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  • “no soul above”:Labor and the “law in art” in Melville’s “The Bell-Tower”
  • Ivy G. Wilson (bio)

Ten months after "Hawthorne and His Mosses" (1850) and four months before the British publication of Moby-Dick (1851), Melville sent a now-famous letter to Hawthorne where he complains of his imminent erosion by the marketplace—"Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. . . . What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches" (Writings 14:127–28). Melville's anxieties were well-founded and today read suggestively as premonitions. The contemporary critical reception of Melville is perhaps best summarized by the January 1852 assessment in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, which conceded that his first novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) were suitable for the parlor but found Redburn (1849) a "stupid failure," Mardi (1849) "hopelessly dull," and Moby-Dick "the very ultimatum of weakness to which its author could attain" (290–91). Melville was further crucified with the publication of Pierre (1852) later in August, it receiving even harsher censure than Moby-Dick. In his fiction at mid-decade including "The Bell-Tower" (1855), "Bartleby" (1853), and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (1855), the psychological dimensions of Melville's intensified isolation as a writer were increasingly correlated to the sociological parallel of the denigration of labor. [End Page 27]

Similar to other critics, George Washington Peck's November 1852 vitriolic article in the American Whig Review lambasted the author of Pierre:

We can afford Mr. Melville full license to do what he likes with "Omoo" and its inhabitants; it is only when he presumes to thrust his tragic Fantoccini upon us, as representatives of our own race, that we feel compelled to turn our critical Aegis upon him, and freeze him into silence . . . . he strikes with an impious, though, happily, weak hand, at the very foundations of society . . . . Let him continue, then, if he must write, his pleasant sea and island tales.


Peck, whose investments in policing national cultural interests were probably substantial, finds it disagreeable that Melville would breach some unstated edict of social decorum by apparently compromising the "representatives of our own race." He wishes instead that Melville return to "discourse about savages."1 From one angle, Peck's evaluation exposes how fragile the nation was at mid-century; delicate enough, in Peck's estimation, that unpopular sentiments about it should be thwarted or otherwise suppressed. From another, Peck's considerations convey that a proper American author could do no better than to re-calcify the nation by discoursing about savages in other locales.2 Of the selections included in The Piazza Tales, "The Encantadas; or, The Enchanted Isles" was lavished with the most praise; a significant number of the reviewers emphasized that it recalled Typee and Omoo.

But it seemed as if nothing could revitalize Melville's career. Indeed, Peck is part of the establishment that so debilitated Melville's reputation as to make it unfeasible for him to earn a living as a writer using his own name. As Michael T. Gilmore has noted, Melville's eroded regard in the literary marketplace corresponded to a more pronounced denegration of labor in the antebellum U.S. (3). By the time of the individual publications of the stories that make up The Piazza Tales (1856), Melville's earlier foray with anonymity in "Hawthorne and His Mosses" (where he assumes the guise of a Virginian) reaches its fullest and most perverse manifestation by April of 1855 when, alas, he had to write the other way.3

Even Melville's editor at Putnam's, George Curtis, cited the "thoroughly magazinish" quality to these tales, in contrast to the coherency [End Page 28] of a novel, including one like Isreal Potter (1855) which was published by the serial as well. Melville's well-known difficulty with financially supporting his family by his writing alone was undoubtedly compounded by his wife's wealth and bourgeois standing contrasted to his...


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