Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Raven and the Whale

Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956).

The Neglected Books Page is one of my favorites. When I am stuck for something to read, I turn there first. But of all the recommendations by all the different writers collected there, my all-time favorite is Robert Conquest’s. Originally writing in the Los Angeles Times nine Christmases ago, Conquest said:

It’s hard to think of a really fine book that is totally neglected. Still, I seldom come across anyone who has read Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium doubtless because its theme is chiliastic sects of 500 years ago. But (especially in its expanded later edition), it is uniquely wise and informative about the nature, recruitment and delusions of such movements–then and now.The phrase “neglected books” usually summons up novels that are forgotten once they are no longer novelties. Conquest’s words serve as a reminder of another class: books that are even more likely to be neglected, because they were not widely bought and read to begin with.

Such a book is Perry Miller’s Raven and the Whale. The title is a misleading advertisement, a ploy to excite interest by disguising his real theme. Miller sets the record straight on the first page: “The present book, let me say once and for all, is only incidentally concerned with Moby-Dick or even with Herman Melville: it is preoccupied with Melville’s America. . . .” Or, more exactly, it is preoccupied with the literary culture and publishing world, specifically in New York City, where Melville developed into a great artist. (And where Poe “dreamed of becoming a literary power.”)

At the center is a competition of journalistic critics who were the lions of mid-nineteenth century—the age’s equivalent of James Wood and Michael Dirda—“who survive today hardly as names, even to antiquarians.” On the near side were the Whigs grouped around Lewis Gaylord Clark’s Knickerbocker Magazine; on the other side of the field was Young America, the party of “literary nationalism,” Democratic in its politics, led by Evert Augustus Duyckinck and Cornelius Mathews.

Out of these unpromising materials, Miller carefully builds up one of the most distinguished contributions to American intellectual history, and probably its best read. His account of the culture war between “Young America” and the Knickerbocker regiment has much of enduring value to say about the tactics, weapons, and collateral damage in such wars—then and now. Book reviewers, for example, served as a kind of press gang, signing up new recruits, and the decision not to review a new book was no less tactical and partisan. Miller is good at tracing the influence of this “war of words and wits” on Melville and Poe (suddenly Book XVII of Pierre, “Young America in Literature,” makes a lot more sense, and the biting reviews by Poe, to say nothing of his contemporaries’ opinion of him, come into clearer focus).

He is even better at showing that the war’s worst casualties were those writers whose development was stunted and whose talents were shrunk. Among these, for example, was Charles Frederick Briggs, “the first in our literature to make use, by comic indirection, of the brutality of New York life—prostitution, murder, crime, competition, filth. . . .” Now almost entirely forgotten, Briggs is an unacknowledged forerunner of New York novels of slum life, poverty, and the underworld starting with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sport of the Gods in 1902 and including such books as Call It Sleep, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Victim, The Real Cool Killers, and V.

What comes across more strikingly than any other quality is Miller’s respect for the obscure and unimportant figures in his book. The Raven and the Whale takes them seriously, even though most of them are third- and fourth-rate writers. The result is a human comedy, a collection of lively anecdote and a war-memorial to men who cared passionately about raising up from scratch what Miller calls “an independent, a completely native and unique, literature” in America.

The seventh and last book published during his lifetime was Miller’s first venture into the nineteenth century, although he had edited the definitive anthology of The Transcendentalists six years earlier. A Chicago native and Harvard man for thirty-two years prior to his death in 1965, Miller was far better known as the intellectual historian of The New England Mind (two volumes, 1939 and 1953). He may even have been the first to use the phrase intellectual history to refer to a new genre of history.[1]

What is even more important is that Miller created a new way to write intellectual history. At a time when historians are being hectored to get with the theoretical program of the last thirty years, to abandon specialization, to stop tracing concepts and arguments in order to make history comprehensible only in reference to itself, and to reintegrate intellectual figures into the social and political milieu, Miller had already done all that, and more—by not being hectoring about it. Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club (2001) is a later book in the same tradition of combining analysis and biography into a readable narrative of intellectual history. Miller was the first, however. And remains the best.

[1] Felix Gilbert, “Intellectual History: Its Aims and Methods,” Daedalus 100 (Winter 1971): 80.