Samuel Johnson makes the following comment in his Lives of the Poets when discussing the life of the seventeenth-century poet John Gay:
Whoever is apt to hope good from others is diligent to please them; but he that believes his powers strong enough to force their own way, commonly tries only to please himself.
Johnson is reminding us that the creative spirit does not find its deepest motivations in the approval of others; the creative spirit does his work because he must do it. There is an inner voice, a secret siren, that calls out to him: and he will allow neither fortune nor approbation to deflect him from this task. I was reminded of this line recently. Some aspiring writer on Twitter asked the question, “Is the novel no longer a viable art form for influencing culture?” This question, combined with some other despairing comments I had seen this writer make, made it immediately obvious that the writer was indirectly referring to his own plight. Badgered by self-doubt, he sought affirmation from the crowd. Insecure in his craft, and feeling the sting of rejection, perhaps, one time too many, he had come to question his chosen path.
What a poisonous, self-defeating attitude this is! For the written word will always influence the culture: it is just that not every writer will be the one to do the influencing. But does this even matter? If one creates to serve his own inner need, is this not enough? Why is any more necessary? What vain hopes inspire an artist to a transitory, empty adulation! And how many great writers and artists have seen their works consigned to oblivion by the passage of years! There is a quiet greatness, a mens divinior—a mind more divinely inspired—in the writer who can toil on, who can brace himself against the howling winds and move forward despite all obstacles, and who seeks only to serve his own muse. Herman Melville was one such writer.
His first written reference to Moby-Dick appears in the form of a letter to his fellow writer Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in May of 1850. Melville cryptically mentions “a strange sort of book” tinged with whaling references. He had already written several sea-books, with none of them matching the success of his first effort, Typee; and his mind was clearly afire with ambition for this latest project. Sadly we possess no journal or notes from Melville himself about his creative process in composing Moby-Dick. We do not even have a manuscript; his wife apparently destroyed most of his papers immediately after his death. But we do have his correspondence to his friends and associates. He told his London publisher Richard Bentley in June 1850 that he expected his book to be “a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooner.” But here he was not being strictly truthful. For his goals were far more ambitious.
Melville had been awakened to metaphysical themes early in his life. He was one of those personalities that liked to explore the “whys” of life; he could not be satisfied with pat answers. As his commercial successes dwindled, he must have sensed that time was running out for him. He resolved to throw caution to the wind entirely, and give the public something they had never seen before—and commercial viability be damned. His intense reading of Milton, Virgil, and Shakespeare had taught him to use language with a heroic cadence and glorious resonance. And he must have acutely felt the absence of any maritime novel that had yet dealt with life’s greatest and most awe-inspiring mysteries. Why not metaphysics on a whaling ship? Why not?
Yet is difficult for us today to appreciate just how radical this idea was. Whaling was a dirty, grimy, dangerous business; there was nothing romantic or glamorous about it. It would be like a writer today using smoke-jumping as the backdrop for a philosophical novel. Such things were simply not done in the 1850s. But Melville dared to try. He would not be deterred. He had collected a small library on the profession of whaling, and mined various passages that caught his attention; we find the results in those seemingly out-of-place chapters in Moby-Dick that describe the technical business of whaling. All the while, the book was taking its own course, as such projects often do. At some point he hit on the idea of incorporating a totally original character in his tale—the monomaniacal Captain Ahab. It turned out to be a stroke of genius, for Ahab remains one of the most compelling characters in American literature, a harbinger of the kind of self-destructive political personality that would make the twentieth century such a bloody one. One of the principal influences in the creation of Ahab seems to have been Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein. Melville was fascinated by the book and its ethical propositions, specifically its dark themes of obsession and moral corruption. He suspected he had created a monster of sorts, for in September 1851 he wrote to an acquaintance named Sarah Morewood:
Don’t you buy it—don’t you read it, when it does come out, because it is by no means the sort of book for you. It is not a piece of fine feminine Spitalfields silk—but is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables & hausers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.
We will not here discuss the literary attributes of Moby-Dick, for that falls outside our purposes here, and has already been done countless times. It is enough to say that his novel is an extremely ambitious one, a book that penetrates territory no American writer had yet explored. It was Melville’s last roll of the dice; he was a writer whose marketability was fading quickly, and he longed to tell the world what he really thought of it. There is a grand, desperate, wild rashness in Moby-Dick, as if it had been spat out of Vesuvius like so many chunks of cinder and ash. It came straight out of the churning magma of Melville’s own soul. Whatever else one can say about the book, it could never be described as insincere.
But the novel was not accepted by nineteenth-century audiences. Readers in Melville’s day wanted linear, unified narratives with identifiable themes. Moby-Dick gave them something entirely different: a fractured, weird piece of maritime mysticism, clothed in the sooty, greasy garments of the whaling industry. It must have seemed a shocking piece of effrontery, and the public punished him for it. Its publication at the end of 1851 did nothing but plunge Melville into further literary disfavor. One biographer notes that in Melville’s lifetime, Moby-Dick never came close to selling out its first edition of three thousand copies. Reviewers were baffled by it. One particularly cruel critic at the United States Magazine and Democratic Review dismissed Moby-Dick with this acid comment:
Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon. He is gauging, at once, our gullibility and our patience. Having written one or two passable extravagancies, he has considered himself privileged to produce as many more as he pleases, increasingly exaggerated and increasingly dull. The field from which his first crops of literature were produced, has become greatly impoverished, and no amount of forcing seems likely to restore it to its pristine vigor…Mr. Melville never writes naturally. His sentiment if forced, his wit is forced, and his enthusiasm is forced.
His royalties amounted to a pittance. The book would have to wait over seventy years—until the end of the 1920s—to find recognition as a visionary and unique piece of literature. Yet despite all this Melville refused to compromise. He had his own conceptions, and he was compelled to put into written form the ideas that were percolating in his mind. He had the supreme confidence to stay true to his literary muse, even though it brought him little in the way of remuneration or recognition. He would not give in. He would not write for the critics. He believed in his powers, and he followed his muse. He had done what he set out to do, and went to his grave knowing that time would vindicate his efforts.
Read more in Thirty-Seven:
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