Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  His father-in-law, the Chief Justice, seems periodically to have come to the financial assistance of the family; and as he was a sensible man, besides being a very kind one, it may be supposed that it was he who suggested to Melville that he should look for some other way of earning his living. Various strings were pulled to obtain a consulship for him, but without success, and he was obliged to go on writing. He ailed, and the Chief Justice once more came to the rescue; in 1856 he went abroad again, this time to Constantinople, Palestine, Greece and Italy, and on his return managed to earn a little money by lecturing. In 1860 he made his last journey. Tom, his youngest brother, commanded a clipper in the China trade, the Meteor, and in this Melville sailed, round the Horn, to San Francisco; one would have expected him to have still enough of the spirit of adventure to seize the opportunity to go to the Far East, but for some unknown reason, either because he was bored with his brother or his brother had grown impatient of him, he left the ship at San Francisco and went home. For some years the Melvilles had lived in great poverty, but in 1861 the Chief Justice died and left his daughter a handsome legacy; they decided to leave Arrowhead and bought a house in New York from Allan, Herman’s prosperous brother, and in part payment turned Arrowhead over to him. In this house, 104 East Twenty Sixth Street, Melville lived for the rest of his life.

  At this time, according to Raymond Weaver, it was a good year if he earned a hundred dollars in royalties on his books; in 1866 he managed to secure an appointment as Inspector of Customs; for this he was paid four dollars a day. In the following year Malcolm, his eldest son, shot himself in his room, but whether by design or accident is not clear; his second son, Stanwix, ran away from home and of him nothing more is heard. Melville held his modest post in the Customs for twenty years; and then his wife inherited money from her brother, Samuel, and he resigned. In 1878 he published, at the expense of his Uncle Gansevoort, a poem of twenty thousand lines called Clarel. Shortly before his death he wrote, or rewrote, a novelette called Billy Budd. He died, forgotten, in 1891. He was seventy-two.

  (2)

  Such, in brief, is the story of Melville’s life as it is told by his biographers, but it is evident that there is much that they have not told. They pass over Malcolm’s death, and the flight of Stanwix from home, as though they were matters of no consequence. Surely the untoward death of their elder son distressed his parents; surely the disappearance of their second perturbed them; letters must have passed between Mrs. Melville and her brothers when the boy, eighteen years of age, shot himself; one can only suppose that they have been suppressed; it is true that by 1867 Melville’s fame had dwindled, but one would expect that such an event would have reminded the press of his existence, and that some mention would have been made of it in the newspapers. It was news, and American papers have never hesitated to make the most of it. Was there no enquiry into the circumstances of the boy’s death? If he committed suicide, what made him do so? And why did Stanwix run away? What were the conditions of his life at home that drove him to such a step, and how does it happen that nothing more is heard of him? Mrs. Melville, so far as we know, was a good and affectionate mother: it is strange that, again so far as we know, she seems to have taken no steps to get in touch with him. From the fact that only she and her two daughters attended Melville’s funeral, the only members, we are told, of his immediate family still alive, we must suppose that Stanwix was dead. The records show that in his old age Melville was fond of his grandchildren, but his feeling for his own children is ambiguous. Lewis Mumford, whose biography of Melville is sensible, and to all appearance trustworthy, gives a grim picture of his relations with them. He seems to have been a harsh, impatient parent. ‘One of his daughters could not recur to the image of her father without a certain painful revulsion … When he purchased a work of art, a print or a statue for ten dollars, when there was scarcely bread to go round who can wonder at their black memories?’ Revulsion is a strong word: one would have thought impatience or irritation better suited to express what his daughters may have felt when their father showed himself thus thoughtless. There must have been something more to cause their bitterness. Melville, it appears, had a jocularity which was little to their taste, and if you read between the lines, you can hardly escape the suspicion that he sometimes came home the worse for liquor. I hasten to add that this is mere surmise. Professor Stoll, in an article published in The Journal of the History of Ideas, suggests that Melville was ‘an emphatic teetotaller’. I cannot believe it. He was a convivial creature and surely it is very probable that as a sailor before the mast he drank with the rest. We know that on his first journey to Europe as a passenger he sat up until all hours, drinking whisky punches and talking metaphysics with a young scholar named Adler, and later at Arrowhead, when friends came up from the city to visit him, ‘one hears a good deal about champagne, gin and cigars’ on the excursions taken to neighbouring places of interest. Part of Melville’s duty was to inspect incoming ships, and unless American skippers have changed very much from that day to this, it is pretty well certain that he would not have been long on board before being taken below to have a drink. It would be very natural if in his disappointment with life he sought solace in liquor. I should add that, unlike many of his fellows in the Customs, he performed his duties with the greatest integrity.

