Monday, May 15, 2023

General and gentle readers

If Melville's lost "love letters" to Nathaniel Hawthorne should ever turn up (in manuscript, I mean, the actual, physical documents we only know because family members transcribed them for publication in the 19th century), I would first run for the one written on "a rainy morning" in May 1851 to confirm or disprove my hunch that Melville charged Hawthorne with disturbing the peace of "gentle" not "general" readers. I'm talking about that great "Dollars damn me" letter formerly and tentatively dated June1? but assigned to early May 1851 by Hershel Parker in the first volume of Herman Melville: A Biography (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) pages 840-841. 

In the 21st century Parker dared some prominent Melville critics either to accept or challenge his moving it ahead to early May; see Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative (Northwestern University Press, 2012) pages 239-240. Since then the bad influence of fact-averse "critics without information" has only gotten worse. In this particular case, however, the underlying problem was that Parker had never clearly or sufficiently explained his reasoning. Given the chance to nail it in the 2nd and 3rd Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick (page 566) he said it was "complicated" and mistakenly gave the wrong year ("May 16, 1850" instead of 1851) when footnoting the crucial letter from Augusta to Allan Melville that justified the earlier date. To make everybody happy (except Neo-Communists, obviously), I will belatedly attempt to do what Parker asked back in 2012, and re-scrutinize the evidence for his re-dating of the "dollars damn me" letter. To that end I hope to obtain a photocopy or scan of Augusta's letter, currently at Arrowhead. When/if successful I will transcribe what I can and report back. 

Update: done

and done!

Meanwhile, here is a possible emendation to mull over in the wonderful letter dated "[early May] 1851" in The Divine Magnet: Herman Melville's Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Mark Niemeyer (Orison Books, 2016). My proposed revision (also begun, like Melville's epistle, on a rainy morning in May): instead of " 'general readers' " make it " 'gentle readers' " but keep the phrase enclosed in quotation marks. 

Granted, the difference might not be so compelling or meaningful as the universally accepted correction of "revere" to "reverse." Observing how the world laughs at truth and truth tellers (mocked in our time as conspiracy theorists), Melville flipped (reversed not revered) the legendary laughter-test of Lord Shaftesbury, wherein truth reveals itself by withstanding ridicule. 

About a different subject, the disturbing effects of Hawthorne's darkest fictions on his audience, here is what Melville had to say as transcribed and first printed in 1884 by Julian Hawthorne:

By the way, in the last “ Dollar Magazine " I read “The Unpardonable Sin.” He was a sad fellow, that Ethan Brand. I have no doubt you are by this time responsible for many a shake and tremor of the tribe of “general readers.

--  Hawthorne and His Wife (Boston, 1884) page 404.

Melville found "Ethan Brand" in the May 1851 issue of  Holden's Dollar Magazine. The title character is one of Hawthorne's more devilish mad-scientist types, a psycho lime kiln operator who has abused others and made himself crazy in searching obsessively for "The Unpardonable Sin," instead of properly monitoring his own heart. With horror stories like that, Hawthorne stood accused by Melville of causing extreme discomfort in his readers. 

The extent to which the figurative shakes and tremors alleged by Melville are also supposed to indicate real mental and physical distress remains unclear, at least to me. For a visual image of the darkness that might impart "many a shake and tremor," literally or metaphorically, to any kind of reader, general or gentle, you have only to look at the frightening 1851 illustration,

"a frontispiece by Darley representing a wild figure with up-stretched arms, silhouetted against a mighty flame on the brow of a precipice."
--Katharine Lee Bates, Intro to The Snow Image and Other Twice-Told Tales (New York, 1899 and 1902).

Unchallenged before now, the expression "general readers" has been taken to mean ordinary or common, often with express or implied disparagement of skimmers as opposed to divers. The former stick to familiar but deceptive surfaces while the latter, eagle-eyed readers like you, me, and Melville, brave unknown and often unknowable depths of things. Already in Mardi (1849) William Charvat found symptoms of Melville's downright hostility "to the general reader, and to the world." 

Charvat, William. “Melville and the Common Reader.” Studies in Bibliography, vol. 12, 1959, pages 41–57 at page 49. JSTOR,
Accessed 15 May 2023.

