Melville's Intervisionary Network: Balzac, Hawthorne, and Realism in the American Renaissance.
In Melville's Intervisionary Network, John Haydock attempts to reveal what he claims to be the significant but insufficiently recognized influence of the fiction of Honore de Balzac on Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although mainly focused on Melville's writings and literary career, Haydock includes a discussion of Balzac and Hawthorne that posits the French writer's secret presence in the constellation of Hawthorne's literary influences at the height of his career. In addition, the author argues that Melville and Hawthorne's intense friendship in the Berkshires in 1850-51 involved a decisive (although undocumented) discussion of the fiction and ideas of Balzac that fed each writer's burst of creativity during this period and during certain productive literary periods thereafter, with Hawthorne acting as a tutelary genius to Melville's incipient knowledge of Balzac. Haydock's ambitious goal is to place the literary work of the great French realist at the center of some of Hawthorne and Melville's best-known works; yet his book falls short of this goal because of its many tenuous arguments and unsubstantiated claims. Haydock is clearly an enthusiastic and knowledgeable student of Balzac's fiction, but he has not sufficiently mastered the literary careers of Hawthorne and Melville.
There is no doubt that Melville late in his career read some of the writings of Balzac, whose reputation continued to grow throughout the century following his premature death in 1850 and whose vast literary legacy would have a major and well-recognized influence on Henry James in particular. But for Hawthorne, the record is more dubious. There is no record of the French author in Marion Kesselring's extensive compilation of Hawthorne family borrowings from the Salem Athenaeum in the period from 1828 to 1850. In his Study of Hawthorne (1876), however, Hawthorne's son-in-law George Parsons Lathrop claimed that in 1836-37 Hawthorne told Elizabeth Peabody that he had read all of Balzac's available fiction published up to that time. Elizabeth Peabody's memory, forty years after the fact, is thus virtually all the evidence we have of Hawthorne's familiarity with Balzac. For Melville, we have Merton Sealts's record of the author's acquisition and annotated reading of Balzac's fiction beginning in 1870 with Eugenie Grandet, but Melville became an assiduous reader and collector of over a dozen of Balzac's works only in the later 1880s when a new edition of the French writer's oeuvre was being issued by the Boston publisher Roberts and when Melville was at work on Billy Budd. Indeed, it is highly likely that Melville returned to writing fiction in the last few years of his life because of inspiration gleaned from Balzac, whose Seraphita bears suggestive resemblances to the eponymous hero of Billy Budd. Previous scholarship on Hawthorne and Balzac can be found in Jane Lundblad's Nathaniel Hawthorne and European Literary Tradition (1947), William Bysshe Stein's Hawthorne's Faust: A Study of the Devil Archetype (1953), and Leon Chai's Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance (1987); important studies of Melville and Balzac are available in William Dillingham's Melville's and His Circle (1996), Chai's Romantic Foundations, and Kevin Hayes's essay "Melville and Balzac" (2000). Haydock attempts to show that Balzac played a much bigger role in the literary imaginations of both Hawthorne and Melville than these critics have suggested, but he ultimately fails to extend their scholarship.
Problems begin early in the book when Haydock attacks the traditional norms relating to the objective verification of facts on which historical scholarship depends: "A strictly historical approach to the relationship between these writers [Balzac and Melville], one constrained to specific authorial admissions, public records, third-party witnesses, or even some form of plagiarism that could be irrefutably demonstrated involves an interpretive process more like a court of law than the arena of the humanities. Hence the existence of heavy tomes and logs of daily records that reflect little of Melville's vital essence" (10). While the two bulky volumes of Melville biography by Hershel Parker and the two-volume Melville Log compiled by Jay Leyda may seem like dreary reading to the uninitiated, they are essential foundations for any scholarly understanding of Melville's life and literary career. Haydock leaves it something of a mystery what he means by "authorial admissions," "public records," "third-party witnesses," and "plagiarism," but presumably he means that approaching his subject within a historical framework and tracking authorial echoes and allusions would make it excessively beholden to dryly legalistic norms--a bizarrely reductive claim for adherence to basic standards of verified fact in the study of authors and influences.
Haydock begins his study with an overview of the revolution in printing and transportation that characterized the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, leading to a greater awareness of Continental literature and culture in the United States. The increasing speed and globalization of commerce and travel in the first half of the nineteenth century, together with an explosion of print technologies during this period, is a familiar story. What we need to know in relation to Haydock's networked world of French literature within the United States is a careful historical analysis of Balzac's appearance in the print media of the antebellum United States, and this we do not find here. Moreover, by explicitly discounting the importance of historical research, the author fails to track the evidence of Balzac's writings in the extensive roster of American periodicals now available online, based on the older exhaustively compiled Early American Periodicals Index. Thus we are given no new information about how Balzac's writings, either in the original or in translation, might have penetrated the American periodical market, and how this might have shaped Hawthorne's and Melville's familiarity with the author at a time when Balzac was little known to Americans, or had the reputation as the purveyor of scandalous fiction.
