I was already planning a followup to Monday's Melville Log post, with a quotation I alluded to there, but then I had the pleasure of receiving a short comment to the post from Professor Hershel Parker himself (you can't speak without being heard in the age of the Google Alert), who took my comparison of him to the mad whale-hunter with good humor and passed on a link to a history on his blog of the Log and its reception (and expansion) that to me is fascinating and dramatic, both for its further sketching in of the background of Leyda's work and for its thumbnail (but very personal) history of American literary criticism in the past 50 years. For the latter I urge you to turn to the full post--it's a passionate argument for the attention to biography and history that's been lost in that time, which, for someone who spent his graduate-school years in the age of "historicism" without ever really learning how to do history (no doubt my fault as well as the age's), hit home.
And for the former, here's a glimpse of the conditions of the Log's creation, which just adds to the weight of its documentation:
The Log in fact had to be highly selective not only because of the limits of space but simply because Leyda typically did the excerpting in uncomfortable, constraining circumstances. Living below the edge of poverty, staying in YMCAs or cadging rooms from acquaintances or their friends, he worked on the fly, unable to stay long enough in New York City to exhaust the archives in the New York Public Library, for instance.
Somebody needs to do a Leyda Log! Or write a biography of that singular man. I love Parker's story of his own embarkation into the archives, carrying his copies of the Log into the New York Public Library to follow its leads, just as Leyda had hoped. There's a lot more in the post, including Parker's skepticism of Leyda's "silver platter" method of biography (which, as noted last time, has a lot to do with Eisenstein's montage), which allows readers to, as it were, write their own biographies from his material, versus Parker's argument for a stronger biographical hand. (The photo above, also borrowed from Parker's blog, is of Leyda and Parker, and must be quite late in Leyda's life. UPDATE: And the photo to the left, contributed by Parker (see comments below), is of Leyda reading a review of Moby-Dick that Parker had unearthed in the Troy Public Library.)
But in the spirit of the archives, finally, here is the primary material I originally meant to pass along. It's from a letter from John Hoadley to George Boutwell on January 9, 1873, concerning the position by which Melville supported his family as the works of his decade of furious creation were forgotten. Who are Hoadley and Boutwell? The first volume of the Log, which I don't have at hand, has the helpful biographical notes, but Hoadley was Melville's brother-in-law, with whom he apparently was on close terms with, and Boutwell was the Secretary of the Treasury and therefore Melville's ultimate boss (short of President Grant).
There is one person in the employment of the Revenue Service, in whom I take so deep an interest, that I venture a second time to write you about him;--not to solicit promotion, a favor, or indulgence of any sort,--but to ask you, if you can, to do or say anything in the proper quarter of his modest, hard-earned salary, as deputy inspector of the Customs in the City of New York--Herman Melville. --Proud, shy, sensitively honorable,--he had much to overcome, and has much to endure; but he strives earnestly to so perform his duties as to make the slightest censure, reprimand, or even reminder,--impossible from any superior-- Surrounded by low venality, he puts it all quietly aside,--quietly declining offers of money for special services,--quietly returning money which has been thrust into his pockets behind his back, avoiding offence alike to the corrupting merchants and their clerks and runners, who think that all men can be bought, and to the corrupt swarms who shamelessly seek their price;--quietly, steadfastly doing his duty, and happy in retaining his own self-respect--
By the rules of any conceivable "civil service," he must be secure against removal.--Advancement or promotion he does not seek,--nor would his friends seek it for him.--The pittance he receives ekes out his slender income and that of his wife, (who is a daughter of the late Lemuel Shaw, C.J. of Mass--) and affords him the quiet, simple livelihood he values--The loss of $5000.--by the Boston fire, carrying with it an income of $500.--part of the small property left her by her Father, making Mrs. Melville additionally solicitous that Mr. Melville should retain his place--I most earnestly wish that representations might be made in the proper quarter so that in the event of any general change in the Custom House in New York, Mr. Melville might find a sheltering arm thrown over him.--Pardon me: my sincere feeling must be my excuse...
It's a moving letter, in its picture both of the aging Melville and of his brother-in-law's care for him, that can largely speak for itself, but I just want to note two things: the obvious echoes of Bartleby, who Melville had created 20 years before, although this Melville is not merely a sayer of "No," but one whose "No"s are more active attempts to do good; and the fact that Hoadley sees no necessity to mention Melville's literary work, which in earlier years, when he was better known, was the highlight of his applications for such sinecures. Now it seems of no import; he's just an honorable worker with family responsibilities who should be allowed to go on doing his work.
UPDATE: Professor Parker's Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative, with much more about Jay Leyda and many others, no doubt, is due out in January, as mentioned in the comments below, and the cover, while not the work of Maurice Sendak like the two volumes of his main biography, is indeed striking: