This Sunday marks Herman Melville’s 202nd birthday, and I decided to honor him by looking through a scholarly book of his correspondence to find something noteworthy to write about (beyond, of course, his passionate love letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne). Why, how do you celebrate birthdays?
While much of the correspondence involved either fairly dry logistics or arguments for larger advances, my favorite letter was one Melville sent to his Evart A. Duyckinck, an editor at Wiley & Putnam, in response to Duyckinck’s suggestion that he write a review of a book called The Romance of Yachting: Voyage the First, by Joseph C. Hart.
“What the deuce does it mean?” Melville begins the letter. “Here’s a book positively turned wrong side out, the title page on the cover, an index to the whole in more ways than one.” He goes on to criticize the book for its many digressions, which include “extracts from the Log Book of Noah’s Ark.”
Having read Moby-Dick, this sounds like the kind of thing that Melville would be extremely into, but maybe he felt like length maritime digressions were his thing, and resented Hart’s encroachment? “You have been horribly imposed upon, My Dear Sir. The book is no book, but a compact bundle of wrapping paper,” he writes.
And: “What great national sin have we committed to deserve this infliction?”
And my personal favorite: “[O]n my conscience, the book is an abortion, the mere trunk of a book, minus head arm or leg.”
This letter could be plucked from the DMs of two salty Book Twitter people who will publicly tweet something like “Wondering if I’m the only one who thinks that one popular book is actually kind of an abortion 👀” Plus ça change!
Melville declines to write a review, out of sympathy for the author: “What has Mr. Hart done that I should publicly devour him? — I bear that hapless man, no malice. Then why smite him? And as for glossing over his book with a few commonplaces, — that I can not do.”
So for anyone who bemoaning the lack of negative book reviews these days, blame Herman Melville!