February 2, 2011

1. American Writers

A. Washington Irving

Washington Irving was one of the first American writers to acquire an international reputation. He was born and raised in New York City, and when he was 26, he published a satirical History of New York. He popularized terms like “Gotham” (a nickname for New York City) and “Knickerbocker” (a nickname for New Yorkers).

His best-known work is The Sketch Book, published in 1820, which included the short stories “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Several pieces in The Sketch Book deal with Christmas traditions; Irving shaped how Americans celebrate Christmas. While many of the pieces in The Sketch Book are charming, some are sugary; Irving’s writing is graceful and elegant, but lacks intellectual or emotional depth.

Irving wrote historical works, including biographies of George Washington and Columbus, and travel books, including a book about the Alhambra. Irving held several diplomatic posts; in the 1840s, he served as U.S. minister to Spain. He travelled throughout Europe, and was acquainted with Walter Scott, Dickens, Poe, and other writers. Irving was known for his conversational skill, and was “one of the world’s most in-demand guests.”1

When he finally returned to the U.S. in 1832, Irving wrote three books on the American West, including A Tour on the Prairies. He bought a house on the Hudson River, Sunnyside, where he lived for many years; it’s now a museum.

B. James Fenimore Cooper

Like Irving, Cooper had an international reputation in the early 1800s. Cooper is often described as a Romantic novelist, the American Scott. His father was a Congressman and the founder of Cooperstown, New York, where James grew up. Though we associate him with Indian fights, he was also a pioneer of the sea novel (Robert Louis Stevenson referred to him as “Cooper of the wood and wave”). Like Melville, Cooper went to sea while still a teenager, serving on both a merchant ship and a naval ship.

Cooper’s most famous novel, The Last of the Mohicans, was published in 1826, when Cooper was 37; it was part of a series called the Leatherstocking novels, which feature the frontiersman Natty Bumppo and his Indian friend, Chingachgook. Cooper often wrote about political topics; he became embroiled in quarrels, and sued several foes for libel. He lived in Europe for several years, and wrote three novels about Europe, including The Bravo, which was based in Venice, and took a dim view of Venice’s aristocratic government.

Cooper’s works were admired by Hugo, Balzac, Conrad, and many others. When the composer Schubert was on his death-bed, his chief wish was to read more Cooper novels. Like Scott, Cooper has few readers today, and fewer fans.

C. Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne was from a prominent New England family; one of his ancestors had been a judge at the Salem Witch Trials. Hawthorne published two volumes of short stories: Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse. He also wrote two books that re-told Greek myths: A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, and Tanglewood Tales. His most popular work was The Scarlet Letter, which he followed with three more novels, The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun. All four of his novels are set in Massachusetts, except for The Marble Faun, which is set in Italy.

Hawthorne called these four books “romances” rather than “novels” because they don’t aim at realism; his work is sometimes classified as “dark romanticism.” Melville said that Hawthorne’s stories were “shrouded in blackness, ten times black.” Hawthorne’s preoccupation with sin and guilt put him at odds with the sunny Transcendentalists; Emerson said, “his writing is not good for anything.”

Hawthorne’s prose is elegant and graceful; as Poe put it, Hawthorne’s style is “purity itself.”

Though he was on friendly terms with Melville, Emerson, Thoreau and others, Hawthorne wasn’t gregarious; according to Wikipedia, “Hawthorne was almost pathologically shy and stayed silent when at gatherings.” When Hawthorne died in 1864, at the age of 59, Emerson spoke of, “the painful solitude of the man, which, I suppose, could no longer be endured, and he died of it.” Hawthorne was happily married, and had three children, but his wife said, “he hates to be touched more than anyone I ever knew.”

Hawthorne worked as a customs official — first in Boston, later in Salem, and finally in Liverpool, England. The Liverpool post was especially well-paid, and enabled Hawthorne and his wife to travel in Italy (these travels inspired The Marble Faun). He obtained the Liverpool post through President Franklin Pierce, whom he had known at Bowdoin College, and for whom he wrote a campaign biography.

D. Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, in 1807. His maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, had been a general in the Revolutionary War, and his father was a trustee of Bowdoin College. Longfellow himself attended Bowdoin, where he met Hawthorne. When he was a college senior, he wrote his father thus:

I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature, my whole soul burns most ardently after it, and every earthly thought centers in it... If I can ever rise in the world it must be by the exercise of my talents in the wide field of literature.2

After graduating from Bowdoin, Longfellow spent three years in Europe, studying modern languages. In Madrid, he met Washington Irving. When he returned to the U.S., he became a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin, but the work didn’t satisfy his lofty ambitions.

He made another trip to Europe, where he studied Scandinavian languages, and then became a professor at Harvard. “As a professor, Longfellow was well-liked, though he disliked being ‘constantly a playmate for boys’ rather than ‘stretching out and grappling with men’s minds.’” His home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is now a museum, as is his childhood home in Portland, Maine.

Like Irving, Longfellow often wrote in a sweet, sentimental vein. Longfellow was considered one of the “Fireside Poets,” along with William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Longfellow’s works were extremely popular in his time; many Americans knew his poems by heart (such as “Paul Revere’s Ride”). He was popular in Europe, too: “It was reported that 10,000 copies of The Courtship of Miles Standish sold in London in a single day.” One of his most popular works is The Song of Hiawatha, a narrative poem based on Indian legends. Jung discussed the psychological significance of Hiawatha in his Symbols of Transformation. Longfellow spent many years on a translation of Dante, and he also translated Michelangelo’s poetry. He was married twice, and both his wives died prematurely; he suffered from recurrent depression.

Longfellow’s poetry was so popular that his 70th birthday, in 1877, was celebrated as a kind of national holiday. “In 1879, a female admirer traveled to Longfellow’s house in Cambridge and, unaware to whom she was speaking, asked Longfellow: ‘Is this the house where Longfellow was born?’ Longfellow told her it was not. The visitor then asked if he had died here. ‘Not yet,’ he replied.”3 Longfellow died in 1882. His popularity declined after his death; his work has little appeal to modern taste.

E. Mark Twain

Mark Twain is the most popular of American writers; everyone enjoys novels like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Pudd’nhead Wilson. In addition to writing novels, Twain wrote many delightful short stories, and many travel books. Twain appeals to adults who want to re-capture the spirit of boyhood, and he appeals to civilized readers who want to re-capture the spirit of an uncivilized world. Twain is so light-hearted and humorous that we’re apt to take him lightly, and forget that he had vast ambitions and vast talents.

Twain was born in 1835, and grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River (Hannibal was the setting for Twain’s best-known works, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn). His father was a small-town lawyer and judge. His older brother published a newspaper, the Hannibal Journal, and Twain began writing for this newspaper at the age of 12. Like Whitman, Twain learned the craft of typesetting and printing. From age 18 to 22, Twain worked as a printer in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.

When he returned to Missouri, he met a steamboat pilot, and decided to become a pilot himself. “Twain studied 2,000 miles of the Mississippi for more than two years before he received his steamboat pilot license in 1859.”4 His river experiences were the basis for his book Life on the Mississippi.

Twain persuaded his younger brother to learn piloting, too. His brother was killed in a steamboat explosion. A month before his death, Twain had a prophetic dream. He developed a strong interest in the occult, was inclined to believe in life-after-death, and was an early member of the Society for Psychical Research (among the members of this society were William James, Arthur Conan Doyle, Yeats, and Jung).

When the Civil War broke out, river traffic declined, and so did the demand for pilots. So at age 26, Twain headed west with his older brother. He tried his hand as a miner, and wrote stories and travel pieces for various newspapers. His Western adventures inspired the book Roughing It. His first big success was the short story “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865).

