Herman Melville: Solitary Writer
Melville took to the lecture circuit, which, for writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a lucrative practice. Melville, though, was never really able to make a go of it. Those who had any interest in him at all came to hear about Typee and Omoo, not his later books. Melville lectured for three years before quitting the circuit. In 1863, he was forced to sell Arrowhead to his brother, and he moved his family back to New York City. In 1866, he took a job as a customs inspector at the New York Custom House, a desk job that paid just $4 a day. He worked there for the next twenty years.
Though he could no longer write full time, Melville never permanently put away the pen. He turned his interests to poetry instead. Melville had been deeply affected by the Civil War, especially by an 1864 visit to the front lines with his brother. In 1866, he published a book of verse entitled Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. He was also laboring on an epic poem entitled Clarel, a project his wife called a "dreadful incubus"20 that she feared would destroy his health. The 16,000-line poem was published in 1867. It turned out that the public had even less interest in Melville's poetry than his fiction. "The reader who undertakes to read a poem of 600 pages in length, thirty-five lines to the page, is more than apt to receive the reward given by Jupiter to the man whom he caused to seek a grain of wheat in a bushel of chaff," wrote critic Richard Henry Stoddard in New York World. "Good lines there must be, but they and their effect will alike be lost in the overwhelming tide of mediocrity."21
In addition to his professional failure, Melville's personal life was rocked by tragedy. In 1867, his eldest son Malcolm killed himself in what was either an accidental shooting or intentional suicide. In 1886, the year Melville retired from the custom house, his other son Stanwix died of tuberculosis. Yet, despite these challenges, and the fact that his career seemed to have bottomed out completely, Melville was not a tormented man. When not at work, he spent most of his time at home, playing with his grandchildren and working on writing projects which he had no intention of publishing. He read voraciously. Friends visited - sometimes.