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—.“A Successful Bachelor.” Atlantic Monthly 81 (1898): 805-812.

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Acknowledgements

A few months ago, I had an epiphany: if I lived like a bachelor of arts, secluding myself in daydreams, I probably never would have completed this dissertation.  Although writing can sometimes require solitude, I depended upon a community of friends, colleagues, and family to help me make my way through graduate school.  At the risk of sounding like a self-indulgent beneficiary of an Academy Award, I’d like thank everyone who supported me along the way.

I was lucky enough to have superb English teachers in high school and college who inspired me with their passion for literature.  I’m especially grateful to Candida Williamson, Kit Wallingford, Dennis Huston, and Marsha Recknagel.  At Virginia, Steve Railton has provided good counsel and support throughout my graduate career, enriching my knowledge of American literature and serving as a great role model.  Likewise, Jessica Feldman has been a terrific advisor, helping me to see ideas buried in my work and inspiring me with her intellectual enthusiasms and sense of humor.  In working on a project for David Vander Meulen’s textual editing class, I came across a collection of fan letters to Donald Grant Mitchell that got me excited about my dissertation; I thank him for his kindness and support.  Thanks also Marion Rust and Joseph Kett for serving as readers of my dissertation and for providing helpful feedback about  how it can be improved.  I’m also grateful to staff members at Alderman Library’s Special Collections and Yale’s Beinecke Library for their assistance in locating appropriate bachelor texts.

My colleagues at Rice have cheered me on in my Ph.D. work.  I am especially grateful to Geneva Henry, who urged me to complete my dissertation and allowed me to set up a flexible work schedule; Greg Hillis, my fellow Virginia expatriate ABD (now PhD); my Perl buddy Chuck Bearden; Chuck Henry; Sara Lowman; Denise Arial; Megan Wilde; Mia McKeehan; and Ashley Fell.  Thanks also to Seamus Ross and Helen Tibbo for their support.

When I started working at Virginia’s Electronic Text Center, I had no idea how much fun it would be, or how my work there would open up new interests and alter the direction of my career.  Many thanks to David Seaman, Carolyn Fay, Chris Ruotolo, Steve Ramsay, Matthew Gibson, Johnnie Wilcox, Karen Wikander, Craig Simmons, Carol Osborne, Tom Palombi, Jennifer McCarthy, Catherine Tousignant, Bryson Clevinger, and the rest of the Etext gang.

This dissertation would be much weaker were it not for the incisive comments of my dissertation group: Michelle Allen, Amanda French, June Griffith, Elizabeth Outka, and Virginia Zimmerman.  Not only did they help me focus my ideas and straighten out tangled sentences, but they have been true friends, always willing to give support and good advice, share a spinach-and-garlic pizza, stories, and a few beers, and go on backyard sledding expeditions.  I have also been sustained by the friendship of Janice Miller, John Picker, Lauren Murray, Cate Nielan, Jessica Feinberg, and Karen Murray.

I grew up in a house full of books and my parents are both teachers, so I never had to justify studying humanities.  Thanks to my parents Bob and Linda Spiro, my brother John, and my in-laws Sue and Ray Johnson for their encouragement, and to my grandmother Ruby Spiro for funding my first year of graduate school.  My dad put in many hours editing the manuscript; I am grateful to him for saving me from using awkward phrases like “oriented around,” helping me to focus the dissertation, and drawing smiley faces next to my jokes and puns.  Buster the Wonderdog was a loyal writing companion, taking me out for regular walks and snoozing by my side.

One of the best known pro-marriage clichés is “Behind every successful man is a good woman.”  Well, behind me from the start was my husband Richard Johnson, who was understanding when I secluded myself to read bachelor tales, picked up the slack with household chores, and helped me revise and proofread the manuscript.  He makes me laugh, helps me put things in perspective, and enriches my life, demonstrating that love is the foundation.  I’m glad he’s not a bachelor.

 

Afterword: The Bachelor’s Prospects

“Flora she was once. She was florid.

A bachelor of feen masquerie

Evasive and metamorphorid”

–Wallace Stevens, “Oak Leaves Are Hands”

A couple of years ago, I accompanied my husband to a postcard convention. He was searching for turn-of-the century images of his favorite cities, and I was looking for bachelors. Although there seemed to be a category for everything from Alcohol to Zoos, bachelors were left out. Scattered within the “quirky humor” and “dog” sections, however, I discovered a dozen or so bachelor postcards from the early twentieth century. These postcards either make the bachelor the butt of a joke or the object of pity. “Too good to marry,” reads one, of an isolated, bookish fellow; “I’m a bachelor but I couldn’t help it,” says another, of a forlorn puppy.

bachelor puppy

I’m a bachelor but I couldn’t help it. Ca. 1914

goodlonesome

“Be good and you will be lonesome.” Ca. 1905

Given the notes scrawled on the backs of the cards, people apparently bought them to rib friends and relatives about their marital status, or to make self-deprecating jokes about themselves.

As these postcards suggest, bachelors inspired laughter as well as tears, becoming icons for unrealized romance and dejected dreaming. Throughout the nineteenth century, the understanding of bachelorhood changed, reflecting shifting attitudes toward gender, profession, sexuality and family (Bertolini 728). Antebellum bachelor literature anticipated and provided a leaping-off point for late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century treatment of the bachelor, particularly in its emphasis on fantasy, aesthetics, and individualism. When we examine the bachelor identity at the end of the nineteenth century, we see several strains and variations, such as the female bachelor, the homosexual, the bohemian, the playboy, and the aesthete. Bachelors of that period became even more associated with dreaming, fluidity, and beauty, as bohemianism and aestheticism emerged as significant cultural forces.[1] As Frank Chaffee observes in Bachelor Buttons (1892), an urbane guide to the single life, “The society which many bachelors in New York most affect is very delightful. It is mostly found in that pleasant land that lies just between Vanity Fair and Bohemia, a country whose inhabitants number all sorts and conditions of men—and women—and the passport across whose border is only to be kindly, and witty and wise” (13). By describing “bachelor-land” as a unique territory, Chaffee contends that bachelors belong to a counter-culture based on bohemian values such as experimentation, wit, and artistic expressiveness, one that is open to women as well as men.

