Melville's Reflections

A page from The Life and Works of Herman Melville

Some of Melville's wittier or more interesting remarks as culled from letters and conversation. Extracts from his novels, short stories, and poems will not be found here; they are located in the Excerpts areas of the individual Works pages.

On Writing

-- Can you send me about fifty fast-writing youths, with an easy style & not averse to polishing their labors? If you can, I wish you would, because since I have been here I have planned about that number of future works & cant find enough time to think about them separately. -- But I don't know but a book in a man's brain is better off than a book bound in calf -- at any rate it is safer from criticism. And taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish and dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel -- you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety -- & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, December 13 1850

What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. --Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851

On Typee

... I could not but feel heartily vexed, that while the intelligent Editors of a publication like [Chamber's Edinburgh Journal] should thus endorse the genuineness of the narrative -- so many numskulls on this side of the water should heroically avow their determination not to be "gulled" by it. The fact is, those who do not beleive it are the greatest "gulls". -- full fledged ones too. --Letter to A. W. Bradford, May 23 1846

Typee has come out measurably unschathed from the fiery ordeal of Mr Wiley's criticisms. I trust as it now stands the book will retain all those essential features which most commended it to the public favor. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, July 15 1846

This new edition will be a Revised one, and I can not but think that the measure will prove a judicious one. -- The revision will only extend to the exclusion of those parts not naturally connected with the narrative, and some slight purifications of style. I am pursuaded that the intrinsick merit of the narrative alone -- & that other portions, however interesting they may be in themselves, only serve to impede the story. The book is certainly calculated for popular reading, or for none at all. -- If the first, why then, all passages which are calculated to offend the tastes, or offer violence to the feelings of any large class of readers are certainly objectionable.
-- Proceeding from this principle then, I have rejected every thing, in revising the book, which refers to the missionaries. Such passages are altogether foreign to the adventure, & altho' they may possess a temporary interest now, to some, yet so far as the wide & permanent popularity of the work is conserned, their exclusion will certainly be beneficial, for to that end, the less the book has to carry along with it the better. --Letter to John Murray, July 15 1846

-- I had almost forgotten one thing -- the title of the book. -- From the first I have deeply regretted that it did not appear in England under the title I always intended for it -- "Typee" It was published here under that title & it has made a decided hit. Nor was anything else to be expected -- that is, if the book was going to succeed at all, for "Typee" is a title naturally suggested by the narrative itself, and not farfetched as some strange titles are. Besides, its very strangeness & novelty, founded as it is upon the character of the book -- are the very things to make "Typee" a popular title. --Letter to John Murray, July 15 1846

You ask for "documentary evidences" of my having been at the Marquesas -- in Typee. -- Dear Sir, how indescibably vexatious, when one really feels in his very bones that he has been there, to have a parcel of blockheads question it! -- Not (let me hurry to tell you) that Mr John Murray comes under that category -- Oh no -- Mr Murray I am ready to swear stands fast by the faith, beleiving "Typee" from Preface to Sequel -- He only wants something to stop the mouths of the senseless sceptics -- men who go straight from their cradles to their graves & never dream of the queer things going on at the antipodes. --
I know not how to set about getting the evidence -- How under Heaven am I to subpeona the skipper of the Dolly who by this time is the Lord only knows where, or Kory-Kory who I'll be bound is this blessed day taking his noon nap somewhere in the flowery vale of Typee, some leagues too from the Monument.
Seriously on the receipt of your welcome favor, Dear Sir, I addressed a note to the owners of the ship, asking if they could procure for me, a copy of that part of the ship's log which makes mention of two rascals running away at Nukaheva -- to wit Herman Melville and Richard T. Greene. As yet I have nothing in reply -- If I think of any other kind of evidence I will send it, if it can be had & dispatched. --Letter to John Murray, September 2 1846

