Monday, January 21, 2013

Melville allegedly leaving Massachusetts after passage of 1852 "Maine Law"

Less than two months before the publication of Pierre, a Boston editorial semi-seriously linked Melville with G. P. R. James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other Berkshire authors.  Regrettably, according to the Evening Transcript, the high-living literary celebrities of Berkshire will have to leave the state, after passage by the Massachusetts legislature of a prohibitory "Maine Law."

The controversial liquor law was overturned a year later, thanks to Melville's father-in-law Chief Justice Shaw and the Massachusetts Supreme Court. 

It's good to recall the real influence of the temperance movement, not only in Melville's youth but into the 1850's as an important element of the background to Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre (1852).  Prohibition was on the way in, at least temporarily, when Melville wrote Hawthorne in May 1851:

"I won't believe in a Temperance Heaven."

From the Boston Evening Transcript, Tuesday, June 15, 1852:

THE TEETOTAL REVOLUTION. [Quoting an item under that heading in the New York Herald:]  It is well known that a number of independent literary men have selected Stockbridge, and that picturesque neighborhood in Massachusetts, for their permanent residences, instead of paying the high rents of New York.  But now all this class of persons there, and throughout Massachusetts, are emigrating rapidly, in consequence of the teetotal tyranny of the legislation of that State.  Mr. James, the novelist, is about selling his property in Stockbridge, and removing from Massachusetts to New York, entirely on account of the arbitrary law recently passed—a law which is characterized as worse than any European despotism."
[To which, the Evening Transcript comments:]  The case of Mr. G. P. R. James is a lamentable one.  To think that the author of “Philip Augustus” and eighty other popular novels should, in the decline of life, be cut off from his glass of sherry, is enough to excite the sympathetic indignation of every romance reader in the country.  How can we tell how far we may have been indebted to that same sherry for the genial fancies, which lure us on in the pages of this most prolific writer?
... But if we may believe the intimation in the Herald, the other literary gentlemen, who cluster about the hills of Berkshire, like bees around Hybla, will follow Mr. James’s example, and abandon a region, where the Maine law is to be enforced.  Holmes will take up his lyre, and his microscope, and seek a more inspiring vicinity.  Melville will leave spinning his pleasant yarns about “Moby Dick,” and other wonders of the “deep, deep sea,” and strike a bee line for New York, where sumptuary laws are unknown.  Hawthorne will leave the unfinished sheets of some “golden legend,” and look out for some nook among the hills, where “mountain dew” is not proscribed.  The Sedgwicks will follow.  In short there will be a grand exodus of all the literary people, with books and portfolios under their arms—all driven off by this execrable liquor law—this foe to all good fellowship and genial inspiration.
We doubt if our legislators have ever duly considered the effects of this law in a literary point of view.  If our authors are obliged to seek their Helicon elsewhere than in Massachusetts, what will become of the glory of the Bay State?  We shall not only be “unwept,unhonored and unsung,” but we shall have their ill report while living which, in the words of Shakespeare, is worse than a bad epitaph.

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