Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Hans Bergmann on Agatha and Hunilla

From God in the Street: New York Writing from the Penny Press to Melville (Temple University Press, 1995) Chapter 7, pages 174-175:

One cannot help thinking that whatever the fate of "The Isle of the Cross," Melville's "Agatha" writing may have been part of what became "The Encantadas; or, Enchanted Isles," published in Putnam's in March, April, and May 1854.... "Sketch Eighth" of "The Encantadas," "Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow," is most easily imagined as part of "The Isle of the Cross" project in that the principal image for Norfolk Island is the "rude cross" (155) that the Chola Widow has put up as memorial for her dead husband Felipe.

... What the "Agatha" story suggests, and the "Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow" enacts, is the theme that "uncomplaining submission" is the admirable human reaction to the horror of a world in which God is silent.

Today I way belatedly added Bergmann's discussion of "The Chola Widow" in Chapter 7 of his 1995 book to my Agatha-Hunilla bibliography. No excuse for neglecting it until now, but I'm thankful to have God in the Street handy for a couple of weeks, on loan from my local library in Cambridge MN via Alcuin Library at St. John's University.

Related posts:

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Mid-to-late May maybe

A closer look at the disputed date of Melville's most quotable letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne

Somebody said give me the data
Somebody said it must have been about dates
— Van Morrison, Dangerous

Some while back I rashly promised to re-examine Hershel Parker's re-dating of Herman Melville's long, luscious, endlessly anthologized "Dollars damn me" letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, from June 1? 1851 to early May of that momentous year in the history of American Literature. It's also the "All my books are botches" letter; the "ruthless democracy" letter; the tell the Truth "and go to the Soup Societies" letter; the champagne-heaven letter; and more. Young Melville (only almost 32!) you remember was then busy at Arrowhead doing home renovations and farm-work, with his monster of a Whale book nearly finished but still in manuscript--unpublished, and not yet called Moby-Dick.

As first transcribed and printed by Julian Hawthorne in 1884, the letter in question is accessible via Google Books, here

and as collected in The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), here: p 

Electronic text of the letter under consideration is conveniently accessible, still, at the evergreen Life and Works of Herman Melville website, here:

Whereabouts unknown. Sad to say, the actual letter is nowhere to be found. Vanished, alas! it is one of six missing epistles including all of Melville's other 1851 love letters to Hawthorne, so called. Although the physical document is lost, we never tire of quoting it. And truth to tell, non-specialists (which is to say, most normal people) never cared much about the date either way. Nevertheless, on general principles I'm inclined to agree with Parker's opinion in Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative (Northwestern University Press, 2012) at pages 239-40 that academic commentators, especially professed Melville experts, might reasonably be expected either to accept the verdict of an exceptionally careful and competent scholar, or explain why they don't.

Samuel Otter in Melville's Anatomies (University of California Press, 1999) and more recently Jennifer Greiman in Melville's Democracy: Radical Figuration and Political Form (Stanford University Press, 2023) offer both dates and leave them for their readers to reconcile, or not. Other Melville experts have embraced Parker's re-dating. For example, both Jonathan A. Cook in Neither Believer nor Infidel (Cornell University Press, 2023) page 19; and editor Mark Niemeyer in The Divine Magnet: Herman Melville's Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne (Orison Books, 2016) positively affirm Parker's "early May 1851" as the likeliest time-frame of the letter in question. When the date makes little or no difference (which is almost always, to be honest), Melville critics may be excused from having to choose. As exemplified in A New Companion to Herman Melville edited by Wyn Kelley and Christopher Ohge (Wiley-Blackwell, 2022), it's perfectly fine to cite the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's Correspondence and just give the page number on which your quoted passage appears. 

Until now, nobody has accepted Parker's dare:

"A critic or biographer is free to challenge my dating but only if he or she will work through the evidence." — Hershel Parker in Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative (Northwestern University Press, 2012) page 240.

For me the issue of dates resurfaced when I wanted to cite the letter under consideration in the first part of my Substack essay, All I want is a good listener. For that open investigation I was and am still keen to learn as much as possible about the period of late April and early May 1851 in Melville's life. I needed to quote and footnote Melville's undated letter to Hawthorne, but how? Checking back just now, I see my compromise in a couple of places was to favor Parker's revision while tacking on a question mark. Despite my inclination to trust Parker's judgment, I had to add the customary sign of uncertainty upon realizing that I did not very well understand the basis of his re-dating. Grasping that required that I obtain and transcribe Augusta Melville's letter of May 16, 1851 to her and Herman's brother Allan in New York City. Reason being, Parker repeatedly has cited Augusta's letter as crucial support for his re-dating of Herman's letter to Hawthorne from June 1? to early May 1851 in successive Norton Critical Editions of Moby-Dick, and elsewhere (see 3rd ed. page 566, footnote 2, for example).

After obtaining a copy of the letter and transcribing it in full

I had to admit that I still did not have a very good handle on Parker's case for early May. So I vowed to take a closer look and communicate the results of my investigation.

My Findings

Specifically in the matter of Parker's re-dating, and the indefiniteness of its acceptance, or non-acceptance, in subsequent Melville studies, where Parker has blamed the laziness and incompetence of "archivophobic" critics, I find understandable puzzlement. In my view, the problem with Parker's re-dating as presented in Volume 1 of his magnificent and commensurately flawed biography is that he skipped a step by thoroughly weaving the "early May" date into the narrative fabric of chapter 39 The Final Dash at The Whale without first providing a clear and persuasive rationale for the change. 

Indeed, Melville's best biographer never deigned to define "early May." What can "early May" mean, really? Not May 1st but maybe the 2nd? How about the 7th or 11th? As late as the 15th? Any day before the tail end of the month? On reflection, "early May" seems impractically vague, too loose perhaps to serve for a very useful construction of the evidence. Seems to me, its vagueness and consequent inutility might deter many a commentator from embracing Parker's revision. 