On Omoo

I have another work now nearly completed which I am anxious to submit to you before presenting it to any other publishing house. It embraces adventures in the South Seas (of a totally different character from "Typee") and includes an eventful cruise in an English Colonial Whaleman (A Sydney Ship) and a comical residence on the island of Tahiti. The time is about four months, but I & my narrative are both on the move during that short period. This new book begins exactly where Typee leaves off -- but has no further connection with my first work. -- Permit me here to assure Mr Murray that my new M.S.S. will be in a rather better state for the press than the M.S.S. [of Typee] handed to him by my brother. A little experience in this art of book-craft has done wonders. --Letter to John Murray, July 15 1846

On Mardi

... To be blunt: the work I shall next publish will be in downright earnest a "Romance of Polynisian Adventure" -- But why this? The truth is, Sir, that the reiterated imputation of being a romancer in disguise has at last pricked me into a resolution to show those who may take any interest in the matter, that a real romance of mine is no Typee or Omoo, & is made of different stuff altogether. This I confess has been the main inducement in altering my plans -- but others have operated. I have long thought that Polynisia furnished a great deal of rich poetical material that has never been employed hitherto in works of fancy; and which to bring out suitably, required only that play of freedom & invention accorded only to the Romancer & poet. -- However, I thought, that I would postpone trying my hand at any thing fanciful of this sort, till some future day: tho' at times when in the mood I threw off occasional sketches applicable to such a work. -- Well: proceeding in my narrative of facts I began to feel an incurable distaste for the same; & a longing to plume my pinions for a flight, & felt irked, cramped & fettered by plodding along with dull common places, -- So suddenly standing the thing altogether, I went to work heart & soul at a romance which is now in fair progress, since I had worked at it under an earnest ardor. -- Shout not, nor exlaim "Pshaw! Puh!" -- My romance I assure you is no dish water nor its model borrowed from the Circulating Library. It is something new I assure you, & original if nothing more. But I can give you no adequate idea, of it. You must see it for yourself. -- Only forbear to prejudge it. -- It opens like a true narrative -- like Omoo for example, on ship board -- & the romance & poetry of the thing thence grow continually, till it becomes a story wild enough I assure you & with a meaning too. --Letter to John Murray, March 25 1848

I see that Mardi has been cut into by the London Atheneum, and also burnt by the common hangman in the Boston Post. However the London Examiner & Literary Gazette; & other papers this side of the water have done differently. These attacks are matters of course, and are essential to the building up of any permanent reputation -- if such should ever prove to be mine. -- "There's nothing in it!" cried the dunce, when he threw down the 47th problem of the 1st book of Euclid -- "There's nothing in it --" -- Thus with the posed critic. But Time, which is the solver of all riddles, will solve Mardi. --Letter to Lemuel Shaw, April 23 1849

You may think, in your own mind that a man is unwise, -- indiscreet, to write a work of that kind, when he might have written one perhaps, calculated merely to please the general reader, & not provoke attack, however masqued in an affectation of indifference or contempt. But some of us scribblers, My dear Sir, always have a certain something unmanageable in us, that bids us do this or that, and be done it must -- hit or miss. --Letter to Richard Bentley, June 5 1849

In a little notice of The Oregon Trail I once said something "critical" about another man's book -- I shall never do it again. Hereafter I shall no more stab at a book (in print, I mean) than I would stab at a man. -- I am but a poor mortal, & I admit that I learn by experience & not by divine intuitions. Had I not written & published Mardi, in all likelihood, I would not be as wise as I am now, or may be. For that thing was stabbed at (I do not say through) -- & therefore, I am the wiser for it. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, December 14 1849

If Mardi be admitted to your shelves, your bibliographical Republic of Letters may find some contentment in the thought, that it has afforded refuge to a work, which almost everywhere else has been driven forth like a wild, mystic Mormon into shelterless exile. --To Evert Duyckinck, February 2 1850

