Melville and Maugham

Herman Melville's Redburn was published on this day in 1849. This was the fourth of the five sea books that Melville published in quick succession from 1846 to 1850, with Moby-Dick coming out in 1851. In a letter to his publisher several months earlier, Melville described the novel as "a plain, straightforward, amusing narrative of personal experience—the son of a gentleman on his first voyage to sea as a sailor—no metaphysics, no conic-sections, nothing but cakes & ale." The apologetic tone resurfaces in a letter written a week after publication in which Melville describes Redburn and White-Jacket, his previous sea tale, as "two jobs, which I have done for money, being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood." He goes on to describe his "earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to fail"—one of the most famous "careful what you wish for" comments in American literature, given the failure of the Moby-Dick during Melville's lifetime and the decades of obscurity that followed.

* * *


Melville's description of Redburn as a "cakes & ale" crowd-pleaser is an allusion to Twelfth Night, in which Sir Toby Belch, up late and very much in his cups, wonders why the rest of the world isn't: "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale was published on this day in 1930. The narrator, a popular novelist, is every bit as dubious as Sir Toby. The opening sentences:     

I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it's important, the matter is more often important to him than to you. When it comes to making you a present or doing you a favour most people are able to hold their impatience within reasonable bounds.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysley Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
In the Light of What We Know

Zia Haider Rahman's mystery of a brilliant Bangladeshi mathematician's past barrels through the Ivy League, London high finance, and spy-haunted Afghanistan in a page-turning tale of exile, intrigue and the price of friendship. A Discover Great New Writers selection.

The People's Platform

Once touted as the foundation for tomorrow's digital democracy, the Internet is increasingly ruled by a few corporate giants, while millions of contributors till its fields for free. Astra Taylor looks at why the web has failed to deliver a communitarian cyberscape, and offers a compelling case for restoring its original vision.

A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.