Then, too, merely acknowledging Parker's revised time-frame can be a tricky business in traditional academic settings, particularly in light of the wide and deserved esteem for Northwestern-Newberry editions as the gold standard of responsibly edited Melville texts. If you, being a highly trained and conscientious sort of English Major, decide to cite the famous "Dollars damn me" letter in print, then naturally you want to quote from and properly footnote the N-N volume of Melville's Correspondence, superbly edited in 1993 by Lynn Horth. The editorial headnote there begins with a long paragraph of reasons for placing Melville's letter "in late May or early June 1851." For clarity's sake (even if not required by a publisher's house style) you might as well use the tentative date provided in your source, including the editorial question mark that indicates uncertainty about both the month and day: 

"[1 June?] 1851"

Where "early May" came from

The wording of Parker's "early May" time-frame and its application to the letter formerly assigned to June 1? 1851 are carried over from The Melville Log (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951), edited by Jay Leyda. As shown below in the detail from Volume 1, page 410, Leyda confusingly introduced the first of several quotations from Melville's "June 1 (?)" letter to Hawthorne with the un-italicized label "Early May."

As laid out by Leyda in the documentary record for 1851, it almost looks as if "Early May" could be Melville's own statement of when he wrote the letter. It's not really that at all, of course. Rather, "Early May" here is Leyda's way of indicating approximately when Melville had stopped working on his yet unfinished Whale manuscript "some three weeks" before. Right or wrong, Parker's revised date of "early May" verbally reproduces the potentially misleading and perhaps unduly influential label that Jay Leyda editorially employed to introduce the same letter in The Melville Log.


To my mind, Parker's assurance in Volume 1 (page 906) that "Hayford concurs in this redating" comes off as a red flag, signaling weakness. Are we hobbits now at the foot of Orthanc? (As the scene unfolds in Tolkien's book, I mean, not Peter Jackson's movie version.) If the wise ones agree, then all will be well. Careful, our wizard of a biographer has powers you do not guess. Beware of his voice! To break the spell, take this alleged agreement of Parker's legendary mentor Harrison Hayford for interesting hearsay, and keep looking for the evidence and reasoning.

As Parker has made clear, his "early May" revision hinges on evidence to be found in Augusta Melville's letter to her and Herman's brother Allan, written on May 16, 1851 from the "Manor House" in Albany NY. Lately transcribed in full on Melvilliana, here:

The crucial passage appears near the end of Augusta's letter:

So you had a flying visit from Herman? When does he make the longer one? That book of his, will create a great interest, I think. It is very fine. By the way, have you seen Willis' Hurry-Graphs? Mr Sherman, says there is a capital portraiture of Wise in it? He has been visiting him. Next month, he expects a visit from another author, Mr Mitchell of the "Reveries of a Bachelor." Ask Sophia to read them, they are so interesting.

From somebody sometime, Augusta has learned that Herman recently paid "a flying visit" to Allan and Sophia at their home in New York City. Writing on May 16th, Augusta knows about this relatively brief trip and also about plans for "a longer one" in the near future. One or both of these visits could well be connected with Herman's "very fine" new book. Augusta's source of information about both events, the "flying visit" passed and "the longer one" to come, was unspecified.  In Volume 1 of Herman Melville: A Biography, 1819-1851 (page 840) Parker takes her source to be "the single letter she had received from Arrowhead." Although Augusta does not say how she knows about the "flying visit," she mentions getting the one letter from Arrowhead and complains of not having received a "promised" letter from Allan. When and how did her brother convey that promise? Possibly Augusta had Allan's and/or Sophia's latest communication (whatever the date) before her as she wrote. On the 16th of May Augusta had not heard from Allan in a fortnight = 2 weeks. Conceivably, Allan or his wife might have reported Herman's "flying visit" (either recent or imminent) in a letter from NYC forwarded to Augusta in Albany and dated, say, on or shortly before the first of May. 

Either way it was already the middle of May when Augusta wrote to Allan from Albany. Writing on the 16th, she knows all about the extensive renovations underway back at Arrowhead:

"They are all so busy there, that I suppose they dont feel as if they could spare the time to write often. The whole place will have been so much improved by the time of my return, that I expect hardly to recognize it. No doubt you have had letters since the date of mine & know just how far they have progressed."
Nothing in Augusta's letter to Allan suggests the home repairs and improvements might be nearing completion. The timing is important for trying to date the letter under consideration because Herman Melville told Hawthorne "some three weeks" had passed since he "left" the Whale to do manual labor around the farm. Setting aside for now the question of what exactly Herman meant by leaving the Whale (taking a break from writing? or, dropping off the completed portion of his manuscript for stereotyping in Manhattan?), the placement of Herman Melville's letter to Hawthorne in "early May" does not adequately account for the three-week interval of farmwork specified in the letter itself.

To some extent Parker seems to have conflated activities that did take place in early May 1851 with Herman Melville's writing of the letter to Hawthorne, "some three weeks" later. Without a doubt, exciting events in Melville's life were happening early in May. Besides his being occupied with home improvements and seasonal jobs around the farm, we have definite evidence (courtesy of Augusta Melville and the excerpts from her letter transcribed and first published by Hershel Parker) of Herman's "flying visit" to Allan in New York City. We already knew about Melville's acceptance of a huge loan from Tertullus D. Stewart, and his making arrangements for writing the last chapters of Moby-Dick in New York City while the finished ones were being proofed and stereotyped. For that job Melville hired Robert Craighead, a veteran Manhattan printer. At the time, Craighead conducted his printing business on the third story of the large four-story brick building at 112 Fulton street, located on the corner of Fulton and Dutch streets. Previously overlooked in Melville scholarship, the fact of the printer's office being situated ON THE THIRD STORY is the subject of another post on Melvilliana, here:

Even accepting all of Parker's terms and calculations as set forth in Herman Melville: A Biography Volume 1, 1819-1851 on page 841, "early May" turns out to be the middle of May, at the earliest. Say Melville suspended work on his Whale on April 25th, the same day he wrote the Harpers asking for an advance; adding on the required interval of three weeks after that brings us to May 16--also, coincidentally, the date of Augusta's letter to Allan. 