On Redburn

I have now in preparation a thing of widely different cast from "Mardi": -- a plain, straightforward, amusing narrative of personal experience -- the son of a gentleman on his first voyage to sea as a sailor -- no metaphysics, no conic-sections, nothing but cakes & ale. I have shifted my ground from the South Seas to a different quarter of the globe -- nearer home -- and what I write I have almost wholly picked up by my own observations under comical circumstances. --Letter to Richard Bentley, June 5 1849

They [Redburn and White-Jacket] are two jobs, which I have done for money -- being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood. And while I have felt obliged to refrain from writing the kind of book I would wish to; yet, in writing these two books, I have not repressed myself much -- so far as they are concerned; but have spoken pretty much as I feel. -- Being books, then, written in this way, my only desire for their "success" (as it is called) springs from my pocket, and not from my heart. So far as I am individually concerned, and independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to "fail".... --Letter to Lemuel Shaw, October 6 1849

This time tomorrow I shall be on land, & press English earth after the lapse of ten years -- then a sailor, now H.M. author of "Peedee" "Hullabaloo" & "Pog-Dog." --Journal Entry, November 4 1849

[The Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine review of Redburn is] very comical -- seemed so, at least, as I had to hurry over it -- in treating the thing as real. But the wonder is that the old Tory should waste so many pages upon a thing, which I, the author, know to be trash, & wrote it to buy some tobacco with. --Journal Entry, November 6 1849

... I hope I shall never write such a book again -- Tho' when a poor devil writes with duns all round him, & looking over the back of his chair -- & perching on his pen & diving in his inkstand -- like the devils about St: Anthony -- what can you expect of that poor devil? -- What but a beggarly Redburn! --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, December 14 1849

On White-Jacket

This man-of-war book, My Dear Sir, is in some parts rather man-of-warish in style -- rather aggressive I fear. -- But you, who like myself, have experienced in person the usages to which a sailor is subjected, will not wonder, perhaps, at any thing in the book. Would to God, that every man who shall read it, had been before the mast in an armed ship, that he might know something himself of what he shall only read of. --Letter to Richard Henry Dana, October 6 1849

You ask me about "the jacket." I answer it was a veritable garment -- which I suppose is now somewhere at the bottom of Charles river. I was a great fool, or I should have brought such a remarkable fabric (as it really was, to behold) home with me. Will you excuse me from telling you -- or rather from putting on pen-&-ink record over my name, the real names of the individuals who officered the frigate. I am very loath to do so, because I have never indulged in any ill-will or disrespect for them, personally; & shrink from any thing that approaches to a personal identification of them with characters that were only intended to furnish samples of a tribe -- characters, also, which possess some not wholly complimentary traits. If you think it worth knowing -- I will tell you all, when I next have the pleasure of seeing you face to face. --Letter to Richard Henry Dana, May 1 1850

On Moby-Dick

About the "whaling voyage" -- I am half way in the work, & am very glad that your suggestion so jumps with mine. It will be a strange sort of book, tho', I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho' you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; -- & to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this. --Letter to Richard Henry Dana, May 1 1850

In the latter part of the coming autumn I shall have ready a new work; and I write you now to propose its publication in England.
The book is 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 harpooneer.
Should you be inclined to undertake the book, I think that it will be worth to you 200 pounds.. Could you be positively put in possession of the copyright, it might be worth to you a larger sum -- considering its great novelty; for I do not know that the subject treated of has ever been worked up by a romancer; or, indeed, by any writer, in any adequate manner. --Letter to Richard Bentley, June 27 1850

It ... is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships' cables and hausers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it. Warn all gentle fastidious people from so much as peeping into the book -- on risk of a lumbago & sciatics. --Letter to Sarah Morewood, September [12?] 1851

