HERMAN MELVILLE IN NAPLES
It has taken some time, but the reputation of Herman Melville (1819 - 1891) as a major American author is now solid, coming after a century of reappraisal and evaluation. It is of interest to me that he was in Naples for a short time. The city plays a part in the formation
of what has comes down to us now as the figure of Melville, the author, the poet, the traveler, the person. Portrait of Melville by Joseph Oriel Eaton, 1870
Melville arrived in Naples on February 18, 1857 and stayed a week before leaving for Rome. He had come by ship from Messina, Sicily, where he had arrived on February 14. Melville was then 37 and the married father of four. He had left the United States on October 11, 1856, alone on the "Grand Tour" of Europe and the Middle East to recover from depression brought on by the mixed reception of his 1851 novel Moby Dick and from the commercial and critical reaction to his 1852 novel Pierre, which some critics had called the work of a madman. He was working hard, yes, but after the success of four novels, and the failure of one (Mardi, 1849) he had lost his way with the critics and the general public.
His Grand Tour lasted until May, 1857. He went first to England, then Turkey, then Egypt and Palestine, then Lebanon, Greece, and Italy and then to Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, then back to England and from there back to New York. In Italy he spent most of his time in Naples (February 18-24) and Rome (February 25-March 21). He financed the trip by $1,500 from his father-in-law, the Chief Justice of Massachusetts, Lemuel Shaw (1781-1861), as an advance on his wife’s inheritance.
In England Melville visited Nathaniel Hawthorne, his Massachusetts friend and neighbor, who was then the American Consul in Liverpool from 1853-57. Hawthorne recorded in his journal on November 12, 1856: “Herman Melville came to see me at the Consulate, looking much as he used to do (a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder), in a rough outside coat, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner… Melville has not been well, of late; ... and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind....”
In his short one week in the city Melville stayed at the Hotel de Geneve on Via Medina. As a "Grand Tourist" he visited the attractions of Naples and environs and kept a daily journal. He was tireless but his mood at first was dark and depressed. He went to the so-called Grotto of the Sybil, the alleged home of the Cumaean soothsayer and entryway to the Roman underworld, (a tunnel and burial chamber cut into the rock), near Lake Avernus and the Roman resort town of Baiae. He wrote: “What in God’s name were such places made for, why? Surely man is a strange animal. Diving into the bowels of the earth rather than building up towards the sky. How clear an indication that he sought darkness rather than light.”
He also thought that Neapolitans, living in one of the most volcanic areas on the planet, “would be sober in view of these things. But no. Gayest city in the world. No equipages flash like these; no beauties so haughty. No cavaliers so proud, no palaces so sumptuous… Apt representation of that heedlessness, benignly ordained, of man which prevents him one generation from learning from a past. - “Let us eat, drink be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Such seems the lesson learned by the Neapolitans from their scenery. - The beauty of the place, in connection with its perilousness. - Skaters on ice. - Full, too, of monuments] of the variety of old religions (Sybil’s cave) and yet the Romish superstition.”
It is remarkable that Melville was so active in such a short time. Naples had a marked influence on his future literary activities, particularly his poems. His mood improved as he went along. His journal became less cryptic and more optimistic. Once back in the United States, he mostly gave up writing novels, writing only shorter pieces, and poetry. In 1857-60 he engaged on a lecture tour where he spoke about three subjects: (1) the ancient statuary he had seen in Naples, (2) his earlier travels to the South Seas, and (3) the pleasures, pains, and profits of travel in general.
He still needed to earn a living and sought a position as U. S. consul several times, the last time in 1861, when he sought appointment as U. S. Consul to Florence. He failed, but finally in 1866 Melville became customs inspector for the port of New York, a post he kept for 19 years at a salary of $ 4 per day. He didn't know it but he was protected by future U.S. President Chester A. Arthur.
Like other travellers in Naples of the 1800s, he was taken with the grand geopolitical leitmotif the century --the unification of Italy. Three of his poems use Naples and Neapolitan history to expound his philosophy:
(1) Naples at the Time of Bomba is a 750-verse poem likely written in 1857-58, (often revised and unpublished until 1924, thus part of the more recent reappraisal of Melville mentioned above). Here he broods about the misrule of Naples under King Ferdinand II, and reviews Neapolitan history, even Masaniello's revolt:
And, see, dark eyes and sunny locks
Of Masaniello, bridegroom young,
Tanned marigold-cheek and tasselled cap;
The darling of the mob; nine days
Their great Apollo; then, in pomp
Of Pandemonium's red parade,
His curled head Gorgoned on the pike,
And jerked aloft for God to see.
(2) At the Hostelry, written sometimes in the 1870s (also unpublished until 1924) is in the form of an imaginary symposium involving long-ago dead artists. It is ostensibly about the place of beauty in the modern world, but contains sections about Naples, Garibaldi, and Italian unity:
Then Fancy flies. Nor less the trite
Matter-of-fact transcends the flight:
A rail-way train took Naples' town;
But Garibaldi sped thereon:
This movement's rush sufficing there
To rout King Fanny, Bomba's heir,
Already stuffing trunks and hampers,
At news that from Sicilia passed -…
(3) Timoleon (1891), is about two beggars and a young girl singing to a group of tourists on Posillipo Hill. The song tells, in part, about Silvio Pellico (1789-1854), the Italian patriot imprisoned for ten years by the Austrians, the point being that even though Pellico was held in cruel conditions, his spirit was not crushed and he remained undefeated. The first stanza is:
A hill there is that laves its feet
In Naples’ bay and lifts its head
In jovial season, curled with vines.
Its name, in pristine years conferred
By settling Greeks, imports that none
Who take the prospect thence can pine,
For such the charm of beauty shown
Even sorrow’s self they cheerful weened
Surcease might find and thank good Pan…
Although he had spent only one week in Naples, references to the city, its history, and the struggle for Italian independence pervade Melville’s work and form an intrinsic part of his late literary opus.
1. Melville, Herman. Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant 1856 -1857, edited by Howard C. Horsford. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955;
2. Poole, Gordon. A Note on Herman Melville’s Stay in Naples. Melville Society Extracts, Number 68, November 1986;
3. Russo, John Paul. Review of Herman Melville, At the Hostelry in Naples and Naples at the time of Bomba, edited by Gordon Poole. Italian Americana Vol. 9, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 1990), pp. 97-105;
4. Shurr, William H. The Mystery of Iniquity: Melville as Poet, 1857–1891. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1972;
5. Updike, John. Herman Melville’s Soft Withdrawal. The New Yorker, May 10,1982.