Monday, May 6, 2024

Why "On Onota's Graceful Shore" can't be the poem Melville read aloud in August 1851

Jay Leyda, The Melville Log Vol. 1 (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951) page 420

A digitized version of J. E. A. Smith's "On Onota's Graceful Shore" in the 1896 volume Souvenir Verse and Story is accessible via the Library of Congress. Image 30 of Souvenir verse and story : memorial of fifty years | Library of Congress

Read it closely and see, "On Onota's Graceful Shore" can't have been the poem Melville recited in the rafters of a barn on August 7, 1851. How so? Because nothing about it fits the description of form (epic, long, taking up a "stout" manuscript), content (ultra patriotic "glorification of the United States" with "polite slanging of all other nations") and meter ("heroic measure" = iambic pentameter) that Evert Duyckinck gave in a letter to his wife. Duyckinck had seen and heard Melville's performance in the loft with a group of summer excursionists. In giving the details to his wife, Duyckinck provided a sample of the favorable commentary that Melville had delivered in the form of affirming interjections like "great," "glorious," and "By Jove that's tremendous." As Duyckinck also reported, the "flattered" poet was there, too, listening to Melville's reading and dramatic asides while sitting "thoughtful on a hay tuft."
Smith's poem is a ballad of only 88 lines in mostly iambic tetrameter, remembering local hero David Noble and his brave, selfless actions during the American Revolution. 

The long poem in "heroic measure" glorifying the United States that Herman Melville read from with enthusiasm in August 1851 was "Destiny." Recently composed by Melville's future brother-in-law John Chipman Hoadley. 

Destiny. A Poem By John C. Hoadley. 1851
Gansevoort-Lansing collection. Manuscripts and Archives Division.
The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

Transcribed here from the manuscript in the Gansevoort-Lansing collection at NYPL:
Hoadley felt encouraged by "Melville's hearty praises" for his unpublished "national poem," as he wrote Evert Duyckinck from Pittsfield MA on September 9, 1851.

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Hoadley, John Chipman (1818-1886)" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1851.

Once again, John C. Hoadley not Joseph Edward Adams Smith was the "flattered author" of the poem Herman Melville recited aloud in the loft of a Berkshire barn on August 7, 1851. With gusto, as evidenced in dramatic asides like "great," "glorious," and "By Jove that's tremendous!"

United States National Flag 1851-1858
via The New York State Military Museum

So what?

  1. So Jay Leyda ID'd the wrong guy and wrong poem in The Melville Log Vol. 1 (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951) page 420, as did Merton M. Sealts, Jr. in The Early Lives of Melville (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1974) pages 29-30; and Hershel Parker after them. (Nobody's perfect!)
  2. So prosody is a thing. And meter matters every now and then. Score it New Critics 1, Melville Biographers 0
  3. So Herman Melville the great American writer was a great American patriot as well. In his prime, finally done with writing THE WHALE, Melville extolled a glorification of the United States in epic verse composed by his fellow citizen and townsman, and future brother-in-law.
  4. So Melville openly practiced what he had preached in the guise of A Virginian Spending July in Vermont: "Let America, then, prize and cherish her writers; yea, let her glorify them."
  5. So Hoadley was the "thoughtful sensible man" (Duyckinck's impression before learning his name) who afterwards guided the group to Ashley Pond. That the poet turned out to be so competent a "pilot" on the trip there makes a lot more sense now. Besides being an ambitious versifier and soon-to-be suitor, John Chipman Hoadley was an engineer and local expert on the water-works committee. Considering his well-documented civic and professional interest in the acquisition of Ashley Pond aka Lake Ashley as a potential water supply for the village of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, it's safe to say that Hoadley knew the way to Ashley Pond better than anybody.
  6. So Melville came to know Hoadley even earlier than previously thought.
  7. So let's give J. E. A. Smith a break and Melville, too. Smith only ever intended his ballad "On Onota's Graceful Shore" for a humble tribute or "souvenir" to the memory of farmer-soldier David Noble and his gallant deeds. This and all the fugitive pieces collected in Souvenir Verse and Story (1896) were offered mainly as "mementos of the past." Melville's vocal bursts of approval ("Great" "Glorious" "By Jove that's tremendous") would have sounded pretty weird and disrespectful if uttered after any of the 88 tetrameters that comprise Smith's modest ballad. Confronting the inaptness of Melville's recorded comments when applied to such "dreary poetry" as "Onota's Graceful Shore," Hershel Parker not unreasonably figured Melville must have been joking. "Deftly managing not to let Smith gain an inkling that he was being satirized," as Parker has it in Melville: The Making of the Poet (Northwestern University Press, 2008) page 28; reprinted in his Historical Note for the 2009 Northwestern-Newberry Edition of Published Poems, edited by Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising and G. Thomas Tanselle. Happily, however, the author of Mardi: and a Voyage Thither was not really inclined to put down the work of Joseph Edward Adams Smith or any less gifted writer in front of gathered neighbors and friends. By contrast, Hoadley's national poem in manuscript presented a different order of composition--not a song but a symphony had been at least attempted. Whatever its artistic merit, the completion of any work that ambitious and patriotic deserved respect. Evidently Melville gave "Destiny" its due, and then some. His comments, however extravagant or over-the-top they may sound now, were supportive and sincerely made. That Hoadley felt encouraged by "Melville's hearty praises" we know for certain, as he testified in his letter to Duyckinck on September 9, 1851, little more than a month after Melville's dramatic reading in the barn loft. Jay Leyda did not miss much of importance in the Duyckinck family papers at NYPL, but apparently he never ran into Hoadley's letter in the Literary Correspondence of Evert A. and George L. Duyckinck. It's not down in the 1951 Melville Log (Harcourt, Brace and World) or the 1969 reprint by Gordian Press with additional material. Or any Log-based biography, yet.

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