What does Melville’s career tell us of the creative imagination but that it lies at the mercy of earthly circumstances? Melville wrote, in his dozen productive years, with extraordinary intensity, spending such long hours at his writing table that his health and sanity were feared for and his eyes became, in his words, “tender as young sparrows.” Yet his youth held few hints of precocity or of literary concern; in 1850 he told Hawthorne, “Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then & now, that I have not unfolded within myself.” The pre-Typee silence of this, in his father’s words, “amiable and docile” youth—compare Poe and Hawthorne and Bryant, all scribbling and published by their very early twenties—foreshadows the eventual return to silence when, at thirty-eight, after the publication of The Confidence-Man, Melville again succumbed to fatalism and intellectual passivity.
At the age of twenty-five, however, he found himself brimming with the exotic material of his recent adventures in the South Seas, and sensed a public eager for the kind of adventure tale that he could provide. “The book is certainly calculated for popular reading, or for none at all,” he wrote the publisher of Typee. The English edition coming first, he permitted the American text to be bowdlerized of “all passages … which offer violence to the feelings of any large class of readers.” These included not only “indelicate” sexual passages quite appropriate to the Polynesian setting, but unflattering accounts of the South Seas missionaries: “I have rejected every thing, in revising the book, which refers to the missionaries,” Melville assured his publisher. “So far as the wide & permanent popularity of the book is concerned, their exclusion will certainly be beneficial.”
A certain Walter Whitman, reviewing the book in the Brooklyn Eagle, praised it as summer reading: “A strange, graceful, most readable book this …. As a book to hold in one’s hand and pore dreamily over of a summer day, it is unsurpassed.” Its successor, Omoo, was even more consciously shaped to avoid offending the prejudices of a large audience, and to at least one reader, the wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seemed “very inferior to Typee, being written not so much for its own sake as to make another book apparently.” In writing Mardi, Melville himself began to chafe against the requirements of making yet another book. Writing his English publisher, John Murray, he confessed, “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.”
Chastened by the self-indulgent book’s failure, he returned to facts and commonplaces in Redburn and White-Jacket, but with a good deal of resentment and bitterness and self-scorn. He wrote his father-in-law that the books were “two jobs, which I have done for money—being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood.” To Richard Henry Dana, Jr., whose Two Years Before the Mast was a classic of the genre in which Melville first composed, he claimed to have turned out these books “almost entirely for lucre” and in his journal marveled that a favorable reviewer of Redburn should “waste so many pages upon a thing, which I, the author, know to be trash, & wrote it to buy some tobacco with.” And he wrote Evert Duyckinck that he hoped never to write another book like it, though it “puts money into an empty purse.” When an author, he goes on, “attempts anything higher—God help him & save him! for it is not with a hollow purse as with a hollow balloon—for a hollow purse makes the poet sink—witness ‘Mardi.’ ”
Yet his spirits and energy remained high, and in the middle of writing the next sea adventure, Moby-Dick, he met Hawthorne, whose example and presence, for the year that they lived as neighbors in the Berkshires, emboldened Melville to plume his pinions for another flight, and to rewrite his text into a complicated, exuberant, exhaustive, and wholly original masterpiece. However, as with Mardi, the reviews were sour and the receipts meager, and he settled again to court a popular audience. To his publisher he promised, “My new book [is] 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.” Alas, Pierre, weirdly fetching up all his domestic devils and the resentments he had endured in the households of his mother and his wife, disastrously miscarried, as did The Confidence-Man, its attempt to convey riverboat atmosphere and frontier humor all but smothered under a misanthropy that verges on pathology. Rage had overtaken the sunny-humored natural stylist of Typee and Omoo, and he ceased to court an audience that had ceased to respond.
The spectacle of an artist at war with an audience’s expectations was, by Melville’s time, still uncommon. His contemporary Dickens appeared to enjoy the give-and-take with readers that periodical serialization had opened up, and with no strain upon his artistic conscience sometimes trimmed his plot in response to letters he received. This same Dickens undertook extensive tours of dramatic readings from his own work, weeping with his audience over the death of Little Nell and indeed putting so much of himself into these performances that he shortened his life—a crowd pleaser, as well as a genius, to the end. Pleasing the audience, for writers as well as for other sorts of Victorian musical entertainers, was the art,and, though Stendhal claimed to be writing for an audience of the future, not until Flaubert was the notion formulated of a novelist art that existed in independence of and even in defiance of the bourgeois public.