For some days past being engaged in the woods with axe, wedge, & beetle, the Whale had almost completely slipped me for the time (& I was the merrier for it) when Crash! comes Moby Dick himself (as you justly say) & reminds me of what I have been about for part of the last year or two. It is really & truly a surprising coincidence -- to say the least. I make no doubt it is Moby Dick himself, for there is no account of his capture after the sad fate of the Pequod about fourteen years ago. -- Ye Gods! What a commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, in response to news of the sinking of a whale ship by a whale, November 7 1851

So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; -- I have heard of Krakens. --Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, November [17?] 1851

On Pierre

... [M]y new book possessing unquestionable novelty, as regards my former ones, -- treating of utterly new scenes & characters; -- and, as I beleive, very much more calculated for popularity than anything you have yet published of mine -- being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, & stirring passions at work, and withall, representing a new & elevated aspect of American life -- all these considerations warrant me strongly in not closing with terms greatly inferior to those upon which our previous negotiations have proceeded. -- Besides, -- if you please, Mr Bentley -- let bygones be bygones; let those previous books, for the present, take care of themselves. For here now we have a new book, and what shall we say about this? If nothing has been made on the old books, may not something be made out of the new? -- At any rate, herewith you have it. Look at it and see whether it will suit you to purchase it.... It is a larger book, by 150 pages & more, than I thought it would be, at the date of my first writing you about it. Other things being equal, this circumstance, -- in your mode of publication -- must of course augment its value to you....
... I have thought that, on several accounts, (one of which is, the rapid succession in which my works have lately been published) it might not prove unadvisable to publish this present book anonymously, or under an assumed name: -- "By a Vermonter" say. or "By Guy Winthrop." --Letter to Richard Bentley, April 16 1852

On Israel Potter

I engage that the story shall contain nothing of any sort to shock the fastidious. There will be very little reflective writing in it; nothing weighty. It is adventure. As for its interest, I shall try to sustain that as well as I can --Letter to George P. Putnam, [June 7?] 1854

Some Memoranda for Publishing Poems

1 -- Don't stand on terms much with the publisher -- half-profits after expenses are paid will content me -- not that I expect much "profits" -- but that will be a fair nominal arrangement -- They should also give me 1 doz. copies of the book --
2 -- Don't have the Harpers. -- I should like the Appletons or Scribner -- But Duyckinck's advice will be good here.
3 -- The sooner the thing is printed and published, the better -- The "season" will make little or no difference, I fancy, in this case.
4 -- After printing, don't let the book hang back -- but publish, & have done.
5 -- For God's sake don't have By the author of "Typee" "Piddledee" &c on the title-page.
6 -- Let the title-page be simply, Poems by Herman Melville.
7 -- Don't have any clap-trap announcements and "sensation" puffs -- nor any extracts published previous to publication of book -- Have a decent publisher, in short....
-- Of all human events, perhaps, the publication of a first volume of verse is the most insignificant; but though a matter of no moment to the world, it is still of some concern to the author, -- as these Mem. show -- Pray therefore, don't laugh at my Mem. but give heed to them, and so oblige Your brother Herman --Letter to his brother Allan, May 22 1860

On Clarel

... [A] metrical affair, a pilgramage or what not, of several thousand lines, eminently adapted for unpopularity. -- The notification to you here is ambidexter, as it were: it may intimidate or allure. --Letter to James Billson, October 10 1884

On Fame

Being told that you particularly desired my autograph I cheerfully send it, and the author of "Typee" looks forward with complacency to his joining that goodly fellowship of names which the taste and industry of Dr. Sprague have collected. But believe me, Dear Sir, I take you to be indeed curious in these autographs, since you desire that of Herman Melville, Lansingburgh, July 24, '46.
Now that I think of it, I was charged to write two of them -- you remember someone woke one morning and found himself famous. And here am I, just come from hoeing in the garden, writing autographs. --Letter to Dr. William Sprague, July 24 1846

-- Ah this sovereign virtue of age -- how can we living men attain unto it. We may spice up our dishes with all the condiments of the Spice Islands & Moluccas, & our dishes may be all venison & wild boar -- yet how the deuce can we make them a century or two old? -- My Dear Sir, the two great things yet to be discovered are these -- The Art of rejuvenating old age in men, & oldageifying youth in books. -- Who in the name of the trunkmakers would think of reading Old [Robert] Burton were his book published for the first to day? -- All ambitious authors should have ghosts capable of revisiting the world, to snuff up the steam of adulation, which begins to rise straightway as the Sexton throws his last shovelful on him. -- Down goes his body & up flies his name. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, April 5 1849

The fact is, almost everybody is having his "mug" engraved nowadays; so that this test of distinction is getting to be reversed; and therefore, to see one's "mug" in a magazine, is presumptive evidence that he's a nobody. So being as vain a man as ever lived; & beleiving that my illustrious name is famous throughout the world -- I respectfully decline being oblivionated by a Daguerrotype.... --Written response to Evert Duyckinck's request for a photograph, February 1851

What's the use of elaborating what, in its very essence, is so short-lived as a modern book? Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.... Think of it! To go down to posterity is bad enough, any way; but to go down as a "man who lived among the cannibals"!... I have come to regard this matter of Fame as the most transparent of all vanities. --Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851

The other day I visited out of curiosity the Gansevoort Hotel, corner of "Little twelfth Street" and West Street. I bought a paper of tobacco by way of introducing myself: then I said to the person who served me: "Can you tell me what this word 'Gansevoort' means? is it the name of a man? and if so, who was this Gansevoort?" Thereupon a solemn gentleman at a remote table spoke up: "Sir," said he, putting down his newspaper, "this hotel and the street of the same name are called after a very rich family who in old times owned a great deal of property hereabouts." The dense ignorance of this solemn gentleman, -- his knowing nothing of the hero of Fort Stanwix, aroused such an indignation in my breast, that, disdaining to enlighten his benighted soul, I left the place without further colloquy. Repairing to the philosophic privacy of the District Office, I then moralized upon the instability of human glory and the evanescence of -- many other things. --Letter to his mother, May 5 1870

As to [James Thomson's] not acheiving "fame" -- what of that? He is not the less, but so much the more. And it must have occurred to you as it has to me, that the further our civilization advances upon its present lines so much the cheaper sort of thing does "fame" become, especially of the literary sort. This species of "fame" a waggish acquaintance says can be manufactured to order, and sometimes is so manufactured thro the agency of a certain house that has a correspondent in every one of the almost innumerable journals that enlighten our millions from the Lakes to the Gulf & from the Atlantic to the Pacific. --Letter to James Billson, December 20 1885

On Insanity

Poor [Charles Fenno] Hoffman -- I remember the shock I had when I first saw the mention of his madness. -- But he was just the man to go mad -- imaginative, voluptuously inclined, poor, unemployed, in the race of life distancd by his inferiors, unmarried, -- without a port or haven in the universe to make. His present misfortune -- rather blessing -- is but the sequel to a long experience of unwholesome habits of thought. -- This going mad of a friend or acquaintance comes straight home to every man who feels his soul in him, -- which but few men do. For in all of us lodges the same fuel to light the same fire. And he who has never felt, momentarily, what madness is has but a mouthful of brains. What sort of sensation permanent madness is may be very well imagined -- just as we imagine how we felt when we were infants, tho' we cannot recall it. In both conditions we are irresponsible & riot like gods without fear of fate. -- It is the climax of a mad night of revelry when the blood has been transmuted into brandy. -- But if we prate much of this thing we shall be illustrating our own propositions. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, April 5 1849

On Life

Would that a man could do something & then say -- It is finished. -- not that one thing only, but all others -- that he has reached his uttermost, & can never exceed it. But live & push -- tho' we put one leg forward ten miles -- its no reason the other leg must lag behind -- no, that must again distance the other -- & so we go till we get the cramp & die. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, April 5 1849

