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Hazlitt's Lasting Objects

One of the many passages that Melville marked in the writings of William Hazlitt comes at the beginning of the essay on “The Marquis of Stafford’s Gallery,” reprinted in the copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art that Melville acquired on May 11, 1870 (Sealts no. 263a). Hazlitt had published the essay in 1824, four years after the death of his father. Hazlitt begins by declaring that “our intercourse with the dead is better than our intercourse with the living.” He continues by asserting that “there are only three pleasures in life pure and lasting, and all derived from inanimate objects—books, pictures, and the face of nature.” Melville marked this declaration with three vertical lines in the margin. He also marked Hazlitt’s reiterated assertion on the next page that “whoever . . . dost seek happiness in thyself, independent of others,” must seek it “in books, pictures, and the face of nature, for these alone we may count upon as friends for life” (Hazlitt, Criticisms, 1843, 40-41; see Melville’s actual markings in MMO 263a, 40-41).  Melville’s copy of the 1843 edition of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art: And Sketches of the Picture Galleries of England was edited by William Hazlitt’s son William. Melville noted the relation when he wrote “the son” immediately under the editor’s name in his copy of the book (MMO 263a, vii).[1]

Hazlitt, like Goethe and Melville, was a writer enamored of visual art. He began his career as a painter, exhibiting an early portrait at London’s Royal Academy. When he turned to journalism, which soon evolved into criticism in a most cogent, fluid, and individualistic style, he wrote as freshly and tellingly about visual art as he did about theater and poetry. “On the Pleasure of Paintings” is one of the best known and most influential essays in his Table-Talk (1820). The sequence of essays that Hazlitt published in Sketches of the Picture Galleries of England in 1824 introduced a generation of readers in both England and America not only to the pleasures of reading about art but to the galleries themselves; when Melville visited the galleries of England for the first time in 1849 he carried with him a copy of Hazlitt’s Sketches from the library of his New York friend and mentor Evert Duyckinck, who had carried the same volume on his own first visit to the galleries of England in 1839. The edition of Criticisms on Art that Melville acquired in 1870s contained, in addition to a reprint of the Sketches, a variety of essays Hazlitt had written on topics ranging from “The Fine Arts” to “The Elgin Marbles” to “Flaxman’s Lectures on Sculpture.” It also contained appendices in which Hazlitt’s son provided catalogues of the paintings in the galleries about which his father had written his Sketches, the first four of which Melville had visited in 1849: the National Gallery, the Dulwich Gallery, Hampton Court, and Windsor Castle.

Sealts’s catalog of Melville’s Reading lists a wide range of books by Hazlitt. In addition to Table-Talk and Criticisms on Art, Melville acquired Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Comic Poets, The Round Table, his Political Essays, and Painting and the Fine Arts (Sealts nos. 263a, 265, 264, and 263). As physical artifacts, as well as in their contents, some of Hazlitt’s books  were inseparable from Melville’s own “intercourse with the dead.” This was particularly true of the copy of the 1845 American edition of Table Talk that Herman inherited from his older brother Gansevoort, who died in London in 1846 (Sealts no. 266a). Gansevoort was a gifted orator and politician who had been the hope of the Melville family after Allan Melvill, the father, had died in a mentally disordered state in Albany, New York, in 1832 (when Herman was not yet twelve years old). Allan Melvill, who had come of age in Boston and made a grand tour of Europe in 1801-02, had married Maria Gansevoort of Albany in 1814. They were living in New York City when Herman was born in 1819. Allan, an aspiring importer of French dry goods, moved his family consecutively north up Broadway during the 1820s until an overreliance on credit forced him into the bankruptcy that took his family to his wife’s hometown of Albany in 1830—where he had not yet regained his financial bearings at the time of his unfortunate death. Gansevoort and Herman were taken out of the schools to support the family in the short term (they were among the eldest of eight children), with Gansevoort eventually finding the Democratic party, and Herman the whale ship, as the lifeline for early survival.

William Hazlitt, throughout his writings, had a strong sense of life’s vicissitudes—and of the need to counter them with those three “inanimate objects” from which life’s only “pure and lasting” pleasures derive. The copy of Table Talk that Gansevoort had owned, inscribed by Gansevoort in New York in May 1845, a year before his sudden death in London, must have been incredibly painful for Herman (and pleasurable, too). Three years after Gansevoort’s death, Herman wrote his most direct literary response to having lost his father at a young age. He wrote Redburn in New York in the spring of 1849 (after the birth of his son Malcolm in February and before his voyage to London and its picture galleries in October). “Talk not of the bitterness of middle-age and after life,” declares Redburn, “a boy can feel all that, and much more, when upon his young soul the mildew has fallen; and the fruit, which with others is only blasted after ripeness, with him is nipped in the first blossom and blood” (NN R 11). It is no surprise that the young novelist who wrote these words in 1849 was to mark Hazlitt’s drastic assertions about the lasting value of  “books, pictures, and the face of nature” on two successive pages of “The Marquis of Stafford’s Gallery” in the copy of the book he acquired in 1870.

Although Melville did not leave us any known account of his own art collection, he did provide some insight into that of his father when depicting the New York home of Redburn’s fictional father. Redburn’s father, like Herman’s, was an aspiring importer of quality goods from France. Redburn recalls that “we had several oil-paintings and rare old engravings of my father’s, which he himself had bought in Paris, hanging up in the dining room.” In addition, the family had “two large green French portfolios of colored prints, more than I could lift at that age. Every Sunday my brothers and sisters used to get them out of the corner where they were kept, and spreading them on the floor, gaze at them with never-failing delight.” Closely associated with the “oil paintings and rare old engravings” and “colored prints” his father had collected were the “long rows of old books that had been printed in Paris, and London, and Leipsic,” visible through the “glass doors” of the “old brown library case" (6-7).

All of the above books and pictures, in the present time of the novel (in which Redburn is sailing from New York to Liverpool as a cabin boy on a merchant ship) are associated with the oceanic voyages of “my father, now dead,” who “had several times crossed the Atlantic on business affairs, for he had been an importer in Broad-street” (5). The pleasures of the books and pictures are as inextricably associated with the pain of personal loss in Melville’s novel as they were in Hazlitt’s essay. In this sense the books and pictures which Melville assiduously collected late in life were part of a lifelong response to the psychic losses he suffered as a child, revisited in Redburn, and sublimated more silently in much of his subsequent fiction, poetry, traveling, and collecting.

[1] This volume was not available to Walker Cowen when compiling Melville’s Marginalia in 1965; I am grateful to the late William Reese for an early opportunity to examine Melville’s markings in this book. All of Melville’s marginalia in Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art volume can now be seen in MMO 263a.