  Melville was a very singular fellow, and there is little definite evidence for any view you may take of his character; but from his first two books you can get a pretty good idea of what he was like as a young man. For my part, I find Omoo more readable than Typee. It is a straightforward narrative of his experience on the island of Moorea, and on the whole may be accepted as true: Typee, on the other hand, seems to be a hotch-potch of fact and fancy. According to Charles Roberts Anderson, Melville spent only a month on the island of Nuku-Hiva and not four, as he pretended, and his adventures on his way to the valley of the Typees were not so startling as he makes out, nor the dangers he ran from their supposed predilection for human flesh so great; and the story of his escape, as he gives it, is highly improbable: ‘the whole scene of the rescue itself is romantic and unconvincing, apparently written in haste and more with a view to making himself a hero than with a proper regard to logic and dramatic finesse.’ Melville should not be found fault with for this; we are told that he repeatedly gave an account of his adventures to willing listeners, and everyone knows how hard it is to resist the temptation to make a story a little better, and a little more exciting, each time you tell it. It would have been embarrassing for him when he came to write it to state the sober and not peculiarly thrilling facts when in numberless talks he had freely embroidered upon them. Typee, in fact, appears to be a compilation of matter which Melville found in contemporary travel books, combined with a highly coloured version of his own experiences. The industrious Mr. Anderson has shown that on occasion he not only repeated the errors these travel books contained, but in various instances used the very words of their authors. I think this accounts for a certain heaviness the reader may find in it. But both Typee and Omoo are well enough written in the idiom of the period. Melville was already inclined to use the literary word rather than the plain one: so, for example, he prefers to call a building an edifice; one hut is not near another, nor even in its neighbourhood, but in the vicinity; he is more apt to be fatigued than, like most people, tired; and he prefers to evince, rather than to show, feeling.

  But the portrait of the author of both these books emerges clearly, and you need make no imaginative effort to see that he was a hardy, brave and determined youth, high-spirited and fond of fun, work-shy but not lazy; gay, amiable, friendly and carefree. He was charmed with the prettiness of the Polynesian girls, as any young fellow of his age would be, and it would be strange if he did not accept the favours they were certainly willing to grant him. If there was anything unusual in him, it was that he took a keen delight in beauty, something to which youth is apt to be indifferent; and there is some intensity in his admiring descriptions
of the sea and the sky and the green mountains. Perhaps the only indication there is that there was more in him than in any other sailorman of three-and-twenty is that he was of ‘a pondering turn’, and conscious of it. ‘I am of a meditative humour’, he wrote much later, ‘and at sea used often to mount aloft at night, and, seating myself in one of the upper yards, tuck my jacket about me and give loose to reflection.’

  How is one to account for the transformation of this apparently normal young man into the savage pessimist who wrote Pierre? What turned the undistinguished writer of Typee into the darkly imaginative, powerful, inspired and eloquent author of Moby Dick? Some have thought, an attack of insanity. This has been hotly denied by his admirers, as though it were something disgraceful: it is, of course, no more disgraceful than to have an attack of jaundice. I have not in this essay to deal with Pierre. It is a preposterous book. There are in it pregnant sayings: Melville wrote in pain and bitterness, and his passion from time to time gave rise to passages that are powerful and eloquent; but the incidents are improbable, the motives unconvincing and the conversations stilted. Pierre gives one the impression that it was written in a condition of advanced neurasthenia. But that is not insanity. If there is any evidence that Melville was ever out of his mind, it has not, so far as I know, been produced. It has been suggested, also, that Melville was so profoundly affected as to become a different man by the intensive reading he undertook when he moved from Lansingburg to New York; the notion that he was crazed by Sir Thomas Browne, as Don Quixote was crazed by romances of chivalry, is really too naïve to carry conviction. In some unknown way the commonplace writer became a writer of something very like genius. In these days of sex-consciousness, it is natural to look for a sexual cause to explain so strange a circumstance.

