When Herman Melville died at seventy-two, in September 1891, he had been out of public view for so long that The New York Times identified him as Henry Melville. An obituary writer expressed surprise that the author best known for Typee—his first novel, set in the South Seas, notorious for its Gauguin-like sexual exploits with native women—had not died much earlier. Melville had outlived his two sons: one killed himself with a gunshot to the head, the other survived shipwreck and other mishaps to die, a feckless wanderer, of tuberculosis.
Melville had outlived his reputation as well. After the hostile reception of Moby-Dick (1851) and his gothic romance Pierre (1852), he spent nearly twenty years of his remaining life—years in which he seemed, in his raging moods, increasingly unhinged to his relatives—patrolling the docks for the Custom House of Lower Manhattan and trying to convert himself from a failed prose writer into a poet. “You need not tell anyone,” his wife, Elizabeth, wrote to her mother of this embarrassing development, “for you know how such things get around.”
At his death, Melville’s unpublished manuscripts were consigned to a metal breadbox, where they lay, undisturbed as the grave, for nearly thirty years. When the unassuming receptacle, “hardly larger than a miniature suitcase,” was finally opened by the Melville biographer Raymond Weaver in 1919, just in time to help fuel the great Melville revival of the 1920s, it was found to contain a considerable amount of miscellaneous material, which Elizabeth Melville had painstakingly tied “with pink tape into orderly bundles.” The contents of the bundles are now handsomely housed in the fifteenth and final volume of the majestic Northwestern-Newberry Edition of Melville’s writings, a project begun in 1965 and completed to coincide with the bicentennial in 2019 of Melville’s birth.
Much of the salvaged material, not surprisingly, turned out to be short poems in the traditional forms—rhymed couplets, quatrains, and the like—that Melville had been working to master since his turn to poetry during the late 1850s. There is a cluster of floral poems under the provisional title “Weeds and Wildings”:
Beneath yon Larkspur’s azure bells,
That sun their bees in balmy air,
In mould no more the Blue-Bird dwells
Though late he found internment there.
More challenging, for writer and reader, are various experimental hybrids of verse and prose, among which is a prose headnote, followed by a poem, called “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac.” Melville evidently saw himself—perhaps because of his twenty years of somnolent seclusion at the Custom House—as a latter-day “tattered Rip himself in his picturesque resurrection,” and his poems as Rip’s “slatternly” house, “fatally arrested in course of completion.”
There was something far more substantial lurking in the breadbox, however. One of the pink-taped bundles was found…
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