As Chaffee suggests, a significant bachelor sub-culture developed in late-nineteenth century America, reflecting the large number of bachelors in American cities and the emergence of institutions and cultural forms that were directed at them, such as magazines, products, and advertisements (Chudacoff 6). In fin-de-siecle America, bachelorhood flourished, as young men flocked to pool-halls and cabarets to take pleasure in the single life. Hence bachelorhood contributed to the “blossoming American consumer culture of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth in the direction of youth and the individual, rather than toward the family” (Chudacoff 19). The sentimental bachelor of the antebellum period pre-figured both the fin-de-siecle consumer and the bohemian artist. As Chudacoff argues, the bachelor represented an approach to manhood that borrowed from the playfulness of boy culture, rejected the civilizing impulses of domesticity, and insisted upon independence and spontaneity (248). Alongside these freewheeling social practices, we can see the emergence of a literary identity that likewise challenged bourgeois values but focused more on intellectual and cultural self-fulfillment and creation.

In Manhood and the American Renaissance, David Leverenz echoes Alfred Habbegger in arguing that male writers of the antebellum era “developed premodernist styles to explore and exalt their sense of being deviant from male norms,” whereas “[l]ater writers such as William Dean Howells and Henry James might accept with relative equanimity the ‘sissy’ role given to male writers in an industrializing society” (17-18). However, I suggest that what Leverenz and Habbegger label the “sissy” role pre-dates James and Howells, as male sentimentalists such as Irving and Mitchell adopted a posture of repose and fantasy to articulate artistic identities. These bachelor poses contributed to James’s and Howells’s sense of themselves as artists. For instance, James recalled his “very young pleasure” in “the prose, as mild and easy as an Indian summer in the woods,” of Melville, Curtis, and Donald Grant Mitchell. James connected these authors to ‘the charming Putnam’ of ‘the early fifties,’” linking Melville with his fellow magazine authors Mitchell and Curtis.[2] James associates the male sentimentalists with relaxation and pleasure, the literary equivalent of a lake house vacation. Likewise, William Dean Howells, fondly reminiscing about his own boyhood reading, remembered that along with Irving, Shakespeare, Goldsmith, and Cervantes he admired “the gentle and kindly Ik Marvel, whose Reveries of a Bachelor and whose Dream Life the young people of that day were reading with a tender rapture” (64). Bachelor fiction thus provided a link between sentimentalism, romanticism, and realism.

Initially a figure to be pitied, laughed at, or scorned, by the end of the nineteenth century the bachelor had become, as Eve Sedgwick argues, “the very type of the great creative artist,” whose refined self-consciousness was achieved through celibacy (Between Men 162). The bachelor continued to be popular into the twentieth century, serving as a central figure in fin de siecle and modernist works. As Elaine Showalter claims, the English literary marketplace at the turn of the century shifted away from the three-decker novel and plots that culminated in marriage, expanding to include works specifically aimed at “the celibate, the bachelor, the ‘odd woman,’ the dandy, and the aesthete” (16). Similarly, late-nineteenth-century American fictions explored the lives of village spinsters (Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman), the New Woman (Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman), isolated individuals confronting a cruel world (Crane), and men of pleasure (Dreiser). Attitudes toward reading also shifted, since bachelor fictions were typically read in private rather than in a family setting, offering not complete lives but fleeting moments. As Snyder suggests, the fanciful bachelor fictions of the antebellum era anticipated modernist or pre-modernist characters such as Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby, J. Alfred Prufrock, Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, Conrad’s Marlow, and James’s Lambert Strether.[3]

Although there are many permutations of the bachelor, one is especially germane to the discussion of authorial identity: the Jamesian artist. James’s short fictions from the 1880s and 1890s show how the bachelor’s emphasis on fantasy helped to shape the persona of the self-conscious modern artist. Whereas Irving both celebrates fantasy for cultivating new insights and warns against the delusions that it can produce, Donald Grant Mitchell asserts that imagination is superior to reality, and that the bachelor is best positioned to serve as a channel for sentimental dreaming. In contrast, Melville cautions against the foolishness, isolation, and hubris that the bachelor perspective cultivates. With James, however, the bachelor’s subjectivity serves as the foundation of his narrative strategy. James transmutes Irving’s genteel bachelor rover and Mitchell’s sentimental dreamer into the accomplished artist.

The Lesson of the Bachelor

In his short fiction from the 1880s, Henry James explores what makes an artist, what constitutes art, and how it is received by its audience. As Alfred Habegger points out, James crafts tales full of mystery and ambiguity, challenging the reader with the disjunction between appearance and reality. In “The Lesson of the Master,” which asks whether an author can be married (and whether the committed bachelor has been duped by a master fictionist to remain single), James examines many of the issues previously raised by Irving, Mitchell, and Melville. Like Irving, James meditates upon the connections between authorship and bachelorhood. Like Mitchell, James investigates the relationship between the narrator, author, and audience by showing readers pursuing intimate relationships with “masters” and analyzing their actions as if they were texts. Like Melville, James confronts the “sacrifice of relation” between ideal and reality, raising epistemological questions about how we find truth. Through his own bachelor, James shapes the identity of this figure not as a retired amateur, incidental dreamer, or deluded decadent, but as a modern artist. James transmutes the bachelor’s reveries into narratives of psychological depth, probing the alienation of the artist and the relationship between the imagination and art, but the master’s lessons are ambiguous.

James defined his habits as a thinker and artist in terms of his bachelorhood. Recalling his arrival in England in 1876, he later wrote in his journal, “London is on the whole the most possible form of life. I take it as an artist and a bachelor; as one who has the passion of observation and whose business is the study of human life…. I had complete liberty, and the prospect of profitable work… I took possession of London” (qtd. by Snyder 104). James sets up “bachelor” and “artist” as parallel terms, since both intensely observe human activity and enjoy their freedom of movement, imagination, and experience. Through unfettered observation, bachelor artists can imaginatively “possess” the city, thus providing alternatives to the acquisitive businessmen of the Gilded Age. James self-consciously defended his bachelorhood, claiming that “an amiable bachelor here and there doesn’t strike me as at all amiss, and I think he too may forward the cause of civilization” (Edel 233). James overturns the notion that bachelors are deviants and identifies praiseworthy bachelors as those who engage with society and promote cultural development. Yet, as Edel contends, psychosexual fears likely motivated James, as this closeted homosexual “had channeled himself in the cultivation of his art—an art, however, carefully disengaged from disturbing passions” (234).

