Quodlibets: Succeeding To Fail

When Herman Melville died, he left the manuscript of a novella, Billy Budd. He had not written fiction for years, but had used the time left him from his duties as a customs inspector in the Port of New York to write verse which is not universally held in high esteem, but for which I am determined to acquire a taste. Pasted to the cover of the writing box in which the fiction manuscript was found was this legend: Stay true to the dreams of thy youth.

Did that motto refer to Billy Budd? Did it represent Melville’s own resolution? Did it, perhaps, explain his return to writing fiction after decades during which the author of Moby-Dick was all but forgotten? Tantalizing thoughts. But then Melville himself is tantalizing, one of the greatest figures in American literature whose own life is a story of seeming failure.

His father failed at business, and so did a brother. Herman, after an initial popular success with novels based on his experiences in the South Seas, Typee and Omoo, wrote at thirty-one that all but uncategorizable masterpiece, Moby-Dick. It did not meet with a great reception, critically or commercially. He followed it with a number of fast novels meant to sell, but met with disappointment. A scholar has estimated that Melville earned something like $10,000 total in his lifetime from his writing. Not enough for a family man, and Herman had trouble finding other employment. His father-in-law sent him off on a long therapeutic trip to the Holy Land, crucial later for the long poem, Clarel. One of his brothers, a ship captain, took him along to San Francisco and back. He failed to get an appointment in the consular service. His in-laws feared he was losing his mind. He did lose both his sons, one by suicide. Finally, he seemed to sink willingly into the undemanding oblivion of his job as custom inspector. The poetry was published at his own expense in very small press runs. What does it all mean?

Knowing what lay ahead for its author makes reading Moby-Dick an almost eerie experience. In this novel and earlier ones, we are presented with the sailor as philosopher, a man with lots of time to think. Moby-Dick is the work of a nautical philosopher. When Ishmael signs on the Pequod, he is asked if he wants to see the world. Of course he does. Then go to the rail and look down at the water. That is what the whole world will look like on a whaling expedition. But there is more than world enough for a great novel. In it, Melville might be fashioning thoughts that would make what eventually happened to him tolerable. He is the poet, in prose and verse, of the success that lies hidden in outward failure.

The thought is a religious one, at least it was for Herman Melville. He remained throughout his life haunted by faith, both attracted and repelled, but the speculative difficulties of the young author were to become the very real trials of the older man, a man who remained true to the dreams of his youth.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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