In 1866, a California newspaper sent him to Hawaii. Soon he began lecturing about his travels. In 1867, a newspaper funded a trip to Europe and the Middle East, a trip that was the basis for Innocents Abroad (a second trip to Europe was the basis for A Tramp Abroad). In 1870, he married, and spent two years working on a newspaper in Buffalo, New York, before moving to Hartford; he and his family lived in Hartford for 17 years (his Hartford house is now a museum, as is his boyhood home in Hannibal).

Twain was more than a humorist. He was interested in history, read Carlyle’s French Revolution countless times, and wrote a serious book about Joan of Arc, which he regarded as his best book (it’s called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc). He had a keen interest in the Shakespeare controversy, and like Whitman, he was convinced that the man from Stratford wasn’t the real author. He was interested in science, and often visited the lab of Nikola Tesla. In his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he depicts a time-traveler introducing modern science to a medieval society. He patented several inventions; “most commercially successful was a self-pasting scrapbook; a dried adhesive on the pages only needed to be moistened before use.”

Twain’s attempt to market an automatic typesetter was an abysmal failure, and left him deeply indebted. He also lost money in a publishing venture (as did Walter Scott). To pay his debts, he gave lectures around the world (Freud heard him speak in Vienna). This lecture tour was the basis for another travel book, Following the Equator.

His political views became more radical as he grew older. He was critical of missionaries and imperialists, and defended the rights of indigenous peoples. He criticized American policy in the Philippines, and supported violent revolution in Russia. He also supported women’s rights, and labor unions.

In 1909, Twain said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” He died in 1910, one day after the comet passed. Two of his novels (The Prince and the Pauper and Pudd’nhead Wilson) deal with the “mystic connection” between people born on the same day. A volume of autobiography was published in 2010, 100 years after Twain’s death (as he had stipulated), and became a bestseller.

His real name was Samuel Clemens; the pen name “Mark Twain” was a common riverboat expression, meaning that the water was a safe depth — at the second mark on the sounding line (the second mark was two fathoms, or 12 feet). Twain’s grave in Elmira, New York has a 12-foot monument.

In an earlier issue, I described Huck Finn as “a satire of occult thinking.... Much of Huck Finn deals with the superstitions of uneducated people, and all these superstitions are described in a mocking way. Twain is a first-rate intellectual, though, so I suspect that if one studied his life and work closely, one might find that he’s sometimes receptive to the occult.” Now I realize that Twain was indeed receptive to the occult. Almost every first-rate intellectual is interested in the occult; this may be the chief common feature of first-rate intellectuals. Let’s lay down a pair of propositions:

  1. If someone is a first-rate intellectual, they’re probably interested in the occult.
  2. If someone is an academic, they’re probably not interested in the occult.

F. Melville

When I looked up Melville on Wikipedia, I found this:

Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. After her husband Allan died, Maria added an “e” to the family surname. Part of a well-established and colorful Boston family, Melville’s father spent a good deal of time abroad as a commission merchant and an importer of French dry goods. The author’s paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melvill, an honored survivor of the Boston Tea Party who refused to change the style of his clothing or manners to fit the times, was depicted in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem “The Last Leaf.”

Notice the phrase “Melville’s father spent a good deal of time abroad.” Did these absences leave their mark on Melville? In my book of aphorisms, I listed “an absent father” as one of the causes of homosexuality. There may be traces of homoerotic feeling in Melville’s works, as when Ishmael and Queequeg share a bed at the Spouter Inn.

The maternal side of Melville’s family was Hudson Valley Dutch. His maternal grandfather was General Peter Gansevoort, a hero of the Battle of Saratoga; in his gold-laced uniform, the general sat for a portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart, which is described in Melville’s 1852 novel, Pierre, for Melville wrote out of his familial as well as his nautical background. Like the titular character in Pierre, Melville found satisfaction in his “double revolutionary descent.”

The fortunes of Melville’s family declined, prompting Melville to go to sea. But clearly his family had been prominent and upper-class, like that of most American writers, with the exception of Whitman.