By placing James’s works in the context of the American literature of bachelorhood, we can better understand the connections between American romanticism, sentimentalism, and realism. As critics such as Eve Sedgwick and Kelly Cannon have observed, James often made a bachelor his protagonist in his middle and late-fiction. James likely derived this figure from the literary bachelors of the 1850s, such as Hawthorne’s Coverdale. Embracing Coverdale’s position as a poet and observer, James contends:

Coverdale is a picture of the contemplative, observant, analytic nature, nursing its fancies, and yet, thanks to an element of strong good sense, not bringing them up to be spoiled children; having little at stake in life, at any given moment, and yet indulging, in imagination, in a good many adventures; a portrait of a man, in a word, whose passions are slender, whose imagination is active, and whose happiness lies, not in doing, but in perceiving–half a poet, half a critic, and all a spectator. (Hawthorne 105)

James identified Coverdale with Hawthorne, suggesting a connection between the bachelor spectator and the author. For James, the bachelor artist bridges contradictions, so that he is both sensible and fanciful, detached but engaged in acts of the imagination, creative and critical, an observer and a poet. The artist finds power in the imagination and his ability to observe the world.

James re-shapes bachelor sentimentalism to develop a realism focused more on perception than plot. In the preface to the New York edition of The Lesson of the Master and Other Tales, James explains that artist stories such as “The Death of the Lion,” “The Aspern Papers,” and “The Lesson of the Master” “deal all with the literary life, gathering their motive, in each case, from some noted adventure, some felt embarrassment, some extreme predicament, of the artist enamoured of perfection, ridden by his idea or paying for sincerity” (viii). James associates the artist with the single-minded quest for the ideal, yet he also exposes the hazards facing this figure, including the popular audience’s ignorance of and disdain for art. Like Melville, James was troubled by the failure of the artist to achieve popular success, but he also contended that focusing on cultivating public favor weakens art: “from the moment a straight dependence on the broad-backed public is a part of the issue, the explicative quantity to be sought is precisely the mood of that monster” (xiv). James argues that the pressure to achieve commercial success demands a narrative strategy that explicates rather than explores or questions. Hence he promotes the militance of a “fine spirit” against “the rule of the cheap and easy” (x), claiming that “the tradition of a high aesthetic temper” offers alternatives to the narrow vulgarity of reality. The bachelor represents this fine spirit and refined aestheticism, since he is identified with idealism, individualism, and the deliberate pursuit of beauty. In his bachelor tales, James treats the distance between the artist’s desire for perfection and the inadequacies of the real world ironically, but the irony functions not so much to dismantle the idealism of the artist as to expose the shortcomings of reality. James prefers “the possible other case, the case rich and edifying where the actuality is pretentious and vain” (ix). In his bachelor tales, then, James emphasizes the power of the imagination to rework the materials of reality into new insights, yet he also worries that the bachelor artist may be either deluding himself or exploiting others.

In “The Lesson of the Master,” James explicitly explores the relationship between bachelorhood and artistic creation. While visiting a country house, Paul Overt, a “young aspirant” and bachelor who has written the critically acclaimed novel Ginistrella (5), meets Marian Fancourt, a sensitive reader and appreciator of literature, and Henry St. George, a once-great author whose recent works reflect failed potential. St. George bears the trappings of success—a country house, a fine carriage, children in elite schools—but he has been forced to compromise his artistic values to support his family’s lifestyle. Rather than incarnating a detached elegance, St. George seems more like an ordinary businessman, married to a woman who “might have been the wife of a gentleman who ‘kept’ books rather than wrote them” (9). James cleverly plays off “keeping” books against writing them, as St. George’s wife demands financial rather than creative success. Appalled by Mrs. St. George’s proud declaration that she has destroyed one of the artist’s manuscripts, Paul cries, “St. George and the Dragon is what the anecdote suggests!” (27). This manuscript seems to symbolize St. George’s ambitions and identity as a writer, since he admits

“Oh yes – it was about myself.” Paul gave an irrepressible groan for the disappearance of such a production, and the elder man went on: “Oh but you should write it–you should do me.” And he pulled up–from the restless motion that had come upon him; his fine smile a generous glare. “There’s a subject, my boy: no end of stuff in it!” (74)

Smudging the lines between authorship and self-creation, St. George indicates that Overt’s role is to write—and live—the promise suggested by the lost manuscript. St. George equates writing and doing, so that literature assumes the force of reality. Like the St. George of legend, who was chopped up into pieces and buried three times, then three times reconstituted by God (Thurston), the author can be re-made through the imagination. Reworking the language of surrogacy that Irving used in imagining his role within the literary inheritance, St. George invites Overt to serve at once as a father and as a son, to become his disciple and to create his potential anew in fiction. Yet James hints that like his “generous glare,” St. George’s motives are ambiguous—potentially openhearted, potentially threatening.

St. George represents the fear that the responsibilities of marriage would force an author to approach fiction-making as a mere trade, where success is measured by pages produced and copies sold rather than by brilliance and beauty. St. George works in a windowless room “walled in to my trade,” standing at his desk like a clerk at a counting house (63). Echoing the common suspicion that women restrict men’s freedom and weaken their creative powers, St. George jokes that he works in a gilded cage controlled by his wife: “Ah we’re practical–we’re practical!… Isn’t it a good big cage for going round and round? My wife invented it and she locks me up here every morning” (62). James exposes a central irony as he makes a case for art that rises above practical concerns: in adopting commercial rather than aesthetic values, St. George has cut himself off from the “real” world and operates in a hermetically sealed environment. His art is derived from fancy (the reveries of a husband?) rather than observation. In his study, “[t]he outer world, the world of accident and ugliness, was so successfully excluded, and within the rich protecting square, beneath the patronising sky, the dream-figures, the summoned company, could hold their particular revel” (64). James inverts Melville’s image of Pierre’s entrapment in bachelorhood by presenting St. George imprisoned by marriage.

