Monday, April 11, 2011

Melville's Persistence and, well, also a bit of Palestine

I’ve been reading Herman Melville’s 18,000 line, 150 canto poem Clarel. No one reads Clarel. I can’t even say that I’m enjoying it all that much though admit there are moments of great lyricism.

Why am I reading it? First, it’s about Palestine and pilgrimage, two of my obsessions. Second, it’s poetry. Third, because Melville wrote it long after his writing career seemed ended. Because no one wanted him to write it. Because there was no reason for him to write it—there was no money and no one, including his wife and friends, thought his writing poetry a worthwhile endeavor.

Which got me thinking about obscurity and writing.

Herman Melville wrote five books before Moby Dick. He wrote Moby Dick before he was 30. Moby Dick and his tales of whaling brought Melville fame and a bit of fortune, but two domestic books later, his literary star had plummeted. By the time he was 35, he was for all apparent intent washed up as a writer.

Melville’s spirits and health likewise plummeted. In an attempt to reclaim both, his family and friends subsidized a trip to Palestine in 1857. Melville kept journals and wrote letters but it wasn’t until nineteen years later that he capitalized on his experience by publishing his 18,000 line 150 canto poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

He tried for years to write poetry. His first book of poems went unpublished. His second, Battle Pieces, virtually unread. No one, including his wife, approved of or subsidized his poetry. In fact, Melville’s wife confided to her stepmother, “Try to not mention to any one he is writing poetry—you know how such things spread.”

Melville lectured for three years after his return drawing on his South Seas experiences and travels, but never talked about his trip to Palestine. In any event, he grossed less than $1500 in three years and three years after his return, Melville found a dull job in the New York Customs Service as an Inspector. It was the job he would retain the rest of his life.

Through all of it and until he died, Melville continued writing poetry. This time it was Clarel, his epic poem about Palestine and a young man's search for faith. While not autobiographical, the poem utilizes images and experiences from his journals. But why poetry? Why even to continue writing?

Even Melville himself said about Clarel it’s “a metrical affair, a pilgrimage or what not, of several thousand lines eminently adapted for unpopularity.”

Clarel was finished and published in 1876. To no one's surprise including apparently Melville's, the reception was almost uniformly negative. Writing in 1876, Edmund Clarence Stedman of the New York Tribune, wrote, “There is ... no plot in the work; but neither do the theological doubts, questions, and disputations indulged in by the characters, and those whom they meet, have any logical course or lead to any distinct conclusions.”

When Melville died in 1891, he was almost completely forgotten.  Anyway, so back to the question regarding why I’m reading Clarel. I suppose my only answer is: for the same reason Melville wrote it. 

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