Tuesday, December 22, 2015

1850 review of Æsop's Fables: by Herman Melville?

Image Credit: HubPages
Please don't try this at home. It's a dirty, thankless job trying to assign authorship on the basis of internal textual evidence. If some contrarian devil keeps you seeking to identify anonymous authors anyway, just remember that most of the time such arguments turn out to be wrong. Spectacularly wrong, on occasion: witness Donald Foster's once tempting, now demolished case for Shakespeare's authorship of "A Funeral Elegy"--written by John Ford, as demonstrated in 2002 studies by G. D. Monsarrat and Brian Vickers. Closer to home: in Melville studies the most prominent example of a fascinatingly mistaken attribution is the book-length argument by Jeanne Chretien Howes for Melville's authorship of the 1845 poem Redburn: or the Schoolmaster of a Morning. Howes herself discovered, but would not accept, solid evidence for the anonymous author's being Geneva poet George Megrath. Warren F. Broderick's more qualified and tentative case (Melville Society Extracts 92, March 1993, pages 13-16) for Melville's authorship of five poems in 1838-9 is breaking up, too, now that we know the true author of Pity's Tear. The fifth of Broderick's five newspaper poems appeared (with a fourth stanza) under the title, "I Shall Remember" in the December 1835 Ladies' Companion.

Of course one should always be wary of confirmation bias. What's worse, you can make yourself crazy (as I have good reason to know). After a while everything sounds like Moby-Dick.

To get ourselves properly grounded, let's consider some verifiable facts. Herman Melville certainly did review books anonymously for the Literary World We know of five reviews that Melville definitely wrote in 1847-1850 (four unsigned, and the one on Hawthorne under a pseudonym):
In his unpublished doctoral dissertation, "Melville as a Magazinist" (Duke University, 1960), Norman Hoyle suggests that Evert Duyckinck may have "considered Melville his Far West specialist" as well as his "Cooper specialist" (46). Hoyle proposed Melville's authorship of four additional reviews (besides the known review of Parkman's Oregon Trail) on books of western travel and adventure, including The Western Trail, an unsigned review of J. Quinn Thornton's Oregon and California in 1848. Besides the two known reviews by Melville of books by J. Fenimore Cooper, Hoyle suggests Melville may have written a third, the unsigned review of The Spy titled The New Edition of Cooper. Before Hoyle, Jay Leyda had already opened the door to further investigation:
"There is more published work by M[elville] than has been identified."  --The Melville Log, Volume 2 [860]
Long before Leyda, Meade Minnigerode had pointed out in parentheses:
(Note. Besides the reviews already mentioned, there are undoubtedly others by Melville in the Literary World, but as they were unsigned they can not now be identified with certainty.) --Some Personal Letters of Herman Melville (Brick Row Book Shop, 1922) page 192.
After Redburn, which Melville once called his "little nursery tale," I wonder if the Duyckincks might also have considered Melville their specialist in Children's Lit? Here is another unsigned review that might or might not be Herman Melville's work, titled "A New Version of Æsop's Fables."

The Literary World, August 10, 1850 - 111
The Literary World, August 10, 1850 - 112


Æsop's Fables: a new version, chiefly from original sources. By the Rev. Thomas James, M.A. With more than fifty illustrations by John Tenniel. Robt B. Collins. 
We hope some of our readers remember the old edition of Æsop's Fables, that in vogue some quarter of a century ago. We hope so, because we should like to know that others besides ourselves are sharers in the pleasant recollections which the title of the work calls up; that others remember those small oval woodcuts with the beasts therein depicted, much after the style in which they are sculptured for a child's Noah's ark. Bad as they were, they were favorable specimens of the wood illustration of the day, and bore in their smirched faces unmistakable evidence of being in demand for frequent impressions by the public. 
Let the reader, with the old fresh in his memory, turn to the new. He will find that the old friend of our childhood, perennial Æsop, has doffed cocked hat and small-clothes for a dress of the latest cut and newest gloss. All the appliances of modern book-art are brought to bear: wily Reynard looks up from the foot of the page to the grapes gracefully pendent from a trellis at the head, the design framing a few lines of the text. The lazy maids, whom the old woman is toiling up stairs at the side of the page to chastise, are rubbing their eyes and stretching themselves in the most graceful of attitudes; and the tailpiece of the volume brings up its artistic claims triumphantly by a representation of the sad fate of the accommodating individual who, to please the public, tied his ass's legs to a pole and, with his son's aid, carried him, or essayed to do so, over the bridge, in the sight of the assembled public. The poor animal is tumbling into the water; and the astonished public, gazing at him from the whole length of the Bridge, are admirably rendered in all the varieties of stupid amazement. Lesson fresh as if old Æsop's stylus of Greece were Gold Pen of nowaday New York, and the ink not yet dry upon it. 
These illustrations are from English designs by John Tenniel. The animals are spirited, and we do not know any one who could have done them better, except that Æsop of painters, Edwin Landseer. We hope that some Maecenas of the Book Trade may some day or other immortalize himself by combining these two Æsops as author and artist in a volume.
Æsop has always been an illustrated book, and always will be. Look into any library of old books, and ten to one you will find a ponderous folio, with most " savagerous" of beasts ranging over its folio pages. Old Æsop, to be sure, is, nowadays, come down from a folio to be a book for children, but he has lost none of his wisdom by so doing. We are not sure but that ability to interest children by original books (we do not now refer to compilations of "history made easy," and such like) is the test of a great author; at any rate, were we disposed to argue it, we could bring many an influential witness into court on our side—to wit, besides our venerable friend now under discussion, Defoe, Scott, Southey, Goldsmith, Fielding, Miss Edgeworth, Hawthorne, et al.