This recovery [from a riding accident] is flattering to my vanity. I begin to indulge in the pleasing idea that my life must needs be of some value. Probably I consume a certain amount of oxygen, which unconsumed might create some subtle disturbance in Nature. Be that as it may, I am going to try and stick to the conviction named above. For I have observed that such an idea, once well bedded in a man, is a wonderful conservator of health and almost a prophecy of long life. I once, like other spoonies, cherished a loose sort of notion that I did not care to live very long. But I will frankly own that I have now no serious, no insuperable objections to a respectable longevity. I dont like the idea of being left out night after night in a cold church-yard. --Letter to Samuel Savage Shaw, December 10 1862

You are young; but I am verging upon three-score, and at times a certain lassitude steals over one -- in fact, a disinclination for doing anything except the indispensable. At such moments the problem of the universe seems a humbug, and epistolary obligations mere moonshine, and the -- well, nepenthe seems all-in-all....
You are young (as I said before) but I aint; and at my years, and with my disposition, or rather, constitution, one gets to care less and less for everything except downright good feeling. Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational (from a certain point of view) that one knows not what to make of it, unless -- well, finish the sentence for yourself.
Thine in these inexplicable fleshly bonds, H.M. --Letter to John C. Hoadley, March 31 1877

Whoever is not in the possession of leisure can hardly be said to possess independence. They talk of the dignity of work. Bosh. True Work is the necessity of poor humanity's earthly condition. The dignity is in leisure. Besides, 99 hundreths of all the work done in the world is either foolish and unnecessary, or harmful and wicked. --Letter to Catherine G. Lansing, September 5 1877

On Metaphysics

And perhaps after all, there is no secret. We incline to think that the Problem of the Universe is like the Freemason's mighty secret, so terrible to all children. It turns out, at last, to consist in a triangle, a mallet, and an apron, -- nothing more! We incline to think that God cannot explain His own secrets, and that He would like a little more information upon certain points Himself. We mortals astonish Him as much as He us. --Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851

On Life at Arrowhead

I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship's cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.
Do you want to know how I pass my time? -- I rise at eight -- thereabouts -- & go to my barn -- say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (it goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can't be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow -- cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it -- for it's a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws -- she does it so mildly and with such a sanctity. -- My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire -- then spread my M.S.S. [Moby-Dick] on the table -- take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2 1/2 P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner -- & I go & give it to them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village -- & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. -- My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room -- not being able to read -- only now & then skimming over some large-printed book. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, December 13 1850

On the Mexican War

People here are all in a state of delirium about the Mexican War. A military ardor pervades all ranks -- Militia Colonels wax red in their coat facings -- and 'prentice boys are running off to the wars by scores. -- Nothing is talked of but the "Halls of the Montezumas" And to hear folks prate about those purely figurative apartments one would suppose that they were another Versailles where our democratic rabble meant to "make a night of it" ere long.... But seriously something great is impending. The Mexican War (tho' our troops have behaved right well) is nothing of itself -- but "a little spark kindleth a great fire" as the well known author of the Proverbs very justly remarks. -- and who knows what all this may lead to -- Will it breed a rupture with England? Or any other great powers? -- Prithee, are there any notable battles in store -- any Yankee Waterloos? -- Or think once of a mighty Yankee fleet coming to the war shock in the middle of the Atlantic with an English one. -- Lord, the day is at hand, when we will be able to talk of our killed & wounded like some of the old Eastern conquerors reckoning them up by thousands; when the Battle of Monmouth will be thought child's play -- & canes made out of the Constitution's timbers be thought no more of than bamboos. --Letter to his brother Gansevoort, May 29 1846

On the Civil War

Do you want to hear about the war? -- The war goes bravely on. McClellan is now within fifteen miles of the rebel capital, Richmond. New Orleans is taken &c &c &c.... But when the end -- the wind-up -- the grand pacification is coming, who knows. We beat the rascals in almost every feild, & take all their ports &c, but they dont cry "Enough!" -- It looks like a long lane, with the turning quite out of sight. --Letter to his brother Thomas, May 25 1862

