Why Harpers "Prevented" Publication of the Isle of the Cross-One Possible Explanation

Article excerpt

The second volume of Hershel Parker's monumental biography of Herman Melville includes much information on Melville's "lost" work, The Isle of the Cross. On a visit to Nantucket in 1852, Melville was intrigued by a story he heard there. The storyteller was John H. Clifford, "currently the attorney general [of Massachusetts] and soon to be governor." (1)

Clifford's yarn concerned a Nantucket woman named Agatha Hatch, who had cared for a ship-wrecked sailor named Robertson. They married, and Agatha conceived a child by him; but during her pregnancy he deserted her. Many years later Robertson returned to be reconciled with his wife and their (now) seventeen-year-old daughter. But then he disappeared again and after his death it was learned that he had committed bigamy--twice (114-5).

Melville tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Nathaniel Hawthorne to write something based on this story. And when Hawthorne declined, Melville decided to write it up himself. Presumably, therefore, the story of Robertson and Agatha Hatch formed the basis of Melville's plot for a novel which (as Parker claims) was called The Isle of the Cross. Presumably, but not certainly, since the novel was never published, and the manuscript has disappeared.

"During the second week of June [1853]," writes Parker, "the Harpers had possession of the manuscript, and after they had a chance to read it they declined to publish it." A surviving letter from Melville to the Harpers' firm seems to imply that Melville "somehow had been 'prevented' from publishing [the novel]" (159).

A chance discovery I made while browsing in the early volumes of Harpers New Monthly Magazine may hold the key to this mystery. In the March 1853 number (Volume 6, p. 571), the "Literary Notices" include this paragraph:

   The Adopted Child, by MISS JEWSBERY, Agatha's
   Husband, by the author of Olive, and BULWER's
   My Novel, are among the most recent works of
   fiction by Harper and Brothers. …