The Light of Blackness: Comments on Melville’s Intervisionary Network

First published by Clemson University Press in 2016, Melville’s Intervisionary Network explores a range of literary connections to reveal that Herman Melville was dependent on Honoré de Balzac’s universal vision in more of his prose writing than previously recognized. In this blog post, author John Haydock reflects on the evidence of this intertextuality.

Herman Melville’s review, “Hawthorne and His Mosses” stands at an enigmatic phase in his career as a writer that that needs to be put into perspective. Superficially, the essay seems to be a fervent tract promoting the objectives of the Young America literary camp for a unique style of nationalist Romantic realism. Since the early 1840s John Sullivan, Cornelius Mathews and Evert Duyckinck had taken part in this loose association of writers and cultural activists that included Nathaniel Hawthorne and later Melville, who were intent on this singular purpose. One outcome was Melville’s essay, the most unambiguously patriotic of his writings that places Hawthorne just below Shakespeare, and which was published, appropriately, in Duyckinck’s periodical, the Literary World, the most popular literary journal of the time and which had “the largest and most critical audience of any periodical in America.”1 Melville took up the charge of promoting Hawthorne into a place of public consecration by writing an effulgent and disguised bit of literary propaganda.

Given the substance primarily addressed, Melville’s critique is also an analysis of a certain moral obscurity as then unexplored in American literature except, Melville contends, by Hawthorne. Being able to represent “blackness” somehow placed Hawthorne high on a vertical scale of authentic genius that Melville saw then emerging in America. The casting of this interior shadow fascinates him, and he cannot help speculating on what it might suggest:

Whether Hawthorne has simply availed himself of this mystical blackness as a means to the wondrous effects he makes it to produce in his lights and shades; or whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom, — this, I cannot altogether tell.2

Therefore, Melville cunningly leaves room for the possibility that this skeptical “blackness” of which he makes so much, in part may be a conscious technical device, even an intentional lure to compose interesting and striking literary material to entice readers. Moreover, Melville had known Hawthorne’s work for some time and was convivial and experienced enough in human relations to recognize the character of another swiftly and penetratingly, even at first encounter, as would any sociable person.3 Melville understood his man. Rhetorical exaggeration to emphasize a point is consistent with the disingenuous tone of persiflage in the essay, which even Julian Hawthorne interpreted as “covert satire, or at least as the ravings of well-meaning imbecility.”4 The substance of his doubt is likely true.

At the time of composition, Melville, having just completed two self-proclaimed inadequate though profitable “jobs,” Redburn and White Jacket,5 was seeking something new and powerful to endear him permanently to the book-buying public. This feat Hawthorne recently had accomplished with The Scarlet Letter. Therefore, although the praise of Hawthorne’s “blackness” may be accepted without suspecting satirical motive, the equivocation around it need not be taken literally. Probably what is true in the essay and based on genuine perception is in fact critical confirmation rather than fleeting impression. We know now that any of Hawthorne’s books would have sufficed to fit Melville’s purpose, but Mosses from an Old Manse happened to be the only one at the Berkshire location where he was writing (Parker I, 750).

Close to the middle of the article, on one of his frequent forays into patriotic zeal, Melville makes a curious statement that may hold undiscovered implications about his designs related to Hawthorne. He performs a veritable tirade against Americans imitating English literature and suddenly, apparently out of context, introduces a new idea:

And we want no American Goldsmiths, nay, we want no American Miltons. It were the vilest thing you could say of a true American author, that he were an American Tompkins. Call him an American, and have done, for you can not say a nobler thing of him.—But it is not meant that all American writers should studiously cleave to nationality in their writings; only this, no American writer should write like an Englishman, or a Frenchman; let him write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American. (Mosses, 248)

