Herman Melville (1819-1891)
157 years ago tonight the author who immortalized the city in Moby-Dick returned to speak, on of all things, Roman statuary. What was it like to be there?
It had been 17 years since Herman Melville was last in the whaling city. His stay was brief then; just a few days before shipping out on the whaleship Acushnet, January 3, 1841. In the years that followed his reputation as an adventurer writer would make his name synonymous with the South Seas. Now, on the evening of February 23, 1858, his return was as a speaker at the New Bedford Lyceum. Just seven years after the publication Moby-Dick, one might expect his topic would be related to that ponderous tome; surely some in town had questions about it. But his lecture that night was titled “The Statues of Rome.” In the Republican Standard a week earlier his talk was listed within a diminutive advertisement.
What was it like that night, arriving at the Lyceum, finding a seat, and waiting for Mr. Melville to take the stage?
Melville’s manuscript of “Statues of Rome” has not turned up. Perhaps he spoke from scant notes; after all, he had been on the lecture circuit some several weeks speaking on this one subject. New Bedford was to be his sixteenth and final engagement in a tour that left him exhausted. Whether he directed the attention of his audience to placards with illustrations of the works he discussed is not known but it is probably unlikely. Certainly, many in the hall would be familiar with the stories behind the statues; Greek and Latin were taught in schools for those who could afford an education. Melville’s extraordinary gift of description doubtless could have provided all the visual imagery needed, though one would expect a portfolio of large illustrations upon an easel would have enriched the program for all. Nevertheless, Melville gave his audience their money’s worth.
Although the exact content of the program remains undiscovered, scholars have meticulously pieced together Melville’s talk by studying the many reviews published in local newspapers where he appeared. Thanks to the Melville Society Archives, housed in the Research Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, multiple sources are available to examine Melville’s lost lecture. Within the Archives “The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860,” published by Northwestern University Press (1987), attempts such a glimpse. In a section titled Reconstructed Lectures, “The Statues of Rome” is reassembled based upon more than thirty reviews and news articles in the local press where Melville appeared. It should be noted here that the Piazza Tales volume was the work of many academics, including contributing scholar Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, now the Melville Society Extracts Editor.
Thus, we can with a degree of confidence know what Melville covered through this Reconstructed Lecture. For example, the Boston Journal (December 3, 1857) reported that “He began by suggesting that in the realm of art there was no exclusiveness. Dilletanti might accumulate their technical terms, but that did not interfere with the substantial enjoyment of those who did not understand them. As the beauties of nature could be appreciated without a knowledge of botany, so art could be enjoyed without the artist’s skill.” (p.727)
Melville included the Apollo Belvedere in his lecture on Roman Statuary.
In New Bedford, both the Mercury and the Republican Standard published reviews of Melville’s lecture; the former on February 24th and the latter on February 25th. Neither review noted Melville’s authorship of Moby-Dick. The Mercury reported “Mr. Melville gave an interesting and instructive lecture last evening on the Sculptures of Rome, more especially with many suggestive and thoughtful criticisms on art interspersed.” The Mercury article continued, noting the many works upon which Melville touched. “After enumerating other salient points of the Roman antique, and dwelling upon the vast ruins of the Coliseum and the Baths, the lecturer passed to the villas of Rome, which were the houses of the best collections of the finest objects of art, and where nature had been raised by culture and refinement into an almost human character.”
The Republican Standard was more critical in its review, which also confirms that Melville read from a prepared script. “The lecture on Tuesday evening was a well written and scholarly essay, which would doubtless be read with much pleasure, but was not calculated to interest as a lecture.” Like the Mercury, the Standard related the various works, which Melville covered in sequence. “The lecturer then gave an account of some of the more ideal works, such as the Apollo Belvedere, which was a model for poets, and from which Milton must have obtained some of his grand conceptions of dignity and grace… The Laocoon, Castor and Pollux, and the Hercules Farnese, with other statues were also described.”
In the week before Melville spoke, the New Bedford Lyceum featured a lecture by the Reverend Henry Fowler (1824-1872), titled “A View of the Pulpit by the Pews.” The content of his lecture mirrored his book on the subject. However, Fowler’s program is important in relation to Melville’s program because it inspired a parody piece in the Republican Standard, published on February 25, 1858 – the same issue in which its review of Melville’s lecture was published. Titled “The Audience as Seen from the Reporters Box,” the column vividly and humorously describes the scene in Liberty Hall as the audience assembles for the Lyceum lecture. It is a wonderfully witty piece of editorial, which doubtless records the scene of Melville’s program; so much so, the text in its entirety is included here so that the reader may be the judge:
Melville’s talk included this sculpture titled “Laocoön and His Sons” in the Vatican Collections. This image is taken from Smith’s Classical Dictionary, 1866.
“It is the night of the weekly lecture, an occasion which competes for the public attention with the auction room, the reading club, the itinerant psychologist, the prayer meeting, and the spiritual medium. On lecture night all these have to suspend operations. The beauty and the chivalry, the beaux and the belles, the whits and the blues of New Bedford, each having some especial taste to gratify, crowd to the lecture room. The doors are thrown open at an early hour, and those who are blessed with nothing to do, secure the best seats and pass away an hour or two with sandwiches and sewing, magazines and small talk.
“The reporter, to whom lectures, city council and school committee meetings, and all public gatherings which it is his duty to attend, are only a bore, defers his arrival to the latest possible moment. He winds his way through the furniture of the stage and at the risk of his neck, ascends the rickety ladder by which alone he can reach his lofty perch. He folds his shawl and places it on the three legged stool he is privileged to occupy, so as to have as comfortable a seat as possible, wipes his glasses and in the first place, glances over the evening papers, internally anathematizing the ill placed gas light which tries alike his eyes and his temper. The journals are speedily dispatched and he has nothing to occupy his attention previous to the entrance of the lecturer but the audience before him.