If Melville had stopped writing on May 1st, he might have been writing Hawthorne around the 21st or 22nd, well into the third week of May. If by leaving the Whale Melville meant dropping off some completed portion of the manuscript at Robert Craighead's third-story printing office in Manhattan ("I was in New York for four-and-twenty hours the other day"), the probable date of his letter to Hawthorne could reasonably be advanced another week or two. That is, and still hypothetically, if Melville had made his initial "flying visit" around May 9th (a full week before Augusta mentioned it in her letter of the 16th), then adding three weeks of home repairs and farm chores would bring the date of Melville's writing all the way to May 30th--almost the end of the month, and pleasingly consistent with the time-frame of "late May or early June 1851" assigned in the excellent headnote to this letter in the 1993 Northwestern-Newberry edition of Herman Melville's Correspondence

As shown above, "Early May" was originally Jay Leyda's approximation of when Melville took a break from writing on the work-in-progress that became Moby-Dick. Having examined and transcribed Augusta's letter of May 16th to Allan in NYC, Parker made Leyda's "Early May" the date of Melville's letter to Hawthorne. As constructed in Parker's biographical treatment, two specific events referenced in Augusta's letter match up exactly with two specific statements in Melville's letter to Hawthorne. First, Parker has equated the "flying visit" by Herman in Augusta's letter with the day trip of 24 hours to which Herman alludes in his letter to Hawthorne

Another thing. I was in New York for four-and-twenty hours the other day, and saw a portrait of N. H. And I have seen and heard many flattering (in a publisher's point of view) allusions to the "Seven Gables." And I have seen "Tales," and "A New Volume" announced, by N. H. -- Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife; e-text accessible online, 20 years on, thanks to pioneering work by Scott Eric Atkins and American Studies at the University of Virginia.

And second, the future "longer" visit to NYC in Augusta's letter lines up with Melville's scheme, as he revealed it to Hawthorne, for completing Moby Dick in Manhattan:

"In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my "Whale" while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances."

In Parker's reading (implied in the telling), Melville's stay of "four-and-twenty hours" in New York has to be the "flying visit" to Allan that Augusta mentioned in her letter of May 16, 1851. Having decided the "flying visit" and 24-hours in New York must reference one and the same event, Parker believed the purpose of that visit to be obvious in light of Melville's stated plan to finish the Whale in New York, and his subsequent letter to Hawthorne on June 29th, where he tells of his return with his new book "only half through the press":

The "Whale" is only half through the press; for, wearied with the long delay of the printers, and disgusted with the heat and dust of the babylonish brick-kiln of New York, I came back to the country to feel the grass -- and end the book reclining on it, if I may.

Melville's longer visit, as documented  in Jay Leyda's 1951 Melville Log, had extended into the middle of June, at least, as indicated by the return on June 14th of two works by William Scoresby to the New York Society Library: An Account of the Arctic Regions (Sealts Number 450); and Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale-Fishery (Sealts Number 451). Both of these important sources for Moby-Dick are duly listed in the catalog of books owned and borrowed at Melville's Marginalia Online

To recap: in Parker's view, Augusta's knowledge before May 16, 1851 that Herman has already made a "flying visit" to Allan and Sophia in NYC; and that Herman already plans on making a longer (and doubtless related) stay, means we need to put Melville in Manhattan, unfinished manuscript of his unpublished Whale book in hand, 3 or 4 weeks earlier than previous biographers did. In the telling, Parker takes the main purpose of both visits to be obviously connected with the job of printing and proofing "The Whale," the not-quite completed book his copyist Augusta regarded as "very fine" in manuscript. 

Parker allows for one and only one visit by Melville to NYC before "the longer one" that extended at least two weeks into June, maybe longer. The "flying visit" by Herman to Allan completed before May 16th = the recent (just "the other day") visit of 24 hours related to Hawthorne in the letter under consideration. As dramatized by Parker in the first volume of Herman Melville: A Biography on page 839, Melville's one "flying visit" to New York City becomes THE daytrip that launched Moby-Dick, as the harried but hopeful author

"arrived in Manhattan armed with Stewart's money and more obviously cumbered with a substantial portion of the manuscript."
Freshly funded by a $2050 loan from Tertullus D. Stewart on May 1st, Melville arranged with printer Robert Craighead for stereotyping of his new, not-quite completed book in manuscript. Working title: THE WHALE. In Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative (page 488) Parker explains that

"in his anger at the Harpers Melville decided to pay for the setting and plating of the book himself in the hope of selling the plates to another publisher for a better deal than the Harpers would give him. In early May, not later, as we had thought, Melville carried the bulk of the manuscript to town, and left it with Richard [Robert] Craighead, the man who had stereotyped Typee for Wiley and Putnam." 

No bidding war ensued, however. Melville did sign a contract with Harper & Brothers who formally agreed to publish Moby-Dick or The Whale from "plates in the possession of Robert Craighead."

Assuming that Augusta and Herman must be talking about one and the same trip to NYC, Parker turns Melville's "four-and-twenty hours" into a three-day affair, counting travel time. 

