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The masterpiece of his old age, “Billy Budd,” is, of course, a sea tale, as are “Benito Cereno” and “The Encantadas” in “The Piazza Tales.” Even the characters in “Pierre” at the end seek relief in a short ride on a ferryboat, the hero announcing, “I must get on some other element than earth. If he lays him down, he cannot sleep; he has waked the infinite wakefulness in him; then how can he slumber?I have sat on earth’s saddle till I am weary.”Where “Pierre” does burn through to reality is in the evocation, in the city part of the novel, of the menace of poverty and the ordeal of writing. Still his book, like a vast lumbering planet, revolves in his aching head.
He finished the last chapters in New York while the first chapters were in the printer’s press, and passed the last proof sheets in late July, a week or so before his thirty-second birthday. and the graphic representations of human nature in the startling disguises under which it appears on the deck of the “No American writer is more sure, at every re-appearance, of a more cheerful welcome than the author of Typee . It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones.” And Melville might have taken additional comfort by glancing over Longfellow’s shoulder as he wrote in his journal one November night, “Sat to read all the evening in Melville’s new book, ‘Moby Dick or the Whale.’ Very wild, strange, and interesting.” Melville’s critical and popular position after the publication of “Moby-Dick” was still high; he was commonly written of as a genius, and in a London New Year’s survey of new presences in American literature was ranked with Hawthorne and the forgotten Richard Burleigh Kimball and Sylvester Judd.
“Moby-Dick” eighteen months after its publication had sold a not inconsiderable twenty-three hundred copies, but “Pierre,” for which Melville had received a five-hundred-dollar advance, eight months after its publication had sold a miserable two hundred and eighty-three copies of a hopeful edition of twenty-three hundred and ten.
In Melville’s entire lifetime, royalties on the “bowl of milk” amounted to a hundred and fifty-seven dollars.
Of course, English publication should not be left out of account; it could win for a nineteenth-century American author more prestige and no less profit than native publication, and was usually arranged to fall earlier.
By Allan’s reckoning, Melville’s British receipts from the first five books totalled ,775.05, or slightly more than the American total of ,591.21.