If the house of fiction has, as James proposes in the preface to Portrait of a Lady, a million windows out of which readers may peer, the space of St. George’s authorship has no prospects. Hence he cannot create fictions capable of supporting multiple perspectives. Instead, this self-described “successful charlatan” produces artificial works that he calls “cartonpierre,” “Lincrusta-Walton,” and “brummagem” (68).[4] Rather than building a house of fiction, St. George decorates his stultifying room with the ornaments of middle-class life. Speaking the language of interior decoration, St. George compares his work to the papier mache used for architectural decorations, the fake plaster wall covering developed by Frederick Walton as a cheap popular alternative to wood or metal, and cheap, showy imitations. By citing mass-market products that pretend to be something grander, James criticizes writing that makes a claim to be art but is really second-rate.

If the bourgeois home is a fake, love might be the real thing. “The Lesson of the Master” centers on the clash between life and representation, love and art, a conflict represented by both Overt’s and St George’s desire for Marian Fancourt. Looking at Marian, Paul questions his devotion to art over ordinary life, feeling “responsive admiration of the life she embodied, the young purity and richness of which appeared to imply that real success was to resemble that, to live, to bloom, to present the perfection of a fine type, not to have hammered out headachy fancies with a bent back at an ink-stained table” (19). Whereas Marian embodies organic perfection and blossoming, the artist must labor over his inventions, as James echoes Melville in suggesting that true artistic production requires strenuous work. James mixes gendered terms in describing the artist as one who has “headachy fancies” yet also “hammers out” his work at an ink-stained table. For Overt, the choice seems quite literally between a life immersed in actuality, embodied by Miss Fancourt, and a life devoted to art, which requires solitude and quiet contemplation. James poses Overt the idealist against Fancourt the life-force; St. George the slain (or slayer?) represents a failed compromise between the two. Yet when Paul suggests that being an artist is “so poor” in comparison to “being a person of action – as living your works” (22), Marian replies, “”But what’s art but an intense life – if it be real?” (22), echoing Mitchell’s view that the imagination can capture a deeper reality.

In a climatic moment, St. George warns Overt against marrying, claiming that his art will suffer if he worships “false gods… the idols of the market; money and luxury and ‘the world;’ placing one’s children and dressing one’s wife; everything that drives one to the short and easy way” (36). According to St. George, the artist must reject the pursuit of material goods and success and serve as an acolyte to art, diligently laboring in isolation. As St. George explains, he has sacrificed his own powers by “marrying for money”—not because he wed his wife for her wealth, but because he jilted the aesthetic muse for the “mercenary muse whom I led to the altar of literature. Don’t, my boy, put your nose into that yoke. The awful jade will lead you a life!” (67). The commercial muse, James suggests, is a shrew, who limits an artist’s freedom and reduces his talents by entrapping him in a limited view of life. Whereas married men must make compromises, James suggests that the artist sets himself apart from economic demands and social convention to create great art.

As Katherine Snyder argues, “The Lesson of the Master” exposes the competitiveness at the base of the master-apprentice relationship. Paul faces a choice between living a comfortable bourgeois life with wife and family, or an extraordinary life as an artist. If Paul chooses his passion for art over the desire for an ordinary life, St. George promises “my highest appreciation, my devotion” (79), reversing the power relationship and putting himself in the position of reader and disciple. James reworks the idea of sympathy by positioning the artist as a sort of surrogate who lives a life that ordinary people can only approach through reading. Regarding St. George as an ideal reader, Overt proclaims his willingness to commit himself to art in romantic language. As St. George’s challenge “locked his guest a minute as in closed throbbing arms,” Overt replies, “I could do it for one, if you were the one” (66). By admitting his own failures as an artist and urging Overt to avoid making his mistakes, St. George seems to be taking on a fatherly role, living out his dream of artistic perfection through the younger writer. Paul is excited by St. George’s appeal, ostensibly because it cultivates a greater intimacy between the two, but also because it leaves an opening for his own triumph. Although the bachelor artist may seem to withdraw from competition, this detachment often reveals a deeper desire for mastery. Heeding his master’s advice, Overt leaves England and diligently labors in solitude over a new manuscript. In the meantime, St. George’s wife dies and he becomes engaged to Marian. James presents an interpretive puzzle that reflects Overt’s fears: what if St. George duped Overt into devoting himself to art so that he could then court Marian? In marrying Marian, is St. George committing himself to bourgeois husbandhood rather than to art, or is he seeking a new source of energy and inspiration? If Paul is “overt,” open about his desires, St. George seems covert, so that the reader, like Paul, cannot penetrate his mask or know his true motivations.

In the end, James presents a network of selfish sacrifices: Paul has sacrificed Marian to pursue his art, and the Master seems to have sacrificed his art to pursue Marian, since he tells Paul that he has given up writing. In removing Marian as a distraction for Overt, the Master says to Paul that he hopes “I shall be the making of you” (93), as if by dedicating himself to bachelorhood Paul undergoes a second birth into the life of an artist. By carrying off the damsel and making Overt the hero of art, the Master reverses the terms of romance and of artistry, as the father becomes the lover and the youth the creator. James leaves the narrative open-ended: If the Master produces a great work despite having married Marian, then Overt knows that he has been duped. Yet if St. George were to produce a great work, Overt would be the first to appreciate it, “which is perhaps a proof that the Master was essentially right and that Nature had dedicated him to intellectual, not to personal passion” (96). The story turns on the perception of reality, as the reader is left to decide whether bachelorhood is essential to artistic creativity. Hence James brings to the forefront an issue that underlies many antebellum bachelor narratives, examining the links between solitude, perception, and artistic accomplishment.

Even if “Lessons of the Master” seems to suggest that one must be single to be a great artist, the tale opens up the possibility of contradictory interpretations: for instance, perhaps true happiness and understanding can only be found through romantic love, or perhaps the beloved can serve as a muse rather than an inhibitor of creativity. Such ambivalence toward bachelorhood runs throughout James’s bachelor tales of the 1880s and 1890s, perhaps reflecting his own guilt and sense of isolation. For instance, in “The Aspern Papers,” the bachelor scholar who narrates the tale will do almost anything to get his hands on the private papers of the great poet Jeffrey Aspern. When he discovers that an elderly woman owns a cache of Aspern’s personal documents, he pretends to court her unmarried niece so that he can get access to the secret knowledge contained in them. However, he cruelly rejects the niece when he finds that he must marry her to see the documents. The niece turns out to be more crafty than the bachelor narrator suspected, suggesting that bachelors err in assuming that they have the deepest understanding of truth. James thus indicts the bachelor for his selfishness, deceptiveness, and fear of sexuality. Although the bachelor has the leisure and autonomy to devote himself to scholarship and art, James suggests that in the course of a romantic relationship couples can develop a private knowledge. In “The Figure in the Carpet,” for instance, the bachelor narrator cannot discern the hidden meaning in the works of a great author, but his colleague works out the secret and shares it with his wife. The bachelor seems to lack a complete, intersubjective understanding of truth.