"Melville made an urgent trip to New York in early May--one day in the cars down, one day for business, one day in the cars for home... There he tested out Allan's new and inconvenient uptown house on Thirty-first Street for two nights, so as to have his one full day in the city." (V1.839)

Designed to allow Melville "one full day" in Manhattan, Parker's generous stipulation of "two nights" at Allan's house extends Herman's visit beyond the "four-and-twenty hours" mentioned in the letter to Hawthorne. Strictly regarded, any period of 24 hours should include just one night, not two or three. Travel by rail from Pittsfield to New York normally would have taken eight hours. Trains ran twice daily both ways, according to the expanded schedule "for the Summer of 1851" advertised in May by the Housatonic Railroad.

Pittsfield Sun - May 8, 1851
via Genealogy Bank
I worked out an alternative plan that would keep to Melville's stated boundary of "four-and-twenty hours," making his experience less pleasant, to be sure, but more like the "flying visit" to which Augusta alluded in her letter of May 16, 1851: 

Literal 24-hour itinerary

Take the morning train down, arriving in NYC at 4 p.m. Spend the evening and overnight with Allan. Catch up on family news at breakfast. Make your business calls in Manhattan the next morning and early afternoon; then return to Pittsfield by the evening train, departing at 3:55 p.m. 

Familiarity with both the morning and evening trains from New York City would seem to inform Melville's advice to Evert A. Duyckinck before his visit later that summer:

"If you will advise me of the day of your starting, I shall have our waggon at the Depot in time for you--as we are three miles from there. Mention whether you take the morning or afternoon train. I recommend, by all means, the morning train."  -- Letter of 28 July 1851 in N-N Correspondence, page 201.

Perhaps Melville did spend the extra night granted in Parker's biography. Who knows? All we really have to go on are references in two different letters to "a flying visit" and a 24-hour stay when Melville saw Hawthorne's portrait somewhere in NYC. My point in bringing up the issue is mainly to show the narrative pressure exerted in Parker's biography by his conflation of the two references. Melville had a great deal to accomplish if he was going to visit Allan and family, call on Evert Duyckinck, look for a printer who could stereotype his new book, hire Robert Craighead, all while carrying around the manuscript of Moby-Dick. No wonder Parker gave him another night in New York! Alternatively, the "flying visit" and "four-and-twenty hours" could be interpreted as documentary evidence of different day-trips, one early in May, the other some weeks later. Seems to me, the business of finding and arranging with Robert Craighead to get "The Whale" set in type and plated might well have required more than one "flying visit" to 112 Fulton Street.

Significantly, perhaps, Parker's construction finesses the problem of where and how Melville met with his old friend T. D. Stewart in order to borrow a ton of money. We know when, May 1st, and we know specific terms of the loan, $2050 for 5 years at 9% interest. But we don't know where exactly Melville signed for and received the borrowed funds. Parker hints that Stewart maybe came to Melville in Pittsfield on the basis of an earlier offer, communicated to Herman's mother (V1.824-5). However, the fact of Stewart's being at Allan's home in March raises the possiblility of Stewart's being there again in May, with Herman. Needing cash, Herman might have wanted to deal with TDS in the company of a good lawyer, namely his own loyal brother. Allan on more than one occasion served as intermediary in Herman's communications with New York publishers including Harper & Brothers. More specifically, as Parker reports, Allan Melville at some time endorsed and annotated the letter addressed to Herman in Pittsfield, declining his request for an advance. Late in April, Melville had been talking with Nathaniel Hawthorne of their going to New York--together, seemingly at their leisure. Once the Harpers refused to give him the advance he had requested, Melville had a more urgent financial reason to confer in person with his lawyer-brother and sometime literary agent.

However it played out in real life, the loan from Stewart closely followed the Harper's decision not to advance Herman any money on "The Whale." Perhaps Herman made a "flying visit" to NYC on or about the first of May 1851 to get paid, one way or another. In which case, physical delivery of the "Whale" manuscript might have required a separate, later visit to Robert Craighead. 


In my alternative construction, admittedly hypothetical, Herman Melville's "flying" and 24-hour visits reference two different trips to New York City; one around May 1st (to sign for the loan of $2050 from Tertullus D. Stewart) and one a week or two or three later (to hire Robert Craighead).

Even on Parker's own terms (accepting the presumed unity of Herman's "flying visit" in Augusta's letter with the 24-hour visit related in Herman's letter to Hawthorne) the "early May" date fails to accommodate the period of three weeks also specified in the letter under consideration.

Internal evidence in the text of Melville's letter to Hawthorne points to the merry month of May. For one thing, May is prime sowing time, and as Melville plainly stated, "I had my crops to get in,--corn and potatoes." Meaning, he had planted crops at some time in the past three weeks. And May is strongly indicated also in Melville's statement to Hawthorne that he had read about that "sad fellow" Ethan Brand "in the last 'Dollar Magazine.' " Here Melville refers specifically to the May 1851 issue of Holden's Dollar Magazine where he had read Hawthorne's short story "The Unpardonable Sin."  In this context Melville's adjective last probably means the "latest" or "most recent" issue of the magazine. Evidently then, at the time of his writing to Hawthorne in the letter under consideration, Melville has not yet seen or received the June number of the Dollar Magazine.

The relevance of seasonal planting and Melville's reading in Holden's Dollar Magazine was addressed in the previously cited headnote to the letter under consideration in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's Correspondence. One overlooked bit of support for a later rather than earlier date in May is provided by correspondences of tone and content in the next letter Melville wrote to Hawthorne, the one dated June 29th. 

Since you have been here, I have been building some shanties of houses (connected with the old one) and likewise some shanties of chapters and essays. I have been ploughing and sowing and raising and printing and praying, and now begin to come out upon a less bristling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of the old farmhouse here. Not entirely yet, though, am I without something to be urgent with. The "Whale" is only half through the press; for, wearied with the long delays of the printers, and disgusted with the heat and dust of the Babylonish brick-kiln of New York, I came back to the country to feel the grass, and end the book reclining on it, if I may.

— as presented by Julian Hawthorne in Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife Volume 1 (Boston and New York, 1884) page 399.

