Thursday, June 8, 2017

MELVILLE on William Bebb's 1846 campaign rally in Akron, Ohio

First published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on June 15, 1846 and transcribed below, this juicy critique of a Whig rally for gubernatorial candidate William Bebb in Akron, Ohio takes the form of a letter to editor Joseph W. Gray signed "Melville." Bebb won the election and would serve one term as Ohio's 19th governor. The partisan report from "Melville" is dated June 13, 1846 and gives the place of writing as Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio. 

Herman Melville wrote his Uncle Peter Gansevoort from Lansingburgh the same day, June 13, 1846, on which the Ohio letter is dated. I don't know how he could have been in two places nearly five hundred miles apart at once, but this "Melville" who writes of deluded Millerites, Bob Acre's valor, a dancing elephant, Aesop's Ass, a notably "stretchy" conscience, and "grandiloquent presages" sounds, well, remarkably like Herman Melville.

For instance, Ohio Melville compares attempts at humor by Thomas Ewing to "an elephant essaying the dance of a harlequin." Herman Melville made a very similar comparison in an erased annotation to Book 6 of Milton's Paradise Lost. As reported in the June 2015 Leviathan by Peter Norberg and Steven Olsen-Smith in consultation with Dennis Marnon, Melville wrote:
"These two brigades [of] artillerymen, in their heavy maneuvers, suggest the idea of a couple of Siam elephants essaying to dance the Polka."  --Newly Recovered Erased Annotations in Melville's Marginalia to Milton's Poetical Works
Both Melvilles use the dancing elephant as an image of incongruity, and both use the word essaying. At Melville's Marginalia Online you can see Melville's recovered annotation (via the enhanced image feature), and all the other markings in Melville's two-volume set of The Poetical Works of John Milton.

Hudson, Ohio Melville writes of the dull Whig meeting that:
"A general indifference and coldness seemed to pervade all"
while Herman Melville had just written to Gansevoort (deceased) that
"A military arder pervades all ranks."  --Correspondence, ed. Lynn Horth - page 40
At the Akron rally Bebb "manfully stood his ground" in a downpour, while his auditors were rapidly "dispersing." In a scene yet to be written from Herman Melville's next book, Omoo, the drunken first mate Jermin "stood his ground manfully" against murderous sailors until "they dispersed."

In Lansingburgh, Herman Melville was dealing with the sudden loss of his older brother Gansevoort Melville, who had died on May 12, 1846 in London. On behalf of the grieving family, Herman had the duty of writing James Buchanan (Secretary of State), William L. Marcy (Secretary of War), and even President Polk himself for the necessary financial support to settle Gansevoort's affairs and bring home his body. Hershel Parker gives a full account of Gansevoort's death and the impact on Herman in the first volume of Herman Melville: A Biography (see especially pages 424-5).

The Whig rally for William Bebb that Ohio "Melville" describes took place in Akron on Friday, June 12, 1846. Did Herman Melville ever visit anybody at Western Reserve College, now Case Western Reserve University, in Hudson, Ohio? By any chance, could Herman Melville actually have been in Akron, Ohio with a "companion" on June 12, 1846? Or, how about Allan Melville? Where was he?

Update 6/10/2017: Paying more attention to the heading, the likeliest Melville might be found in the roll of students at Case Western College. Among 1847 graduates listed in A Register of the Graduates of Western Reserve College is one Luther Melville Oviatt.

At the 1846 graduation exercises, Luther Melville Oviatt spoke on "The Literature of the Day." At his own graduation ceremony the next summer (August 1847), Luther Melville Oviatt gave the Valedictory Address, with an oration titled "The Progress of Human Rights." Soon thereafter he was hired as a schoolteacher. By 1850 he was Principal of Prospect St. school in Cleveland. In 1869, Luther M. Oviatt would become the first librarian of the Public School Library, later the Cleveland Public Library.
Luther Melville Oviatt (1821-1889)
via Cleveland Metropolitan School District
The Hudson correspondent appears to have been in Ohio for some weeks, long enough to have seen "grandiloquent" advance notices of the Akron stop by William Bebb: 
"More than two weeks ago, huge placards, flaunting in all the magnificence of letters six inches long or less, announced, in grandiloquent language, preparations for a Mass Meeting, at Akron, of the citizens of Summit county...."
The letter from "Melville" (Luther Melville Oviatt, probably) on the Whig rally in Akron first appeared in the June 15, 1846 issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Democratic newspaper founded and edited by Joseph William Gray. Melville's letter to the editor "Mr. Gray" was reprinted in the Weekly Plain Dealer on June 17, 1846.

