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Public Privacy: Melville’s Coterie Authorship in John Marr and Other Sailors MATTHEW GIORDANO Villa Maria College of Buffalo N ear the end of Billy Budd, Sailor, the narrator describes the concluding poem “Billy in the Darbies” as a “rude utterance from another foretopman , one of [Billy’s] own watch, gifted, as some sailors are, with an artless poetic temperament.”1 He continues, “The tarry hand made some lines which, after circulating among the shipboard crews for a while, finally got rudely printed at Portsmouth as a ballad” (Billy Budd 131). Melville’s account of the foretopman can be read as an ironic self-commentary, for as he was composing Billy Budd, he was also putting together the collection of poems John Marr and Other Sailors. Having long since dropped out of mainstream publishing, Melville contracted with DeVinne Press for the publication of John Marr in a slight edition of twenty-five copies, which he personally distributed to select readers. Just as “Billy in the Darbies” circulated within the restricted group of fictional sailors, John Marr moved among a real though circumscribed audience. Moreover, we might say that the collection, like “Billy in the Darbies ,” was “rudely printed,” in the sense that Melville was constrained by the marketplace to publish in such a limited way.2 If in fact the poetic foretopman represents Melville, the selfidentification registers Melville’s awareness of the gradual shift in his career: once a well-known professional author, he was now producing for a radically reduced audience. Indeed, given the diminutive publishing scale of John Marr and Timoleon, also published in an edition of twenty-five copies, scholars traditionally have considered the late poems private works of art, manifestations of Melville’s total withdrawal from the literary culture of late-nineteenth-century C  2007 The Authors Journal compilation C  2007 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc 1 Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 131 [Melville’s emphasis]. 2 That Melville was thinking of himself when he described the foretopman is further supported by the fact that he originally intended “Billy in the Darbies” for inclusion in John Marr, and by other similarities: John Marr opens with four dramatic monologues that, like “Billy in the Darbies,” are spoken in the voices of sailors; and two of these monologues, “John Marr” and “Tom Deadlight,” contain brief prose head notes, as was Melville’s initial plan for “Billy in the Darbies” until he expanded the head note into the novella we now know as Billy Budd. For the compositional history of “Billy in the Darbies” and Billy Budd, see Hayford and Sealts’s “Editors’ Introduction” to Billy Budd. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 65 M A T T H E W G I O R D A N O America.3 Most explicitly, Edgar A. Dryden contends that John Marr is “poetry as private utterance,” a collection of poems directed at “the poet himself” rather than a broad audience and motivated by his personal need to resolve his sense of isolation in his world.4 Dryden writes, “Privately printed in an edition . . . intended, apparently, for family and friends, this volume even more than Clarel is the sign of a private, self-directed, ironic art” (148). To critics like Dryden, Melville’s late poetry, no longer a footnote to the fiction, exemplifies the poet’s unwavering devotion to his muse, his personal dedication to the Truth regardless of whether anybody else is paying attention. Yet there is an underlying contradiction in Dryden’s assessment: while he acknowledges the fact of Melville’s audience for John Marr, he nonetheless labels him a “private” writer, overlooking this audience as inconsequential to Melville’s true artistic agenda. On the contrary, I want to take the fact of this audience seriously. If we maintain, as biographical evidence suggests we must, that Melville did have an immediate public for his volume—no matter how limited that public may have been—then...


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