In his approach to Balzac's fiction and its transatlantic influence, Haydock focuses on the French author's mystical, spiritualized fictions (Etudes philosophique) from the 1830s, such as The Wild Ass's Skin (La Peau de chagrin), Louis Lambert, and Seraphita. and his elaborate theorizing on a taxonomy of character types. Haydock thus omits from consideration Balzac's place as the premier literary historian of France under the July Monarchy (1830-48). Beflecting the influence of new religious, psychological, and scientific theories available in the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, Franz Anton Mesmer, Johann Kaspar Lavater, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and others, Balzac developed an elaborate philosophy of the Will as a form of psychic energy, as well as an idiosyncratic schema of fictional character types. As Haydock writes of the latter, "Instinctive characters displaying the force of bodily activity, abstractive characters employing the force of mind-activity, and specialist characters empowered with Will or divine force obtained by great effort and suffering respond to one another within a definite magnetic arena of psychophysical tension. This model is not reductionist; it is a map of human spiritual (and physical) territory as observed by Balzac" (88).
Contrary to Haydock's claim here, his attempt to match Balzac's taxonomy of instinctive, abstractive, and specialist character types with Hawthorne's (and Melville's) fiction does not enhance our understanding of the fiction because it lacks the sufficient theoretical grounding and careful comparative demonstration such as one finds in Chai's chapter on Billy Budd and Balzac. Symptomatic of the awkwardness of Haydock's Balzacian paradigms is the fact that he never offers an in-depth analysis of even one work of Hawthorne's fiction demonstrating the active presence of Balzac's literary example; rather, he formulates analyses that are recurrently perfunctory and impressionistic. For example, Haydock's attempt to match "The Birthmark" with a Balzacian character taxonomy is lacking in convincing detail, while a comparison of Hawthorne's "A Select Party" to Balzac's "Jesus Christ in Flanders," based on the alleged resemblances between Hawthorne's literary messiah figure and the Christ figure in Balzac's story, is similarly devoid of critical depth and specificity. So, too, a potential resemblance between the obsessive questers of "Ethan Brand" and Melmoth Reconciled remains undeveloped. The important influence of the new pseudoscience of mesmerism in the fiction of both Balzac and Hawthorne seemingly offers a prime area for critical investigation as long as assumptions of direct influence are omitted; but alas, this fails to be the case here. Overall, Haydock argues that Balzac had a significant influence on"Rappaccini's Daughter," "The Birthmark "The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance, but none of his analyses prove convincing or satisfying in specific detail.
Another representative example of Haydock's inadequate methods can be found in his claim that Hawthorne's whimsical preface to "Rappaccini's Daughter," in which Hawthorne created a French persona for himself and indulges in his frequent habit of criticizing the inadequacies of his own fiction, was based on Balzac's example: "While bemoaning Aubepine's own lack of recognition except among a small clique, as he had in the earlier introduction to Twice-Told Tales, Hawthorne is clearly reflecting on and associating himself with the state of Balzac's early experience and reputation" (70). Aside from the misdating of Hawthorne's 1851 self-deprecatory preface to the second edition of Twice-Told Tales, we may ask, on what historical basis can Haydock make this claim? Isn't it the mere resemblance between two authors writing in the 1830s and 1840s who were impatient for recognition? Haydock fails to mention the fact that Hawthorne's whimsical French moniker of Aubepine (Hawthorne) dated back to his visit to his friend Horatio Bridge in Maine in July 1837, when he took French lessons with Bridge's French tutor, Monsieur Schaeffer. (The French persona of the preface also pays tribute to the "Comte de Bearhaven," or John L. O'Sullivan, Hawthorne's friend and editor at the Democratic Review, now called La Revue Anti-Aristocratique, where "Bappaccini's Daughter" was first published; it is relevant to note that in mid-1839, O'Sullivan was due to be appointed secretary to the American legation at Paris but was bitterly disappointed when the ambassador, Lewis Cass, insisted on a relative for the appointment.)
Haydock's analysis of the alleged role of Balzac's writings in cementing the literary friendship of Hawthorne and Melville in the Berkshires is equally flawed by ungrounded assertions. According to Haydock, Melville became an eager student of Hawthorne's allegedly extensive knowledge of the French author, whose fiction was an important topic in their conversations--this despite the fact that Balzac is nowhere mentioned in Melville's surviving correspondence to Hawthorne, or in Hawthorne's personal journals at the time. Haydock nevertheless insists, "What Hawthorne did for Melville, besides introducing to him specific ideas derived from his studies of La Comedie humaine, was to direct Melville toward bringing into focus the major concepts that had been interesting him just before their intense conversations.... At the extreme, he instructed Melville directly on Balzac's narrative theory and scheme of characterization which he himself had deciphered" (111). Unfortunately, when one looks for concrete historical support for such bold assertions, one seeks in vain.
