Correspondent Colorings: Melville in the Marketplace

By Sheila Post-Lauria | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Cultural Contexts

MELVILLE'S ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT with popular literary forms in Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life ( 1846) placed the author's first novel at the top of the best-seller list. Indeed, Melville seemed to have arisen the morning after the publication of his book, in the words of Charles Briggs (a popular sea writer and Melville's future editor), "as Byron before him . . . to find himself famous." Chronicling the immediate success of Melville's tale of Polynesian adventures, a reviewer for The Columbian Magazine exclaimed that Typee was read "by every man, woman, and child in the Union who undertakes to keep pace at all with the current literature." By the standards of the 1840s, Typee was truly the most recent "successful hit in bookmaking." The New York Sunday Times and Noah's Weekly Register simply described Melville as "the greatest writer of the age in his way."1

This last accolade suggests that through the publication of Typee Melville created a niche for himself in midcentury literary culture that linked his work to the leading modes of cultural production yet reserved what he was later to call "plenty of sea room" (Moby-Dick) for innovation. Melville's unusual reputation among his contemporaries raises several questions. How did Melville manage to market his work at a time when George Borrow, Charles Briggs, Caroline Chesebro', James Fenimore Cooper, Fanny Forrester ( Emily Chubbuck Judson), J. T. Headley, Caroline Kirkland, George Lippard, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Anna Sophia Stephens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Bayard Taylor comprised the lists of leading novelists in both British and American literary circles? How did Melville's Typee, a first novel, with such established competition, rise to the top? What

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