Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Discarded by the Public Library in Watertown: Piazza Tales, with marginal comment on Melville as "a great humbug"

In this letter to Philip Hale as editor of the "As the World Wags" column, Boston reader "G. E." reports on his purchase of an ex-library copy of The Piazza Tales. From the Boston Herald, Friday, September 23, 1921; found in the online Newspaper Archives at Genealogy Bank. Note the spelling: Melvillians!

Boston Herald - September 23, 1921



As the World Wags:

It would be unkind, if not unjust, to deposit the whole blame at your doorstep: however, you’ll find enough there to stumble over, if you ever cross your threshold to face an angry mob of Melvillians! Your well-intentioned propaganda costs us dearly. Prices have gone up sky high.

One bookseller in Boston can’t get the “Piazza Tales” for love or money. Another had a copy offered to him (first and apparently only edition) at $4.50. I politely declined. At last by the merest chance I obtained through him a copy marked “discarded”—mind you—by the Watertown public library; price $2. I’m not kicking. On the contrary, now that I have read the book, I’ll confess that it is worth those two iron men; and more.

But I am moved to reflect on the fact that Watertown had no use for these stories, and upon this extraordinary thing: At the end of that wonderfully uncomfortably tale about the poor, demented Scrivener, once employed in the Dead Letter Office, one Watertown reader (perhaps the one that recommended the book for the dump-heap) has indulged in the following pencilled opinion: “This Herman Melville is a great humbug.” As one of the converted, I would urge you therefore, move on to Watertown, and smite the Waterstownsman with your ire.

G. E.

Are booksellers able to procure for you Melville’s “Israel Potter,” The Confidence Man,” “Pierre, or the Ambiguities?” If so, at what price. A contributor to the Nation and Athenaeum of London states that the British Museum is without a copy of the “Piazza Tales.” These stories worked their strange spell on us when years ago we read them in Putnam’s Magazine, that monument to the fine taste of George William Curtis, the editor. Reading the tales again and again, we are at a loss to say which is the best. “The Bell Tower” has been reprinted in collections of short stories, yet we prefer “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno,” the account of Capt. Amasa Delano’s surprising adventures. Whenever a thunderstorm comes along, we think of “The Lightning Rod Man” and loathe the critic who, years ago, characterized it as “grotesque verbiage.” He probably came from Watertown. Ed. [Philip Hale]
In his reply, Hale references the June 11, 1921 issue of The Nation and The Athenaeum, where (after printing letters from Michael Sadleir and James Billson) the editor notes:
We believe that the British Museum has no copy of "The Piazza Tales." Verb. sap.
In 1881 The Watertown Free Public Library still boasted a first edition of The Piazza Tales.

As shown in the previous melvilliana post Forty Years of Philip Hale and Melville, Hale had been promoting Melville in the pages of the Boston Herald since 1904, not long after he moved there from the Boston Journal--where he had talked nonstop about Melville in "Talk of the Day." Doubtless Hale and his Boston reader are too hard on Watertown, Mass. According to the Librarian's Report for 1907, more than 700 volumes, many "among the most used and most popular books" in the library, had to be discarded as "worn out by constant and increasing usage." Moby-Dick and Typee are listed as 1907 additions to the 1881 catalog.

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