Of all the truly great stars in the pantheon of American authors, Herman Melville’s story must surely be the most tragic. Simultaneously blessed and cursed with the great success of his first books, Typee and Omoo (both loosely based on the author’s personal adventures in the South Pacific both while working as a sailor on the Acushnet, a whaler that sailed out of New Bedford, and also after jumping ship in Marquesas Islands and living among the natives for a few weeks), these two early works cast a shadow over the rest of Melville’s career that he could never quite escape. I read both books years ago and loved them both. (What’s not to love? They’re both exciting stories filled with warrior cannibals, remarkably uninhibited Polynesian maidens, and tales of daring escape. Plus Melville knew exactly how to make readers feel like participants in the story being told rather than as spectators looking on from afar.) The book-buying public loved them too…and so was set the stage for an author to move through his own career dancing on two barrels at once, the one filled with the potential profit that comes from endlessly repeating yourself and the other filled with an author’s desire to grow intellectually by declining to spend years covering and re-covering the same ground. Mardi was a flop. White Jacket and Redburn, both sailors’ tales in the style of Typee and Omoo, re-awakened the public’s interest. (The author himself deprecatingly referred to his work writing both as “sawing wood.”) And then came Moby Dick.
Mostly underestimated by contemporary critics and selling fewer than 3000 copies in the author’s lifetime, the greatest of all American novels was a commercial failure when it was published and only gained widespread recognition decades after the author’s death. That did it for Melville. He published a few more novels, notable among them Pierre (a truly groundbreaking book both in terms of its psychological depth and its frank, if slightly weird, sexuality), but none was at all successful. By 1857, Melville was done with prose—his second most famous work, Billy Budd, was only published posthumously—and spent the last decades of his life writing poetry. And that, slightly unexpectedly, is what I want to write to you about today.
Because I’ve felt a deep kinship with Melville ever since reading Moby Dick when I was in college, I’ve always been interested in his other books as well. And I’ve read a lot of them! (One day I’d like to write to you all about my experiences reading Moby Dick as a college student, then again as a man in his mid-thirties, then a third time earlier this year. The book is still the same, so I must be the one who has changed!) In fact, I thought I had read all of his major works when just last year I came across reference to something by Melville that I had not only not read, but that I hadn’t even really heard of. I suppose it must have been mentioned in the Melville biographies I’ve read—probably it’s referenced at least in passing in all of them—but it was only last year when I was reading Andrew Delbanco’s truly magisterial Melville: His World and Work, published by Vintage Books in 2006, that I first realized how interesting it would almost have to be to explore Melville’s epic poem, Clarel, in depth. (Delbanco’s book is just great, by the way, and would be worth your time reading even absent any interest in Melville for the sake of being exposed to his truly encyclopedic knowledge of New York City in the nineteenth century.)
It’s a big read. Constructed as a kind of continuous narrative stretched out over 150 cantos and comprising almost 18,000 lines, Clarel is the longest American poem ever published. (Probably, it’s also the longest one ever written. Omitting whatever time it must have taken to produce Battle Pieces, Melville’s collection of Civil War poems, it took its author almost three decades to complete.) As would naturally be the case in a work of such immense length, it is hard to characterize its contents or style in just a few lines. But because the poem is essentially about the themes that eventually evolved into the issues that run endlessly through my own life—the possibility of faith in the modern world, the tension between religion and science, the mystic sanctity of the Land of Israel (and, more than any other one of its cities, of Jerusalem), the relationship between Judaism and its daughter religions, the reasonableness of building life in the modern age on a foundation of biblical values, the conflict between Zionist ideology and the reality of Jewish life in the diaspora, and the potential for harmonious relations between Christians and Jews—and also because its authors is one of the greatest figures in American literature (and, I might add, one who truly does deserve his place in the pantheon), it seems peculiar for Clarel to be as obscure a work as it surely is.
Mind you, it was fairly unknown in its own day as well. The reviews, such as they were, were scathing. The New York Times denigrated thirty years’ of its author’s effort with the withering comment that it should have been written in prose, i.e., as a “regular” travelogue based on Melville’s 1856 journey to the Holy Land. The reviewer in The World, a New York newspaper of the day, referred to getting “lost in the overwhelming tide of mediocrity.” Someone writing in Lippincott’s Magazine opined that there weren’t ”six lines of genuine poetry in it.” Modern scholar Walter Bezanson has concluded that it is highly likely that not one single one of Melville’s reviewers actually read the book in its entirety, but that conclusion—assuming it was one shared by the poet himself—can only have brought Melville scant comfort.
