Leben mit Herman Melville

A Note on “Isle of the Cross”

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So forget Isle of the Cross, the “lost” work that Melville wrote after Pierre (1852). Better yet, consider it found and read it in “Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow“, the eighth sketch of The Encantadas. Melville’s tale of a grief-struck lady named Hunilla has “Island” and “Cross” stamped all over it.

Melvilliana: Dragooned!: Ten Traces of Herman Melville in
“Scenes Beyond the Western Border” (1851-1853)

The following text first appeared in — and is copyrighted by — the most inspiring Melvilliana site by Stephen Scott Norsworthy. With his explicit and friendly permission, we recover this utterly enlightening and entertaining piece of science from the Google cache. Emphases, spellings and (lacking) links appear as given in the primary text.


A Note on “Isle of the Cross”

Neversealand's Mermaid 28 September 2007Following the publication of Pierre in August 1852, Herman Melville worked slavishly on one or more writing projects for the rest of 1852 and the early months of 1853. On 20 April 1853, Melville’s mother Maria alluded to a “new work, now nearly ready for the press” (Letter to Peter Gansevoort; quoted in Parker, V2.154). Other letters from family members and a late biographical note by his wife describe a period of intense activity ending nearly in mental breakdown. Elizabeth Melville never forgot that the whole family “felt anxious about the strain on his health in Spring of 1853” (quoted in Parker, V2.161).

Surviving letters from Melville to Hawthorne in 1852 document Melville’s interest in what has come to be known as the “story of Agatha.” The true tale of a woman deceived and abandoned by her unfaithful sailor-lover came to Melville’s attention in July 1852, while visiting Nantucket. In August 1852, Melville passed the account on to his friend and former neighbor, urging Nathaniel Hawthorne to make a fiction of the dramatic details. Hawthorne demurred, and after a visit to Concord, Melville decided in December 1852 to write the thing himself. The last surviving “Agatha” letter to Hawthorne, written from Boston between 3 and 13 December, identifies Melville’s working title for the project, “Isle of Shoals,” a title suggested by Hawthorne (Correspondence, 242).

Hershel Parker discovered references to “Isle of the Cross” in two 1853 letters from Melville’s cousin Priscilla to his sister Augusta. We do not have Augusta’s letters, but from the replies of Priscilla Melvill it is clear that Augusta informed their cousin of a forthcoming work by Herman called “Isle of the Cross.” On 22 May 1853, Priscilla wondered: “When will the ‘Isle of the Cross’ make its appearance? I am constantly looking in the journals & magazines that come in my way, for notices of it.” In reply, Augusta told Priscilla that Herman had finished “Isle of the Cross” and that Lizzie had given birth to the couple’s third child (first daughter) on 22 May 1853. Priscilla wrote back on 12 June: “the ‘Isle of the Cross’ is almost a twin sister of the little one & I think she should be nam’d for the heroine—if there is such a personage—the advent of the two are singularly near together” (Parker, V2.155).

Parker logically and persuasively connects the working title of the “Agatha” project in December 1852, “Isle of Shoals,” with the new title mentioned in Priscilla’s 1853 letters to Augusta, “Isle of the Cross.” Around the time of the birth of Elizabeth (Bessie) on 22 May 1853, Melville completed work on a tale almost certainly inspired by the account of Agatha Hatch that he first heard about in Nantucket the previous summer.

In the second volume of his masterful biography (and before that, in a 1990 article in American Literature), Parker unhesitatingly equates “Isle of the Cross” with the unnamed “work” that Melville brought to New York in June 1853 and was inexplicably “prevented from printing.” Other distinguished Melville scholars before Parker, notably Harrison Hayford, Merton Sealts, and Walter Bezanson, had likewise suspected that the work Melville tried and failed to publish in 1853 was probably a version of the Agatha story. Parker’s discovery of Priscilla’s references to a completed work entitled “Isle of the Cross” seemed to clinch the argument, which hangs nonetheless on a tempting yet unproved and rarely examined assumption.

Neversealand's Bettie Page-ish Mermaid 13 July 2007The logical flaw behind any unqualified identification of “Isle of the Cross” with the book Melville “was prevented from printing” is the ancient one known as post hoc, ergo propter hoc (‘after this, therefore because of this’). Melville’s New York trip in June chronologically followed his completion of “Isle of the Cross” in May, but it does not follow necessarily that the publication he meant to “superintend” was “Isle of the Cross.”