James’s variations on the bachelor sketch demonstrate the complete emergence of the bachelor as an important paradigm for the American artist. During the antebellum period, the associations between the artist and the bachelor were implied but not fully articulated, since bachelor sketches of the period imagined authorship more as a leisured pursuit than a professional identity. Sketches, novels, poems, and songs depicted the bachelor as a figure whose lack of economic responsibilities, detached perspective, solitude, avuncular authority, and love of fantasy stimulated literary creativity. Three scenes recur in antebellum bachelor literature and illustrate both why the bachelor was adopted as a narrative persona as well as why this figure was derided. In one scene, the bachelor—perhaps Irving’s Geoffrey Crayon—sits by his window or strolls along the street, spectating on the human drama and providing commentary. In another, a fanciful bachelor like Ik Marvel reclines by his fireside, caught up in a waking dream in which he imagines what could be. In the final scene, we see a bachelor pessimist such as Pierre sulking in a cold chamber, miserable and alone. In each scene, the bachelor is an outsider, but his detached perspective implies different costs and possibilities. As a spectator, the bachelor could observe and report on contemporary culture, but his observations might reflect his own psychological quirks rather than provide accurate insights. As a dreamer, the bachelor could promote the ideal and rhapsodize over beauty, but he risked falling victim to the “Descartian vortices” or the deceptions of the dream. As a solitary sufferer, the bachelor might merit sympathy, but he also illustrated the isolation and misery of not having a family (or, in Pierre’s case, of having fractured relations with family).

As the first chapter suggests, understanding the bachelor requires recognizing the ways that this figure both challenged binaries and occupied a conflicted, changing position in antebellum culture. Whether a deluded narcissist or exemplar of single blessedness, the bachelor represented an alternative to the normative male identity of worker, father, and husband. Whereas the second chapter shows the cultural and personal reasons why the bachelor pose enabled Washington Irving to imagine himself as an author, the chapter on Ik Marvel focuses on reader response to explain why works such as Reveries of a Bachelor were so popular and influential. Yet even as authors such as Irving adopted the bachelor mask to work out their own sense of disenfranchisement and insight, and even as readers embraced dreaming bachelors such as Ik Marvel for articulating their own fantasies, some contended that the bachelor was an inadequate model for the artist. In Melville’s works post-Reveries of a Bachelor, he ridicules the Marvelous dreaming bachelor for evading social responsibility, getting caught up in false dreams, missing out on concrete, complex human experiences, and producing genteel, empty art. Underlying these representations of bachelorhood is a larger discussion of the function of the male artist in antebellum society: is he supposed to serve as a spectator? To articulate beautiful dreams? To describe how things really are? To be a man of leisure or a professional?

By the end of the century, the bachelor persona breaks out of a sub-genre of sentimental literature and become important to imagining the alienated or psychologically complex artist. Except for Pierre, none of the bachelor figures I have studied describe themselves as authors; rather, they pose as spectators, dreamers, or idle scribblers. Pierre’s anguished case illustrates the almost Titanic difficulty of declaring oneself an author in antebellum America, given the competing demands of the market, family responsibilities, and the perception that romantic authors articulated idiosyncratic, possibly crazy, visions. Most of the literary bachelors that I focus on appear either in sentimental sketches or in more extended satires such as Pierre and The Blithedale Romance. By the end of the century, the bachelor was frequently thought of as an individual devoted to pleasure, art, and self-culture, and the identity was extended to women as well as men. Even though James was himself a bachelor, late nineteenth-century bachelor narratives focused less on the travails of writers in achieving authorship and more on the narrative possibilities opened up by the often-unreliable bachelor narrator. In a sense, the bachelor persona at the end of the century represents a fusion of prior models. The detached, ironic, sentimental perspective of Geoffrey Crayon is brought together with the idealism and aesthetic temperament of Ik Marvel, yet Melville’s suspicion about the bachelor’s veracity also infuses this figure. Even as the bachelor’s independence and imaginativeness fuel art, modernist and pre-modernist narratives also probe the bachelor’s motivations and misapprehensions, so that the psychology of the bachelor becomes an important part of the narrative. What if the storyteller is deluded, or even trying to dupe the audience? What can be gleaned by seeing from a detached perspective, through the eyes of a Nick Carraway or a Jake Barnes? What are the underlying sexual motivations of these characters? Such questions are approached with greater self-consciousness by the end of the century.


[1] For more on aestheticism in turn-of-the-century America, see May Warner Blanchard’s Oscar Wilde’s America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age; for more on aestheticism, see Christine Stansell’s American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century.[2] Cited by Sealts, “Reception of the Short Fiction,” 234; quotations taken from James’s “American Letters,” Literature (London) 2 (11 June 1898), 676-677, as quoted in George Monteiro, “More on Herman Melville in the 1890’s,” Extracts/ An Occasional Newsletter (The Melville Society), no 30 (May 1977), p. 14.

[3] The bachelor also became an important to the emerging medium of film, as audiences peered into bachelor apartments or laughed at the ironic fates of bachelors who become lovers or fathers. The Internet Movie Database lists over 50 films with “bachelor” in the title, including A Crusty Old Bachelor (1899), A Fascinating Bachelor (1911), A Bachelor Husband (1920), The Bachelor Daddy (1922), The Bachelor’s Baby, or How It All Happened (1913), The Bachelor’s Club (1921), and A Bachelor’s Love Story (1914). Female bachelors also attracted notice, as evinced by the films Hot Afternoon in a Bachelor Girl’s Flat (1898), The Bachelor Girl (1929), Biography of a Bachelor Girl (1935), and Bachelor Mother (1933).

