Thursday, May 11, 2023

All I want is a good listener

New essay on Substack, excerpt below...

Inspired by recent encounters with Hawthorne, in particular by their heady and hearty barn-talk that March, Melville might have found a way to get the gist of their stimulating conversations into print. Echoes of Melville’s letters in the opening installment of “Scenes Beyond the Western Border” lead me to suspect it may be haunted by Hawthorne. At any rate, coincidence or no, the narrator of “Scenes Beyond the Western Border” talks to the reader like Melville talked in letters to Hawthorne. Here’s one example from the first of Melville’s Agatha letters to Hawthorne dated August 13, 1852.24

In this example, wording and structure of the Captain’s pledge to do most of the talking for his singular reader match the “and if / why I” construction in Melville's 1852 letter to Hawthorne (emphasis mine):

“… and if you are absolutely dumb, why I will sometimes answer for you.”

And if I thought I could do it well as you, why, I should not let you have it.”

Introducing likely topics of conversation, the Captain sounds quite like Melville when promising a good time to his invited guest:


“Hark— There is some excellent Montado Sherry awaiting you & some most potent Port. We will have mulled wine with wisdom, & buttered toast with story-telling & crack jokes & bottles from morning till night.”
Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, 29 January? 1851; emphasis mine.


We will talk on all subjects, from the shape of a horse-shoe to that of the slipper of the last favorite—say the 'divine Fanny,’ from great battles, or Napier's splendid pictures of such, down to the obscurest point of the squad drill—from buffalo bulls to elfin sprites.”
Scenes Beyond the Western Border, June 1851

These elaborate invites are similarly themed and structured. Each presents an inventory of delightful activities in store for the recipient, each inventory being divided in three main parts. Melville’s three groupings of promised events are separated by three ampersands; the Captain’s by the word from, used thrice. The invitation in each case extends to just one person: Melville to Hawthorne, the Captain to his Imaginary Friend the reader. The plural “We” brings together speaker and singular reader as joint enjoyers of good times ahead, chiefly to be spent in stimulating conversation....

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