August 26, 2012

What Did Herman Melville Do After Writing Moby-Dick?

He didn't go to Disneyland. He went to the Holy Land.

From an interesting piece in Tablet...

But Pittsfield, in the wake of Moby-Dick’s poor reception, was not a happy place for Melville. His farm was losing money, and his career seemed to be in shambles. He followed Moby-Dick with Pierre (1852), another financial and critical disappointment, and then several stories for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, among them Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) and Benito Cereno (1855). Each short story hints at the author’s anger, despair, and exhaustion. Another novel, Israel Potter, published in 1855, did little to change his reputation or circumstances, and those closest to Melville grew increasingly worried; the writer seemed fatigued, unhappy, and even, some suggested, suicidal.

Given Melville’s anguished state, his wife, Elizabeth Shaw, proposed—and his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, agreed to finance—a trip overseas. Melville had previously gone abroad to London in 1849, shortly before the completion of Moby-Dick, and had enjoyed the trip immensely. But that had been a different time in the author’s life; he was a successful novelist writing a book he believed would be immediately celebrated as one of the greatest works of the 19th century. Six years and many disappointments later, Melville had good reason to be down.

Nonetheless, on Oct. 11, 1856, Melville boarded the Glasgow, a steamer bound for England. As Howard C. Horsford recounts in his historical note to the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville’s journals (for which Horsford served as editor), Melville visited Hawthorne in Liverpool, and Hawthorne said afterward that Melville seemed “a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder” than he’d been before. But as Melville journeyed on, the trip appeared to revive his spirits. As he sails the Mediterranean in mid-winter, Melville’s exuberance is clear. In his journal, he notes “such weather as one might have in paradise,” of “stars shining with brilliancy,” and “gloriously clear” evenings. This attitude, though dotted with days of despair, generally continued through Constantinople, Alexandria, Cairo, and Rome.

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