Concerning Herman Melville

A page from The Life and Works of Herman Melville

A collection of the various eulogies, observations, and slanders that have been heaped upon Melville by family members and well-known personalities since 1829. Comments are arranged in alphabetical order by authors' last names; multiple comments taken from a single source have been further arranged in chronological order.

Joseph Conrad

Years ago I looked into Typee and Omoo, but as I didn't find there what I am looking for when I open a book I did go no further. Lately I had in my hand Moby Dick. It struck me as a rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 vols of it. --Letter to Humphrey Milford, January 15 1907

George William Curtis, author

I don't think Melville's book [The Piazza Tales] will sell a great deal, but he is a good name upon your list. He has lost his prestige, -- & I don't believe the Putnam stories will bring it up. --Letter to J.H. Dix, January 2 1856

Evert Duyckinck, friend

...Herman Melville passed the evening with me -- fresh from his mountain charged to the muzzle with his sailor metaphysics and jargon of things unknowable. But a good stirring evening -- ploughing deep and bringing to the surface some rich fruit of thought and experience -- Melville instanced Burton as atheistical -- in the exquisite irony of his passages on some sacred matters; cited a good story from the Decameron the Enchantment of the husband in the tree; a story from Judge Edmonds of a prayer meeting of female convicts at Sing Sing which the Judge was invited to witness and agreed to, provided that he was introduced where he could not be seen. It was an orgie of indecency and blasphemy. Said of Bayard Taylor that as some augur predicted the misfortunes of Charles I from the infelicity of his countenance so Taylor's prosperity "borne up by the Gods" was written in his face. --Diary entry, 1857

Nathaniel Hawthorne

I have read Melville's works with a progressive appreciation of the author. No writer ever put the reality before his reader more unflinchingly than he does in Redburn, and White Jacket. Mardi is a rich book, with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life. It is so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded long over it, so as to make it a great deal better. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, August 1850

What a book [Moby-Dick] Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones. It hardly seemed to me that the review of it, in the Literary World, did justice to its best points. --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, December 1 1851

A week ago last Monday, Herman Melville came to see me at the Consulate, looking much as he used to do (a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder), in a rough outside coat, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner.... [W]e soon found ourselves on pretty much our former terms of sociability and confidence. Melville has not been well, of late; he has been affected with neuralgic complaints in his head and limbs, and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind.... I do not wonder that he found it necessary to take an airing through the world, after so many years of toilsome pen-labor and domestic life, following upon so wild and adventurous a youth as his was.... He is a person of very gentlemanly instincts in every respect, save that he is a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen.... Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists -- and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before -- in wondering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us. --Notebook Entry, November 20 1856

Sophia Hawthorne

A man with true, warm heart, and a soul and an intellect, -- with life to his fingerprints; earnest, sincere, and reverent; very tender and modest. And I am not sure that he is not a very great man. He has very keen perceptive power; but what astonishes me is, that his eyes are not large and deep. He seems to me to see everything accurately; and how he can do so with his small eyes, I cannot tell. They are not keen eyes, either, but quite undistinguished in any way. His nose is straight and handsome, his mouth expressive of sensibility and emotion. He is tall and erect, with an air free, brave, and manly. When conversing, he is full of gesture and force, and loses himself in his subject. There is no grace or polish. Once in a while, his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of those eyes to which I have objected; an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into itself. --Letter to her mother, 1850

Allan Melvill, father

He is very backward in speech & somewhat slow in comprehension, but you will find him as far as he understands men & things both solid & profound, & of a docile & amiable disposition. -- Letter, 1826?

Herman I think is making more progress than formerly, and without being a bright Scholar, he maintains a respectable standing, and would proceed further, if he could be induced to study more -- being a most amiable and innocent child, I cannot find it in my heart to coerce him, especially as he seems to have chosen Commerce as a favorite pursuit, whose practical activity can well dispose with much book knowledge. --Letter, 1830

Elizabeth Shaw Melville, wife

We breakfast at 8 o'clock, then Herman goes to walk and I fly up to put his room to rights, so that he can sit down to his desk immediately upon his return. Then I bid him good-bye, with many charges to be an industrious boy and not upset the inkstand.... At four we dine, and after dinner is over, Herman and I come up to our room and enjoy a cosy chat for an hour or so -- or he reads me some of the chapters he has been writing in the day. Then he goes down town for a walk, looks at the papers in the reading room, etc., and returns about half-past seven or eight. Then my work or my book is laid aside, and as he does not use his eyes but very little by candle light, I either read to him, or take a hand at whist for his amusement, or he listens to our reading or conversation, as best pleases him. For we all collect in the parlor in the evening, and generally one of us reads aloud for the benefit of the whole. Then we retire very early -- at 10 o'clock we all disperse. --Letter to her stepmother, December 23 1847

We have resolved to stop after this though and not go out at all, for while Herman is writing the effect of keeping late hours is very injurious to him -- if he does not get a full night's rest or indulges in a late supper, he does not feel right for writing the next day. --Letter to her stepmother, February 1848

Herman from his studious habits and tastes being unfitted for practical matters, all the financial management falls upon me. --Letter, 1872

The fact is, that Herman, poor fellow, is in such a frightfully nervous state, & particularly now with such an added strain on his mind, that I am actually afraid to have any one here for fear he will be upset entirely, & not be able to go on with the printing -- He was not willing to have even his own sisters here.... If ever this dreadful incubus of a book [Clarel] (I call it so because it has undermined all our happiness) gets off Herman's shoulders I do hope he may be in better mental health -- but at present I have reason to feel the gravest concern & anxiety about it -- to put it in mild phrase.... --Letter to Catherine Gansevoort, 1876

Sarah Morewood, neighbor

Mr Herman was more quiet than usual -- still he is a pleasant companion at all times and I like him very much -- Mr Morewood now that he knows him better likes him much more -- still he dislikes many of Mr Hermans opinions and religious views -- It is a pity that Mr Melville so often in conversation uses irreverent language -- he will not be popular in society here on that very account -- but this will not trouble him. I hear that he is now engaged in a new work [Moby-Dick] as frequently not to leave his room till quite dark in the evening -- when he for the first time during the whole day partakes of solid food -- he must therefore write under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health -- I laughed at him somewhat and told him that the recluse life he was leading made his city friends think that he was slightly insane -- he replied that long ago he had come to the same conclusion himself -- but if he left home to look after Hungary the cause in hunger would suffer.... --Letter to George Duyckinck, December 1851

Lemuel Shaw, Jr., brother-in-law

A new book by Herman called The Confidence Man has recently been published. I have not yet read it; but have looked at it & dipped into it, & fear it belongs to that horribly uninteresting class of nonsensical books he is given to writing -- where there are pages of crude theory & speculation to every line of narrative -- & interspersed with strained & ineffectual attempts to be humorous. I wish he could or would do better, when he went away he was dispirited & ill -- & this book was left completed in the publisher's hands. --Letter to Samuel Shaw

Bayard Taylor, poet

Bright painter of those tropic isles,
That stud the blue waves, far apart,
Be thine, through life, the summer's smiles,
And fadeless foliage of the heart
And may some guardian genius still
Taboo thy path from every ill.
--Valentine's Day greeting, 1848

N. P. Willis, author

Herman Melville, with his cigar and his Spanish eyes, talks Typee and Omoo, just as you find the flow of his delightful mind on paper. Those who have only read his books know the man-- those who have only seen the man have a fair idea of his books. --In New York Home Journal, October 13 1849

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