The idea of an artist arose, we may surmise, in tribal environments where the distinction between art’s producers and its consumers was shadowy at best. All tribal members collaborated in the dance, in the enactments of ritual, and the tale teller and mask maker were exemplary performers within a generally created rite. The social function of art could scarcely be an issue when all function was social, when personal gratification was inconceivable apart from the aggregate health and spiritual soundness. The oldest surviving art objects are votive and totemic; sculptural and graphic representation began in service to religion, and an awesome submissiveness underlies the serene monotony of Egyptian and Chinese representational conventions. It should be noted, though, that even in immensely static Egypt, when a revolutionary Pharaoh, Akhenaten, proclaimed a new theology—a kind of anticlerical sun worship—the artists of his time responded with a new, slightly more supple and naturalistic style. Furthermore, in the tombs of the lesser nobles, Egyptian mural art becomes less Pharaonic, more playful and attentive to the tender details of life, to the birds and reeds, in the Nile valley. Artistic creativity, that is, tends to frolic in the margins of its hieratic assignments, and a perennial skirmishing exists between received conventions and unstructured impressions.
At the dawn of Western literature, with Homer, the Old Testament writers, and the bards and balladeers whose oral compositions have descended from the smoky throne rooms of northern Europe, it is difficult to discern any chink between the assignment and the execution, between the assumptions of the performer and those of the audience. A seamless intention seems bound up in these old master-works. As in today’s symbiosis between the yelling, youthful rock star and his screaming adolescent fans, the artist enunciates the inner impulses of all, and his poetry has little more personal taint than that of the jokes and riddles which mysteriously arise and circulate among schoolchildren even today. The bard proclaims the tribal record; he speaks, or so we imagine at this great distance, for all.
So, too, the great playwrights of ancient Greece descend to us as synonymous with their culture, their popularity certified by the very survival of their texts and by their many first prizes at the Dionysia, the spring festival at Athens—thirteen first prizes for Aeschylus, about twenty for Sophocles (who never placed less than second in these competitions), and only four for Euripides. With Euripides, the youngest of the three, we have hints of author–audience tension in the modern style: the relative paucity of his prizes, his irreverent and even hostile treatment of the gods and their myths, his cursory handling of the conventional deus ex machina ending, as if the playwright is impatiently bowing to convention, and the something morbid and quarrelsome in the psychology of his characters all suggest an artist more intent upon saying what interests him than saying what people ought to hear. The inconvenience of realism, which is to close English theaters under the Puritans and to scandalize readers of Flaubert and Zola,Dreiser and Joyce, first arises with Euripides, who is said to have been tried for impiety and to have gone to live in the court of the king of Macedonia because of his unpopularity in Athens.
The Middle Ages enlisted artists, usually anonymously, in the praise and service of God; we do not hesitate to credit the inner life of the age, rather than the genius of the individual stone carver, with the sublime sculptures at Chartres and Rheims. Dante is the first writer in a thousand years to whom we easily ascribe a personality, a personal history unmistakably reflected in his work. Shakespeare is our classic folk artist, who disdained no extremity of farce or fustian to keep the groundlings at the Globe entertained. He cobbled up coarse old plots, turning their absurdities into profundities and their carpentry into poetry; he concocted roles for whatever actor needed one, such as the company clowns William Kempe and Robert Armin; he casually collaborated with infinitely lesser talents and merged the proverbial wisdom of the time with his own prodigious originality. To think of Shakespeare as so immensely obliging and yet the glory of our language flatters us, of course, and suggests that being a great writer isn’t something to get all fussy and truculent about. Since he left so little biographical trace that men still write serious books maintaining he was somebody else, we have only the work as the record of the man. Those who believe that this record reveals nothing should read the late Frank O’Connor’s Shakespeare’s Progress; O’Connor, with many a bold reading and pugnacious opinion, sketches a turbulent, conflicted, and resentful life behind the oeuvre. He quotes the quatrain from Sonnet 111—
O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds—