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cropped CAT 14 George Cooke.  Plutarch.  BA 101.png

CAT 14. Engraved by George Cooke. Plutarch. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 6. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1810. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Plutarch (46 ? – 120 ? A.D.), Greek biographer and philosopher. From entry in HG 6: “Whether considered as a moralist, an historian, or a philosopher, Plutarch is one of the most celebrated men of antiquity. . . . A very liberal education developed his natural endowments; but Plutarch owes perhaps more to meditation than to labor . . . [H]e entered Rome for the first time towards the end of the reign of Vespasian . . . . During his residence at Rome, his house was continually filled with the most eminent characters that the capital of the universe could boast. . . . Plutarch might have aspired to the highest dignity, had he been disposed to remain at Rome, but nothing could induce him to renounce his native country. . . . The Lives of Plutarch . . . of all the works of the ancients . . . is the one most justly esteemed, the most frequently read, and which affords the highest entertainment on each perusal. . . . [H]istory is no where so essentially moral as in that author; nothing dazzles or inflames him; he weighs men in the proper balance, and assigns to each his proper value. . . . Every thing is just and substantial in the multitude of small treatises which composes his Moral Works” (n.p.).

Melville’s copies of Plutarch’s Lives and Morals have not survived, but he consulted Plutarch throughout his life as a writer (Sealts no. 404.2, pp. 104, 116, 136-37). In Redburn, the narrator recalls having read “in our old family Plutarch” how Brutus “ordered his son away to execution” (NN R 67). In White-Jacket Plutarch’s Lives are termed “superexcellent biographies, which pit Greek against Roman in beautiful style” (NN WJ 167). Plutarch in his life of Pericles explains a curious feature of the engraved bust of Pericles in Melville’s collection. From birth, “his head was somewhat longish and out of proportion. For which reason almost all the images and statues that were made of him have the head covered with a helmet, the workmen apparently being willing not to expose him” (Plutarch, 1: 203).  

Melville expressed his awareness of diverse essays from Plutarch’s Morals in a variety of forms. A passage about the “foul great swallow” of the mouth of the whale turns up as one of the “Extracts” in Moby-Dick (NN MD xviii). Melville mentions the essay “On the Cessation of the Oracles” in a letter to his sister Helena in 1854 (NN CO 262-63). In his copy of Milton he entered “Plutarch on the cessation of Oracles” as an annotation (NN C 826; Sealts no. 358b; MMO 358b, 2.319). In Clarel he wonders “if not all oracles be dead” (NN C 4.8.15).