Melville has been to New York and back, superintending the typesetting of his half-finished Whale-book. In spite of the intervening ordeal at Craighead's third-story printing office, Melville's jumble of news and excuses on June 29th sounds pretty much the same as in the previous letter, only now more poetically compressed into "ploughing and sowing and raising and printing and praying." As in the preceding letter, Melville holds the focus on himself and Hawthorne, exclusively. Neither missive contains any message or even greeting to Nathaniel's wife Sophia Hawthorne and their children. According to Parker, Melville would have heard about the birth of Rose Hawthorne on May 20, 1851 before he left for New York (Herman Melville: A Biography, V1.844), but Melville does not acknowledge this important event in either letter. 

By contrast, the letter prior to the one under consideration expressly acknowledges "Mrs. Hawthorne and the children." Its actual date might be a week later than the conjectural date of April 16, 1851 usually assigned--say Wednesday, April 23rd, closer to April 27th when Sophia Hawthorne mentioned to her sister Elizabeth "an extraordinary letter" they had received from Melville about Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables; quoted in the Supplement to The Melville Log (Gordian Press reprint, 1969) on page 926. When viewed in its chronological place between letters to Hawthorne in late April and late June, Melville's "Dollars damn me" letter feels appreciably closer in focus, language, and subject matter to the letter of June 29th, further from the April letter with its flattering remarks on Hawthorne's latest book ostensibly copied from the "Pittsfield Secret Review."


On the question of dating Herman Melville's undated "Dollars damn me" letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, it would be a mistake to equate the date of Melville's writing it with the date of events that Melville says happened in the past. More particularly, you have to allow, as Hershel Parker did not sufficiently do, for three weeks of home improvements and farm chores AFTER he quit his Whale-book in progress. Then you have to guess not only when he "left" Moby Dick (April 25th? May 1st? later still?) but what exactly he meant by leaving it (taking a break from writing, or leaving the completed portion of his manuscript at 112 Fulton street in the third-floor printing office of newly hired typesetter Robert Craighead?). Any way you game it out, Parker's "early May" time-frame lands you smack dab in the middle of the month.

For the benefit of anyone wanting to pin a reasonable date on the 1851 letter formerly assigned to "June 1?" and re-dated in Parker's great biography to "early May," here are three evidence-based options:

  1. When you want to be definitely right and don't need to be too precise, just make it
    May 1851
    Grounds: the "last 'Dollar Magazine' " where HM read about Hawthorne's wretched hero Ethan Brand can only be the May issue, and Melville's last means "most recent."

  2. Leaning Hershel Parker's way on the probable unity of the "flying visit" Herman made before May 16th (referenced in Augusta's letter to Allan) and the "four-and-twenty hours" he passed in New York shortly before writing to Hawthorne, you'd best go with
    Mid May?

  3.  Desperadoes with a guiding "Go big or go home!" philosophy will run with
    Late May?
    Grounds: Melville's daytrip "the other day" to New York might not have been his first or only visit that month. Perhaps he had needed to "fly" there on May 1st to meet T. D. Stewart at Allan's house. Whatever happened in Manhattan, there was an awful lot going on at Arrowhead to account for before the letter in question was written, what with Melville's reading "Ethan Brand," planting corn and potatoes, and overseeing or hammering away on extensive renovations. Give the man another week to do the work he claims to have done. He also needed to prepare for another, longer trip to NYC "in a week or so." Stated purpose, to "work and slave" on his yet uncompleted book "while it is driving through the press." We have long known what he was going for, but still lack proof of his being there before the second week in June...

  4. Which kind of helps to explain why Jay Leyda in the good old Melville Log made it
    June 1 (?)
    Like Melville's RAZOR-BACK, the ratonale behind Leyda's conjectural date has eluded both hunters and philosophers. I know little more of it, nor does anybody else.

  5. Should you demand a more definite period than any day in May (option #1 above) yet struggle with commitment, please consider the advantages of my last and final offer:
    Mid to late May?
    conveniently and comprehensively including all the benefits of options #2 and #3 in one bundle.

One thing more before I hit the Publish button and turn up the volume for Ray Charles. Although Melville's super-quotable letter to Hawthorne bears no date, the year in which it was written, 1851, is certain--most obviously from Melville's reference to his "Whale" book in progress. May is almost as safe, also on the basis of interal evidence. Beyond that, the True Scholar (you know who you are) will honor and respect the question mark.

 Related posts:

Saturday, October 7, 2023

H. Melville at the Overlook Mountain House in the Catskills, August 1890

Catskill Mountains from the top of Overlook Mountain Woodstock, NY
Photo by: L. Andrews via Livin' Life with Lori

On August 10, 1890, as documented by Jay Leyda in The Melville Log (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951), Herman Melville wrote Havelock Ellis in Redhill, Surrey, England:
"I have been away from town, a wanderer hardly reachable for a time..."

The letter to Ellis is collected in the 1993 Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's Correspondence, ed. Lynn Horth, pages 528-529. 

Regarding Melville's unspecified whereabouts, Hershel Parker guessed "Fire Island?" in Herman Melville: A Biography Volume 2, 1851-1891 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) page 901. "Herman Melville and family" were indeed listed as registered guests at the Surf Hotel on Fire Island Beach, according to a column in the Brooklyn NY Daily Standard Union of July 1, 1890 headed "Summer Resort Notes."

Top of the Overlook Cliff, looking west.
Stereograph by D. J. Auchmoody via NYPL Digital Collections
By August, however, Melville was in the Catskills, seemingly on his own this time, as witnessed twice in the Special Correspondence of the Troy Daily Times.

