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Whitford, Philip; Whitford, Kathryn (ed.) / Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters
volume 74 (1986)

Pribek, Thomas
The man who lived among the cannibals: Melville in Milwaukee,   pp. 19-26 PDF (4.1 MB)


Page 20

20 Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters [Vol. 74 
sedentary life and family charity. He had already realized what many other
writers more salable than he had found: few people could earn a living as
an author, but several supported themselves writing and giving live appearances,
by traveling the lyceum circuit. Melville was now unusually pressed for money.
He was overdrawn on his accounts with publishers. One publisher of two recent
books had gone out of business and was selling its plates, and another had
lost its stock of some earlier books in a warehouse fire. Melville had nothing
new ready for sale, having just returned from his trip to the Holy Land.
A series of lectures seemed a practical venture for turning his recent excursion
into something immediately profitable. So Melville wrote "Statues in
Rome,"
an analysis of the philosophy of art, with an added dose of gossip and personal
anecdotes. He knew the subject would attract little interest in itself.4
 This first lecture, delivered through the 1857-58 lecture season (the winter
months), generally received poor reviews. It was not a shrewd choice of topic
for one whose forte was tale-telling rather than descriptive or critical
analysis; moreover, reviewers generally agreed that Melville's delivery was
rather dry. He had hoped for publicity to generate invitations and was thus
disappointed. In addition, the reviewers tended to focus on characterizing
the man who lived with the cannibals, rather than the author of a piece of
statuary. Audiences preferred a glimpse of an entertaining personality, rather
than a systematic analysis of works of art which they could not see before
them. Nonetheless, he was sufficiently encouraged, and paid, to plan a second
season in a more business-like manner. He began a correspondence to arrange
a professional circuit from New England, into the Southern states, and through
the Midwest, rather than waiting for invitations.5 
 An old family friend, William E. Cramer, editor and owner of the Milwaukee
Daily Wisconsin, undertook the local publicity and 
might even have suggested Melville to the Young Men's Association, which
sponsored the Milwaukee appearance. Melville spoke in Albany Hall, appropriately
named to suggest that the city's cultural tastes were as refined as those
of an eastern city, and Cramer appealed to civic pride, pointing out in advance
notices that a well-attended lecture "always gives a stranger a good
impression
of the intellectual culture of the city."6 
Melville had a promising field before him in Milwaukee in 1859; the city
was growing and its affluent citizens eager to show their interest in things
cultural. The Young Men's Association was composed, like many similarly-named
groups in the Midwest and across Wisconsin, of business and professional
men who were accumulating a library, presenting lectures and debates, and
offering educational courses from a variety of cultural topics. A Young Men's
Association or Young Men's Library Association existed in Beloit, Columbus,
Fond du Lac, Janesville, Kenosha, LaCrosse, Madison, Oshkosh, Portage, Racine,
Sheboygan, Watertown, Waukesha, and Waupun. They shared the name and corresponded
on arranging programs, although they had no state-wide organization.7 
 In the 1850s, lyceums grew faster in the Midwest than any other part of
the country and continued their popularity into the Civil War years. Chicago,
Sheboygan, and Milwaukee were among the best stops for a speaker; the cities
usually drew large crowds and offered good money—$50 a night was
standard
in eastern cities but only a few such stops existed in the West. Bayard Taylor
once wrote from Milwaukee, "The people are infatuated. If I lecture
next
winter, I can spend three months in the West and have engagements for every
night." This was Taylor's impression in 1854, when Milwaukee also heard
such
speakers as Emerson, Horace Mann, and Horace Greeley.8 
 Nonetheless, the midwestern audience was a somewhat difficult one for New
Englanders. Newspaper reviewers were antagonistic 


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