  Typee and Omoo were written before Melville married Elizabeth Shaw. During the first year of their union he wrote Mardi. It begins as a straightforward continuation of his adventures before the mast, but then it becomes wildly fanciful. It is long-winded and, to my mind, tedious. I cannot put its theme better than has been done by Raymond Weaver: ‘Mardi is a quest after some total and undivided possession of that holy and mysterious joy that touched Melville during the period of his courtship: a joy he had felt in the crucifixion of his love for his mother; a joy that had dazzled him in his love for Elizabeth Shaw … And Mardi is a pilgrimage for a lost glamour … It is a quest after Yillah, a maiden from Oroolia, the Island of Delight. A voyage is made through the civilised world for her; and though they (the persons of the novel) find occasion for much discourse on international politics, and an array of other topics, Yillah is not found.’

  If one wants to indulge in conjecture, one may take this strange story as the first sign of his disappointment with the married state. One has to guess what Elizabeth Shaw, Mrs. Melville, was like from the few letters of hers that remain. She was not a good letter-writer, and it may be that there was more in her than they reveal; but they show, at least, that she was in love with her husband and that she was a sensible, kindly, practical, though narrow and conventional, woman. She bore poverty without complaint. She was doubtless puzzled by her husband’s development, and perhaps regretful that he seemed bent on throwing away the reputation and popularity Typee and Omoo had won him, but she continued to believe in him and to admire him to the end. She was not a woman of intellect, but she was a good, tolerant and affectionate wife.

  Did Melville love her? No letters that he may have written during his courtship remain, and it is no more than a sentimental assumption that he was then touched by a ‘holy and mysterious joy’. He married her. But men do not only marry for love. It may be that he had had enough of a wandering life, and wanted to settle down: one of the strange things about this strange man is that though, as he says himself, of ‘a naturally roving disposition,’ after his first journey as a boy to Liverpool and his three years in the South Seas, his thirst for adventure was quenched. Such journeys as he took later were mere tourist trips. It may be that Melville married because his family and friends thought it was high time he did, or it may be that he married in order to combat inclinations that dismayed him. Who can tell? Lewis Mumford says that ‘he was never quite happy in Elizabeth’s company, nor was he quite happy away from it’, and suggests that he felt not merely affection for her, but ‘on these long absences, passion would gather within him’, only to be followed by quick satiety. He would not have been the first man to find that he loved his wife more when he was parted from her than when he was with her, and that the expectation of sexual intercourse was more exciting than the realisation. I think it probable that Melville was impatient with the marriage tie; it may be that his wife gave him less than he had hoped, but he continued to have marital relations long enough for her to bear him four children. He remained, so far as anyone knows, faithful to her.

  No one who has occupied himself with Melville has failed to notice his delight in male beauty. In a lecture he gave on sculpture after his return from Palestine and Italy, he singled out for special comment the Greco-Roman statue known as the Apollo Belvedere. Its chief merit is that it represents a very handsome young man. I have already described the impression made on Melville by Toby, the boy in whose company he deserted the Acushnet, and in Typee he dwells on the physical perfection of the youths with whom he consorted. They are much more vividly presented than the girls with whom he flirted. But before that, at the age of seventeen, he sailed in a ship bound for Liverpool. There he made friends with a boy called Harry Bolton. This is how he described him in Redburn: ‘He was one of those small, but perfectly formed beings with curling hair, and silken muscles, who seem to have been born in cocoons. His complexion was a mantling brunette, feminine as a girl’s; his feet were small, his hands very white; and his eyes were large, black and womanly; and, poetry aside, his voice was as the sound of a harp.’ Doubt has been thrown on the hurried jaunt the two boys made to London, and even on the existence of such a person as Harry Bolton; but if Melville invented him to add an interesting episode to his narrative, it is queer that such a manly fellow as he should have invented a character who was so obviously homosexual.

