“This is the story of a bizarre quest,” writes Jeanne Chretien Howes in the Foreword to her tantalizing book Poet of a Morning: Herman Melville and the ‘Redburn’ Poem. Sent ‘wondering and wandering on this long and fascination adventure’ by a footnote in Howard P. Vincent's Collected Poems of Herman Melville and Meade Minnigerode's mention of ‘a rare and anonymous poem . . . whose hero resembled the young Melville’ Howes embarked on a quest more heroic than bizarre. She understood the prodigious task of determining whether the poem ‘Redburn: or the Schoolmaster of a Morning’ published in 1845 by William M. Christy's Astor House publishing company was, in fact, Herman Melville's first published book.
Although Minnigerode and Vincent and early biographers Weaver and Mumford knew of the existence of the ‘Redburn’ poem, they did not know that Melville had been a country schoolteacher before he went to sea, so they did not bother to locate the poem. When Jay Leyda and William Gilman published their work in the early fifties, much more became known about Melville's early years. As Howes points out, the poem's protagonist bears a strong resemblance to the young Melville who taught at the Skyes District School not far from his Uncle Thomas' Pittsfield farm, and later at the East Greenbush and Shodack School in neighboring Rensselaer County. He shares Melville's idealism and his hatred of hypocrisy. It could be argued, however, that many young men had similar experiences teaching school.
When independent Melville scholar Jeanne Howes, author of a thesis on Melville's lyric poetry, read the poems, she was immediately struck by the remarkable similarities between the ‘Redburn’ poem and Melville's life and writings. Drawing on knowledge gained from reading the Pittsfield Sun from 1833 to 1838 and encouraged along the way by Harrison Hayford, Luther Mansfield, Henry A. Murray, Jay Leyda and Hennig Cohen, Howes, the author of ‘Melville's Sensitive Years’ and ‘Melville's Loom’ pursued her quarry with energy and imaginaiton. Her analysis of the poem's themes, images, forms, metrics and allusions—both topical and geographical—convinced her that the ‘Redburn’ poem was indeed the first published work by Herman Melville.
Howes' hunch about ‘Schoolmaster of a Morning’ took her on what Constantine Cavafy in his poem ‘Ithaka’ calls ‘the splendid journey,’ and it's delightful to accompany her as she describes the scholarly ports of call that piqued her curiosity and corroborated her conclusions. Her informed and thorough ananlysis of the stylistic features of the ‘Redburn’ poem is intriguing and convincing, and Cadmus has reprinted the text of the entire poem to allow readers to judge for themselves. (Other appendices include pertinent maps and illustrations, Melville's 1837 letter to his uncle Peter about teaching school, reviews of ‘Redburn: or the Schoolmaster of a Morning’ and anonymous contributions to the Pittsfield Sun.
In a series of chapters dealing with ‘Parallel Passages,’ ‘Themes,’ ‘Images,’ ‘Words,’ ‘Dynamic Form’ and the ‘Metrical Frame,’ Howes describes the ‘Redburn’ poet's use of tetrameter couplets, dynamic participles and gerunds, word plays and puns, double-imaged words and disguised , symbolic names and places, all of which form plausible links between ‘Schoolmaster of a Morning’ and Melville's later, more polished poems.
Several sections of the poem resonate with conceits Howes likens to scenes and songs from Mardi and other works of Melville's imagination, notably the scene where the hero, having fallen asleep beside a stream thinking of his beloved Clara, dreams of fish rising from the water in the forms of impish children who torment and taunt him.
Not one to be carried away by mere hunches, the ever-scrupulous Howes acknowledges the differences as well. She notes, for example, that the poem is set in Tioga, not Berkshire, County, and that the mention of Owego, New York, evoke associations that the much more popular contemporary writer Nathaniel Parker Willis, whose style Melville imitated to a degree in his early newspaper pieces. Anticipating the objection that Willis himself might have been the author of the poem, Howes studied Willis' life and analyzed his style and concluded that he could not have been the author of the poem.
Having read only a few prose pieces by Willis, I am willing to take Howes' word for this, but I do wish she had addressed the similarities and differences between the ‘Redburn’ poem and other unattributed verses. To what extent does this poem resemble the works of other anonymous and permanently obscure poets? To what extent do the themes and style of both the ‘Redburn’ poem and Melville's early prose and poetry reflect prevailing literary conclusions? How original is the ‘Redburn’ poem?
Howes naturally ascribes the most skillful and interesting passages of ‘Schoolmaster of a Morning’ to the Melville who would go on to produce a body of good, if not great, poetry. Understandably, she attributes the clumsier and more conventional lines and stanzas to the young sailor who had not yet written Typee and Omoo. Skillfully relating White-Jacket's admiration for Jack Chase and his comical descriptions of Lemsford's poems being ‘published’ from the gun-deck of the ship to the appearance of the ‘Redburn’ poem soon after Melville's return from the Pacific in 1844, Howes makes a strong case for Melville's having taken refuge from the oppressive conditions aboard the United States by writing a poem inspired by nostalgia for the adolescent years he spent inland.
