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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 25

1986] Pribek—Melville in Milwaukee 25 
formances (Father Kemp's Troupe charged the same). At any rate, the "large"
crowd did not draw enough from the public to meet expenses for the performance.
A "large" audience was another standard comment in reviews and
might often
mean no more than an average crowd. For instance, the Sentinel specifically
said that Father Kemp's concerts were "fully attended. . . . The Hall
will
be hardly large enough to hold all who wish to hear them," the paper
predicted.
The Daily Wisconsin complained that ladies were forced to stand.'6 
 So, it is doubtful if Melville had anywhere near a full house. The Young
Men's Association did not renew its invitation to Melville when he expressed
interest in performing a third season. Melville did get bookings the next
year in the East but received almost no response from places on his midwestern
tour. Melville was not cut out to offer the kind of entertainment which inspired
enthusiastic reviewers and return crowds, who had plenty of top-name talent
to choose from. By estimates, Melville was only the sixth most popular of
ten speakers on the Association's 1858-59 program in Milwaukee.'7 
 Cramer's review in the Daily Wisconsin was favorable; the Sentinel's was
essentially noncommittal; the Daily Free Democrat's was hostile. The Daily
Wisconsin and Sentinel put Melville on page one; the Daily Free Democrat
put him back on page three. All told, Melville did comparatively well in
Milwaukee. He also appeared in Chicago, Rockford, and Quincy, Illinois, but
got few good reviews, most observers agreeing that he had no distinctive
stage personality, seemed too rehearsed, and spoke too softly. The eastern
reviewers had been generally favorable about "The South Seas,"
but there
was, ultimately, little encouragement for trying the midwestern states again.
Melville only performed in ten cities during the 1858-59 season, and although
he made more money than he had the year before in sixteen cities and was
apparently becoming 
more comfortable on stage, he had not done well enough to expect a new career
as a lecturer—particularly if he had to rely on pleasing western
audiences.
In Michigan, Bayard Taylor wrote a parody of "The Raven," comparing
the bird's
"nevermore" and the student's vain efforts to escape, to fans and
agents
with speaking invitations rapping at his chamber door and allowing him sleep
"nevermore." Melville had no such troubles to complain of.'8 
In addition, Melville had not managed to generate any new demand for the
oncepopular south sea narratives. He was already working on poetry in the
summer of 1859, and, without much enthusiasm, looking into possibilities
for publishing a first volume of verse. He also prepared a third lecture,
as a more practical venture. However, to cancel his debts to his father-in-law,
which Melville had been accumulating ever since his marriage, he agreed to
deed his farm property to his wife, amounting to an admission of his failure
as head-of-family and provider. The consensus among the family—Herman's
too, probably, though he resisted it—was that he would have to
find
steady work and give up uncertain literary pursuits. He approved of efforts
to find him a political appointment, although he did not actively pursue
one.'9 
 Lecturing was still his only immediate source of income, but his third season
was the least profitable of all. Melville was so outwardly depressed and
physically weak that family members suggested a vacation at sea again in
1860, as they had the year before he tried lecturing. He planned to go through
the South Seas again; ironically, he became sea sick on the voyage out—the
only time this had ever happened to him—and he cut short the voyage.
When he landed in San Francisco, he decided to go home immediately. In fact,
Melville received an invitation to read there, which he declined, although
he had manuscripts with him. 20 By coincidence, Melville's final realization
that he would 


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