And so he soldiered on in the years following the publication and almost instant disappearance of Clarel, trudging from his home on East 26th Street to his day job as a deputy customs inspector at the foot of Gansevoort Street in what is today the Meatpacking District, then returning home on foot at dusk and working on Billy Budd in his spare time. I suppose he must have spent his time walking wondering what happened to Homer after the Iliad came out, or what Virgil did after he was done with the Aeneid. (Clarel is longer than both those works, by the way.) Eventually, he was more or less forgotten. His early successes were no longer in print. His flops were pulped, as were the majority of volumes in the first and only press run of Clarel during its author’s lifetime. Unaware that Moby Dick would eventually be acknowledged as a true masterpiece of literary art or that Newton Arvin (whose biography of Melville is also very interesting and worth reading) would one day refer admiringly to Clarel as “Melville’s great novel of ideas in verse,” Melville succumbed to a state of ongoing melancholy which reached its fullest literary expression in his final work. In an article about his life published shortly after he died, the Times got his first name wrong.
And so, Clarel. At face value, it is the story of a complicated pilgrimage from Jerusalem through the Judean desert to the Dead Sea, then to the Christian monastery of Mar Saba, then to Bethlehem, and then back to Jerusalem. At the center of the story is Clarel, a young American who falls in love with Ruth, a Jewish American woman living in Jerusalem. When her father dies and Clarel is told that he may not see Ruth during the mourning week, he embarks on a tour of the Holy Land in the company of a large number of varied and very interesting types, and it is the relationship between these pilgrims that forms the meat of the book. And they are a very varied lot. Ungar is a part-American-Indian ex-officer of the Confederacy. Celio is an Italian ward of the Franciscan monks in Jerusalem’s Terra Sancta monastery and very handsome, but also a hunchback. Margoth is a Jewish geologist who has renounced his religion. Mortmain is a Swede who was a revolutionary leader in Paris in the Revolution of 1848. Vine is a only slightly obscured stand-in for Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose relationship to Melville could be the plot of its own novel. Nehemiah is a Christian missionary whose life is devoted to handing out tracts to tourists visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem. Rolfe, an American adventurer, is probably supposed to be Melville himself. Abdon (who doesn’t actually go on the pilgrimage) is a “black Jew” from India who has come to Jerusalem via Amsterdam and who runs the inn in which Clarel stays before setting forth on his journey. And there are many, many other characters in the story, each interesting in his or her own right.
While they travel, they talk. Endlessly. About the issues of the day—and especially about issues facing men like Melville as they attempt to decide what future religion itself should have in the modern world—and about each other. About Zionism. About the Holy Land itself and especially about Jerusalem. And, as any road trip involving exclusively male travelers inevitably would, also about women and about love. And we, the readers, are invited to listen to their almost endless poetic banter and to learn from it about the characters Melville willed into existence, about the poet himself and, as would be the case with any truly great work of poetic introspection, about ourselves as well.
It’s a great book. Difficult, too. And maddening. It is a very slow read. (I should admit that I started and gave up at least half a dozen times before I finally made it through to the end.) The language is complicated and the style will be unfamiliar to most readers. On top of all that is the nineteenth century framework, the supposition that readers are conversant with the issues that faced the American reading public in Melville’s day, and the poet’s assumption that his readers know a good deal more about the New Testament than most non-specialist moderns can claim. Still, despite everything, I loved it. And I think most of my readers, if they are intrepid enough to wade into a very bracing stream, will love it too. Conveniently, I’m going to be teaching about it in the series of three lectures that I am giving as part of the Institute for Adult Jewish Studies that is sponsored annually at various venues in Nassau County as a memorial to the late Herbert Tarr by his friends and family. This year’s lectures are taking place at Temple Judea, located at 333 Searingtown Road in Manhasset. My own talks will be on November 16th, 23rd and 30th at 7:30 PM. All are welcome! If you’re free, come by and I’ll introduce you to Clarel and his friends. I’ll be very pleased to see you! And I hope you end up feeling as I do that Harold Bloom was quite right to find a place for Clarel in his American canon.