  In the frigate United States, Melville’s great friend was an English sailor, Jack Chase, ‘tall and well-knit, with a clear open eye, a fine brow, and an abounding nut-brown beard.’ ‘There was such an astounding air of good sense and good feeling about the man,’ he wrote in White Jacket, ‘that he who could not love him, would thereby pronounce himself a knave,’ and further: ‘Wherever you may be now rolling over the blue billows, dear Jack, take my best love with you, and God bless you, wherever you go.’ A touch of tenderness rare in Melville. So deep an impression did this sailor make on him that he dedicated to him the novelette, Billy Budd, which he completed only three months before his death, fifty years later. The story hangs on the hero’s amazing beauty. It is this that causes everyone in the ship to love him, and it is this that indirectly brings about his tragic end.

  It seems fairly evident that Melville was a repressed homosexual, a type which, if we may believe what we read, was more common in the United States of his time than it is to-day. The sexual proclivities of an author are no business of his readers, except in so far as they influence his work, as is the case with André Gide and Marcel Proust; when they do, and the facts are put before you, much that was obscure or even incredible may be made plain. If I have dwelt on this idiosyncrasy of Melville’s, it is because it may account for his dissatisfaction with married life; and it may be that a sexual frustration occasioned the change in him which has puzzled all those who have interested themselves in him. The probabilites are great that his moral sense prevailed; but who can tell what instincts, perhaps even unrecognised and, even if recognised, angrily repressed and never, except perhaps in imagination, indulged in – who can tell, I say, what instincts may dwell in a man’s being which, though never yielded to, may yet have an overwhelming effect on his disposition?

  (3)

  Melville’
s reading, though desultory, had always been wide. It seems that he was chiefly attracted by the poets and prose writers of the seventeenth century, and one must presume that he found in them something that peculiarly accorded with his own confused propensities. Whether their influence was harmful to him or beneficial is a matter of personal opinion. His early education was slight and, as often happens in such cases, he did not quite assimilate the culture he acquired in later years. Culture is not something you put on like a ready-made suit of clothes, but a nourishment you absorb to build up your personality, just as food builds up the body of a growing boy; it is not an ornament to decorate a phrase, still less to show off your knowledge, but a means, painfully acquired, to enrich the soul.

  Melville was making a dangerous experiment when, in order to write Moby Dick, he devised for himself a style founded on that of the seventeenth-century writers. At its best, it is impressive and has a poetic power; but after all it remains a pastiche. That is not to belittle it. A pastiche may have great beauty. The Venus of Milo, a work of the first century B.C., is a pastiche; and so is the even later Spinario in Rome. Both were formerly supposed to be works of mid-fifth-century sculptors. Duccio, the great Siennese painter, based his style on early twelfth-century Byzantine painting, and not on the Byzantine painting current in his own day, two centuries later. When, however, a writer attempts pastiche, he is faced with the difficulty that consistency is practically unattainable. Just as Dr. Johnson’s old schoolfellow, Mr. Edwards, found it impossible to philosophise because cheerfulness would break in, so in a pastiche the contemporary idiom natural to the author breaks in to jar with the idiom he has affected. ‘To produce a mighty book,’ wrote Melville, ‘you must choose a mighty theme,’ and it is pretty clear that he thought it must be dealt with in the grand style. Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that Melville had no ear; I don’t know what he meant by that. Melville had a true sense of rhythm, and the balance of his sentences, however long, is in general excellent. He liked the high-sounding phrase, and the stately vocabulary he employed in fact enabled him frequently to get effects of great beauty. Sometimes this inclination led him to tautology, as when he speaks of the ‘umbrageous shade’, which only means the shady shade; but you can scarcely deny that the sound is rich. Sometimes one is pulled up by such a tautology as ‘hasty precipitancy’ only to discover with some awe that Milton wrote: ‘Thither they hasted with glad precipitance.’ Sometimes Melville uses common words in an unexpected way, and often obtains by this means a pleasant novelty of effect; and even when it seems to you that he has used them in a sense they cannot bear, it is rash to blame him with ‘hasty precipitancy’, for he may well have authority to go on. When he speaks of ‘redundant hair’, it may occur to you that hair may be redundant on a maiden’s lip, but hardly on a young man’s head; but if you look it out in the dictionary you will find that the second sense of redundant is copious, and Milton wrote of ‘redundant locks’.

 
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