His enthusiasm is unquestionable; but why, given such railing against British imitators, should another writer in English suddenly interject a “Frenchman?” True, Melville not long since had been more than once characterized as the “American Rabelais,” even in France, for his extravagant performance in Mardi.6 His remark could be a dash of self-criticism, even of humorous self-deprecation, for which Melville is known. It is also plausible that the sentence is merely an emphatic device, an insertion of syllables repeating the sound “man” three times to rhyme with the last syllable of “American.” But the apparent irrelevancy could also be an indication that he had sensed the possible origin of Hawthorne’s comprehensive blackness from the two men’s burgeoning interaction at Lenox. For among the principal writers that most dramatically had shaped Hawthorne’s vision, both in short fiction and in long, was, (known from an intimate source) Honoré de Balzac,7 an author Melville could not avoid in the literary market. In fact, the report of Balzac’s death and subsequent extensive American publicity began in the Literary World just two weekly issues following the second installment of “Mosses.”8

Ironically, Melville was soon to demonstrate the force of that same influence—an influence that would change the entire shape and condition of his commercial writing. For through this Balzacian darkness, Melville found a light to contour his thought and his art that he had been seeking desperately in his quest for recognition as a major author. What the Cosmopolitan in The Confidence-Man says of Shakespeare began literally to be true about Melville:

At times seeming irresponsible, he does not always seem reliable. There appears to be a certain—what shall I call it?—hidden sun, say, about him, at once enlightening and mystifying. Now, I should be afraid to say what I have sometimes thought that hidden sun might be.9

Whether Melville had known much about Balzac’s conception of realism and the blackness it portrayed before this moment shared with Hawthorne or not, the Frenchman’s influence henceforward emerged to stand for him a hidden sun that conditioned his art until the last.

Melville’s Intervisionary Network proposes that in the areas of narrative configuration and ontological framework Melville, despite his public reticence to the contrary, was in his major romances deliberately assimilating, even borrowing from La Comédie humaine of Balzac (which he knew from multiple American translations) for material on how to reach his goals as a significant writer. He used his knowledge of Balzac’s works in three major ways: first, in the creation of characters, the functional energies they represent, and their relational interactions; second, through direct plot incidents, linguistic phrases and miscellaneous borrowings, such as the death scene of Pierre, the ascension of Billy Budd, or the embarking of the Fidèle. A third way lies in the social topics he considers: concern with writers and writing, the place of the reader, religion, phrenology, mesmerism, ontology to mention a few. His motivation was simple. He needed constant and consistent touchstones to reach the desire of his youth, becoming a financially successful novelist who could live off his earnings as a writer like Balzac. Among the most popular international writers of his time, Balzac provided Melville with a sterling example and an organizing program for the success he dearly craved in 1850. Shakespeare may have opened Melville’s heart and his perceptions, but Balzac appears to have helped him construct the vehicles of their transmission.

Support of this argument comes primarily from texts and hypertexts that reflect a specific, palpable influence and from evaluations of critics who have studied the works in terms of affinity and commonality. Some reference to Melville’s biography cannot be avoided, but such mention is offered only to substantiate what John Bryant identified as the “rhetorical conditions of creation”10 under which Melville composed. The method is not intended to redirect the focus or the proof of dependency from its centrality in the works themselves. Nor is this study intended to be reductionist in any way. Because it focuses on certain core elements unique to Balzacian literary theory and practice is not to insist that the Frenchman was ever the only or even the foremost guidance on any text, but only to suggest that consideration and recognition be given such possible interdependence.

Aspects of this assumption have had significant precedents. The notion of some definite link between these near-contemporaries around, or even earlier than the final composition of Moby-Dick has continued to show itself throughout Melville criticism, although largely undeveloped, possibly for the lack of any help from Melville himself in revealing his interest in Balzac by confessional writing or recorded conversation. Considering his vehemence against foreign imitation voiced in “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” his reticence is understandable. Moreover, contemporary nineteenth-century critics were not educated in Balzac, who was not yet accepted “officially” into literary circles for almost another quarter-century. His reputation as a salacious magazine and paperback writer ostracized him from the general moral establishment for being too vulgar for serious consideration. Furthermore, the two works of Melville’s probably most influenced by Balzac, “Timoleon” and Billy Budd, Sailor were not known to the reading public until long after Balzac’s popularity and presence in American literary memory had peaked and cooled. Yet hints of the affiliation’s consequence have persisted, despite new discoveries, changes in critical approaches, and shifting interests of readers.