[4] “Brummagem” also calls to mind slavery, given that the word is derived from the British city Birmingham, where cheap trinkets were produced to be used in trading goods for slaves.

Chapter 4: Melville’s Symposium on the Bachelor

In the opening pages of Reveries of a Bachelor, Donald Grant Mitchell spins out a fantasy of a bachelor’s paradise inspired by Melville’s Typee (1846): “Shall this brain of mine, careless-working, never tired with idleness, feeding on long vagaries, and high, gigantic castles, dreaming out beatitudes by the hour—turn itself at length to such dull task-work, as thinking out a livelihood for wife and children?… Can any family purse be better filled than the exceeding plump one you dream of after reading such pleasant books as Munchausen or Typee?” (Reveries 10,11). Although some antebellum critics criticized Melville and called him “Munchausen” for passing off an extravagantly false narrative as truth (Charvat 216), Mitchell rhapsodizes over his power to imagine a male paradise devoted to pleasure and dreaming. By invoking Munchausen and Typee, Mitchell promotes idealism and offers the bachelor’s fantasizing and rambling as alternatives to bourgeois productivity. Likewise, the nineteenth-century “common reader” identified Melville “as a free-wheeling bachelor-sailor with a gift for narrative” (Charvat 263).

Although readers of Melville’s early works associated him with bachelorhood, his own attitudes toward the bachelor were more complicated. Whereas Mitchell casts the bachelor as a dreamer full of feeling, Melville exposes the emptiness and narcissism of bachelor dreams in fictions of the 1850s such as Pierre and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” Melville hinted at his disdain by naming two fictional ships after the bachelor figure. One, the Bachelor (from Moby-Dick), represents the errors of materialism, while the other, the Bachelor’s Delight (from “Benito Cereno”), reveals the falsities of idealism. As the Pequod cruises towards its tragic confrontation with Moby-Dick, it encounters the Bachelor, a ship bound for its home port of Nantucket. The Bachelor is bursting with sperm, which spills out of barrels, sailors’ chests, coffee pots, and any other available vessel. On the Bachelor’s decks mates dance with Polynesian women who have eloped with them. While the Bachelor’s captain watches the spectacle in amusement, Ahab scowls in “gloom”: “as the two ships crossed each other’s wakes—one all jubilation for things passed, the other all forebodings as to things to come—their two captains in themselves impersonated the whole striking contrast of the scene” (451-52). Whereas Ahab is determinedly pursuing his quest of Moby-Dick “against all natural lovings and longings” for his wife and child (493), the captain of the Bachelor professes not to “believe in him at all” (452). Two world-views run in opposite directions: the monomania of the husband who abjures family in pursuit of his quest, and the frivolity of the bachelor Bachelor captain who rejects mystery and floats on proven success. Here, the Bachelor presents the figure of sensualism and materialism. In “Benito Cereno,” however, Melville criticizes idealism by dubbing the ship captained by the naively charitable, blindly racist Delano the Bachelor’s Delight. Whereas the Bachelor treats life as a party, the Bachelor’s Delight embodies a superficial benevolence and the ignorant assumption that the real world matches Captain Delano’s idealized sense of order.

These two ships of fools represent the poles of a common epistemological problem: one navigates the world through frivolous indulgence while the other sails on abstract sympathy, neither fully committed to creativity and truth. By presenting two models of the bachelor, the active sensualist and the brooding idealist, Melville criticizes the failure to wed conflicting aspects of humanity, body and mind, real and ideal. As John Wenke observes, Melville “tends to celebrate the human need to forge a balance between experiential and intellectual extremes, to accommodate disparate possibilities for selfhood, to maintain flexibility and freedom within limits prescribed by natural existence” (“Ontological” 587). One of the chief ways that Melville explores this dichotomy is through the bachelor. Just as the dandy can “teach us of sudden metamorphoses” (Feldman 270), one might expect Melville to treat the bachelor as a figure of openness, flux, and experimentation, given the bachelor’s tendency toward reverie and lack of solid commitments. Instead, Melville associates the literary bachelor with a selfish, foolish absolutism, a tragic failure to reconcile imagination and experience

Most of Melville’s protagonists are single men, including Typee’s Tommo, Redburn, White Jacket, Ishmael, Mardi’s Tajii, Pierre, and Billy Budd’s Captain Vere. However, he reserves the term “bachelor” not for rovers such as Ishmael and Tommo, but for selfish authority figures like Redburn’s Captain Riga or superficial scholars like the narrator of “Bartleby.”[1] While Melville’s early work betrays his ambivalence toward the bachelor, from Pierre forward he undercuts the bachelor figure to repudiate the idealism promoted in works such as Mitchell’s Reveries of a Bachelor. Conscious of the stereotype of the detached, leisured “old bachelor,” Melville uses “bachelor” to signify a mental attitude based upon privilege, artificiality, and deliberate ignorance of the broader social world. While young rovers such as Ishmael and Tommo pursue social (and sometimes sexual) relationships, Melville’s bachelor often isolates himself from society, lacks the broader sympathy that enables him to look beyond his own limited perceptions, and produces shallow, derivative texts.

Critics have noted Melville’s frequent use of the bachelor, but have not yet offered a full analysis of its significance. For instance, Laurie Robinson-Lorant contends that “Redburn is one of Melville’s ‘bachelors,’ a man whose limited exposure to real life and privileged position in society blind him to the moral complexities of life,” emphasizing the bachelor’s elitism and obtuseness (207). Likewise, Robert K. Martin argues that Melville uses bachelors “to suggest the removal of the individual from the world of social relationships, from Ahab’s ‘inter-indebtedness.’ As bachelors, they inhabit a sterile world in which work leads to no creativity” (Hero 105). Merton Sealts observes that “From at least the time of Mardi, undertaken not long after his own marriage, Melville had repeatedly used bachelors—bachelors and sophomores—as his favorite examples of pleasure-loving immaturity and naivete, as yet untouched by misfortune” (159). Associating the bachelor with middle age rather than youth, Michael Davitt Bell argues that “Melville’s typical persona in the short fiction of the 1850s is an unambitious middle-aged bachelor” (214) and connects this persona to moral blindness, the lack of self-awareness, and the failure of revolutionary ideology. As astute as Martin, Robinson-Lora, Sealts, and Bell are in claiming that Melville uses the bachelor to reveal the problems of blindness, withdrawal, and privilege, they make these observations only in passing, declining to explore how or why Melville develops his criticisms of bachelorhood. This chapter seeks to understand Melville’s complex attitudes toward the bachelor figure by considering his work of the 1850s (post-Reveries of a Bachelor) in relation to the antebellum literature of bachelorhood as well as to his views on art and the artist. Through his frequent references to Plato’s Symposium and to Greek myth, Melville suggests the importance of eros in shaping art and repudiates a dualism that values the ideal over the real.

