Melville’s Letter to the World
In a formerly undated letter to the editor of the New-York World, Melville disowns The Refugee, a retitled pirating of his novel Israel Potter. Here, the note’s publication date is firmly traced to early 1876, suggesting that Melville wrote it to set straight his publication record before the appearance of Clarel that summer. Small though it is, this letter of “disavowal” is now officially Melville’s last known correspondence to see print in his lifetime.
Scholars have long been aware of an undated bit of correspondence Herman Melville wrote to the New-York World about an unauthorized republication of Israel Potter. It reads as follows:
A Protest From Herman Melville
To the Editor of the World.
SIR: Permit me through your columns to make a disavowal. T. B. Peterson & Brothers, of Philadelphia, include in a late list of their publications “The Refugee; by Herman Melville.”
I have never written any work by that title. In connection with that title Peterson Brothers employ my name without authority, and notwithstanding a remonstrance conveyed to them long ago.Herman Melville.
No manuscript copy of the letter exists. The sole extant version of the text is a newspaper clipping glued to the front flysheet of a copy of The Refugee (Philadelphia, 1865) kept by the Lansings, Melville’s maternal cousins. (For images of Melville’s letter as it appeared in the New-York World, see Figs. 1 and 2.) Researchers have been able to ascertain only that Melville penned the letter sometime between 1865, the year of unauthorized publication, and 7 April 1888, the date he writes to correspondent James Billson that “a letter to the publisher arrested the publication” of the book, “republished by a Philadelphia house some time ago under the unwarrantably altered title of ‘The Refugee’” (Correspondence 395, 512, 538). Jay Leyda tentatively dates the note in the [End Page 8] World to “March? 1865,” though as Lynn Horth points out, Melville’s mention of a “remonstrance conveyed to [Peterson & Brothers] long ago” indicates that the note was probably written many years after the unauthorized reprint of 1865 (Leyda 2: 672; Correspondence 538, emphasis mine).
As it turns out, Horth’s suspicions are correct. Melville’s letter to the editor appeared in the daily edition of the New-York World for Friday, 28 January 1876. It may be found on page 5, in the rightmost “Personal” column. The note was also reprinted a week later in the Chicago Tribune’s “Literary Notes” column for 5 February (page 9), with the brief introduction “Herman Melville writes as follows to the New York World” (“Literary”). The year of this letter, and its contents, indicate that Melville may have been setting straight his publication record in advance of the appearance of Clarel (in June 1876). Melville likely saw “The Refugee; by Herman Melville” included in a “late list of [the] publications” of T.B. Peterson & Brothers, and could not suppress his irritation. Such a catalogue appeared in the back pages of several dozen Peterson volumes published in the decade prior, and may also have appeared as advertisements in the World. In 1876 alone, the catalogue appeared in three separate E.D.E.N. Southworth novels published by Peterson, with Melville’s book listed as “The Refugee. By Herman Melville, author of ‘Omoo,’ ‘Typee,’” (see, for example, Southworth 665). Melville may have been further irked to know that the hardcover versions of The Refugee were similarly identified, blind-stamped with either his name alongside “The Refugee,” or with the words “by Author of ‘Omoo,’ ‘Typee,’ &c. &c.,” thus misleadingly linking the false title for Israel Potter to both Melville’s name and his legitimately published titles (Israel Potter 224–25 n61). Whatever his reason for writing the World, it is clear that Melville still cared deeply about his past work and its position in American literature, enough to make him uncharacteristically break his silence through a public communication.
It is notable that, beyond his series of Philo Logos letters to the Albany Microscope (1838), the note in the World is the only other example of Melville’s writing a letter directly to a newspaper editor. The few other instances of his correspondence appearing in print are all, to my knowledge, indirect or involuntary: See Melville’s possible quotation in the Albany Argus (21 April 1846); his letter to Nathaniel P. Willis about copyright and travel troubles, excerpted in the Home Journal (12 January 1850); and his description, in September 1867, of the peaceful way his son Malcolm “lay in his last attitude” shortly after death, written in a letter to John C. Hoadley and briefly excerpted in an unknown newspaper (Correspondence 35, 150–51, 399–400).1 But, even taking these into account, we can now confidently describe Melville’s letter to the World as his last known correspondence to see print during his lifetime. [End Page 9]
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1. It has come to my attention that we might add one further entry to this list. At the end of 1854, a short blurb about a new anthology—Rosalie Bell’s Lillies and Violets—appeared in several New York newspapers, attributed to Melville. The full blurb simply reads: “‘I cannot but think your design a happy one, the title is highly pleasing.’—Herman Melville” (“A New Book”). Independent scholar Scott Norsworthy dates this potential bit of Melvilleana to an advertisement appearing in the New-York Daily Tribune for Saturday, 23 December 1854, and again in the New-York Evening Post for Wednesday, 27 December 1854. I have located one additional version in the New-York Daily Times, also for Saturday, 23 December 1854.