As early as 1922, J. St. Loy Strachey wrote in Spectator, just after the “discovery” of Melville, about this particular supposition:

It is always said that Melville based his style upon Sir Thomas Browne and Carlyle, which superficially and perhaps consciously he did; but I am strongly inclined to think that there was another influence at work which has not been noticed. I believe him [Melville] to have come very strongly under the spell of Balzac. Whether Melville actually studied the La Comédie humaine I do not know, and it does not really matter, for the influence I mean is not so much a verbal as a spiritual influence. It is shown, not so much in the phrases as in the structure of the novels. There were, no doubt, plenty of translations of Balzac to be found in America during Melville’s youth and even middle life11…… I do not mean that Melville, though a great man of letters in many ways, had anything like the universal touch, the full scope of genius that belonged to Balzac. Yet Melville undoubtedly felt, as did the author of The Human Comedy, that he was seated in the gallery of a great theatre and seeing men and women “Play their fantastic tricks before High Heaven,” or perhaps one should say before the Lords of Hell.12

Later, both Van Wyck Brooks and Newton Arvin also assumed that Melville had been quite aware of Balzac’s writing by the 1850s. Additional research by Benjamin Sherwood Larson, Kevin Hayes, and Carol Colatrella13 has documented convincing correspondences in writings of the same decade. Despite these well-supported intuitions, when the principal candidates for works “exhilarative and provocative,”14 as Melville calls influential texts in Pierre, are specifically put forward, the name of Honoré de Balzac is notably absent. The perceived artistic lineage between Melville and Hawthorne required an expanded investigation and a thread showing a genealogy of ideas as offered in Melville’s Intervisionary Network. Such research was needed to complete a substantial picture of their artistic relationship beyond any woke biases about their personal lives. As Charles Olson professed years ago, “Melville’s books batten on other men’s books.”15 In addition to Olson’s charge that Melville was a notorious pickpocket of other authors, Hennig Cohen has remarked on Melville’s strong “tendency to respond to what was afloat in the popular culture.”16

Scientific data about Melville’s reading from the most significant period in Melville’s life, 1846-1856 in New York and Pittsfield are simply not available. Reading was not metered in the early Nineteenth Century. Yet after 1870, once American publishers felt morally and legally secure in offering The Human Comedy in English, and after Melville had settled down in New York at the Customs Office and in retirement, he showed himself to be an avid collector of texts connected to Balzac. William Dillingham, in fact, judges that his interest “reached almost the intensity of an addiction.”17 Whether this dependency originated late in his life or began near the time he conceived the tragedy of confronting deeper truth in Moby-Dick comprises the major business of the book. A vigilant reading of the texts of his four major works demonstrates that even in the 1850s Melville had considerable knowledge of Balzacian theory and performance, enough for him to be establishing his own parallel ontology, epistemology, and skeptical style that came to a culminating reflection in Billy Budd, Sailor.

The inference that Honoré de Balzac had essential and profound inspiration on the career and consciousness of Herman Melville, therefore, will find credibility from the weighty circumstantial evidence provided by the historical context, the texts, and the experiential logic that operates within them. The energetic and genetic conditions that confronted Melville from all sides lasted from his formative years through his old age at a highly intense pitch, brought on by the general popularity of foreign literature and its mass dissemination in the growing industrial American economy, fueled by popular riots and hoopla over continuous competition with European contemporaries.18 In reality, the central question may better be phrased, “How could Melville not be influenced by Balzac?” That would be the more difficult condition to explain.

Melville’s Intervisionary Network is available to order on our website.


1 Hershel Parker, Herman Melville, A Biography, Vol. I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)249-250. Future citations will be abbreviated as Parker I.

2 Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press: 1987), 243.