The month of Melville’s trip to New York is confirmed by newspaper reports of 11 June 1853 (in the Springfield Daily Republican) and 14 June (Boston Daily Evening Transcript): “Herman Melville has gone to New York to superintend the issue of a new work.” The rejection of the work by a New York publisher—a provisional rejection, evidently—is known from Melville’s letter of 24 November 1853 to Harper & Brothers:

In addition to the work which I took to New York last Spring, but which I was prevented from printing at that time; I have now in hand, and pretty well on towards completion, another book—300 pages, say—partly of nautical adventure, and partly—or, rather, chiefly, of Tortoise Hunting Adventure.

(Correspondence 250)

The fact is, Melville does not say the name of the work declined by the Harpers. Nor does he explain why he “was prevented from printing” the unidentified book “at that time.” We can be reasonably certain that it was a book-length work, since Melville refers immediately to “another book” (emphasis mine), and since he would not have made the journey merely to, in the words of the contemporary newspaper reports, “superintend the issue” of a single magazine piece.

Basem L. Ra’ad has called attention to good textual evidence suggesting that Melville’s reworking of the Agatha story, in some version or other, may eventually have been published as the story of Hunilla in the eighth sketch of “The Encantadas.” If “Isle of the Cross” contains Melville’s artistic transformation of the “story of Agatha,” and the Agatha story became the Hunilla story, then “Isle of the Cross” is simply an earlier incarnation of the Hunilla story as we have it in “Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow.” In the 1960’s, decades before the discovery of Priscilla’s correspondence in which Parker located two “Isle of the Cross” allusions, Reidar Eknar and Charles N. Watson, Jr. independently adduced textual links between the Hunilla and Agatha stories. Then in 1978, Robert Sattelmeyer and James Barbour identified a newspaper sketch about a “Female Robinson Crusoe” as another likely source for Melville’s tale of Hunilla. Sattelmeyer and Barbour found two printings of the sketch in November 1853, but it had been around for years. In March 1847, a Boston magazine that Melville knew, and apparently interested himself in during that very month and year (see Sealts 327 in Melville’s Reading), Littell’s Living Age (27 March 1847: 594-595), reprinted the story of “A Female Crusoe” from the Boston Atlas.

Alberto Vargas MermaidThe impressive textual parallels between the Agatha and Hunilla stories, independently noticed by careful readers, along with the undeniable influence of the “Female Crusoe” article on “Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow,” allow for a reasonable alternative to the over-easy equation of “Isle of the Cross” and the “work” that Melville “was prevented from printing” in June 1853. The alternative embraces all the evidence, textual as well as archival and biographical, and thus allows for the organic, artistic development of a basic premise or idea during the writing process.

The existence of an earlier printing of the “Female Crusoe” sketch in March 1847 means that the version of the Agatha story completed in May 1853 under the title “Isle of the Cross” may already have fused the story of Agatha and that of the female Robinson Crusoe in imaginative and unpredictable ways. Given the numerous and frequently observed parallels between the stories of Agatha and Hunilla, it is very possible that at some point, early or late, Melville dramatically set “Isle of the Cross” on one of the Galápagos islands, the setting of the Hunilla sketch. Hunilla goes to Norfolk Isle in the first place to hunt tortoises. Further possibilities, suggested by the idea of tortoise hunting on lonely, otherworldly islands, might then have prompted Melville either to make a book of his shorter fiction, or make a different book of the one he had. Melville’s November 1853 letter to the Harpers characterizes the “Tortoise Hunting Adventure” as “another book”; in other words, not the one he had unsuccessfully tried to publish in June. Perhaps “Isle of the Cross” did not get published in 1853 because Melville elected to revise and expand it into something like what we find in “The Encantadas,” serially published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1854. The simplest and most satisfying reading of all the available evidence is that “Isle of the Cross,” “Tortoise Hunting Adventure,” and “The Encantadas” are creative permutations of one and the same work.

Melville’s probable involvement in the writing or “ghostwriting” of Scenes and Adventures in the Army supplies a new candidate for the unnamed work that Melville unsuccessfully tried to publish in June 1853. The army memoir of Philip St. George Cooke comprises two different series, published a decade apart (1842-1843; and 1851-1853) in the Southern Literary Messenger. Although the last installment of the second series, “Scenes Beyond the Western Border” appeared in August 1853, the manuscript of that installment must have been finished by June, or early July at the latest. Everything but the last number was in print by May 1853. The cryptic phrases in Melville’s letter of 24 November 1853, “prevented from printing” and “at that time,” are more obviously applicable to the work that became Scenes and Adventures in the Army than to “Isle of the Cross.”

