There is nothing for a man but genius or despair. We cannot answer in the smart language, certainly it would be a bastardization of our own talents to waste time to learn the language they use. I would rather sneak off and die like a sick dog then be a well known literary person in America – and no doubt I’ll do it in the end. (215)
Here we have well known literary person William Carlos Williams, or his narrator double, whining about the place of the poet in American life. It’s from his prose poem In the American Grain (1925), a Modernist period piece that attempts to define the meaning of America through the writings of its Great Men. Young America needs literature! This particular passage, for example, is pulled from a four page essay about, of all people, Sam Houston, first President of the Republic of Texas. Twenty years later, WCW narrowed his scope and spent a decade trying to define the meaning of Paterson, New Jersey, with more success.
Herman Melville was a genius; Herman Melville despaired. Produce! Produce! exhorted dyed-through Calvinist Thomas Carlyle. Calvinist Herman Melville produced, and did he ever. Ten volumes (nine novels and a book of stories) in ten years, roughly, and he poured everything he had into them. I read Moby-Dick (1851) and am amazed he ever needed to write anything else – what’s not in that book? But Melville’s capacity exceeds mine. Bartleby is not there, nor Billy Budd, nor had Melville yet been to the Holy Land.
Melville had finished his last novel, The Confidence-Man (1857), before he left for Europe and Palestine. Did he know it was his last novel? Regardless, it was going to be poetry from here on out, although it took Melville a little longer to master the form. An early volume of poems could not find a publisher. Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War appeared in 1866. The massive Clarel was next, in 1876, its publication funded by Melville’s uncle, 350 copies or so, of which 220 were pulped. Melville was at this point working as a customs inspector. His retirement led to two more tiny books, chapbooks, really, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon, etc. (1891), both published by the author in editions of twenty-five (25!). Melville’s death prevented similar private publication of a third book of poems and, probably, Billy Budd.
There is nothing for a man but genius or despair. So Melville chose genius. Perhaps the reader should despair, confronted with 220 copies of Clarel fed into the pulper, or with that tiny number, twenty-five. But what was the correct number? How many readers should Melville’s poetry have? That Melville knew he had twenty-five real readers, and acted accordingly - what integrity. How many readers should the massive, tangled Clarel have?
Levi Stahl worries that he should be one of those readers. His skepticism is understandable. I did not think Clarel really got moving until about 200 pages in, as Melville builds to the terrifying night by the Dead Sea, the book’s first great imagistic climax. That’s a lot of pages, although I think it just means that I did not understand how to read the poem until then. At the end of the next section, Melville pushes the characters into another heightened state, of a completely different character (it involves the contemplation of a palm tree, which sounds ridiculous, but is not), and then does it again at the stark end. The end is amazing. Like bibliographing nicole, given a long enough life, I’m reading Clarel again. Levi – yes, you should be one of Clarel’s readers.
Almost every person who bothers to wander by Wuthering Expectations spends plenty of time with difficult books, and those who don’t are doing other difficult things. What argument do I have for this difficult book over that other one? None. None at all. I wish Herman Melville, and Thomas Carlyle, and William Carlos Williams, a few good readers. I hope I’m one of them.
Speaking of good readers: First, many thanks to bibliographing for doing the hard work on Clarel. We’ll do more of these, I bet. Second, Nonsuch Frances says the prose of In the American Grain is “dazzlingly gorgeous” and calls the book a “must-read,” a judgment that surely requires a lot of qualifiers. I call it a must-read for people who are a) particularly interested in Modernist poets and their ideas about America and b) have a high tolerance for conventional ideas swathed in gauzy nonsense. Please note the way Williams has to dodge Whitman and Hawthorne, and lament that Williams wrote the book just a little bit before the Great Melville Revival.
Next week: Books Many People Should Read.