In Charvat's influential view the "tribe of general readers" means those "who would not tolerate the unpleasant truth" but might be tricked by disguised "profundities," artfully hidden "under a pleasant or sensational narrative surface" (page 52). 

With more attention to context, as Charlene Avallone pointed out in the late 1980's, Melville's expression "general readers" may be understood to designate readers of magazines.

Avallone, Charlene. “Calculations for Popularity: Melville’s Pierre and Holden’s Dollar Magazine.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 43, no. 1, 1988, pages 82–110. JSTOR, Accessed 15 May 2023.
Which is to say, most everyone. Although Avallone adopts the term general readers throughout, her excellent case for the familiarity of magazine readers with wildly sensational matter effectively undercuts Melville's reported claim that "the tribe of 'general readers' " would somehow have been distressed by provocative content in Hawthorne's magazine fictions. 
In usages at mid century, when Melville was writing to Hawthorne, the term general readers usually denotes readers either of periodical literature (magazines and newspapers) or works of non-fiction, for example textbooks of history and popular science, say Anatomy and Physiology. 
Springfield, Mass. Republican - April 28, 1851
Concerning the longer phrase "tribe of general readers," Melville's usage as transcribed by Julian Hawthorne in 1884 is the only one published in 19th century works accessible via Google Books and HathiTrust Digital Library. Zero hits before 1900 outside of Melville's letter to Hawthorne. 

On the other hand, searching in the same databases for "tribe of gentle readers" yields two results in British sources, each occurring in a piece of literary criticism. First, from the cutting review of The Spirit of Discovery, or, The Conquest of Ocean in the July 1805 number of The Edinburgh Review:

SOME years ago, Mr Bowles presented the public with a collection of sonnets and short poems. The reception it met with was not unfavourable, especially from that tribe of gentle readers to whom every running stream recals the memory of joys that are past, and every rustling leaf gives sad anticipation of coming sorrow.

And second, from "Canons of Criticism" by "L." in The Monthly Magazine for November 1827:
... Law, physic, divinity, and politics are precisely on the same footing; and so, too, are music, and painting, and coach-building, and tailoring (male and female), porter-brewing, and the manufacture of polonies and sausages. To betray these secrets would not only be treason to the craft, but would deprive the whole tribe of gentle readers of seven-eighths of their pleasure. What would they say to a Marplot who should come on the stage and tell the audience, “ these jewels are paste”—“this robe calico, and not silk”—and this terrible irruption nothing in the world but a pennyworth of gunpowder and nitrate of strontian?” I would never sit in the same boat (as Horace says) with such a man: so do not look for it at my hands.


The first-listed instance of the phrase tribe of gentle readers in the Edinburgh Review for July 1805 is most interesting for negative criticism of the attempt at epic poetry by William L. Bowles, satirized by Byron as "harmonious Bowles" in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. A footnote in many editions of Byron's poem directs readers to the April 1805 notice of Strangford's Camo├źns in same volume with the essay on Bowles. One way or another, Melville could have encountered the sonnet loving "tribe of gentle readers" in Volume 6 of the Edinburgh Review and remembered it when writing to Hawthorne in May 1851.

As printed in 1884 the phrase "general readers" in Melville's letter is enclosed in quotation marks. Melville could be quoting magazine advertisements there, but the comprehensive sense of "general readers" would seem to render the quotation marks gratuitous. Arguably, the class of gentle readers might be regarded as narrower, more exclusive or refined, and therefore more deserving of quotation marks--whether used straightforwardly, or ironically employed as scare quotes

Hawthorne and his mosses - NYPL Digital Collections

In Hawthorne and His Mosses Melville put the word gentle in quotation marks when comparing Hawthorne to Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene:

"when Spencer was alive, he was thought of very much as Hawthorne is now,--was generally esteemed accounted just such a "gentle" harmless man.

Generally accounted by general readers, presumably. Melville's phrasing as printed in the Literary World on August 24, 1850 nicely anticipates his epistolary reference in May of the following year to "general readers." Even so, in "Hawthorne and His Mosses" the word gentle is what got the scare quotes. In similar fashion, perhaps, when inditing the May 1851 letter Melville might have conflated general and gentle readers--in his head, whichever word his hand finally wrote. Well! If Hawthorne can be generally regarded as "gentle," then I guess his readers can, too.

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