Invisible Man: Herman Melville’s Last Years

Melville in old age.

I have come to regard this matter of Fame as the most transparent of all vanities.

- Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851

As to [James Thomson’s] not achieving “fame” — what of that? He is not the less, but so much the more. And it must have occurred to you as it has to me, that the further our civilization advances upon its present lines so much the cheaper sort of thing does “fame” become, especially of the literary sort.

- Herman Melville to James Billson, December 1885

September 28th 2016 — just three days ago — marked the 125th anniversary of the death of Herman Melville in 1891. I didn’t see the event mentioned anywhere much, which surprised me — but it would not have surprised Melville, who spent his last years in obscurity, certain he would leave behind no literary reputation whatsoever. He was 72 at the time of his death. His most recent novel — The Confidence Man — had been published more than three decades earlier, in 1857, and was not thought highly of by critics. Two ill-received books of verse — Battle Pieces (1866) and Clarel (1876) — followed. After which came nothing.

Less than a year before Melville’s demise, Edward Bok took to the pages of Publishers Weekly to opine on the one-time literary giant’s invisibility. “There are more people today,” Bok wrote, “who believe Herman Melville dead than there are those who know he is living. And yet if one choose to walk along East Eighteenth Street, New York City, any morning about 9 o’clock, he would see [Melville], now an old man, but still vigorous. He is an employee of the Customs Revenue Service, and thus still lingers around the atmosphere which permeated his books. Forty-four years ago, when his most famous tale, Typee, appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. Publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And today? Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best-informed literary men in this country laughed recently at my statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two city blocks. ‘Nonsense,’ said he. ‘Why, Melville is dead these many years!’”

Melville had become a ghost. He wandered the wharves unrecognized, unseen. And he seems — in some respects — to have colluded in his own disappearance. Three years before his death, he published a slim volume of poetry entitled John Marr and Other Sailors; but he issued the book only in a private edition limited to 25 copies: gifts for friends. In this same period — sometime between 1885 and 1891 — he penned what he surely must have known to be a masterpiece, Billy Budd, Sailor, then dumped the manuscript into a trunk for his granddaughter to discover and publish more than thirty years later. As well, Melville’s “retirement” from the literary life seems to have included complete self-banishment from even the social side of the New York literary scene. He was not to be spotted dining with William Dean Howells or walking in Washington Square with Richard Watson Gilder. He attended no literary gatherings, wrote no letters to the popular journals, did nothing which might raise his profile.

The New York Times’s first notice of his death, published September 29th, could not have been more terse, and the writer could not even be bothered to spell the title of Melville’s greatest book correctly. “Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East Twenty-sixth Street, this city, of heart failure, aged seventy-two. He was the author of Typee, Omoo, Mobie [sic] Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville.”

Melville was already in the ground at Woodlawn before the October 2nd publication of a somewhat more expansive obituary, in which the writer took pains to point out Melville’s longtime absence from the public eye, and completely ignored the existence of the 1876 book Clarel: “ … when a visiting British writer a few years ago inquired at a gathering in New York of distinctly literary Americans what had become of Herman Melville, not only was there not one among them who was able to tell him, but there was scarcely one among them who had ever heard of the man concerning whom he inquired, albeit that man was then living within a half mile of the place of the conversation. Years ago the books by which Melville’s reputation had been made had long been out of print and out of demand. The latest book, now about a quarter of a century old, Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, fell flat, and he has died an absolutely forgotten man. In its kind this speedy oblivion by which a once famous man so long survived his fame is almost unique, and it is not easily explicable. Of course, there are writings that attain a great vogue and then fall entirely out of regard or notice. But this is almost always because either the interest of the subject matter is temporary, and the writings are in the nature of journalism, or else the workmanship to which they owe their temporary success is itself the produce or the product of a passing fashion. This was not the case with Herman Melville. Whoever, arrested for a moment by the tidings of the author’s death, turns back now to the books that were so much read and so much talked about forty years ago [will have] no difficulty in determining why they were then read and talked about. His difficulty will be rather to discover why they are read and talked about no longer. The total eclipse now of what was then a literary luminary seems like a wanton caprice of fame. At all events, it conveys a moral that is both bitter and wholesome to the popular novelists of our own day.”

The why was always there for those who sought to dive deep. Melville’s greatest critical and commercial successes — such as Typee — were works which he later came to disrespect as potboilers, drivel. He’d decided that mere adventure stories, written for the market, were not enough to suit his purposes, needs, and aspirations as an artist. Melville came to demand in himself and in his writing the confrontation of high spiritual truths and questions. After the critical and commercial failure of Moby Dick — which Melville viewed as his greatest creation— he wrote his close friend Hawthorne (to whom that book had been dedicated) to explain how the compromise between work that was worthy and work that was commercial conspired to demean both aspects of his prose. “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, — it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”

In the end, Melville concluded that if the world would not accept his best, then he’d be damned if he’d feed it his worst. Thus silence … and a perhaps welcome — though, as we now know, temporary — anonymity.

As for fame, especially that of “of the literary sort,” one is amused to note that the first ever American “bestseller” list was calculated and published in October 1891, just weeks after Melville’s departure from this earth. The list appeared in the Bookman. And there is on it not one title or author anyone today remembers.