Cepeda column: Melville made a huge splash, but his critics left barely a ripple
CHICAGO — There’s no end to the awfulness we heap upon artists — it happens to the best of them.
Beethoven himself was panned by John Ruskin — one of the Victorian era’s most famous art critics — as composing music that “always sounds to me like the upsettings of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.”
Claude Monet’s impressionist masterpiece “Sunrise” was trashed by French art critic Louis Leroy thusly: “A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.”
Look to the story of nearly any genius, trailblazer, big thinker or revolutionary and you’re likely to find a number of people gleefully ripping their work, and their very intellect and character, to shreds.
It was no different for the master of the meticulously detailed “Moby-Dick,” according to the exhibit “Melville: Finding America At Sea,” at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The show details Herman Melville’s failure to rise as a member in good standing of America’s literary canon — during his own lifetime, of course.
Melville was born a little over a year before an American whaling ship named “The Essex” was taken down by a giant whale in 1820. As a young man, Melville worked as a clerk, farmhand and teacher before setting off for his first sea voyage on a merchant ship.
On his travels, most people will be surprised to know, Melville became something of a political progressive during a time in which rich white people routinely landed on small islands and declared them the property of one or another empire.
Melville’s first two books, “Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life” and “Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas,” stirred controversy — and not just for including details that had been swiped from source materials other than the author’s own experiences.
His perspective was alarming to the establishment because “Melville criticized the Protestant missionaries in the islands for treating the Polynesians as menial servants and acting as agents of colonialism, introducing greed and the worst kinds of vice from their home countries and imposing moral standards with little regard for local practices,” according to the exhibit, composed by Will Hansen, the Newberry’s Curator of Americana. “Reviewers in religious periodicals took great exception, and the controversy set the pattern for Melville’s reception as a somewhat dangerous author for pious readers.”
Things only devolved from there. “Moby-Dick” didn’t do well. It was neither a critical darling in the United Kingdom, where it was first published, nor a big moneymaker in the U.S.
Reviewers, like the one in The London Spectator, remarked that the book “provoke[s] wonder at the author rather than terror at the creation; the soliloquies and dialogues of Ahab, in which the author attempts delineating the wild imaginings of monomania, and exhibiting some profoundly speculative views of things in general, induce weariness or skipping.”
Fair, perhaps. Listen, this is one of my favorite books of all time, but even I can attest that it takes a certain impulse — and being an absurd completist — to truly relish every word of the whale tale. But what is art without some suffering, even if by the reader?
His subsequent books did even worse. “Pierre, or, The Ambiguities” led even Melville’s more forgiving — American — critics to suggest the author was crazy and/or morally bankrupt.
A snarky post in the satirical paper “The Lantern” reported a “Fatal Occurrence: About ten o’clock yesterday, an intelligent young man was observed to [enter a bookstore] and deliberately purchase a copy of Herman Melville’s last work. He has, of course, not since been heard of.”
And so it went for Melville, who ended up writing magazine articles under a pen name just to make ends meet, had a failed transcontinental lecture tour, resorted to writing sad poems about the Civil War and eventually just gave up, taking up the mantle of civil servitude by becoming a U.S. customs inspector at the port of New York. He did the job for 19 years before retiring, and eventually died in 1891.
Melville would surely have been startled by the Chicago exhibit’s two whole rooms filled with his books, personal correspondence, obsessively catalogued collection of special editions of “Moby-Dick” — in Russian, in graphic novel form, in an Army-pamphlet versions and as colorful comic books — as well as a kaleidoscope of colorful visual interpretations of his tome, among other curiosities.
And his critics?
Dead to history — and as devoid of personality and importance as anyone who dismisses something new as bad just because it’s difficult.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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