“The hall is already pretty well filled. A few however are dropping in. Every seat is occupied. From orchestra to loftiest gallery there is not a vacant space. The latest comers overflow upon the platform, hardly leaving room for the speaker, or stagnate in the aisles. What a sea of faces! What a study for a physiognomist! How many histories can be read in all these countenances! How character stands out not only in the features, but in the dress, the conduct and attitudes of all this crowd! What a contrast between the expression of that shrewd sharp-featured man of business and that dreamy large-eyed youth! Between that cold and calculating politician and that warm hearted and impulsive girl! Between those lineaments molded into sternness by long habits of thought, and the smooth, unmeaning vacant face of one whose mental faculties have never been called into exercise.
“Some are busied with their magazines and newspapers. Others are improving the time by knitting and sewing. Others are communing with their own thoughts. But most are engaged in conversation. Some, talking politics; some criticizing the audience; some talking over last evening’s ball; some whispering tenderly – but the reporter will not reveal the secrets which have reached his ear.
Liberty Hall, at William and Purchase Streets was the site of the New Bedford Lyceum where Melville spoke on February 23, 1858. (photo ca. 1860, published in the Rotogravure Section, New Bedford Sunday Standard-Times ca. 1930-1950).
“Now a slight murmur of applause, which the boys in the gallery aggravate with their feet into a horrible din, announces the entrance of the lecturer. He pushes his way slowly down the aisle and along the crowded platform. He takes his seat, wipes his face with his handkerchief, and looks around him. He is evidently a good deal astonished. He thought he was coming to some small out of the way place to waste his fine thoughts and unappreciated eloquence on a hundred or two of uncultivated people. Perhaps he didn’t think it worth while to bring down his best effort. But he finds himself exceedingly mistaken. He finds, the reporter ventures to say, as fine and well-lighted a hall, as intelligent and appreciative an audience as anywhere in New England, out of the Metropolis. Well, he has got to make the best of it. He is announced. The murmur of conversation gradually dies away, and a profound stillness prevails.
“The lecturer’s fame has probably preceded him, and it now remains to be seen whether it will stand the test of actual experience. His exordium is listened to with attention. As he proceeds, the audience by their air, indicate the judgment they are forming. The politician sneers at some evidence of fanaticism. The eye of the dreamer kindles as he gets a new insight into some great truth. The man of business moves restlessly in his seat as he perceives the subject has no “practical” bearing. The young girl whispers “beautiful” at some display of flowery rhetoric. The lawyer smiles as he detects a fallacy, and the head of the unthinking one whom no rhetoric, eloquence, humor or logic can move, gradually subsides as he sinks into a dreamless sleep. Sometimes there is a faint applause at some happy expression. But the reporter has observed that our audiences are timid in this respect. They seem to be afraid of interrupting or disconcerting the speaker.
“But it is more likely that discriminating and genial applause helps to establish a more complete sympathy between the audience and the speaker, to give increased confidence to the latter, and more animation to his delivery. But cat-calls, whistling, and loud stamping, are rude, ill-tempered and abominable.
“So the hour passes away. If the speaker be a man of true eloquence, and sincere earnestness, if he is untrammeled by manuscript and speaks with animation and heartiness, he will generally secure the attention of the audience to its close. But if he be a near rhetorician, a bounding in words but scanty in ideas, if he be confined to manuscript or speaks in the manner of a school boy declaiming from memory, the attention of the audience will soon begin to flag. Conversation will be renewed. General uneasiness will prevail and a universal sense of relief will be felt at the close of the performance.
“But whoever the lecturer may be, he cannot please all alike. None has secured the unanimous suffrage or favor of those who have heard him. To some Beecher is merely theatrical; Chapin, only a thunderer; Phillips, a fanatic; Parker, an infidel; Cushing, a sophist, and Emerson, an unintelligible transcendentalist. In our estimates of lectures as of books, we are all more or less influenced by our prevailing habits of thought, our degree of culture, our standard of taste and our personal prejudices. “What is one man’s meat is another man’s poison” is true of the ineffectual as well as the bodily appetite. What one admires another abhors. What one approves, another condemns. And so, taking the course of lectures as a whole, each has heard something to disapprove of and condemn, but, we will hope, more to relish, entertain and instruct.
“ We should endeavor to divest ourselves of all personal prejudices, to expand our contracted habits of thought, to acquire a catholicity of taste, and to detect whatever there may be of truth in all the varieties of opinion and doctrine. For each of them is a partial development of the common mind, and what we find wanting in ourselves, we may supply by a candid reception of that which others seek to impart.
“But the reporter didn’t intend to philosophize. The lecture is over. The audience gradually makes its way out of the building, tarrying for the interchange of friendly greeting by acquaintances and of criticisms favorable or unfavorable on the evening’s performance. The lecturer remains behind to receive the fifty he has earned (?) and the reporter hurries home to decipher his hieroglyphic notes before the impression of the lecture has faded from his memory and thus rendered the task almost impossible.”
One wonders 157 years later, if anyone lingered after the lecture to shake Melville’s hand and ask him to autograph their copy of Moby-Dick? And did he smile?
Melville, Herman. Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860: Volume Nine, Scholarly Edition. G. Thomas Tanselle , Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, Editors. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1987.
Parker, Herschel. Herman Melville: A Biography (Volume 2, 1851-1891). Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Wallace, Robert K. Douglass And Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Spinner Publications, 2005.
Smith, William. A Smaller Classical Dictionary of Biography, Mythology and Geography. New York, New York: American Book Company, ca.1866.
New Bedford Mercury, February 1858.
New Bedford Republican Standard, February 1858.