Cleveland Plain Dealer - June 15, 1846
found in the Archives of Historical Newspapers at

Whig "Mass Meeting" at Akron. 

SUMMIT CO., June 13, 1846.
MR. GRAY:— Perhaps some random notes from this benighted region of Whiggery may not be wholly devoid of interest, amid the more exciting topic of Mexican campaigning. This seems a sore subject for the Whigs to meddle with, since, with the experience of the Past before them, they feel assured that, should they openly condemn the prosecution of a war forced upon us by Mexican bravado and arrogance, the indignation of the people would descend with crushing weight upon their heads, and annihilate their hopes of prospective power.

More than two weeks ago, huge placards, flaunting in all the magnificence of letters six inches long or less, announced, in grandiloquent language, preparations for a Mass Meeting, at Akron, of the citizens of Summit county, at which individuals of no less importance that "Solitude" EWING, of scrip memory, WILLIAM BEBB, Coon candidate for Governor, and other "distinguished speakers," not of sufficient importance to merit naming beside Ewing and Bebb, were expected to be present. Strenuous efforts were made by leading Whigs in the various townships in the county to induce a general attendance, in order, I imagine, that the imposing array, the "pomp and circumstance," might infuse foreboding terror into the hearts of the "Locos." Well, the day arrived; the air was kind and genial; and there was naught, save lack of inclination, to prevent a general attendance of the "mass" of Whigs of Summit. Ewing was programmed to appear in the performance at 10 o'clock A. M.; but, at that time, none of the Stumpers had appeared, and a number of zealous Coons set out to usher them en route from Massillon. Their advent seemed an object of as much anxiety to some, who feared lest the projected fandango should result in a failure, as did that of a mightier personage to the Millerites of the same place but a short time since. However, to their great relief, the cavalcade at last appeared. I did not see it when it arrived, or I should give you a description of its appearance. I, credulous "Loco," had imagined there would be at least some slight demonstrationa roar from a 6 pounder, or at least a shout to hail the advent of men whom I had supposed they "delighted to honor," as erst in the days of '40. But no! their enthusiasm had, like Bob Acre's valor, oozed out of their fingers' ends; and if there was any token of exultation at their arrival, it never reached my ears. It was far more like a funeral procession, I must imagine, than anything else, for I came into the main street of Akron, and seeing it full of men intent upon their several occupations, I supposed that Ewing, Bebb, & Co., had not yet arrived; but seeing certain stragglers wending their lonely way to the east, myself and my companion followed, and after a walk of half a mile came upon the "stumping" ground. I first caught sight of Seabury Ford elevated upon a stand four feet high, making strange gestures and stranger remarks and explanations upon the Tax Law. It was a hard subject for him; he endeavored to deal in sophisms in illustrating the manner in which Farmers and Bankers were taxed, but not being skillful in metaphysical reasoning, involved himself in absurdities; and finally, with an expression of face that might be interpreted into "this is a nut that the Devil may crack," vacated the stand, when the meeting was adjourned till half past one, when it was announced that Thos. Ewing would hold forth. There were not on the ground more than three hundred, all told. A general indifference and coldness seemed to pervade all. 
At the appointed time, "Solitude" took the stand. He is rather unprepossessing in appearance, owing to his small, half closed eyes, bald on the top of his head, with a face somewhat full. His subject was "The Tariff." Worn out and frittered into rags by the spouting of magniloquent Whig orators and the labored essays of Greely and the mimic tribe who howl in unison when their master gives the token, it receives no new light from the dull, prosy speech of Ewing. He endeavored to raise a laugh from the crowd at some of his miserable witticisms, but his efforts were a burlesque on the ludicrous—about as easy as an elephant essaying the dance of a harlequin, or as the Ass, in Aesop, imitating the sportive antics of the kitten. His mind dwells on the past. He is emphatically one of the "Old Hunkers" of the Whig party—one who has fed at the public crib when Whiggery was in the ascendant, till he fancies that he has a right, like the daughters of the Horse Leech, to cry continually, "give, give." He flatters himself that the country cannot dispense with his services—that he shall yet be invested with power. Yet, while the voice of the Revolutionary patriots, of the widows and orphans who suffered by his unholy chicanery in the scrip speculations cry out against him, I trust that we shall never see him elevated to dignities he is unworthy to obtain. He spoke two hours or more, and to my mind performed marvelously in the form of the "disappointed politician." 
Bebb next took the stand, and to my utter amazement at his versatility, in five minutes launched headlong into a dozen different themes, hitting at random, both in remark and gesture, upon every thing,Texas, Mexico, Presidential measures, alleged duplicity in the Administration, defeat of the people's will in the Baltimore Convention, coalition between Polk and Southern members, Ohio Tax Law, etc etc. His manner struck me as that of a fawning politician, who will "crook the pliant hinges of the knee, that thrift may follow fawning." I saw him at a private house, subsequent to the "speechifying," bowing, scraping and curvetting to those introduced in rather an undignified manner. He had not spoken more than ten minutes, when a shower came up and instantly there was hurry, confusion, and dispersing. Bebb, however, manfully stood his ground, resolved to "say his say" though waterspouts descended.

