“Nature did not make him a poet,” an anonymous reviewer wrote of Herman Melville in the September 6, 1866, issue of The Nation. While praising his “literary reputation” and “experience and cultivation”—somewhat challenging today’s cliché that Melville’s talents went completely unrecognized until after his 1891 death—the writer nonetheless argued that Melville was only one among “the herd of recent versifiers.”
His pages contain at best little more than the rough ore of poetry. Here and there gleams of imaginative power shine out like the grains of gold in a mass of quartz.
Though works like Moby-Dick, “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” and “Benito Cereno”—the subject of an essay by Nation editorial board member Greg Grandin in next week’s issue—had been in circulation for over a decade by 1866, nothing of Melville’s contributions to American prose is mentioned in the review. It was not until the centenary of Melville’s birth, in August 1919, that a treatment of those works and Melville’s legacy as one of the finest writers this country ever produced appeared in our pages.
It was by a young Columbia lecturer named Raymond Weaver, the so-called “father of Melville criticism,” whose 1921 biography, Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic, and sixteen-volume edition of Melville’s works published in 1924 would largely spark the “Melville revival” of the 1920s, which rescued the long-deceased scribe from historical obscurity and secured him a prominent place in the American canon.
Commissioned by his English Department colleague and The Nation’s literary editor Carl Van Doren (who according to one scholar of Melville criticism had been recommending as early as 1915 that his students read an old and obscure genre-bending novel about whaling), it was the first piece Weaver wrote about Melville, and it was only after its publication that he decided to commit himself to a full-length biography, according to Clare Spark’s Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare & the Melville Revival. The canonization of Melville began with Weaver, and Weaver began with The Nation.
Moby-Dick was “an amazing masterpiece,” Weaver wrote. It “reads like a great opium dream” and “contains some of the most finished comedy in the language.” While seconding the anonymous 1866 reviewer by acknowledging that “as a poet Melville is not distinguished”—a view which has been considerably revised by more recent scholars—Weaver made the case for recognition of Melville as one of the most exemplary American writers yet, while acknowledging that the more disturbing aspects of his vision could render widespread acknowledgment of that claim unattainable, whatever the author’s merits:
It was Melville’s abiding craving to achieve some total and undivined possession of the very heart of reality; his was the quest for the lost Atlantis, the ancient eternal desire of man for the unknown. In the promiscuous exuberance of youth Melville venturesomely sought his El Dorado on the world’s rim….