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National Book Award Classics


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The following essay appeared in the August, 2003 issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book Award.

Perry Miller
The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville and the New York Literary Scene
National Book Award Finalist in Nonfiction, 1957

To my dismay (publishers take note), I discover that all three 1957 National Book Award Winners - Wright Morris, The Field of Vision; George F. Kennan, Russia Leaves the War; and Richard Wilbur, Things of This World - are long out of print, just as the three 1956 Winners are. As I did last month, I move on into the rich realm of the Finalists. There I choose this month's title, a unique work of literary and social discovery by one of my favorite American historians, Perry Miller (1905-1963). How fitting that this is the fortieth anniversary year of his untimely death - not to mention that August 1st was Herman Melville's birthday.

Born on the West Side of Chicago, "under the tracks of the Oak Park Elevated railway," Perry Miller dropped out of the University of Chicago after his freshman year in 1923 - finding the campus "so impressive as almost to stifle one's breathing" -- and hit the road. He lived in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado for awhile, then headed back east to Greenwich Village, where he performed as an actor, and then shipped out as a seaman on an oil tanker headed for the Belgian Congo. In Africa, as he later bemusedly recalled, Perry Miller "conceived my life's mission - nothing less than to expound my America to the twentieth century…to discover the innermost propulsion of the United States."

He returned to the city of his birth and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1928, completing research on his doctorate at Harvard in 1931. The dissertation became his first book, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts. Miller remained on the Harvard faculty until his death three decades later, securely established, in Alfred Kazin's opinion, as "the master of American intellectual history."

As a college freshman, in an eye-opening course taught by Loren Baritz on the then-new discipline of American intellectual history, I first encountered the work of Perry Miller. Our class was assigned his anthology, The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry, the handy, $1.75 Doubleday Anchor Original with a bleak and haunting pen-and-ink cover illustration by Edward Gorey.

That well-thumbed little paperback volume is right here beside me as I write these words, its encouraging preface expressing the author's "hope that a larger audience than 'specialists' in American history may find interest and even pleasure in these remarkable writings." I have been reading Perry Miller steadily ever since the '60's: Errand into the Wilderness, Jonathan Edwards, The American Transcendentalists, Nature's Nation, The New England Mind, The Life of the Mind in America, and, most recently, The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines - a collection of essays which is an integral component of the research for my own forthcoming book; my new book is called The American Revelation, and will begin with a chapter on the 1630 "City on a Hill" sermon of Puritan leader John Winthrop.

It is with special delight that I take this opportunity to celebrate Perry Miller's writing with particular attention to a book originally published by Harcourt, Brace and brought back into print by Johns Hopkins University Press just six years ago. The Raven and the Whale is essentially a cultural history of New York in the years 1833-1857, a contentious quarter-century which Miller describes as nothing short of a "battleground" upon which modern American literature was defined.

It is necessary to remind ourselves that Moby-Dick needed to be rediscovered seventy years after it was published in 1851. As Miller takes great pains to point out, one of the major reasons for the disastrous eclipse of this American epic was that Melville was a New Yorker, while the Brahmins of Boston held sway over literary influence. "The City of New York," Miller writes, "was a literary butcher-shop." Another big reason was the towering conservative dominance well into the 1840's of the "big three," Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, and James Fenimore Cooper, a forbidding mountain range over which terrain it was hazardous for any literary rebel to clamber.

Having set the scene -- and then throwing in for good measure the appeal of Charles Dickens as another huge paradigm -- Miller immerses us in the arcane, biting world of American literary magazines, and the endlessly-contentious lives of the cast of characters who dreamed these journals up, published them with their own resources, and edited them to their liking - all with the nationalistic goal of drowning out America's infatuation with the (in their opinion) stodgy British periodicals. We meet Samuel Langtree, publisher of the Knickerbocker; Frederick Cozzens, one of the founders of the Century Association; Charles Frederick Briggs, editor of The Haunted Merchant, wherein began - believe it or not -- the dispute over the culinary merits of Manhattan versus New England clam chowder; Cornelius Mathews, one of the originators of the "Young America" movement, and editor of Yankee Doodle; John L. O'Sullivan, attorney and self-styled inventor of that resonant term, "manifest destiny," and publisher in his Democratic Review of a young poet named Walter Whitman; Evert Augustus Duyckinck, leader of the "Tetractys Club," editor of the Literary World and the Weekly Mirror, a man hailed by Edgar Allan Poe (himself the editor of another New York magazine called The Broadway Journal) for his "Quixotic fidelity to his friends" -- and many others who have since withdrawn into the netherworld of history.

In The Raven and the Whale Perry Miller insists that we cannot fully appreciate the accepted works in the American 'canon' without remembering how widespread was the lively cultural phenomenon of nineteenth-century print journalism in New York, and how devoted its proponents were to the many new voices on the scene, and to what Whitman affectionately called "Home Literature."

After all, it was George Hooker Colton, an avowed Whig of New York City, who edited The American Review and, in the February, 1845 number, published a new poem called "The Raven," avowing that "Mr. Poe exercise[s] the strongest and most refined powers of the intellect."

Were it not for Perry Miller's sleuthing nearly half a century ago, we might not have found out that in 1848, while researching Moby-Dick, Herman Melville engaged in "heavy raids" of Evert Duyckinck's vast personal library, not only to fact-check in tomes of whaling literature, but also along the way omnivorously absorbing Burton, Coleridge, Rabelais, and Thomas Browne - the poetry with which to fill the vast mind of Ishmael.

N.B.


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