Frederic Leighton, The Fisherman and the Syren, 1856Possibly, then, Melville went to New York in June 1853 with the modest idea of “superintending” the re-publication of the two Southern Literary Messenger series in one volume. In those days a previously serialized rip-off of somebody else’s narrative might be counted a “new work,” as 1855 advertisements for Israel Potter as “Melville’s New Work” demonstrate. Nevertheless, publishers and their lawyers invariably want to settle questions of authorship and copyright. Such vexed questions as “Whose book is this, anyway?” might have been anticipated as a potential stumbling block, but Melville was not well and financially desperate, by all accounts. Suggestive evidence of a lesson learned the hard way appears in February 1854, when Herman’s brother Allan instructed Augusta (in connection with the planned serialization of “The Encantadas” in Putnam’s Monthly) to “Say to Herman that he ought to reserve to himself the right to publish his magazine matter in book form. It might be desirable & could probably be secured by agreement made at the beginning” (quoted in Parker, V2.211).

Perhaps John R. Thompson, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, intervened to assert a claim of copyright, or perhaps Cooke himself claimed authorship and thereby “prevented” the Harpers from printing the volume as originally planned. Alternatively, the Harpers may simply have advised Melville in June 1853 not to proceed further without first obtaining written consent from Cooke and the Southern Literary Messenger, or other proofs of legal copyright. At any rate, five months later, Melville plainly believed his unnamed project was only delayed, temporarily (“at that time”), rather than crushed, forever.

In May 1854, Cooke or his silent partner finished a major effort of revision, incorporating changes to both the 1842-1843 and 1851-1853 series (Letter dated 11 February 1856 to John Esten Cooke in the Cooke papers, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Durham, North Carolina). In January 1855, Cooke himself was still trying (vainly) to interest New York publishers, including the Harpers, in the proposed volume, then called “Fragments of a Military Life” (Letter to John Pendleton Kennedy, 14 March 1855; Microfilm of the John Pendleton Kennedy Papers, ed. John B. Boles, Maryland Historical Society, 1972). In time, possibly with the aid of a literary nephew (the prolific Virginia novelist John Esten Cooke, a correspondent of Evert Duyckinck’s before and after the Civil War), the Melvillean memoir of Philip St. George Cooke finally was published by Lindsay & Blakiston as Scenes and Adventures in the Army: Or, Romance of Military Life (Philadelphia, 1857).


Works Cited

Ekner, Reidar. “The Encantadas and Benito Cereno—On Sources and Imagination in Melville.” Moderna Språk 60 (1966): 258-273.

Hayford, Harrison. “The Significance of Melville’s ‘Agatha’ Letters.” ELH, A Journal of English Literary History 13 (December 1946): 299-310.

Melville, Herman. Correspondence. Ed. Lynn Horth. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1993.

Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville’s The Isle of the Cross: A Survey and a Chronology. American Literature 62 (March 1990): 1-16.

__________. Herman Melville: A Biography. Volume 2, 1851-1891. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Ra’ad, Basem L. “‘The Encantadas’ and ‘The Isle of the Cross’: Melvillean Dubieties, 1853-54.” American Literature 63 (June 1991): 316-323.

Sattelmeyer, Robert, and James Barbour. “The Sources and Genesis of Melville’s ‘Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow.’” American Literature 50 (November 1978): 398-417.

Sealts, Merton M., Jr. “The Chronology of Melville’s Short Fiction, 1853-1856.” Harvard Library Bulletin 28 (1980): 391-403. Rpt. Pursuing Melville 1940-1980. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982, pp. 221-31.

__________. Melville’s Reading. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Watson, Charles N., Jr. “Melville’s Agatha and Hunilla: A Literary Reincarnation.” English Language Notes 6 (December 1968): 114-118.

Lost Lady

Text: Stephen Scott Norsworthy;
Images: Neversealand Today’s Mermaid 28 September 2007 and 13 July 2007;
Varga Mermaid: Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chávez;
Frederic Leighton: The Fisherman and the Syren, 1856–1858;
Lila DiPasqua.

Written by Wolf

19. November 2007 at 12:02 am

6 Responses

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  1. why do mermaids always have long hair??? i mean i do, but sheesh— try a little diversity!


    23. April 2008 at 12:49 am

  2. Mermaids need long hair in lack of a bikini top. Depictions of short-haired mermaids will be gratefully received.


    23. April 2008 at 12:55 am

  3. Hey, I found a serious one! The Rusalkas from Slavic mythology have short hair, and utter pretty they are:


    3. June 2008 at 3:14 am

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    29. March 2010 at 2:37 pm

  5. Thank you for looking out of the deep dark sea to give us some kudos. The blog surely is my hobby and of the friendly contributors on the P.E.Q.U.O.D. Should anybody pay us money for it, I would be the last one to refuse .ò)


    29. March 2010 at 3:04 pm

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    18. October 2012 at 6:43 am

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