Friday, November 27, 2015

Melville's cameo role in Nation-Famous New York Murders (1914) by Alfred Henry Lewis

Image Credit: Ron Scheer - Buddies in the Saddle
Among other things eastern journalist, muckraker, biographer, and western storyteller Alfred Henry Lewis wrote fictionalized tales of real-life crime. One of Lewis's supposedly true crime stories, originally published in the March 1913 issue of Pearson's Magazine, features a brief but fascinating appearance by Herman Melville. I don't remember seeing any notice in Melville scholarship of Melville's cameo role in Nation-Famous New York Murders (published in book form by the G. W. Dillingham Company in 1914). Another melvilliana exclusive? I stumbled over it while hunting up published mentions of Melville's Civil War poem, "Sheridan at Cedar Creek."

In his dramatic account of the Harvey Burdell murder case, Lewis definitely gets his facts mixed up about Herman Melville. Essentially Lewis has magically transported the 1880's Melville thirty years back in time, to Manhattan on a cold winter's day in early 1857. Specifically (as clarified in the revised book version), January 28, 1857. Impossible for Melville really to have been there, since most of that month he spent in Jerusalem and Lebanon on his 1856-7 Mediterranean tour. Melville's The Confidence-Man would be published in April 1857. The year before, Melville (still living in Pittsfield) was composing "The Piazza" to induce his forthcoming volume of magazine stories titled The Piazza Tales. Lewis's Melville, however, is already a curmudgeonly New Yorker, another frustrated writer employed in the Custom House. Lewis misquotes the line from "Sheridan at Cedar Creek" and miscalls it (as did Stoddard in his published Recollections) by the title of Buchanan Read's poem "Sheridan's Ride."

Some facts of Melville's life Lewis might have got from the biographical introduction to Typee by Arthur Stedman, son of Edmund Clarence Stedman who is also a character in the Burdell chapter of Nation-Famous New York Murders. As shown below, however, the most interesting factual details are reworked from the autobiography of Richard Henry Stoddard. When Melville shows up for dinner at the brand new Metropolitan Hotel, he joins the table of fellow writers Stoddard, Bayard Taylor, and George Henry Boker. Stedman sits at a nearby table with fellow lawyers David Dudley Field and Charles O'Connor. Lewis seats Fitz-James O'Brien at another table with Frederick Swartwout Cozzens (both fresh from Pfaff's beer cellar) along with Walt Whitman. At one point in the literary table-talk, Melville's gloomy looks remind O'Brien of Hamlet, "the melancholy Dane." Lewis makes O'Brien laughably ignorant of Melville and his reputation ("Never heard of him."). One year after the events recorded by Lewis, O'Brien would critically survey Melville's entire career to date in the April 1857 issue of Putnam's Monthly Magazine.

Excepting Stoddard, the literati at the Metropolitan as described by Alfred Henry Lewis are mostly Pfaff's regulars.

Despite his numerous factual errors, Lewis does seem to know something about Melville and other literary New Yorkers in the 1870's and 1880's especially. He knows, for instance, about the Century Club, about Stoddard's job at the Custom House and Stoddard's Echo Club. Much if not all this knowledge derives from Stoddard's Recollections, Personal and Literary. For example, Stoddard remembers that Bayard Taylor "had learned by heart" the "Opium Fantasy" poem by Lowell's wife. And when Lewis makes Cozzens say
 "Stoddard insists that next to Emerson he's the great American mystic."
the words of Stoddard are quoted verbatim from Stoddard's 1903 book, Recollections, Personal and Literary.

Intentionally or not, Melville's unfriendly critique of Mrs. Lowell's poetry as "privately published" for good reason is heavily ironic given Melville's later choice to privately publish two volumes of his own poetry, John Marr and Timoleon in limited edtions of 25 copies each. Below, Lewis's fictionalized glimpse of Herman Melville at the Metropolitan Hotel with links to the magazine and book versions of Nation-Famous New York Murders:
While waiting for the coming of Officer Matzell, with his word about Burdell, suppose we look about the room. It should be as good a way of killing time as any other.

Over near a window are Bayard Taylor, the poet Stoddard, and Boker who wrote Francisca da Rimini in which Miss Julia Dean is playing at Wallack's.

The sepulchral Herman Melville enters, and saunters funereally across to Taylor, Stoddard and Boker.

Beyond them sits Edmund Clarence Stedman, with lawyers David Dudley Field and Charles O'Connor.

The second table from the door is taken by "Sparrow Grass" Cozzens and Fitz-James O'Brien, who have adjourned from Pfaff's beer cellar near Leonard street where, under the Broadway sidewalk, they were quaffing lager, and getting up an appetite for dinner on onions, pretzels and cheese. They have with them Walt Whitman, who, silently and wholly wanting jn that "barbaric yawp," is distinguished by what William Dean Howells—ever slopping over in his phrase-making—will one day speak of as his "branching beard and Jovian hair."
"By the way, I've got a treasure," exclaims Taylor; "it's a copy of Mrs. Lowell's poems. They were privately printed, you know."

"May I see it?" asks the sepulchral Melville.

"It's in my desk at the Tribune office. There's one poem in it, An Opium Fantasy, which struck me greatly. It runs like this:
Oh, it is but a little owl,
The smallest of its kin,
That sits beneath the midnight cowl.
And makes its airy din.
"'And makes its airy din,'" repeats the lugubrious Melville, more sepulchral than ever. "I can understand why it was printed privately."'

Melville, soured by several failures, is inclined to cynicism in the presence of the poems of others. He has not yet written, you must remember, his Sheridan's Ride, which will begin, "Oh, shoe the horse with silver which bore him to the fray."

Taylor pays the bill, and he and the others depart for Stoddard's house in Third street, where their Echo Club is to have a meeting.

"Who's the melancholy Dane?" demands O'Brien, as the trio go talking themselves into Broadway.

"That's Melville," says "Sparrow Grass." "Thought you knew him. Works with Dick Stoddard in the Custom House."

"Never heard of him," returns the case-hardened O'Brien.

"Never heard of him? You amaze me! Why, he's written Typee, and Omoo and Mardi. Stoddard insists that next to Emerson he's the great American mystic."

O'Brien receives this with a Celtic grunt. "He looks as if he were," says he.

There is Matzell now; the broad, thick, stocky personage with the police expression of face. Wood greets him with the off-hand manner practised by New York mayors when they deal with members of the police.
--Pearson's Magazine Volume 29 - March 1913; and

--The Bond Street Mystery in Nation-Famous New York Murders
Other chapters of special interest to Melville fans deal with riots from the perspective of New York City police officers: one on the 1863 Draft Riots (subject of "The House-Top" in Battle-Pieces) and another on the 1849 Astor Place riots (before which Melville had co-signed a published letter backing Macready). The book version of the Burdell chapter gives Melville extra lines of dialogue that are not present in the magazine version. In the book, Lewis introduces Bayard Taylor's recitation of  Maria White Lowell's "An Opium Fantasy" by having Melville ask forlornly:
“You’ve been up to Cambridge?” put in Melville, glancing gloomily across at Taylor. “You’ve seen Lowell and the Atlantic Monthly crowd ?”
Maria White Lowell via Digital Commonwealth

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