3 Extensive “biographies” or tedious reportage have given us a new picture of Melville’s social life that separates it from the brooding inward-seeking self-pitying image promulgated during most of the twentieth century. In fact, Melville appears to have been a typical “life of the party” type, sometimes becoming even silly in his behavior, but always entertaining and engaging, able to laugh at himself and capable of spending long hours in conversation to no one’s regret. Even Julian Hawthorne admitted Melville’s desire and ability to entertain with

jovial and charismatic skill. Factuality, “reality” and literal truth were seldom part of this habitual behavior. If “Hawthorne and His Mosses” was indeed “written on a bet” as some scholars concede now, what bound Melville to being 100% committed to this Young America propaganda? Can we, with reason decide line by line what is to be taken without inflation? The humorous tone and subversive intent of the essay is ignored at the risk of the reader’s common sense.

4 Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Circle, Vol. I, (Grosse Pt, MI: Scholarly Press, 1968) (originally published 1885) 385. Designated “J. Hawthorne” throughout the text.

5 Herman Melville, Correspondence (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993)



6 Jay Leyda, The Melville Log, Vol. I (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951),

7 Jane Lundblad, Nathaniel Hawthorne and European Literary Tradition (New York:

Russell and Russell, 1965) 46. The informant was Hawthorne’s sister-in-law, a local bookseller.

8 The notice appeared on September 14 1850 while the second installment of “Mosses” was published on August 24. Only the August 31 and September 7 issues intervened. Melville had not only worked for the publication, but at this point in his career was also a subscriber.

9 Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1984), 171-172.

10 John Bryant, Melville and Repose (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 265.

11 This assertion is thoroughly documented in Melville’s Intervisionary Network, Chapter Two, under “Multiple Translations.” According to Decker, “Balzac was first translated [into

English] as early as 1834; additional works were issued throughout the century.” [Clarence R. Decker, The Victorian Conscience (New York: Twayne,1952) 51]. The chapter lists more than 30 publications that could have easily found their way into Melville’s hands, and subsequent research has disclosed even more evidence.

12 J. St. Loe Strachey, “Books: Herman Melville Mariner and Mystic,” The Spectator (May 6, 1922), 560.

13 See my “Melville’s Séraphita: Billy Budd, Sailor,” Melville Society Extracts 104 (March, 1996), 2-13; Lawson, Benjamin Sherwood “Federated Fancies: Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Melville’s Pierre” Intertextuality in Literature and Film, ed. Elaine D. Cancalon and Antoine Spacagna (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994); Kevin Hayes, “Melville and Balzac,” Resources for American Literary Study 26, no.2 (2000), 159-181 and Carol Colatrella, “The Significant Silence of Race: La Cousine Bette and ‘Benito Cereno,’” Comparative Literature 46 (1994), 240-266.

14 Herman Melville, Pierre: or The Ambiguities (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 284.

15 Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997): “Melville’s reading is a gauge of him, at all points of his life. He was a skald, and knew how to appropriate the works of others. He read to write. Highborn stealth, Edward Dahlberg calls originality, the act of a cutpurse Autolycus who makes his thefts as

invisible as possible. Melville’s books batten on other men’s books.” (36)

As Balzac’s Daniel d’Arthez, tells Lucien de Rubempré about literary borrowing:

“Treat your subject from different points of view, sometimes in a side-light, sometimes retrospectively; vary your methods, in fact, to diversify your work. You may be original while adapting the Scots novelist’s form of dramatic dialogue to French history.” [Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions, tr. Herbert J. Hunt. (London: Penguin Books, 1971), 213] It is clear that in Balzac’s view, one may both borrow and be original; Melville apparently agreed with this advice.

16 Hennig Cohen, “Melville’s Masonic Secrets,” Melville Society Extracts 108, (1997): 3.

17 William Dillingham, Melville and His Circle (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), 98.

18 This conclusion can be readily confirmed upon consulting Leon Chai, The Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987). He meticulously compares the ideas currently circulating in Europe by specific major figures in relation to works by Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne and others grouped in the American Renaissance, like Fuller and Poe.


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