April 5, 2012

Down goes his body and up flies his name

Just a few days before the publication of Mardi, his third book, Herman Melville wrote to Evert Augustus Duyckinck on April 5, 1849: "All ambitious authors should have ghosts capable of revisiting the world, to snuff up the steam of adulation, which begins to rise strengthening as the Sexton throws his last shovelfull on him —Down goes his body and up flies his name."

Though this was a general statement, it turned out to be prophetic for Melville. Though his first two books, Typee and Omoo, quickly became popular and were financially successful, the author was soon typecast and his subsequent work failed to garner significant attention. Most readers expect the same harrowing adventures based on the author's own life; Mardi, however, broke the trend and was pure fiction. One of Melville's biggest contemporary failures combined real life inspiration with fiction. He called this novel Moby-Dick, now recognized as an important American milestone. That recognition, however, took some time, many years after the last "shovelfull" of dirt had been dumped onto his corpse; it was not until the early 20th century that a Melville rediscovery and revival began.

By the time Melville wrote his letter to Duyckinck, a mutual friend and member of the New York literati named Charles Fenno Hoffman had been declared insane. Melville philosophizes on the point: "Poor Hoffman... This going mad of a friend or acquaintance comes straight home to every man who feels his soul in him, which but few men do. For in all of us lodges the same fuel to light the same fire." Indeed, later in Melville's life, his unhappy marriage led to some in-laws suggesting he be committed for insanity. In his letter, Melville compares insanity with infancy: "In both conditions we are irresponsible and riot like gods without fear of fate—It is the climax of a wild night of revelry when the blood has been transmuted into brandy."

Even so, Melville says, those of us still with our wits must continue living our lives. "But live and push—tho' we put one leg forward ten miles is no reason the other must lag behind—no, that must again distance the other—and so we go till we get cramp and die."

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