The same is true for Haydock's account of how Hawthorne and Melville interacted during the fourteen months of their friendship in the Berkshires. Begarding Melville's four-day sojourn with the Hawthornes in Lenox in early September 1850, during which time the two authors had their first chance to get acquainted in depth, Haydock claims that "any discussions of Balzac's method or subsequent exemplary reading can be expected because all the sources that Melville would need, including Louis Lambert, Seraphita, Le Pere Goriot, and other major Balzac works, were probably available to him in Hawthorne's private collection, precluding the need for additional borrowing or purchase. Those hours he waited for Hawthorne, morning after morning in the small room, would have provided ample time for Melville to digest the major examples from this French literary giant, at an appropriate level to his reading ability" (138). The only historical record of Melville's reading during his visit with the Hawthornes at this time is Sophia's report to her sister Elizabeth that Melville spent one morning reading Emerson's essays. There is no record of Hawthorne's ownership of Balzac's fiction while in Lenox, and little record of his library or his reading there. (We know he read Melville's novels in late August 1850, had Emerson and De Quincey in his library, and planned to read a borrowed copy of Pendennis in the summer of 1851). Even if there were some copies of Balzac's fiction in Hawthorne's library, Melville's three mornings spent waiting for his host to finish his daily writing routine were hardly enough time to master the fictional techniques of the great French Bealist. Haydock similarly asserts without any historical justification that Melville knew French well enough to read Balzac in the original. Although the Melville family had a French servant at one point during the author's early life in New York City in the 1820s, Melville had no formal instruction in French at any of the schools he attended and almost certainly had only a rudimentary knowledge of French.
In general, Haydock's account of the importance of Balzac in Hawthorne's and Melville's literary relations strains credulity. So Haydock reads Melville's well-known 1850 essay on Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse as containing a Balzacian subtext: "Melville saw in Hawthorne's efforts traces of the evil characters found in Balzac, and he wanted to find out how Hawthorne had captured that effect without accusation of imitation" (119). Did Melville interpret Hawthorne's fictional representation of evil as based on the writings of Balzac but was too polite to point this out in his review? The idea strains credulity. When considering Melville's and Hawthorne's vision of evil, one usually thinks of sources in the Bible. Pierre Bayle's Dictionary, Shakespeare's tragedies, and the doctrines of New England Calvinism; Balzac is simply not in the roster of recognized or even likely influences. Haydock mistakenly claims that Hawthorne was already working on The Blithedale Romance in early August 1851 when Melville and Hawthorne spent a day socializing and talking "ontological heroics" at the Red Cottage in Lenox late into the night while Sophia was visiting her family in Boston. Suffice it to say that Haydock's version of literary history with respect to the Hawthorne-Melville friendship is completely unreliable.
The majority of Haycock's book is devoted to Balzac's assumed longterm impact on Melville's fiction, and to that end we follow Haydock's exploration of alleged Balzacian elements in White-Jacket, Moby-Dick, and The Confidence-Man during Melville's career as a published writer of fiction. In the later novel, for example, the arrival of the Christ-like man in cream colors is said to be based on the advent of a modern Christ figure onto the boat in Balzac's "Christ in Flanders" ("Jesus-Christ en Flandres"), but the religious symbolism and legendary aura of the short story hardy suggests the beguilingly complex satirical allegory of Melville's last published novel. Disguised and symbolic Christ figures can be found throughout nineteenth-century European and American fiction; hence there is no payoff to this collocation of the legendary story and the protomodernist satirical novel. Haydock is on sturdier ground when examining the role of Balzac's fiction--notably Louis Lambert and Seraphita--in Melville's writing of Billy Budd, a subject that has previously received insightful treatment by Chai, Dillingham, and Hayes. Haydock's analysis of the novella's adaptation of Balzac's idea of the "Christian Buddhist" (Bouddha chretien) may offer potential new insights for readers.
Any attempt to shed new light on the transatlantic influence of Balzac--or other French authors--on the two great novelists of the American Renaissance is a welcome enterprise, but Haydock has instead produced a weakly argued study characterized by a lack of original historical research and a regular resort to speculation that aspires to fact. Haydock has thus made a fundamental error in presenting his study of Balzac, Hawthorne, and Melville as an examination of direct influence instead of mere resemblance or affinity. There are certainly many areas of overlap in these authors' intellectual development and literary productions, but any attempt to prove a decisive direct influence, except in the case of Melville's Billy Budd, is misguided. Only important new literary discoveries and substantial new historical research can provide a different stoiy.
Jonathan A. Cook is the author of Satirical Apocalypse: An Anatomy of "The Confidence Man" (1996). Inscrutable Malice: Theodicy. Eschatology. and the Biblical Sources of "Moby-Dick" (301a). and coeditor. with Brian Yothers, of the essay collection Visionary of the Word: Melville and Religion (2017).