Before writing Melville: A Biography (1996), I reread all of Melville's poetry and gained a new appreciation of what he had achieved. From Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which I call the first modernist poem, to the skillful sea-ballads of John Marr and Other Sailors; from the craggy, cumbersome Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, which is one of the greatest of Victorian writers' attempts to confront the conflict between Biblical scholarship, science and traditional religious faith, to the rugged travel poems and suggestive ancient stories told in Timoleon and the lyrical and often mystical Weeds and Wildings, Melville's poems are always challenging and original. Does this mean the ‘Redburn’ poem could not be his? I don't think so. One thinks of Ezra Pound telling William Carlos Williams, who sent him a volume of poetry slavishly imitative of the poetry of John Keats, to throw his poems in the trash and start again. Frankly, I don't think the gap between the ‘Redburn’ poem and Melville's weakest poems is all that great, but again, that does not ‘prove’ a thing. Perhaps the difference is between the glass half full and the glass half empty.
On the full side, Howes draws provocative connections between ‘Schoolmaster of a Morning’ and other Melville writings, including Redburn and Pierre, or The Ambiguities. Consider the folowing parallels between the unambitious ‘Redburn’ poem and Melville's melodramatic novel: an orphaned young man who sets forth alone, a setting that is given another name for purposes of disguise, a beautiful and seductive woman (Clara Ray, a prototype for Lucy Tartan and the mysterious Isabel) with whom the hero falls in love, a mixture of reverie and realism and a conflict between the Ideal and the Real, and an aristocratic portrait that decides the hero's destiny. There is no suggestion of incest in the poem, and the mother's portrait is instrumental in establishing the protagonist's identity, enabling him to marry the lovely Clara Ray; yet each aspect of ‘Schoolmaster of a Morning’ seems a pencil sketch Melville later retraced darkly when he wrote his angry psychological autobiography Pierre.
One of the most fascinating sections of Howes' book describes her search for the surviving copies of Poet of a Morning. Hoping to locate telltale marginal notes or a fugitive notation of the author's name, she embarked on a search that ranged from New York and Pittsfield to the American Antiquarian Society and the Illinois Institute of Technology, and from Geneva, New York to the British Museum. In a gripping ‘Afterword,’ she describes how one such notation caused her temporarily to give up the effort to prove Melville the author of the ‘Redburn’ poem; before long, however, her search turned up even more compelling evidence of a connection between Melville and that work: a volume owned by Henry Stevens, a friend who attended Gansevoort Melville's funeral in London in 1846.
How can author and reader resist leaping from circumstantial evidence to belief? It reminds me of the point to which Robert K. Wallace brings us in his captivating Melville and Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright: everything points to the conclusion that Melville must have seen ‘The Lee Shore’ and other Turner paintings in London before he wrote Moby Dick, but no solid proof exists. Melville is silent on the point in his journal, so which is easier: to doubt what intuition tells us, or believe?
Having once written and abandoned an article by which I hoped to prove that Melville started writing his novel Redburn a decade earlier than the version he published in 1849, I am impressed by Howes' determination and the extent of her success in making a case for Melville's authorship of this admittedly rough and rustic poem. While purists will no doubt complain that Howes has not produced ‘real proof’ that Herman Melville wrote the ‘Redburn’ poem, many will find her analysis persuasive and her arguments hard to refute. Her book raises the kind of questions about what constitutes ‘proof’ that Melville himself faced when John Murray demanded ‘documentary evidences’ of his sojourn in the South Seas.
Has Howes satisfied the skeptics by proving conclusively that this poem is Melville's first published work? Skeptics being skeptics, probably not. Even though Howes has marshalled enough evidence to make a convincing case for Melville's authorship, the absence of an actual spent cartridge fired by the smoking gun will provide skeptics with enough ammunition to shoot down Howes' claim. This would be unfortunate, as her curiosity, her thoroughness and her detective work combine compellingly in this book, and until we can be sure no unattributed Melville manuscripts are still lurking in libraries or old trunks in musty attics or barns, we should be glad to have Jeanne Howes at the help pursuing every phantom fin.
Poet of a Morning deserves to be bought and read by scholars and teachers and shared with students who have no idea what original research means and how much fun it can be. It's a model of judicious research and honest writing that raises a provocative question: could there be unidentified Melville works gliding beneath the surface of our well-fished scholarly seas? Just recently, underwater cameras aboard a deepsea research vessel filmed a coelacanth, an ancient fish once thought to be extinct, proving once again that our inability to see something doesn't prove it isn't there.”