MELVILLE, HERMAN. 1819-1891.
"SOME OF US SCRIBBLERS, MY DEAR SIR, ALWAYS HAVE A CERTAIN SOMETHING UNMANAGEABLE IN US."
Autograph Letter Signed ("Herman Melville"), 2½ pp recto and verso, 4to (conjoined leaves), New York, June 5, 1849, to Richard Bentley, second leaf neatly inlaid.
Melville's apologia to his new English publisher following the disastrous Mardi, promising "a plain, straightforward, amusing narrative of personal experience" - Redburn.
Melville's first English publisher, John Murray, had been dissatisfied by the sales of his second book, Omoo and was averse to publishing what he considered fiction. He rejected the manuscript of Mardi, so Melville took it to Richard Bentley, who published it in March, 1849.
Starting out as a narrative of adventure, Mardi soon becomes an allegory concerning metaphysical, ethical and political matters. Critics and readers were equally scathing - "it ought not to ... sell sufficiently well to encourage him to attempt any thing else," remarked the Boston Post. Even the reviewer in Bentley's own journal, the Miscellany, called it a book that "the reader will probably like very much or detest altogether."
His reputation in the balance, Melville defends himself to his new publisher and talks about the conflict between literary and popular writing: "The critics on your side of the water seem to have fired quite a broadside into 'Mardi' ... I can not but think that its having been brought out in England in the ordinary novel form must have led to the disappointment of many readers ... Besides, the peculiar thoughts and fancies of a Yankee upon politics and other matters could hardly be presumed to delight that class of gentlemen who conduct your leading journals" - a poke at the Bentley's Miscellany reviewer? - "while the metaphysical ingredients (for want of a better term) of the book must of course repel some of those who read simply for amusement ... You may think that a man is unwise, indiscreet, to write a work of that kind, when he might have written one, perhaps, calculated merely to please the general reader, and not provoke attack ... But some of us scribblers, my Dear Sir, always have a certain something unmanageable in us, that bids us do this or that, and be done it must - hit or miss."
Nonetheless, to salvage his career at this critical juncture, Melville returned to the tone of his first novels, writing Redburn. He continues, "I have now in preparation a thing of widely different cast from 'Mardi': a plain, straightforward, amusing narrative of personal experience - the son of a gentleman on his first voyage to sea as a sailor - no metaphysics, no comic-sections, nothing but cakes and ale ... I value the English copyright at one hundred and fifty pounds and think it will be wise to put it forth in a manner, admitting of a popular circulation." In fact, his fingers burned by Mardi, Bentley paid Melville just £100 for Redburn, and published it that September. Melville concludes with an ironic aside about the unpopularity of the former: "Write me if you please at your earliest leisure; and as you have not yet sent me any copies of your edition of 'Mardi' - (which of course I impute to the fact of the prodigious demand of the book with you) - I will thank you to forward me three copies."
Many of Redburn's themes are echoed in Moby Dick, and it includes some of the same experimental tendencies. Placated by the present letter, Bentley went on to publish Melville's masterpiece two years later.