The Juvenile readers of Æsop will be inclined to favor the present edition when we tell them that the new translator has cut down those prosy old morals, which even in the smaller type in which they were printed, well nigh preponderated over the text of the original fable, and might be likened to pills after sweetmeats (a reversal of all nursery rules— all allopathic ones at least)—that these "lengthy " morals are cut down to a line or two apiece.
For an excellent conversation starter (or stopper, as the case may be), here's some textual evidence for Melville's authorship of the 1850 review transcribed above.
  1. "Maecenas of the Book Trade." The reviewer wants an editor or publisher to back a new edition of Æsop illustrated by Landseer. This champion of Æsop and Landseer would ideally be a generous and large-minded patron of the arts like the Roman statesman Maecenas, the wealthy patron of Virgil and Horace. In White-Jacket (1850) Melville similarly honored Maecenas, comparing Jack Chase's patronage of the navy poet Lemsford to "Maecenas listening to Virgil."  
  2. "may some day or other immortalize himself...." Melville in Mardi and elsewhere refers to immortalizing oneself and others through published writing, just as the reviewer conceives that his editorial Maecenas would "immortalize himself" by publishing a new illustrated edition of Æsop with pictures by Landseer. Melville's Redburn desires to "immortalize" the "curious and remarkable" guidebook titled The Picture of Liverpool.
  3. "ten to one" occurs at least 14 times in Melville's known writings, most famously of all in the first chapter of Moby-Dick: "Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream."
  4. "prosy old morals" verbally recalls the Prosy Old Guidebook in Melville's Redburn (1849). As in Redburn the reviewer associates a "prosy old" book with reading  by children, here "Juvenile readers." Moreover, the "prosy old guidebook" that Melville's young hero Wellingborough Redburn describes at length, expressly belonged to his father. The anonymous 1850 reviewer uses the term "prosy old morals" with reference to old editions with small type and long morals. Melville's father Allan Melvill in fact owned an 1787 edition of Æsop's Fables which survives in the New York Public Library. Here is the 1787 book (same edition, but not the actual volume owned by Allan Melvill) at the Internet Archive:

Allan Melville's copy of the Fabulæ Æsopi Selectæ, or, Select Fables of Æsop is Sealts No. 6, as shown in the catalog at Melville's Marginalia Online. Even the longest morals do not really dominate the fables themselves, however. (If the reviewer has this edition in mind, perhaps he exaggerates or mis-remembers the graphic reach of the morals.)
5. The conceit of a hypothetical legal argument with "influential witnesses" on the writer's side of the case anticipates Melville's lawyerly posture in Moby-Dick, for example throughout "The Advocate" chapter of Moby-Dick, and again in "The Hyena":
"Here then, from three impartial witnesses, I had a deliberate statement of the entire case."  --The Hyena
More generally, the reviewer's obvious and sustained interest in the illustrations, paying close attention to details of several different pictures, seems consistent with Melville's known devotion to the visual arts. The "cut" and "gloss" of the reviewer's clothing metaphor will reappear in Melville's Pierre (1852), in the letter from tailor-publishers Wonder & Wen to Pierre the juvenile author. Also associated with Pierre as writer: "ink not yet entirely dry," echoing the conceit of "ink not yet dry" in Æsop's timeless stories according to the 1850 reviewer. In Mardi, Melville mentions Landseer as an exemplary painter of animals. Near the end of his life, he gave his granddaughter a volume of Landseer's Dogs. In The Confidence-Man, Æsop is said by the cosmopolitan Frank Goodman to malign animals unfairly.

No manuscript or other external evidence for the authorship of this unsigned 1850 review of Æsop's Fables has yet been found, so far as I know. First place to look would be the Duyckinck family papers in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library. Box 57 contains "Miscellaneous poems, articles, reviews written for the Literary World."  And who knows what's in Box 59 ("Miscellaneous papers")?


  1. Jeanne Howes did not deny McGrath as author of the *Redburn* poem. Unless you have had personal correspondence with her, she was never aware of McGrath. I believe that the *Redburn* story is not over. Things just do not add up.

    1. Jeanne Howes certainly was aware of George Megrath, in print. I wanted to give her credit for the discovery which she documents in the endnotes to her book POET OF A MORNING on p. 139:

      "One of these last two volumes [at the New York Historical Society] has a holograph note on the title page which attributes this to George Megrath, and the other, the Library's "Copy no. 1," is unsigned, but is pencilled in as "the author's presentation copy["]

      Ms. Howes in the same note cited Megrath's The New Dido (1851) and Mr. Brown's Pigs (1862). Without further comment she dismissed both titles, "neither of which has any resemblance to the Redburn poem" (her words). Other good evidence for a Geneva poet is presented by Ms. Howes in her Afterword (pp. 106-108) and Appendix A (p 114).