After being in the merchant marine, and teaching school, Melville joined a whaling voyage when he was 21. He deserted the ship, ending up in Hawaii.

While in Honolulu, he became a controversial figure for his vehement opposition to the activities of Christian missionaries seeking to convert the native population.

Melville’s respect for the natives is apparent in his portrayal of Queequeg; Ishmael contrasts Queequeg favorably with the Christians he has known.

Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Lemuel Shaw, on August 4, 1847.

In 1866, Melville’s wife and her relatives used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York (a humble but adequately paying appointment), and he held the post for 19 years. In a notoriously corrupt institution, Melville soon won the reputation of being the only honest employee of the customs house. (The customs house was coincidentally on Gansevoort St., named after his mother’s prosperous family.)

Melville’s first book, Typee (1846), was a hit, and he became a popular writer. But his popularity waned with Mardi (1849), Moby-Dick (1851) was coolly received, and Pierre (1852) prompted critics to say that Melville had gone mad. He had to abandon writing as a profession. In his later years, he wrote more poetry than prose.

Melville spent years writing a 16,000-line epic poem, Clarel, inspired by his earlier trip to the Holy Land. His uncle, Peter Gansevoort, by a bequest, paid for the publication of the massive epic in 1876. But the publication failed miserably, and the unsold copies were burned when Melville was unable to afford to buy them at cost.

As his professional fortunes waned, Melville’s marriage was unhappy. Elizabeth’s relatives repeatedly urged her to leave him, and offered to have him committed as insane, but she refused. In 1867, his oldest son, Malcolm, shot himself, perhaps accidentally.... His wife managed to wean him off alcohol, and he no longer showed signs of agitation or insanity. But recurring depression was added to by the death of his second son, Stanwix, in San Francisco early in 1886.

This passage suggests that neither Melville nor his oldest son were completely sane. In my book of aphorisms, I said that geniuses usually aren’t good parents, and I mentioned Melville as an example of a genius whose children turned out badly.

There’s a Melville House in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where Melville lived for 13 years, and there’s another Melville House in Troy, New York, where he lived in his early 20s (when he wasn’t at sea). Melville is buried next to his wife in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.

2. Melville and Balzac

In a recent issue, I mentioned that Melville read Schopenhauer with interest. I searched the Internet for more about Melville’s reaction to Schopenhauer, and I found an essay by John Haydock that connects Melville’s Billy Budd to Balzac’s Séraphita (the essay also connects Billy Budd to Schopenhauer).5 The essay confirmed my hunch that Melville had a deep interest in the occult, and was receptive to the occult.

In my Realms of Gold, I mentioned Balzac’s interest in the occult: “Balzac had a deep interest in the occult, Swedenborg, mesmerism, phrenology, etc., and he discusses these subjects in his novels Louis Lambert and Seraphita.” According to Haydock,

Melville had in his library at the time of his death fifteen books of short stories and novels by Honoré de Balzac. One of them was the “philosophical study” Séraphita. The novel represents the third and culminating volume of Balzac’s trilogy on the power of human will that begins with The Magic Skin and Louis Lambert, both of which Melville also kept on his bookshelf.

Haydock compares Séraphita to Melville’s Mardi: “Séraphita cannot be forced into the realistic categories of the majority of [Balzac’s] fiction. Balzac felt it separate from the rest of his work, in a way similar to Melville’s protectiveness of his first philosophic romance, Mardi.” Like Séraphita, Mardi deals with the esoteric (Kabbalah, alchemy, etc.), so Melville was prepared to appreciate Séraphita: “Since the composition of Mardi, Melville had displayed his knowledge of esoteric undercurrents in literature, and no doubt felt very familiar with these aspects of Balzac’s philosophic system.” Mardi must also deal with Buddhism, for Haydock says “Melville studied Buddhism for many years, as Mardi demonstrates.”

