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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Ellis Henry Roberts protests "ferocious diatribe" against Melville and Pierre (1852) in the Whig Review

Ellis Henry Roberts
Ellis Henry Roberts via Wikimedia Commons
Known as "a leading Whig journal of central New York" (Men of Mark in America), the Oneida Herald was edited and published in Utica from 1851 to 1889 or later by Ellis Henry Roberts. Roberts had worked his way through Yale as a professional printer and compositor. After a year as principal of the Utica Academy, he took over the Morning Herald from Richard Updike Sherman. At Yale, Roberts
took prizes including the Townsend prize in English composition in his senior year; he was chosen by his classmates in his junior year first editor of the "Yale Literary Magazine." --Men of Mark in America
In print, Roberts continued the friendly treatment of Herman Melville displayed in the Utica Morning Herald by former editors Richard U. Sherman and Erastus Clark. Transcribed below, the Whig editor's complaint about the "ferocious diatribe" in the November 1852 American Whig Review is important as a rare public defense of Melville when he really needed it. The pro-Melville protest went against the current of popular criticism in which Melville's latest book, Pierre, had been generally damned. Melville's own publishers started the rumor that he was crazy, as Hershel Parker demonstrates in the second volume of Herman Melville: A Biography (page 125); and revealingly elaborates in Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative (page 409).

Oneida Weekly Herald - October 26, 1852
WHIG REVIEW.— The November number is already at hand. It is embellished by a portrait of Hon. Truman Smith. The articles entitled "The Prospect" and "General Scott an his Assailants" should be read by every voter, Whig and Democrat. The other articles, with the exception of a most ferocious diatribe on Herman Melville—which is by far the most unjust specimen of criticism we have read during the past five years—are of more than ordinary merit.
Roberts does not name names, but Melville scholars now attribute the notably "ferocious" and "unjust" review to George Washington Peck.

The American Whig Review - November 1852
"A BAD book! Affected in dialect, unnatural in conception, repulsive in plot, and inartistic in construction. Such is Mr. Melville's worst and latest work."
Parker memorably calls him "Melville's perverse alcoholic nemesis" (Herman Melville: A Biography, V2.142). With good reason, as the published complaint in the Oneida Weekly Herald, a prominent Whig newspaper, serves to confirm (accepting the usual attribution of the very very nasty review to G. W. Peck). I wonder though: as Pierre bombed, who besides Ellis Henry Roberts (Whig or Democrat) ever called attention to the extraordinary meanness of the criticism in the American Whig Review? Not Samuel Bowles and J. G. Holland, friendly editors of the Springfield Republican and then practically in Melville's back yard.

Springfield Republican - October 25, 1852
"The American Whig Review, for November, has a very fine portrait of Truman Smith, and is well filled with sterling literary and political articles. It can be found at Bessey's."
--Springfield Republican, October 25, 1852
G. W. Peck's correspondence with Evert A. Duyckinck included, besides desperate offers of his writing to pay for rent and food, several manuscript pages of autobiography. The autobiographical sketch and a few surviving letters and notes received by Duyckinck are now available online, courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Peck's manuscript autobiography was incorporated in the 1856 Cyclopaedia of American Literature, edited by Evert and his brother George L. Duyckinck. The entry for G. W. Peck appears in Volume 2 between entries for Cornelius Mathews and J. Ross Browne.
"Mr. Peck is a well read literary critic of insight and acumen, and a writer of freshness and originality."  --Cyclopaedia of American Literature
A condensed and posthumously published entry in Appleton's Cyclopaedia informs readers that the Atlantic Monthly published something by G. W. Peck shortly before his death on June 6, 1859, part of a longer "essay on Shakespeare." Peck's contribution may be the unsigned article titled "Shakespeare's Art," published in the June 1859 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Peck is credited as the author of "Shakespeare's Art" in the bibliography of "Shakespeariana" published in the 1878 Catalogue of the Works of William Shakespeare by James Mascarene Hubbard.

Other sources credit Herman Melville's friend and future Customs House colleague Richard Grant White as author of the same essay on "Shakespeare's Art" in the June 1859 Atlantic Monthly.

More information about the life and career of Ellis Henry Roberts may be found in the 1918 edition of American Biography: A New Cyclopedia, Volume 2, offering an extended treatment of Roberts as an exceptionally influential "molder of the thought of Central New York, politically and socially."

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