December 2, 2010

Melville and statues of Rome

By 1857, Herman Melville was already old news. His 1851 book, Moby-Dick, had attracted little attention and any remaining fame from his earlier books, Typee and Omoo, was fizzling. To earn money, he took the same tactic Mark Twain later took when in financial need: Herman Melville became a lecturer.

His first was in Concord, Massachusetts at the end of November. But, on December 2, 1857, he had a larger audience in Boston. His pay was $40.00. Melville's lecture tour took him from Massachusetts to Montreal, Connecticut, New York, and Ohio. He earned nearly $600 in about three months but, after his traveling expenses, was left with only $373.70. In the next couple years, he continued lecturing in cities like Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Chicago.

Melville's lecture topics included "South Seas" and "Statues of Rome." In Boston, before the Mercantile Library Association, he presented the latter — a topic which had no relation to the books which brought him fame. The lecture was not met with high praise. "[The] lecture was quite interesting to those of artistic tastes," according to one newspaper review, but "the larger part of the audience would have preferred something more modern and personal." Melville told his audience that science ranked below art, which "caused some little discussion." Some audience members were confused by Melville's words.

A relative had predicted only days earlier that when Melville tried to put forth philosophy, "he seeks to ascend by waxen wings from his proper sphere only to find his mind dazzled his wings melted and his fall mortifying." A cousin in attendance reported that the lecture was well-planned but lacking in force; he would have done better if he talked about the South Seas, he said.

*For this post, I am indebted to the work of Hershel Parker in the second volume of his Melville biography: Herman Melville: A Biography (Volume 2, 1851-1891).


  1. Rob, any chance you could take a look at MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE? It's available on Amazon now, and the first comment is very favorable. There's a notice of it in the NEW YORKER blog as one of the books to watch out for in January. Because the two volumes of the biography were trashed by the NYC mainstream media, at once, I am ecstatic at the possibility that the new book may get a fair hearing. The Internet is changing things, and already has changed things, I say in the new book.

  2. Mr. Parker: Thank you for your comment. As a matter of fact, I was reading an excerpt of the book this morning on Amazon (or a similar site; I can't recall). I saw a mention of Rufus Griswold, which always gets my attention. I was unaware of controversy over your Melville volumes before today, though I am far outside the usual circles.

  3. Rufus Griswold figures in the single most frustrating hunt for evidence in the whole biography, a newspaper article that Perry Miller dated as 1850. You will see in MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY how this tormented me, since if the date was right I did not know Melville. I confess in the book to not being proud of how I dealt with the date and how happy I am that Scott Norsworthy re-dated it to late 1854! But any attention you can give the book would be appreciated by this superannuated Melvillean. Oh, Griswold figures in my THE POWELL PAPERS (2011)--many previously uncollected comments.


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