Melville was interested not only in Buddhism and the occult, but in philosophy in general: “Melville had always read philosophy, but in his later years, philosophy became an absorbing interest. As always, he was insistently curious about the relationship between free will and necessity, between individual freedom and impersonal fate.”6

Moby-Dick contains numerous prophecies. Prophecy is connected to fate: if the future is fated, it can be known in advance; if it’s not fated, it can’t be known in advance. Fate/Prophecy seems to be the aspect of the occult in which Melville was most interested. He also had some interest in divination — predicting the future based on random events such as rolling dice, drawing cards, etc.

Haydock says, “Séraphita is a story about an androgynous youth (first called Séraphitus, later Séraphita) who possesses great spiritual and physical beauty, and dies... an untimely and unwarranted death voluntarily, quietly and fully self-aware.” Readers of Billy Budd will recall Billy’s physical beauty and his “untimely and unwarranted” death. Melville says that Billy is “all but feminine in purity of natural complexion.” As with Séraphita, Billy’s outer beauty is a sign of his inner beauty, his moral beauty: “the moral nature,” Melville says, “[is] seldom out of keeping with the physical make.” Haydock speaks of, “the externally beautiful, which Balzac believed to reflect moral perfection within.”

With their outer and inner beauty, Séraphita and Billy are loved by many. “In Balzac’s novel, the central character is the subject of the love of almost all around him.... When Billy first appears, [we’re told] that a ruffian ‘really loves Billy’ and we read later, that ‘Claggart [who later destroys Billy] could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.’”7

Séraphita and Billy are androgynous, hermaphroditic, male and female blended. This is related to the esoteric elements of the stories, it represents the “philosophic unity of worldly opposites” and “alchemical perfection.”

Séraphita is “loved by both a man and a woman and is opposed by a jealous pastor named Becker.” In Melville’s novella, the analogue to Becker is Claggart. There are other analogues: Haydock says that Captain Vere, in Billy Budd, corresponds to Wilfrid, and

the wise, old Dansker (i.e., Dane or dweller of the North like Balzac’s Norwegians) plays much the same role as the old servant David in Séraphita. He is the wise and interpretive substitute grandfather, who shelters his charge but does not interfere in the accomplishment of what is determined for the maturing of “Baby Budd.”

According to Balzac, there are three types of people: the Instinctive, the Abstractive, and the Divine. The Instinctive is the lowest, animal level; if the Instinctive has intellect, it is intellect without intuition and wisdom. The Abstractive uses rules and logic, and has the first glimmerings of intuition. The Divine possesses intuition and the wisdom of the heart. Perhaps I shouldn’t call them “types,” perhaps I should call them “phases,” since Balzac seemed to believe in reincarnation, seemed to believe that everyone passes through these three phases.

Different characters in the two stories correspond to different phases in Balzac’s scheme.

Vere is the Abstractive type, who has not yet gained fully the understanding of the issues of the heart but has begun to experience some intuitions of immortality and fate. Because of his Abstractive nature, Vere can only operate from conventional forms, a weakness Melville stresses.... He “leans toward everything intellectual” but this nature in him is not evil but only “pedantic” and “bookish.” He is at a stage of transition in metempsychosis that puts him between the Instinctive intellectual and the intuitive Divine.

Claggart represents the Instinctive phase; he was born at that level, and he’ll die there, too.

Claggart is one of those naturally depraved individuals that Balzac would oppose to the higher nature of Billy. He is “the direct reverse of a saint.” He is subject to the type of cold depravity “dominated by intellectuality” — not by the objectifying intellect of the Abstractive, but one monitored by a conscience that was “but the lawyer to his will.” His depravity is of essence, “born with him and innate”.... Significantly, Billy destroys Claggart with a blow to his devious intellectuality — to his forehead, “so shapely and intellectual-looking a feature in the master-at-arms.”

The third phase, the Divine phase, is represented by Billy and Séraphita. Billy is called “Apollo,” and he’s also

called “bully boy”, and is clarified by reference to the worshipped bull of the Assyrians. According to this tradition the bull is born of the sun, and expresses the idea of divinity. This is also, of course, a sacrificial bull, killed for ritual purposes by the priests and people and forming a “communicating link between heaven and earth.”