On James Fenimore Cooper

I never had the honor of knowing, or even seeing, Mr Cooper personally; so that, through my past ignorance of his person, the man, though dead, is still as living to me as ever. And this is very much; for his works are among the earliest I remember, as in my boyhood producing a vivid, and awakening power upon my mind.
It has always much pained me, that for any reason, in his latter years, his fame at home should have apparently received a slight, temporary clouding, from some very paltry accidents, incident, more or less, to the general career of letters. But whatever possible things in Mr Cooper may have seemed, to have, in some degree, provoked the occasional treatment he received, it is certain, that he possessed no slightest weaknesses, but those, which are only noticeable as the almost infallible indices of pervading greatness. He was a great, robust-souled man, all whose merits are not even yet fully appreciated. But a grateful posterity will take the best of care of Fennimore Cooper. --Letter to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, December 19 1851

On Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Philosophy

Nay, I do not oscillate in Emerson's rainbow, but prefer rather to hang myself in mine own halter than swing in any other man's swing. Yet I think Emerson is more than a brilliant fellow. Be his stuff begged, borrowed, or stolen, or of his own domestic manufacture he is an uncommon man. Swear he is a humbug -- then is he no common humbug. Lay it down that had not Sir Thomas Browne lived, Emerson would not have mystified -- I will answer, that had not Old Zack's father begot him, old Zack would never have been the hero of Palo Alto. The truth is that we are all sons, grandsons, or nephews or great-nephews of those who go before us. No one is his own sire. -- I was very agreeably disappointed in Mr Emerson. I had heard of him as full of transcendentalisms, myths & oracular gibberish; I had only glanced at a book of his once in Putnam's store -- that was all I knew of him, till I heard him lecture. -- To my surprise, I found him quite intelligible, tho' to say truth, they told me that that night he was unusually plain. -- Now, there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is, for the most part, instinctuly perceptible. This I see in Mr Emerson. And, frankly, for the sake of the argument, let us call him a fool; -- then had I rather be a fool than a wise man. -- I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he don't attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can't fashion the plumet that will. I'm not talking of Mr Emerson now -- but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.
I could readily see in Emerson, notwithstanding his merit, a gaping flaw. It was, the insinuation, that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions. These men are all cracked right across the brow. And never will the pullers-down be able to cope with the builders-up. And this pulling down is easy enough -- a keg of powder blew up Block's Monument -- but the man who applied the match, could not, alone, build such a pile to save his soul from the shark-maw of the Devil. But enough of this Plato who talks thro' his nose. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, March 3 1849

God help the poor fellow who squares his life according to this. --Marginalia

On Nathaniel Hawthorne

... I have recently read his "Twice Told Tales" (I hadnt read but a few of them before) I think they far exceed the "Mosses" -- they are, I fancy, an earlier vintage from his wine. Some of those sketches are wonderfully subtle. Their deeper meanings are worthy of a Brahmin. Still there is something lacking -- a good deal lacking -- to the plump sphericity of the man. What is that?
-- He doesn't patronise the butcher -- he needs roast-beef, done rare. -- Nevertheless, for one, I regard Hawthorne (in his books) as evincing a quality of genius, immensely loftier, & more profound, too, than any other American has shown hitherto in the printed form. Irving is a grasshopper to him -- putting the souls of the two men together, I mean. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, February 12 1851

On Fanny Kemble Butler

She makes a glorious Lady Macbeth, but her Desdemona seems like a boarding school miss. -- She's so unfemininely masculine that had she not, on unimpeckable authority, borne children, I should be curious to learn the result of a surgical examination of her person in private. The Lord help Butler ... I marvel not he seeks being amputated off from his matrimonial half. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, February 24, 1849

