- Herman Melville’s Fejee Mermaid, or A Confidence Man at the Lyceum
In 2011, just after the (uncelebrated) sesquicentennial anniversary of Herman Melville’s career as a lecturer on the lyceum circuit, Chad Harbach published The Art of Fielding. Harbach’s bestselling novel, which begins with the fictive discovery of a lost Melvillean lecture, likely generated unprecedented levels of interest in Melville’s labors as an orator, if only because any interest would be unprecedented. Melville’s lectures almost entirely failed to earn the esteem of nineteenth-century lyceum-goers and twentieth-century readers alike; both groups regarded his three-year career in public speaking as a failure. And despite what amounts to a second Melville revival in which scholars have given Herman Melville’s poetry the same sort of sustained attention lavished on Moby-Dick and his other prose fiction since the early twentieth century, critical interest in the lecture circuit phase of Melville’s literary career, remains low.1 Angela Ray gives the novelist cum orator a single mention in her history of the American lyceum, and since Merton Sealts painstakingly reconstructed the text of Melville’s lectures in 1957, literary scholars have done their best to forget this phase of his life. The academy’s neglect likely stems from two problematic facts: first, the extant text for Melville’s addresses is based on newspaper reports rather than a manuscript produced by Melville; and second, most contemporary [End Page 75] reviews disparaged both the content and delivery of Melville’s lectures. Nineteenth-century audiences concluded that “lecturing is evidently not Mr. Melville’s sphere,” and modern readers have come to agree with those first critics, condemning the lectures as aesthetic failures. Hershel Parker explains that despite the reconstructed character of the discourses, “there is enough agreement on the text to show that even some awkward transitions in the lecture, preserved by different reporters, must be Melville’s own,” and Sealts damns the lectures with faint praise, noting that Melville “was too good a craftsman to turn out altogether shoddy products.2” In short, both nineteenth- and more sympathetic twentieth-century audiences have determined that Melville failed as a lecturer.
Of course, this widespread presumption of failure presupposes that Melville intended to succeed as a lecturer—that he meant to write scintillating speeches and win the popular acclaim showered on lyceum stars such as Bayard Taylor, who dazzled audiences with exotic costumes, visual aids, and exciting stories. But little, if anything, in the documentary record suggests that Melville aspired to oratorical fame. Melville only agreed to lecture because he needed money badly; he approached the business with a mercenary approach exemplified by an 1858 letter to his friend, George Duyckinck. When Duyckinck proposed that Melville speak in Jersey City, Melville replied, “I should be glad to lecture there—or anywhere. If they will pay expences [sic], & give a reasonable fee, I am ready to lecture in Labrador or on the Isle of Desolation off Patagonia.”3 Willing to address Argentinian penguins and the ghosts of sailors “lost overboard, / Near the Isle of Desolation, off Patagonia” (Moby-Dick, 35), Melville hardly sought the lecture circuit in search of popular acclaim; the only fame he wanted was the acronym reportedly coined by the renowned lecturer Starr King: “Fifty [dollars] And My Expenses.”4 In exchange for this FAME Taylor and other popular lecturers allowed the paying public into their private lives, sharing personal experiences and private emotions on stage. When the Literary Association of Clarksville, Tennessee wrote Melville to solicit an appearance they emphasized a desire “to render personal, that charming acquaintance [we] have formed with you through [End Page 76] the medium of your genial pen” (Corres, 656; my emphasis). During his three years on the lecture circuit Melville steadfastly refused to comply with this public desire for interiority, but because of his reputation as an author of exciting sea stories he was able to book enough new audiences (only Boston reengaged Melville for a second lecture) to earn more than $1,200 and survive the straitened economic circumstances of the late 1850s.5
Melville’s refusal to satisfy the expectations of audiences even as he took...