On August 8, 1890, only a couple of days before the reply to Havelock Ellis quoted above, "H. Melville" of New York was named first in a list of "prominent arrivals" at "the Overlook" (presumably meaning the popular Overlook Mountain House) near Woodstock in Ulster County, New York. Compiled by an unidentified newspaper correspondent, the unsigned list of notable tourists starting with "H. Melville" appeared in the Troy Daily Times on Monday afternoon, August 11, 1890. Evidently Herman Melville had been out of reach during the first week of August 1890 because he was wandering in the Catskills, enjoying the "clear air and noble views" from the summit of Overlook Mountain.

An earlier sighting of "H. Melville" in the Catskills appeared in the Troy Daily Times on August 4, 1890 under the heading "At a Breezy Outlook."

Troy Daily Times - August 4, 1890

At a Breezy Outlook.

Special Correspondence of the Troy Daily Times.

OVERLOOK, Aug. 2.-- Guests welcomed at the breezy Overlook Mountain house recently include: Miss Mary A. Mason, Binghamton, N. Y.; Nathaniel A. Bronson, Waterbury, Conn.; Dr. B. F. Crane, New York; C. S. Newell and wife, Goshen, N. Y.; H. Wolff and son, Andrew Purdy, A. S. Underhill and wife, New York; C. B. Ellsworth, Irvington; Mrs. M. J. Downing, Miss K. Butler, New York; William Wilkins and wife, Baltimore, Md.; S. L. Roberts, C. M. Hilton, Hamilton Ryan, J. H. Auringer and daughter, H. Melville, George G. Betts, New York; Mrs. J. M. Vandegrift, Miss Florence C. Hall, Henry Cleaver, Delaware.

Eleven years before, also in early August, Melville's wife Elizabeth and their daughters had visited the Overlook Mountain House. In 1879 they "enjoyed themselves so much that Herman thought about joining them there" as related by Hershel Parker in the second volume of Herman Melville: A Biography, page 841. Again in 1882, Herman "hoped to get away for a week's vacation soon, to join Lizzie at the Overlook," as reported by his sisters Helen and Frances Priscilla (Melville Log Volume 2, page 781). It's good to learn Herman Melville got to experience the exhilarating mountain air and views in 1890, too--little more than one year before his death on September 28, 1891.

The New York Sun - August 17, 1890

The August 8th sighting of "H. Melville" in the Catskills is transcribed below from the Troy Daily Times of August 11, 1890; both of the 1890 mentions featured herein were found in Thomas M. Tryniski's great archive of old newspaper pages at

Troy Daily Times - August 11, 1890

From an Overlook.

Special Correspondence of the Troy Daily Times.

WOODSTOCK, Ulster county, N. Y., Aug. 8.

--The following are some of the prominent arrivals at the Overlook during the last week:

H. Melville, S. L. Roberts, J. H. Van Amringe, New York; J. E. Lasher, wife and daughter, Rondout; Miss Prior, Cambridge, England; H. C. Harney, New York; S.W. Williams, Philadelphia, R. W. Gebbart, New York; F. McWasher, Chicago; David Mixsell and family, Easton, Penn.; James C. de La Mare and daughter, New York; Hon. John M. Thayer, Norwich, Conn.; James R. Macpherson, Mrs. M. E. Burnett, Mrs. G. de Almagro, Franklin Haines and family, New York; George P. Way and wife, Philadelphia; Isaac Pruyn, Catskill.

The clear air and noble views from this summit attract the people.

Path to the Overlook - New Summer Resort in the Catskill Mountains
Stereograph by D. J. Auchmoody via NYPL Digital Collections

A fine 19th century description of the beautiful scenery, healthful air and matchless vistas Melville would have enjoyed at the Overlook Mountain House can be found in Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester's History of Ulster County, New York (Philadelphia, 1880) on page 323:


To accommodate the increasing tide of summer travel several hotels have been erected. The principal one catering to the wants of the throng who push their way into these mountains during the hot months in search of health and pleasure is located upon the commanding summit of Overlook Mountain. It is known as the Overlook Mountain House, James Smith proprietor. The site of this hotel is the most delightful in the country. The Overlook Mountain forms a part of the celebrated Catskills, and is one of the highest peaks of the range. The house is at an elevation of three thousand feet above tide-water, five hundred feet higher than any other hotel on the Catskills or in the State of New York, the only point that gives an unbroken view to all points of the compass. The views are unequaled in the country for beauty and extent; the vision covers the States of Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, embracing an area of 30,000 square miles and one hundred miles of the valley of the Hudson. The atmosphere is very invigorating, and has been found a sure remedy for hay-fever and chills and fever. The thermometer ranges from 15 to 20 degrees below New York City. Three miles north of the house are a succession of wild and picturesque falls in the Plattekill Clove, an historical pass used by the French and Indians in their attacks upon the early settlers of the valley of the Hudson from their fort in Tory Swamp, near the top of the mountain.

Friday, October 6, 2023

Robert Craighead's third-story rooms on Fulton street, where Melville tried to finish THE WHALE

In an undated letter written at Arrowhead one rainy day in May 1851, Herman Melville told his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne where and how he intended to finish his "Whale" of a book--then still in manuscript, and not yet titled Moby-Dick

In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my "Whale" while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, — I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar.

-- as transcribed and printed by Julian Hawthorne in Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife: A Biography Volume 1 (Boston, 1884)

Short on time and money, Melville felt he could only get his work-in-progress done in New York City, under pressure. There, added pressure (on top of whatever mental and physical stress he might have been experiencing in Pittsfield) would be externally imposed by the routines and machinery of book production in a busy Manhattan printer's office. Melville's plan was to crank out the final chapters while the completed ones were "driving through the press." Evidently Melville had already made arrangements for stereotyping of the completed portion of his "Whale" manuscript by Robert W. Craighead (employed in the making of Typee by Wiley and Putnam, and The Literary World by Evert A. Duyckinck). However, the end was yet to be written. Soon ("in a week or so") Melville would leave Pittsfield for New York City, there to enter what Hershel Parker describes in the Historical Note for the 1988 Northwestern-Newberry edition of Moby-Dick (page 629) as the "intense final phase of intermingled composition and proofreading." 

