Saturday, October 31, 2020

Tell Truth and shame the Devil

Tell Truth & shame the Devil

Herman Melville

March 2d 1882
Via invaluable

Or is it Devel? Either way, score this one for the Maestro Hershel Parker who correctly identified Hotspur's line from Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I long ago, without seeing the actual autograph book that contained it. Blindfolded, you might say. Henry A. Murray had misread Melville's inscription or heard it misreported as "Tell Truth and shame the dead." But Murray accepted Parker's better-informed guess and rightly predicted it would be confirmed some day, as revealed on pages 136-7 in Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative (Northwestern University Press, 2012). Parker thought Melville's contribution had been collected with autographs of other Berkshire celebrities in the 1850's, when Melville lived in Pittsfield. However, as shown above, Melville's inscription is dated March 2, 1882 in the autograph album of Lafayette Cornwell--offered at auction by Lion Heart Autographs just last week. 

James Barron in the New York Times (October 18, 2020) portrays Cornwell as a somewhat elusive and mysterious autograph hound. Born in Saratoga Springs and schooled in Troy NY, Lafayette Cornwell found professional employment as a jeweler, watchmaker, railroad telegrapher and inspector. He moved west, then returned to New York from Canon City, Colorado in 1879. Cornwell began gathering autographs for his album in December 1880. From the "Item Overview" of Cornwell's unique collection on
... Melville’s signature on page 114, and dated March 2, 1882, was written the same day as the signature of Edward Stiles Stokes, a notorious oilman who, in a jealous rage, murdered his business partner, “Diamond” Jim Fisk, but at the time was the well-respected proprietor of the fashionable Hoffman House hotel. Stokes’ signature, however, appears 12 pages after Melville’s and not on the same page as one would expect if the album had been assembled in chronological order. Did Cornwell meet the author of America’s greatest novel, “Moby Dick,” then eking out a living as a U.S. Customs inspector living on Manhattan’s East 26th Street, and then walk over to the nearby Hoffman House on Broadway between 24th and 25th streets and ask Stokes for his autograph? Or, perhaps, Melville was dining at the hotel and Cornwell recognized him?

-- Most Remarkable Autograph Album Ever Offered 

Wed, Sep 15, 1926 – 1 · The Yonkers Herald (Yonkers, New York) ·


Monday, October 26, 2020

Sterling Allen Brown introducing Slim in Hell

Sterling A. Brown via Kentake Page

The Library of Congress has audio of Sterling Allen Brown reading his poems with comment in the Recording Laboratory, July 9, 1973:

From Southern road : Odyssey of Big Boy ; Long gone ; Checkers ; After winter ; Sister Lou ; Old man buzzard ; Ma Rainey -- Puttin' on dog -- Sporting Beasley (from Southern road) -- Slim in hell -- Old Lem -- Break of day -- Bitter fruit of the tree -- An old woman remembers -- Ballad of Joe Meek -- Strong men (from Southern road).

Transcribed by me below, Brown's great introduction to Slim in Hell which starts around 31:00:

One of my favorite characters is The Great Liar. In folk life of course the Great Liar is the Mark Twain yarn-spinner. To be called a great liar is a great praise. For instance I'm one of the greatest liars at Howard University, and that would include the President and the Board of Trustees and many of the faculty meetings. Ralph Bunche was a great liar. E. Franklin Frazier was a great liar. I imagine there's some great liars at other schools but I don't know them as well as I do Howard University. I'm sure there's some great liars in Congress. For instance I imagine that Senator Ervin is a great liar. This is an American type and in Negro life it's especially a noticeable type. And so I had a barbershop liar named Slim Greer and that was his actual name. He never lived long enough to sue me for royalties but I did not write this about him.

I wrote this poem in a class at Harvard in Anglo-Saxon where we were reading about Orpheus and Eurydice; now I know that's not an Anglo-Saxon story, but this was a group of stories that scholars prepared for us to learn the language before we started reading Beowulf. Now that's a long introduction. The only thing classical about it is that the dog in it is Cerberus. But I imagine, since Orpheus went to Hell, I imagine that my great tale-teller Slim Greer went to Hell. So I will now give you without any more exegesis or exodus or hell whatever they call it I will now give you Slim in Hell....

"Slim in Hell" is in The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, edited by Michael S. Harper; reissued in 2020 by Northwestern University Press with a new foreword by Cornelius Eady and contributions from James Johnson and Sterling Stuckey. 