By rejecting the bachelor, Melville repudiated the strategy that some masculine sentimentalists used to deal with the American bias against fiction. As we have seen, antebellum American authors faced “a hostile climate, a climate in which the fictionality of fiction was accentuated and condemned” (Bell 14). By posing as a genteel bachelor observer who lacked artistic ambition, Irving rendered his writing harmless. Mitchell more actively justified fantasy by focusing it on the home and infusing it with sentiment, crafting a bachelor speaker who was intimate yet detached. However, Melville evinced greater ambivalence toward both dreaming and the bachelor dreamer. In plunging into Mardi, he declared to his publisher his intention to “out with the Romance, & let me say that instincts are prophetic, & better than acquired wisdom” (Correspondence 106). Even as Melville proclaimed the superiority of imagination and instinct, he acknowledged that fantasy can lead to error, writing that “Things visible are but the conceits of the eye: things imaginative, conceits of fancy. If duped by one, we are equally duped by the other” (qtd. by Charvat 216). In his fiction of the 1850s, Melville wrestled with the problem of how we know what we think we know, making the bachelor embody the errors of philosophical idealism.

In Mardi (1849), Melville imagines what would happen if a bachelor ran the kingdom, centering government on his own fantasies and pleasures rather than the common good. Through his satire of Abrazza, the “care-free bachelor” and king (588), Melville exposes the hypocrisy and emptiness of the bachelor sensibility, ostensibly sympathetic but fundamentally driven by the selfish desire for power and pleasure at the expense of others. Abrazza demands that his subjects endanger themselves by diving for pearls to decorate his “royal robe,” promising to bestow his pity on those who are injured even as he belittles their pain: “He vows he’ll have no cares; and often says, in pleasant reveries,–‘Sure, my lord Abrazza, if any one should be care-free, ‘tis thou; who strike down none, but pity all the fallen!’ Yet none he lifteth up!” (589). Perhaps using this “king-philosopher” (589) to satirize Plato’s philosopher-kings in the Republic (Sealts 288), Melville shows that Abrazza’s “hollow” kingdom is a built around fantasy and supreme ego (590), thus illustrating the dangers of absolute idealism (and absolute power). Frequently in reverie, the bachelor king removes himself from real problems, disdaining those who do not feed his fantasy. Not only is Abrazza cruel, but he also lacks the ability to comprehend inspiration, genius, and art. When he discusses the author Lombardo with Babbalanja, Abrazza betrays a simplistic view of the writing act, contending that it involves no real labor, that authors must be motivated by wine or money, and that literary works must be “unified” (597). As Charvat contends, “Against the Abrazzas of the world the writer must put up defenses” (229). Abrazza embodies the errors of sensual idealism, whereby the dreamer claims to be reaching for the ideal but really seeks to serve his own selfish needs.

Melville commonly links the bachelor and idealism, especially in works published after Reveries of a Bachelor (1850). In Moby-Dick, Melville acknowledges both the allure and the danger of the bachelor’s penchant for fantasizing. In “The Mast Head,” Ishmael describes “romantic,” “melancholy” young philosophers gazing down at the sea from their celestial perches:

those young Platonists have a notion that their vision is imperfect; they are short-sighted; what use, then, to strain the visual nerve? They have left their opera-glasses at home… lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadences of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature… But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. (152)

Here Melville seems to satirize two of Donald Grant Mitchell’s works— Lorgnette, in which the keen-eyed bachelor scrutinizes the crowd through his opera glasses, and Reveries of a Bachelor, in which the sentimental bachelor rhapsodizes over the pleasures of fantasy. As John Wenke argues, this passage illustrates “the incompatibility of philosophical idealism and workaday actuality” (“Ontological” 586), as dreamers and philosophers get pulled into the mystical and are then drowned by reality. Even as Melville acknowledges the seductiveness of reverie, he differentiates the self-aware Ishmael from the dreaming bachelors.

In Moby-Dick’s “Squeeze of the Hand” scene, Melville articulates the conflict between the tender merging of bachelor brotherhood and the more “objective,” rational life of the husband. In a moment of homoerotic sexual communion, the sailors together squeeze lumps of sperm from the whale carcass, sometimes grabbing each others’ hands and enjoying “abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling” (385). Yet Ishmael concedes that such fantastic bliss can only be temporary:

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hand in a jar of spermaceti. (385)

As he suggests that the immersive sexuality of this scene must be displaced by the concreteness of marriage, where everything has its place, Melville sounds a note of resignation. Although Ishmael finds the homoeroticism and idealism of the scene enticing, Melville suggests that the productive sexuality of marriage—based upon stable things rather than fleeting feelings and abstract ideas—ultimately wins out. According to Merton Sealts, here Ishmael registers his “repudiation of the Platonic scale of values” by shifting “from the realm of intellect to the realm of tangible entities” (310). Yet the passage is more ambivalent than Sealts suggests, since Melville wistfully describes the allure of idealism and sexual communion even as he acknowledges its impermanence and the impossibility of fulfillment.

In examining Melville’s relationship to sentimental culture and idealism, I focus on selected bachelor works from his middle- and late-periods. Critics such as Ann Douglas, Richard Brodhead, and Samuel Otter have noted that Melville shifted his strategies, style, and purposes when he wrote Pierre (1852), attacking the sentimental culture that he associated with his own failures in the literary marketplace. I treat Pierre as a troubled parody of the sentimental novel, “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” as a sly revision of an Irvingesque tale of a traveler, and “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilacs” as a poetic revamping of Irving’s classic tale that asserts the importance of contingency and accident in artistic creation and appreciation. Despite differences in style, genre, and tone, these works all make use of the bachelor to repudiate idealism, to satirize sentimentalism, and to criticize the model of the artist as detached dreamer.