As he told Hawthorne, Melville expected to "work and slave" at writing and correcting proof pages, right along with the typesetters. In figurative terms, writing under pressure that intense meant being hounded by "the malicious Devil" whom Melville imagined as "forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar." As generally recognized, the insatiable "Devil" of a doorman in the quoted passage is Melville's humorous way of designating the Printer's Devil. In other words, "not Satan but the printer's errand boy, waiting to carry new pages of manuscript to the compositor" (Historical Note, N-N Moby-Dick page 630).

In New York City Herman had somebody he could and usually did stay with, his lawyer-brother Allan Melville. The New York City Directory for 1851 gives Allan Melville's new home address as East 31st street at North Lexington Avenue. As also shown in the 1851 City Directory, Allan's office at 14 Wall street then functioned as Herman Melville's business address in Manhattan. In the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Moby-Dick (Historical Note, pages 629-30) Hershel Parker placed the "third-story room" where Melville intended to "work and slave" away on his Whale-book in the building on E. 31st where Melville presumably stayed, Allan's new and "inconveniently" situated residence uptown:

"In New York, where he planned to finish work, he would be in unfamiliar surroundings, at Allan's new house on Thirty-First Street near Lexington, much farther (and inconveniently) uptown, and in a room which by its location was almost sure to be stiflingly hot."

Melville experts since the late 1980's have followed Parker's lead, for example John Bryant in Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1993) page 228:

"To facilitate productivity, he lodged with his brother in New York City, both to escape distractions of Arrowhead and to be closer to his printer."

and Kevin J. Hayes in Herman Melville (Resaktion Books, 2017) page 133:

"Herman settled into Allan's Manhattan home to finish Moby-Dick. When it was nearly complete, he returned to Craighead's print shop in late June, retrieved a bundle of proofs, and left New York for Pittsfield."

In Herman Melville: A Biography Volume 1, 1819-1851 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) Parker envisions Melville "writing in Allan's third-story room, under the roof, on bad days an ovenlike cell, when he was not making the trip to and from the compositor's plant at the southern tip of the island" (page 844).

Until now, nobody has pointed out the more likely location of the "third-story room" where Melville intended to finish writing Moby-Dick, in the establishment of his hired stereotyper Robert Craighead. As revealed in newspaper accounts of the fire on January 23, 1852 that destroyed the whole building including his printing office, Craighead operated his printing business on the third-stories of adjacent properties, the large four-story brick building at 112 Fulton street, on the southwest corner of Fulton and Dutch, and the adjoining building at 114 Fulton.

"The third stories of the two buildings were occupied by Robert Craighead as a book-printing office, and every thing he had in the two rooms was destroyed." -- New York Times, January 24, 1852
NY Literary World - January 31, 1852

... The Literary World has been printed since its very commencement, by Robert Craighead, at 112 Fulton street, a large building with openings into the adjoining lofts, supplied with steam power, and filled by a numerous body of pressmen, compositors, and others, through the third floor, while on the fourth was extended the Bindery of E. Walker, one of the most active in the city. The extent of business going on upon these two stories alone of the premises, will be comprehended from a statement of part of the losses of editors, authors, publishers, &c., sustained by the destruction of Mr. Craighead's printing-office.

... Most of our printing-offices are insecure, confused, rickety-looking quarters, with narrow entrances, associated frequently with that huge paper box of combustibles, a Bindery--poorly arranged for light--with steam power on the premises, and badly ventilated, oppressive to health, opposed to the necessary neatness, and utterly insecure for property. -- "Marks and Remarks" in The Literary World No. 261,  January 31, 1852, pages 87-88

Although contemporary reports of the fire in the New York Times (January 24, 1852) and The Literary World (January 31, 1852) are cited in the N-N edition of Moby-Dick, no mention is there made of the specific reference in the NY Times article to Craighead's place of business or "rooms" being on "the third-stories" of neighboring edifices.

24 Jan 1852, Sat The New York Times (New York, New York)

Transcribed below from the New York Times of January 24, 1852:


THE FIRE IN FULTON STREET. — The fire in Fulton street yesterday morning was more destructive of property than any conflagration we have had in this city in a long time. The fire originated in the bindery of E. Walker, in the fourth stories of the buildings Nos. 112 and 114 Fulton-street....

... The third stories of the two buildings were occupied by Robert Craighead as a book-printing office, and every thing he had in the two rooms was destroyed. He was engaged in printing a number of works, two of which were bound. Among them was a portion of Miss Cooper's new work, and of the "Tales and Traditions of Hungary" by Madame Pulszky. He had commenced printing for the Smithsonian Institute, a large Dictionary of the Dacotah language, by Rev. Mr. Riggs. Fortunately the manuscript had not yet been sent in, and hence it has escaped. We understand that the copying of the work for the printer, from the author's notes, occupied about one year, and to print it Mr. C. had to procure a number of letters of a peculiar character. A number of works were being printed in this office and of course the copy was destroyed, among them several manuscript works. Mr. Craighead's loss is about $25,000, and he is insured for but $14,000. Fortunately the plates of a number of standard works were in the vaults and are saved. Mr. Craighead has already made arrangements to continue his business, having hired rooms and procured type and presses.

And below, the account of the "Great Fire in Fulton Street" transcribed from the New York Evening Mirror of January 23, 1852.

New York Evening Mirror - January 23, 1852
via Genealogy Bank

Great Fire in Fulton Street.

