Herman Melville was born 202 years ago on August 1, 1819, a Sunday just like today.
Here's a surprising find with a suitably philosophical theme, perhaps, to contemplate on Melville's birthday. Decades after Herman Melville's 1857-8 lecture on Statues in Rome, a journalist in St. Paul, Minnesota quoted from it in a regular Sunday newspaper column called "Between Ourselves." Evidently the columnist in the St. Paul Sunday Globe (not editor Harlan Page Hall?) had before him an old newspaper with a summary of Melville's lecture. In graphic and occasionally gruesome detail, the Minnesota journalist described and reflected on modern methods of preserving the dead, and contrasted different results of "ancient and modern undertaking." In this context, the main point of quoting from the "Statues in Rome" lecture was to affirm with Melville the enduring value of ancient wisdom and culture.
Harlan Page Hall of St. Paul. Owner of "The Globe" newspaper.
Without naming Melville or identifying any source, the Minnesota writer quoted a newspaper account of Melville's 1857-8 lecture and attributed Melville's words to "one of our finest minds."
11 Jul 1880, Sun The Saint Paul Globe (Saint Paul, Minnesota) Newspapers.com
The St. Paul Globe was a morning Democratic newspaper founded and edited by Harlan Page Hall (1838-1907). Excerpted below, a portion of the newspaper column "Between Ourselves," published in the St. Paul Sunday Globe on July 11, 1880:
BETWEEN OURSELVES.A Vision of Death as Done up in Style by the Undertaker.
Undertaking in its present finish and popular acceptance is one of the awful discoveries of our time. To be buried now-a-days requires a peculiar preparation which is so involved and in many instances so artistic in handling as to be professional to a dead certainty. Mortuary millinery is of a composite and graded variety. There are show windows filled with the kickshaws and gauds of the grave. In passing by them you note the tucks, ruches, gloves, wreaths, and even the cozily padded coffins where they are to be displayed. There are, then, regular fashions for the final lay-out, but there is a savage irony in the knowledge that the wearer can have no voice—no choice in the selection.
Becoming or unbecoming there is no disapprobation, and only the survivors can borrow any satisfaction from the experiment and expense.
One of our finest minds says:
“In the Roman Vatican and the Washington patent office the respective characteristics of the ancients and moderns stand contrasted. * * * We moderns did invent the printing press, but from the ancients have we not the best thoughts that it circulates. As the Roman arch enters into and sustains our best architecture does not her spirit still animate and support whatever is soundest in societies and States? Or shall the scheme of Fourier supplant the code of Justinian, only when the novels of Dickens silence the satires of Juvenal? If the coliseum express the durability of Roman ideas, what does the Crystal Palace express? Will the glass of the one bide the hail storms of eighteen centuries, as well as the travertine of the other?”
And he might add a final comparison about the difference between ancient and modern undertaking—as visible in the mummy—and the thing in the “conserver” of latter-day invention. We may brag of our civilization as much as we will—but those old Egyptian fellows are still far ahead of us in preserving the dead. Indeed, so admirably have they succeeded, that specimens of their skill are visible to-day after thousands of years, a little brown, and time-worn, perhaps, yet convincing of high art in the business.
A peculiar literature embalms them too, like Horace Smith’s ode to a mummy, and Theophile Gautier’s romance of a mummy—together with efforts of lesser writers. Think you Horace Smith could have been inspired to pen that remarkable poem, if his subject had been kept in a “conserver,” the face covered with a cloth dipped in some carbolic acid preparation, until the features were accentuated into the varied expressions Bret Harte commemorates in his well known sketch of the “Popular Undertaker?” Of course not....
Editor Harlan P. Hall was "a political and journalistic maverick who hailed from Ohio" according to Herbert Y. Weber in The Story of the St. Paul Globe.
- Statuary of Rome, Melville's 1857 lecture in Boston
- Can art, not life, make the ideal?