Harper mentions Brown's expertise on Twain and Melville, and many other literary subjects, about five minutes into this 1994 conversation with Roland Flint on the poetry of Sterling Brown:


At 14:15 Harper reads "Slim in Hell."

Related posts:

Friday, October 23, 2020

Jazz Age Benito Cereno

Illustration for Herman Melville's Benito Cereno
1926 by E. McKnight Kauffer. Accession Number 1963-39-306
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

In 1926 The Nonesuch Press made a "beautiful and unusual book" (as described in the New York Times review by Herbert L. Matthews) of Herman Melville's short fiction Benito Cereno, issued in a limited edition of 1650 copies. Copy-text is the 1856 book version in The Piazza Tales. This English Benito Cereno for the Jazz Age features amazing illustrations by American artist Edward McKnight Kauffer. Elizabeth A. Schultz describes and reproduces two of these (ascribed to "McKnight Kanfer") in “Re-viewing Melville: The Illustrated Editions,” Melville Society Extracts Number 103 (December 1995), pages 1-18 at 7-8. Some of Kauffer's original drawings for the 1926 Nonesuch edition are held by the Smithsonian Institution in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The Smithsonian has the "Illustration for Herman Melville's Benito Cereno" shown above

 and many other works donated by Mrs. E. Mcknight Kauffer. 

Melville is represented by "Benito Cereno" and only "Benito Cereno" in the 1935 anthology of Major American Writers (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company), edited by Howard Mumford Jones and Ernest E. Leisy. Available for 1 hour (after I'm done with it) on the great Internet Archive:

The text in this neglected 1935 Benito Cereno follows The Piazza Tales version, but excellent footnotes also give significant variants from the first printing in Putnam's Magazine

Via Google Books, Melville's "Benito Cereno" as it originally appeared in Putnam's Monthly Magazine Volume 6:

  • October 1855
  • November 1855
  • December 1855

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Sterling Allen Brown on Benito Cereno

Sterling A. Brown via BlackPast
Benito Cereno (1855) is a masterpiece of mystery, suspense and terror. Captain Delano of the Bachelor's Delight, discovering a vessel in distress along the uninhabited coast of Chile, boards her to render aid. He is interested in the many Negroes he finds on the decks: “ like most men of a good blithe heart he took to Negroes not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs." He is mystified, however, when the gamesome Negroes flare up in momentary rage, and especially by their continual clashing their hatchets together. Only when Don Benito, in desperation, escapes to Delano's ship, does the real truth dawn.
There had been a revolt on board the San Dominick; the Negro sailors and the slaves had killed many of the whites, and had kept the others alive only for their skill as navigators in order to reach a Negro country. The mutineers and revolters are overcome in a bloody battle, carried to Lima, and executed. The contrast between the reputed gentleness of Negroes "that makes them the best body-servants in the world," and the fierceness with which they fight for freedom is forcibly driven home. Certain Negroes stand out: Babo who, resembling a "begging friar," engineered the revolt with great skill and is almost fiendish in his manner of breaking down Cereno's morale; Francesco, the mulatto barber; Don Josรฉ, personal servant of a Spanish Don; and Atulfa [Atufal], an untamed African chieftain, all filled with hatred for whites. Melville graphically pictures the slave mothers, "equally ready to die for their infants or fight for them”; the four old men monotonously polishing their hatchets; and the murderous Ashantees. All bear witness to what Melville recognized as a spirit that it would take years of slavery to break.