About two o'clock this morning a fire broke out in the large five story building, No. 112 Fulton, corner of Dutch streets. This building, with its entire contents, also No. 114 adjoining, was entirely destroyed. The next building, 116, was slightly injured. The buildings, 112 and 114, were occupied by Stilwell and Montrose, clothiers; Robert W. Craighead, the extensive printer; Edward Walker, the book-binder, and some other parties whose names we have not learned. Messrs. Stillwell and Montrose, and Craighead and Walker, were the principal sufferers. The two latter were insured to some extent.

The night being intensely cold, and the materials in the buildings highly inflammable, it was almost in vain, with freezing hose, to battle the fire. It raged with intense fury.

The two buildings were burned into the very cellars, and now present a scene of smoky desolation. The firemen worked bravely on the occasion. On the opposite corner of Dutch street, which leads from Fulton South, the building occupied by Wells & Webb, extensive dealers in printing materials, was considerably damaged by the falling walls of 112. One or two buildings on the opposite side of Fulton street were considerably damaged. The rear of the Home Journal publication office was badly scorched, files of papers, &c., being destroyed.

Building 114, owned by Gale & Son, was fully insured in the Eagle Company. Watkins, bootmaker, who occupied the lower floor, was insured for $5,000 in the North American Company.

Building 112, owned by a Mr. Strong, was fully insured. Stillwell & Montrose, clothiers, who occupied a large portion of the building, lost their whole stock, valued at $40,000; insured in various offices $25,000.

The building 116, slightly injured, is owned by Gale & Son, and fully insured in the Bowery Insurance Company. The whole loss must be over $100,000.

In Mr. Craighead's department were destroyed a Dacotah Dictionary, in press for the Smithsonian Institute; a portion of the edition of Garrigue's Iconographic Encyclopaedia; the plates of Madame Pulzky's Tales and Traditions of Hungary, publishing by Redfield; next week's Literary World, which will not, however, prevent its prompt appearance. 
Mr. Craighead will resume his business in a new office without interruption.  

New York Tribune - January 24, 1852
DESTRUCTIVE FIRE.— At 1 3/4 o'clock yesterday morning, a fire broke out in the upper part of the large four-story brick building corner of Fulton and Dutch-sts, occupied by Robert Craighead, book and job printing office, Walker's book bindery, and Stillman & Montrose, clothiers. When first discovered the flames were bursting forth from the windows of the bindery in the fourth-story, from whence it speedily communicated to the printing office in the stories below, and ere the lapse of many minutes the entire building was enveloped in flames, and soon after a mass of ruins. In consequence of the freezing up of the engines the firemen were considerably delayed in their operations, and while they were engaged thawing them out the flames gained considerable headway....

New-York daily tribune. [volume] (New-York [N.Y.]), 24 Jan. 1852. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>

The context of Herman Melville's reference to "a third-story room" in his May 1851 letter to Hawthorne is all about the dirty job of getting his Whale-book done. Sure, he might have stayed uptown with his brother Allan and (who knows?) might even have occupied himself with writing there. On June 10th his aunt Mary Ann Chandonette Gansevoort (Guert's mother) died, and Herman was supposed to attend her funeral in Brooklyn. In the earlier letter to Hawthorne, however, his only stated objective for going was to grind, to "work and slave" on his book with a leering printer's apprentice aka "Devil" for an attendant. Not a shred of domestic comfort seems implied in Melville's grim commitment to bury himself in a third-story room. There is no mention here of family connections, no anticipation of even minimal hospitality in NYC. After the fire on Fulton burned down Craighead's workplace, his regular customer Evert A. Duyckinck remembered it as "a large building with openings into adjoining lofts, supplied with steam power, and filled by a numerous body of pressmen, compositors, and others, through the third floor." There's no question Melville went there to work. Since we know which Manhattan printer he must have employed, let's go ahead and give Herman "a third-story room" connected with the printing-office instead of Allan's uptown residence. Herman Melville at least tried to finish writing THE WHALE there, while it was "driving through the press" of Robert Craighead.

* * *

Considering Duyckinck's dismal picture of a typical Manhattan printer's office, it can hardly be surprising that Melville would decide to quit town before his book was done. As Melville explains in his next letter to Hawthorne, this one dated June 29th:

Not entirely yet, though, am I without something to be urgent with. The "Whale" is only half through the press; for, wearied with the long delays of the printers, and disgusted with the heat and dust of the Babylonish brick-kiln of New York, I came back to the country to feel the grass, and end the book reclining on it, if I may. -- The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (Yale University Press, 1960) page 152
It's a wonder the book ever got published that year but it did, by Richard Bentley in London, England as The Whale (October 1851); and by Harper & Brothers in New York as Moby-Dick or The Whale (November 1851). By the by, Evert Duyckinck's casual exposé of sorry working conditions in American printing-offices appeared in the January 31, 1852 issue of the New York Literary World:
Most of our printing-offices are insecure, confused, rickety-looking quarters, with narrow entrances, associated frequently with that huge paper box of combustibles, a Bindery--poorly arranged for light--with steam power on the premises, and badly ventilated, oppressive to health, opposed to the necessary neatness, and utterly insecure for property.

Around the same time, Herman Melville was back home in Pittsfield, belatedly finishing his next book Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852). A later passage offers this equally depressing picture of Melville's enthusiast hero at work as a writer:

ON the third night following the arrival of the party in the city, Pierre sat at twilight by a lofty window in the rear building of the Apostles’. The chamber was meager even to meanness. No carpet on the floor, no picture on the wall; nothing but a low, long, and very curious-looking single bedstead, that might possibly serve for an indigent bachelor’s pallet, a large, blue, chintz-covered chest, a rickety, rheumatic, and most ancient mahogany chair, and a wide board of the toughest live-oak, about six feet long, laid upon two upright empty flour-barrels, and loaded with a large bottle of ink, an unfastened bundle of quills, a pen-knife, a folder, and a still unbound ream of foolscap paper, significantly stamped, “Ruled; Blue."

For Blues that bad there's only one cure. More Blues!

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