A signed autograph letter written by Herman Melville to publisher G.P. Putnam covering his submission of a manuscript for consideration to appear in Putnam's Magazine is being offered for $35,000.
Written from 780 Holmes Road in Pittsfield, Massachucetts, site of Arrowhead, the farmhouse where Melville spent his most productive years, 1850-1863, the note represents an important juncture in Melville's career as a writer.
Dear Sir -
Herewith you have a manuscript.
As it is short, and in time for your June number, therefore - in case it suits you to publish - you may as well send me your check for it at once, at the rate of $5 per printed page.
- If it don’t suit, I must beg you to trouble yourself so far, as to dispatch it back to me, thro my brother, Allan Melville, No. 14 Wall Street.
At the bottom Melville notes the recipient, G.P. Putnam Esq.
Melville had submitted Two Temples, an unusual short story wherein Melville's protagonist, alone, without money, and lonely in London, retreats to an Anglican parish church for solace. Expecting open arms and sympathy he is instead confronted by a “fat-paunched, beadle-faced man” who refuses him entry simply because he doesn't look right. The man proceeds to a run-down theater presenting a play, finds a comfortable, unobstructed seat, and is offered a free dram of ale from a young spectator seated nearby. Overwhelmed by the welcome and charity he experienced, he reaches the conclusion that this theater is a true church, the other not at all.
Putnam's Magazine rejected it; Charles F. Briggs, its editor, replied to Melville on May 12.
"I am very loth [sic] to reject the Two Temples as the article contains some exquisitely fine description, and some pungent satire, but my editorial experience compels me to be very cautious in offending the religious sensibilities of the public, and the moral of the Two Temples would array against us the whole power of the pulpit, to say nothing of Brown, and the congregation of Grace Church."
At the top of Melville's letter, Briggs wrote a memo to Putnam alluding to his response:
“Melville wants the MS sent to his brother Allan. I have written to him and I think you had better write to him, and get […] to […] Curtis. It will be the best one for his public and the Maga. B.”
Briggs was being careful and the suggestion to Putnam that he also write to Melville indicates the sensitivity of the situation: Melville was a popular writer and they wanted to retain him as a contributor. Briggs is suggesting that to assuage Melville's feelings they should buy another, more appropriate, piece from him.
"The fact that the publisher of the monthly…took it upon himself to write an additional letter to Melville to reassure him of the monthly's interest in and strong support of his ideologically challenging fiction indicates the high status that Melville's tales held for the editors of Putnam's" (Post-Lauria, Correspondent Colorings: Melville in the Marketplace, p. 189).
This letter is highly significant. Two Temples represented the metaphysical path that Melville had begun to travel with Moby-Dick and had further bestrode, deepening his spirituality. His earlier works had been popular; $5 a page was top wage for a short story; he was still in demand. (And Melville desperately needed the money). Beginning, however, with Moby-Dick, religious themes began to rapidly creep into his work. His readership began to slowly creep out, and from then on publishers became increasingly wary to publish Melville. Two Temples, so overtly theological and spiritually rebellious, was, if not the beginning of the end, a definite so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen to Omoo, amen.
Melville autograph material is scarce. Most of his surviving letters defy wakefulness. This letter, one of the few featuring content relating to his writing and with a revealing backstory, opens the eyes and keeps them open.
Image courtesy of Biblioctopus, currently offering this item, with our thanks.