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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 19

 19"THE MAN WHO LIVED AMONG THE CANNIBALS": 
MELVILLE IN MILWAUKEE 
THOMAS PRIBEK 
Department of English 
University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse 
 Early in 1886, after years of literary silence, Herman Melville began writing
his last book, Billy Budd. He died five years later, virtually unnoticed,
because many people believed that he had died years before. In fact, in twenty
years of employment as customs' Inspector for the Port of New York Melville
continued to write but published only a small volume of Civil War poems for
public sale. He also wrote Clarel and another volume of poetry, both printed
in limited editions for his family and friends. Therefore, the final phase
of Melville's public literary career—and his last work in prose
before
Billy Budd—was a brief attempt at lecturing, during which he once
toured
the Midwest and spoke in Milwaukee. 
 Melville met with decidedly-mixed success over these years, 1857-60, and
it became clear to him that he would not make much money, nor would he revive
his popularity as the author of adventure and travel narratives. The lecture
tours were really his last efforts to maintain a career as a popular writer,
and their ultimate failure probably accounted for his decision not to make
a prose romance out of his last adventure, his trip to the Holy Land in 1856-57,
but the philosophical poem Clarel, written for intimate acquaintances. His
first lecture was "Statues in Rome," adapted from this trip; his
last was
called "Traveling." 
 Ironically, his nearest success on stage went back to the beginning of his
career. The lecture he delivered in Milwaukee and elsewhere his second year
on speaking tour was "The South Seas," actually fitting the reputation
he
worked so hard to overcome as "the man who lived among the cannibals,"
as
he summarized his reputation in a letter to 
Nathaniel Hawthorne.' It became certain, finally, that he could not appeal
to audiences as an entertainer, like the reigning stage star Bayard Taylor
and the later star, Twain, nor could he be accepted as a philosopher or social
commentator, like the reigning sage of New England Ralph Waldo Emerson. 
 Melville spoke in Milwaukee on February 25, 1859. By the time he appeared
there, a late stop during the second lecture tour, he was working much harder
to please local crowds than most critics have assumed.2 His subject, content,
and delivery were calculated for stage success. However, the Milwaukee performance
was fairly typical in its dubious outcome. In books, Melville could be risque,
impudent, even raucous. However, this character he found only through literary
personae; Melville in person was urbane, often subdued, even shy and uncomfortable
among strangers. He lacked Twain's talent for embodying his literary characters.
Melville in person was usually a New England gentleman who remembered his
genteel roots. (With the possible exceptions of James Fenimore Cooper, James
Russell Lowell, and Emerson, Melville had more claim to New England gentry
than any of the prominent nineteenth-century writers.)3 
 Melville was thirty-seven when he decided to try lecturing, thirty-nine
by the time he appeared in Milwaukee. He had been a writer for thirteen years
and a farmer, too, for half that time; but now, with a chronic back problem
that would plague him the rest of his life, he was forced to rely almost
entirely on his father-in-law to support his family. Normally active and
independent, Melville was irritated by the prospect of a 


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