On Abraham Lincoln

The night previous to this I was at the second levee at the White House. There was a great crowd, & a brilliant scene. Ladies in full dress by the hundred. A steady stream of two-&-twos wound thro' the apartments shaking hands with "Old Abe" and immediately passing on. This continued without cessation for an hour & a half. Of course I was one of the shakers. Old Able is much better looking [than] I expected & younger looking. He shook hands like a good fellow -- working hard at it like a man sawing wood at so much per cord. Mrs Lincoln is rather good-looking I thought. The scene was very fine altogether. Superb furniture -- flood of light -- magnificent flowers -- full band of music &c. --Letter to his wife, March 24 & 25 1861

On William Shakespeare

I have been passing my time very pleasurably here, But cheifly in lounging on a sofa (a la the poet Grey) & reading Shakspeare. It is an edition in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every "t" like a musket barrel. Dolt & ass that I am I have lived more than 29 years, & until a few days ago, never made close acquaintance with the divine William. Ah, he's full of sermons-on-the-mount, and gentle, aye, almost as Jesus. I take such men to be inspired. I fancy that this moment Shakspeare in heaven ranks with Gabriel Raphael and Michael. And if another Messiah ever comes twill be in Shakesper's person. -- I am mad to think how minute a cause has prevented me hitherto from reading Shakspeare. But until now, every copy that was come-atable to me, happened to be in a vile small print unendurable to my eyes which are tender as young sparrows. But chancing to fall in with this glorious edition, I now exult in it, page after page. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, February 24 1849

And do not think, my boy, that because I, impulsively broke forth in jubillations over Shakspeare, that, therefore, I am of the number of the snobs who burn their tuns of rancid fat at his shrine. No, I would stand afar off & alone, & burn some pure Palm oil, the product of some overtopping trunk.
-- I would to God Shakspeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway. Not that I might have had the pleasure of leaving my card for him at the Astor, or made merry with him over a bowl of the fine Duyckinck punch; but that the muzzle which all men wore on their soul in the Elizebethan day, might not have intercepted Shakspers full articulations. For I hold it a verity, that even Shakspeare, was not a frank man to the uttermost. And, indeed, who in this intolerant universe is, or can be? But the Declaration of Independence makes a difference. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, March 3 1849

On James Thomson, Poet

"Sunday up the River," contrasting with the "City of Dreadful Night," is like a Cuban humming-bird, beautiful in faery tints, flying against the tropic thunder-cloud. [Thomson] was a sterling poet, if ever one sang. As to his pessimism, altho' neither pessimist nor optomist myself, nevertheless I relish it in the verse if for nothing else than as a counterpoise to the exorbitant hopefulness, juvenile and shallow, that makes such a bluster in these days -- at least, in some quarters. --Letter to James Billson, January 22 1885

... [E]ach [of Thomson's poems] is so admirably honest and original that it would have been wonderful indeed had they hit the popular taste. They would have to be painstakingly diluted for that -- diluted with that prudential wordly element, wherewithall Mr Arnold has conciliated the conventionalists while at the same time showing the absurdity of Bumble. But for your admirable friend this would have been too much like trimming -- if trimming in fact it be. The motions of his mind in the best of his Essays are utterly untrameled and independent, and yet falling naturally into grace and poetry. It is good for me to think of such a mind -- to know that such a brave intelligence has been -- and may yet be, for aught anyone can demonstrate to the contrary. --Letter to James Billson, December 20 1885

On Himself

It is now quite a time since you first asked me for my photo: -- Well, here it is at last, the veritable face (at least, so says the Sun that never lied in his life) of your now venerable friend -- venerable in years. -- What the deuse makes him look so serious, I wonder. I thought he was of a gay and frolicsome nature, judgeing from a little rhyme of his about a Kitten, which you once showed me. But is this the same man? Pray, explain the inconsistency, or I shall begin to suspect your venerable friend of being a two-faced fellow and not to be trusted. --Letter to Ellen M. Gifford, October 5 1885

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