The rain, however, was not very severe, and a portion remained for about three-quarters of an hour, when they adjourned, most of them "pretty considerably soaked." Auditor Wood was on the platform, but if he had desired it, had no opportunity to evince his talent for "stumping." The whole number of auditors could not, I think, by any stretch of the imagination, exceed 800. My own opinion is that it was less than that number. Whigs, with consciences like india rubber, actually declare there were two thousand on the ground! But no man, without a particle of prejudice, could estimate the number, including all who lounged about the cake and beer stands, 250 higher than I have done. About 150 ladies were present, a part of whom, with a perseverance worthy of all credit had it been otherwise directed, remained till the close and with dripping bonnets and soiled dresses wended their cheerless route homewards. I myself did not hear Bebb through, as to me the rain was at variance with comfort, but went to the village and noted the comers-in, whose doleful countenances attested the penance they had undergone in endeavoring by their presence to prop a sinking cause.

Thus ended this day ushered in with such grandiloquent presages, whose result was mortification and disappointment to Summit County Whiggery. As for the Democrats, they merely laughed in their sleeves at the paltry subterfuges to which the Whigs resort to "keep up appearances." The Democracy of Summit are firm, and though outnumbered by the deluded votaries of Alfred Kelley humbuggery, will present an unyielding front to the enemy; and, though defeated, shrink not, but "push on the column," till, like the gallant Perry, they can shout—"We have met the enemy, and they are ours!" Fear not for the Democracy of Summit.
Sincerely yours, MELVILLE.


  1. I'm afraid I'm not getting a real Melville vibe from this one on a quick reading. Nevertheless:

    "Applied to any other creature than the Leviathan - to an ant or a flea - such portly terms might justly be deemed unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is altered.... Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals."

    1. Too partisan, for one thing. Younger brother Allan Melville was a more committed politico.

    2. Wait, placards too? Hey now...

  2. Added this, another verbal parallel in writing by Herman Melville:

    >>At the Akron rally Bebb "manfully stood his ground" in a downpour, while his auditors were rapidly "dispersing." In a scene yet to be written from Herman Melville's next book, Omoo, the drunken first mate Jermin "stood his ground manfully" against murderous sailors until "they dispersed."<<

  3. Hmm, "the spouting of magniloquent Wh..."? :-)

  4. Added this today: Paying more attention to the heading, the likeliest Melville might be found in the roll of students at Case Western College. Among 1847 graduates listed in A Register of the Graduates of Western Reserve College is one Luther Melville Oviatt.

    If LMO was a Demo, our work is done.

    1. Definitely a Democrat. In 1853 Luther Melville Oviatt offended some of his former political allies by supporting, along with his fellow teachers, a Whig named Lorin Andrews for State Commissioner of Common Schools. Oviatt vigorously defended the teachers' vote in the Cleveland Herald, and confessed his political orientation as follows:
      >>As a genuine Democrat myself, not in name only, I trust, but in that liberality of sentiment which ought to characterize one--baptized into the Jeffersonian creed--and having voted the Democratic ticket from first to last--Cass, Pierce, Wood, &c.--I consider that I am entitled to speak freely in this matter, and to recommend to my brethren of the same political faith, to cast aside every merely party consideration, and vote for that candidate whom facts will point out as the man for the station. I know from my own experience that it is hard to shake off party trammels, and vote in opposition to some with whom one has always acted. But when hydra-headed sectarianism menaces the glorious system of free education, will not all true Americans unite?<<
      --L. M. Oviatt in the Cleveland Herald, July 20, 1853