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Melville in the Antebellum Publishing Maelstrom MICHAEL EVERTON Like Bartleby's "I would prefer not to" and Pierre's "I write precisely as I please," H:erman Melville's epistolary bellow "Dollars damn me" has becorne a sort of benchmark appraisal of the conditions of j\.meriean authorship. "What I feel most moved to write, that is will not pay," he continues. "Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot." Banned? Did the commercial fail-ure of Mardi (1849) amount to a deliberate censure ofMelville's wish to publish a philosophical "venture"? Melville openly blarned the market, among other things, for rebuffing what he called elsewhere that "certain something unmanageable" in him-his mania for writing "wicked book[s]" like Mol?Y-Dick (I8 5I) .I Though dramatic, his was not a peculiar indictment: versions of this sensational charge were a press ritual. In I840 Evert A. Duyckinck had characterized the market as "ruthless and exacting as an old-fashioned parent,"2 and seven years later he opened the Literary vtiOrld's second issue with an uneasy acknowledgment of moral caprice in the business of literary production. "A great deal has been lately said in vari0us ways of the conscience of publishers," he wrote, and of their "independence of the laws of morals supposed to govern the rest of the world." To contemporary observers the book trade seellled to have thrown off the gentlemanly deportment that had once prevailed, in a better business world that itself was largely a nostalgic myth. Modern publishers were the executors of million-dollar industries, the logic went, and anESQ I V. 52 I3RD QUARTER I2006 227 MICHAEL EVERTON swered to aJacksonian market that, as Charles Sellers describes it, took "the competitive ego for human nature." Publishers' behavior was "not a question of ethics," according to industry apologists cited by Duyckinck, "'but ofbusiness. "3 This defense did not sit well with detractors, who went on prosecuting publishers as cultural bullies, economic opportunists, and moral heathens. In a North British Review article reprinted in Am.erican magazines in I850 and I85I, William Makepeace Thackeray abridged the "common complaint" (without fully endorsing it himself): "publishers make large fortunes and leave the authors to starve [because] they are, in fact, a kind of moral vampire ' sucking the best blood of genius, and destroying others to support themselves."4 In sum, Melville inhabited a print culture manically alert to reform-minded criticism. My interest is in the ethics of the publishing world against which Melville and others reacted so histrionically and in the mechanics of the reaction itself. In recovering Melville's engagement with this culture it is a mistake to overlook a fact recognized by his contemporaries: in his early career he was a willing if ornery student of the business of literary publishing. In I849, the elder Richard Henry Dana praised Melville's good sense in initially publishing '!Ypee (I846) overseas, circumventing trade piracy by securing English copyright.5 Then there was Melville's capitulation to John Wiley in sanitizing the second Am.erican edition of the novel. And despite a defensive claim printed in the Literary World that "Mr. Melville is not the man to 'hawk' his wares in any lnarket"-a response to a report that Melville had tried to hand sell his manuscript for VVhiteJacket (I850) to London firms-he did know how to sell himself abroad. 6 Still" without a personal fortune and without a substantial reputation beyond that of a genre-specialist, Melville had little leverage. For one who believed that serious writers should enjoy imlTIUnity from the presumed ignorance of typical book buyers and their influence on publishing, Melville was in a bad spot. He had little clout with publishers who of some necessity favored what was profitable over what was"right," a distinction highlighted in debates over the state of the antebellum book trade. He had little patience with publishers' adjustment of their ethics to the requirements of profit, par228 MELVILLE IN THE ANTEBELLUM PUBUSHING MAELSTROM ticularly because publishers' ethics mirrored the negotiated Christianity suffusing reform-conscious NewYork. Critics have argued compellingly that "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" (1853), in describing just this world, attacks the pious...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-021X
Print ISSN
0093-8297
Pages
pp. 227-268
Launched on MUSE
2015-02-11
Open Access
No
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