Although opposed to slavery, Melville does not make Benito Cereno into an abolitionist tract; he is more concerned with a thrilling narrative and character portrayal. But although the mutineers are bloodthirsty and cruel, Melville does not make them into villains; they revolt as mankind has always revolted. Because Melville was unwilling to look upon men as “Isolatoes," wishing instead of discover the "common continent of man,” he comes nearer the truth in his scattered pictures of a few unusual Negroes than do the other authors of this period. 
-- Sterling Allen Brown, The Negro in American Fiction (Washington, DC, 1937) pages 12-13.
"Brown's analysis of Benito Cereno is the best I have seen...."--Joseph Schiffman, Critical Problems in Melville's Benito Cereno, Modern Language Quarterly volume 11 issue 3 (September 1950) pages 317-324 at page 323, footnote 23. 
Twelve years later Schiffman "changed his mind" about alleged racism in Melville's tale, as pointed out in the arresting "Topics and Questions" section of A Benito Cereno Handbook, edited by Seymour Lee Gross (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1965) page 187. The 1965 Handbook reprints editorial commentary on Benito Cereno in Three Shorter Novels of Herman Melville (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) where Schiffman concludes that by "highlighting the savagery of the rebellion, Melville sullied his tale with racism." Also excerpted in the handy Benito Cereno Handbook: the 1956 article by Warren D'Azevedo, 
“Revolt on the San Dominick” in Phylon Volume 17, Number 2 (1956) pages 129–140. Conveniently accessible via JSTOR, 
There D'Azevedo treated Benito Cereno as "a profound analysis of the effects of slavery and oppression upon the relationships of men," and Sterling Allen Brown got the last word.

Another testament to mid 1960's fascination with "Benito Cereno" is John Paul Runden, Melville's Benito Cereno: A Text for Guided Research (Heath, 1965). Runden skips D'Azevedo, but Runden and Gross both excerpt the influential two-part article by Sidney Kaplan in The Journal of Negro History Volume 41 (October 1956) and Volume 42 (January 1957)
challenging the accepted "image of Melville as subtle abolitionist in Benito Cereno" (1957, quoted in Runden at page 167). Kaplan labels this disputed reading "the Brown-Schiffman-Glicksberg thesis"  crediting (and rejecting) Charles I. Glicksberg on Melville and the Negro Problem along with Brown and Schiffman. 

Ably defending the besieged thesis of Brown et al. in 1961, Allen Guttmann in "The Enduring Innocence of Captain Amasa Delano," Boston University Studies in English Volume 5 (Spring 1961) pages 35-45 re-emphasized the limited perspective of Melville's Delano as "a character whose failure to understand is underlined on almost every page." 

As late as 1979, Sue Lonoff in Reluctant Readers and a Controversial Classic: Teaching "Benito Cereno", College English Volume 41 Number 1 (September 1979) pages 88-93 at 91 cited Schiffman's 1950 reading as prime example of the critical view that "Benito Cereno"
"is the very opposite of racist, that it is rather a subtle indictment of slavery, and a grim warning of the perils in store for those who, like Amasa Delano, ignore or dismiss its dangers."
Brown's The Negro in American Fiction is on Google Books
and also available courtesy of HathiTrust Digital Library
Digitized images of this item (in the public domain under U.S. laws) are accessible via  NYPL Digital Collections. Citation:
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. "The Negro in American Fiction" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1937.
Sterling A. Brown on Melville
The Negro in American Fiction page 11

Sterling A. Brown on Moby-Dick and "Benito Cereno"
The Negro in American Fiction page 12

Sterling A. Brown on "Benito Cereno"
The Negro in American Fiction page 13

Related posts: 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Toronto Globe notice of Moby-Dick

Looking for something else I finally ran across the favorable notice of Moby-Dick in the Toronto Globe. Reprinted by Hershel Parker in "Five Reviews Not in MOBY-DICK as Doubloon," English Language Notes (March 1972) pages 182-185 at 185. 

From The Globe (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 29, 1851: 
MOBY DICK, OR THE WHALE: by HERMAN MELVILLE; Author of Omoo, Typee, &c. New York, HARPER & BROTHERS. Toronto, A. H. ARMOUR & Co.

It is only necessary to say of this work that it is equal to any of Melville's former productions; by some it is thought even superior. This author is evidently not exhausted; he has yet stores within him untouched; although there is a close resemblance in his subjects, there is yet a difference in the handling, which gives constant variety. As a describer of the manners of the class of men he has chosen to depict, as a close observer and a striking limner of nature, Mr. Melville has few equals and no superiors among living authors, and there is a store of information upon all sorts of subjects, sacred and profane, landward and seaward, which surprises and delights one in a work of fiction. The volume is got up in capital style by Harper & Brothers. 

Disappointingly short on specifics, OK, but 100% positive. Put it on the board! Which ups the count of favorable reviews by one in our official 2020 Melvilliana census of reviews and notices of Moby-Dick1851-2.  

Here's the latest tally:

Grand Total = 116

  ๐Ÿ˜    79
  ๐Ÿ˜ฌ    20

 ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘Ž 17