He is a foundling with no parents (like Séraphitus after the age of 9), whose “lineage is in direct contradiction to his lot”: Séraphitus was also of higher birth.... He is twice called a “peacemaker”, which of course elicits the promise given in Matthew 5, 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall become sons of God.” Appropriately, Ratcliffe assigns Billy to a post superior to ordinary humanity on the ship, to the foretop.... Billy is foreshadowed by his foil, the “Handsome Sailor,” who is abundantly described in sidereal and divine terms: those primarily of light, stars, and heavenly objects.

Haydock says that Billy’s death is an “apotheosis... reminiscent of Balzac’s scene of angelic ascension in Séraphita, though it is less overtly mystical.” Billy dies, says Haydock, with “perfected qualities.”

The night before his execution, Billy has an inner “struggle” (Haydock says) comparable to that of Séraphita before her execution, and comparable to the Buddha’s “dark night of the soul” before his enlightenment. In all three cases, the result of the struggle seems to be enlightenment, peace, resignation. Séraphita “counsels against active resistance to death, even to an ‘unjust’ death,” and she says, “At the zenith of all virtue is Resignation.” Billy also accepts death calmly; his death is a “euthanasia.”

After Billy dies, the surgeon and the purser have a debate about his death. The purser sees it as willed death, euthanasia, while the surgeon, who has a rational-scientific-materialistic bent, scoffs at such notions: “Euthanasia, Mr. Purser, is something like your will power: I doubt its authenticity as a scientific term — begging your pardon again. It is at once imaginative and metaphysical.” In Melville’s time, those who championed the rational-scientific-materialistic worldview were sometimes Utilitarians or Unitarians; according to Wikipedia, “Melville despised Unitarianism and its associated ‘ism’, Utilitarianism.” One thinks of Dostoyevsky, who also despised the rational worldview.8 Melville admired Emerson, who championed idealism, and criticized materialism.9

One of the cornerstones of the occult/mystical worldview is that the will can accomplish much, the will can affect the external world, mold personality, and mold circumstances. We noted above that Séraphita is part of a trilogy on “the power of human will.” According to Haydock, the theme of both Séraphita and Billy Budd is that “the power of will can overcome the unjust elements of material life.” In our recent discussion of Buddhism, we noted that the Buddha was “a man of enormous will-power,” and that he “laid tremendous stress on the will.” The importance of will in Schopenhauer’s philosophy is evident in the title of his chief work: The World as Will and Idea.

Haydock says that Melville may have read Schopenhauer for the first time in January, 1891, eight months before he died. Schopenhauer may have been brought to Melville’s attention by the Introduction to Séraphita. Haydock speaks of the “long and detailed Introduction by George Frederic Parsons, who attempts to clarify the philosophy about will and metempsychosis dramatized by Balzac.”

© L. James Hammond 2011
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1. Wikipedia article on Irving back
2. Wikipedia article on Longfellow back
3. Wikipedia article on Longfellow back
4. Wikipedia article on Twain back
5. “Melville’s Seraphita: Billy Budd, Sailor,” by John S. Haydock, originally published in Melville Society Extracts (No. 104, March 1996, pp. 2-13). For more essays on Billy Budd, and much useful information on Melville, click here. For still more Melville information, click here. back
6. If you want to learn more about Melville’s reading, consult Melville’s Reading, by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), and Melville’s Sources, by Mary K. Bercaw (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987). back
7. Did Claggart initially have positive feelings for Billy? Was his later animosity a reaction to those positive feelings? back
8. Dostoyevsky seems to have had less interest in the occult than Melville; one might say that Dostoyevsky was a Freudian, not a Jungian. back
9. According to Wikipedia, “Melville found inspiration in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, particularly ‘The Transcendentalist’ which shows parallels to ‘Bartleby’.” back