On Melville’s Isle

bust of melville
A bust of Melville at the former location of 6 Pearl Street in the battery at the south end of New York City. The boarding house where Herman was born is long gone and only a plaque and the bust by William N. Beckwith remained hidden behind plexiglass at the base of the towering white office building at 17 State Street when I visited in 2001. I don’t know if even the bust is still there today. There is a Starbucks across the street. 

I noted elsewhere that it was January 1841 when Herman Melville set sail for the first time on a whaling ship.  He has slipped into my life several times this past month. I usually post something on Twitter for #FridayMelville, so that keeps the man and his writing in my mind. “All men live enveloped in whale-lines,” he wrote, and I sometimes get entangled.

Blum's new edition of the novelRecently, one of my former middle school students from long ago was a contestant on Jeopardy. I have had no contact with her since those middle school English class days and it was through that TV appearance that I learned that she is a Melville scholar. Hester (like that Hawthorne protagonist who is perhaps the first and most important female protagonist in American literature) is a professor at Penn State. Her bio shows she has had more adventures than her old teacher and certainly has gone many fathoms deeper into Mr. Melville’s work. Some of her writing includes serious scholarship (you can tell because the titles have a colon separating the interesting title from the scholarly one, such as The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives and The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration (There is also a free, open version of News…).

I am quite delighted to see that she has edited and written the introduction to a new edition of Moby-Dick that will be published in May 2022. I hadn’t planned to add any more copies of that novel to my shelf, but I read it every year in some form or other, so for 2022, that will be the copy I read.

The other Melville floating into my ken came inside another novel, The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay. One of the characters is secretly purchasing the original manuscript of “Isle of the Cross” which is thought to be an unpublished and lost work by Melville.

It would have been his eighth book, coming after Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852) both of which were commercial and critical failures in his time. Maybe it was a novel. Maybe it was a short story or novella. It would be an interesting manuscript to find because from the few mentions of it this “story of Agatha,” has a female protagonist which is not what we expect from Melville.

It is thought to have been inspired by a story told to Herman Melville by a family friend on a July 1852 visit to Nantucket. John H. Clifford told Melville the story of Agatha Hatch Robertson. This Nantucket woman cared for a shipwrecked sailor named Robertson who she married. They had a daughter but Robertson abandoned them. He returned seventeen years later, only to abandon them again and then be exposed as a bigamist.

There is a timeline of references to this story, so it is believed that a manuscript did exist. Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne about Agatha’s story and suggested that Hawthorne write the tale. Hawthorne did not take the suggestion, but Melville worked on the manuscript in 1852 and took it to his New York publisher, Harper & Brothers, in June 1853. They rejected it, probably because sales of his last two books had been poor. Perhaps they also feared that Melville’s use of a real person’s story might be something that could trigger legal action from the family.

There are mentions of the story in letters and that led Melville’s biographers to surmise what the book might have been. Melville completing another manuscript after two failures means that he had not given up on writing as early biographers had assumed.  Melville sent a letter to Harper’s Magazine in November 1853 and referred to “the work which I took to New York last Spring, but which I was prevented from printing at that time…”

Was it a novel he brought to his publisher? That makes sense. Was it a short story like the ones he had published around that time? He wrote the now well-known story “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the “Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” series of sketches in this period. The use of “isle” in the “isle of the Cross” perhaps seems to connect it to those enchanted isles.

Rediscovering a new Melville work would be a big deal for literary types. Rediscovering Hester as Dr. Blum is a bigger deal for me. She recalled that I wrote in her yearbook back then that “The world will get much more interesting when it catches up to you.” I won’t claim any prescience with that prediction but I know I did not write that in anyone else’s yearbook. I am charmed in ways most readers will not grasp by my own Melville discovery.

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Ken

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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