Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson vs. the Tyranny of the Majority
Randall Fuller reviews "a cautionary tale about the perils of being a writer in a nation defined and driven by the twin engines of democracy and market capitalism" about two literary giants who "had the great misfortune of writing just as antebellum America was creating a mass audience for its authors" — The Image of a Writer. An exceprt:
- As Kearns reveals in Writing for the Street, Writing in the Garret, Melville felt this particular conundrum with acuity. In a famous letter to Hawthorne, written several months after his refusal to Duyckinck, he complained, “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. . . . Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.” Melville was by no means alone in his alienation from the market and from mass opinion. Dickinson, too, struggled to imagine her authority as a writer, addressing the tyranny of democratic public opinion in one of her most trenchant poetic observations.
- Much Madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much Sense—the starkest Madness—
’Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail—
Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you’re straightway dangerous—
And handled with a Chain—
According to Kearns, both Melville and Dickinson developed authorial strategies that allowed them to turn their backs on antebellum America’s burgeoning mass audience and to imagine themselves as romantic artists governed solely by inspiration. Instead of courting the crowd, they became “garret” writers whose artistic prestige was bound up in the fact that they were not writing for “the street.” So dissimilar in so many ways, both authors nevertheless were linked by a mutual desire “to operate outside of the capitalist and mimetic markets (especially opposing advertising).” Suspicious of the tastes of a mass audience as well as the techniques by which publishing houses transformed authors into marketable commodities for that audience, “they desired to publish in ways that preserved their total control and ownership of their work.” By refusing to sell out, Kearns argues, they were able to write works governed by their own autonomous aesthetic criteria, works that ignored popular trends, that aspired to art for art’s sake. To accomplish this, however, they had to content themselves with small, private audiences capable of determining their respective works’ design and intentions.