Marrying the Ambiguities: Pierre and the Bachelor Artist

Prometheus was a bachelor.–Kafka

When Melville heard that his friend Charles Fenno Hoffman, an author and editor, had been committed to an insane asylum, he suggested that his status as a bachelor and an artist had contributed to his insanity: “he was just the man to go mad—imaginative, voluptuously inclined, poor, unemployed, in the race of life distanced by his inferiors, unmarried,–without a port or haven in the universe to make…”(Correspondence 128). Inventorying the qualities typically associated with the bachelor artist, Melville contends that a man is more susceptible to madness if he rejects the bourgeois values of work, family, and home, which anchor him to reality. Yet Melville also acknowledges that “he who has never felt, momentarily, what madness is has but a mouthful of brains” (128), asserting that the imagination can plunge a person into a “riot” of maddening dreams as well as stimulate philosophical insights. Even though Melville embraced the power of the imagination, writing in Moby-Dick that “man’s insanity is heaven’s sense”(383), he also believed that the imagination “clearly undermined conventional conceptions of reality, including the distinction between imagination and judgment” (Bell 146). Pierre was cited by reviewers as evidence of Melville’s own poor aesthetic judgment, even insanity; one critic asserted that “his fancy is diseased, his morality vitiated, his style nonsensical and ungrammatical, and his characters as far removed from our sympathies as they are from nature” (The American Whig Review, November 1852, qtd. in Melville Log 464). I suggest that, rather than exposing Melville’s “diseased fancy,” Pierre reflects how Melville employed the bachelor stereotype as a way to explore what makes the fancy diseased.

Pierre charts the ironic slide of the bachelor from light-hearted swain to tortured prophet and finally to mad nihilist, exposing the sexual tensions, philosophical errors, and elitist assumptions that contribute to this descent. In writing Pierre, Melville claimed to be crafting a book that was, as he told his publisher Bentley, “very much more calculated for popularity than anything you have yet published of mine—being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, & stirring passions at work” (Correspondence 226). Moreover, as Melville advised Sophia Hawthorne, in Pierre, “a rural bowl of milk” (Correspondence 219), he aimed to please a female audience. Yet Pierre, which sold only 1856 copies over 35 years (Charvat 249), is more a bowl of curdled milk, with its clotted language and sour plots of incest, murder, suicide, and artistic failure. In attempting to produce a work that would appeal to the popular audience, Melville ended up intensifying what William Charvat calls his “conflict with his readers” (204), troubled by the conditions of popular success and by the demands of sentimental culture. As Melville famously declared to Hawthorne, “Dollars damn me… 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” (Correspondence 191).

Frustrated by the seeming impossibility of meeting his artistic ambitions, Melville lashed out at American literary culture as well as at the reading public. In a chapter titled “Young America in Literature,” Melville lampoons critics for valuing “Perfect Taste” and respectability over originality and vision, publishers for regarding books merely as products to be marketed, female readers for treating Pierre as a pawn in parlor society, and men’s literary societies for celebrating fame rather than genius. As Ann Douglas argues, “Melville presents a savage study of the conspirational interaction between genteel religion, feminine morality, and polite literature against the interests of genuine masculinity” (294). Yet Pierre’s grand ambitions are treated as savagely as the superficiality of readers, as Melville reveals “the everlasting elusiveness of truth; the universal insincerity of even the greatest and purest written thoughts” (Pierre 339). Citing such statements, many critics contend that Pierre marks a turning point in Melville’s career because he seemed to surrender the hope of coherence. Analyzing Melville’s attempt to write a sentimental romance that would attract a popular audience, Richard Brodhead argues that Pierre represents Melville’s “ambivalence, his desire both to make use of this genre and to assert his independence from it” (Hawthorne 164). According to Michael Rogin, in writing Pierre Melville moved away from writing romances animated by closely observed detail to authoring surreal, formalist fictions built around binaries. Focusing on Pierre’s distorted, incoherent style, Samuel Otter argues that Melville rejected the possibility of breaking outside of subjectivity. Building upon these arguments about the ambivalence and incoherence of Pierre, I suggest that Melville’s turn toward explicitly bachelor narratives exposes his frustrations towards artists, the making of art, and, indeed, the work of art itself, frustrations that are funneled through the figure of a male dreamer.

Subtitled The Ambiguities, Pierre focuses on problems of epistemology, the difficulty of knowing what is true and understanding how we know (Sealts 321). Pierre breaks his engagement to Lucy so that he can pretend to be the spouse of his supposed half-sister Isabel, creating a world of artifice and lies. If, as Katherine Snyder argues, literary bachelors are “threshold figures” who expose the tensions in discourses of masculinity, domesticity, and artistic production (7), then Pierre represents these tensions to an exaggerated degree. Wobbling at the ever-shifting center of the novel, Pierre is pulled by an overwhelming array of opposed forces: dark lady vs. fair angel, mother vs. father, consumption vs. production, patriarchal inheritance vs. democratic self-making, genteel vs. professional authorship, and the “perfect ideal” vs. “the miserable written attempt at embodying it” (273). Initially a caricature of the pastoral swain, Pierre becomes a multifaceted oxymoron—an innocent sinner, a near-blind visionary, a loving murderer, a bachelor husband. Failed artifice illustrates the incoherence of language and character—for example, the deceptive letters of Glen, the seductive music of Isabel, the hollow philosophy of Plinlimmon, the terrifying painting of Beatrice Cenci and the false painting of Pierre’s father, and Pierre’s failed masterwork. As a painful meditation on the deceptions of art, Pierre is itself slippery and duplicitous, allowing the reader no comfortable resolution.

As Hershel Parker and many others have noted, Pierre seems disrupted, even bifurcated, by the section on “Young America in Literature,” which appears just after the protagonist has fled his patriarchal estate and arrived in the city to create a new life. According to Parker, in its original form Pierre lacked these sections and was more symmetrical in its construction, so his Kraken edition omits them altogether (xi). Yet these chapters provide an important point of transition where the novel shifts from focusing on the perversions of love to a disturbed analysis of the delusions of artistic ambition. Gillian Brown rightly suggests that at this point the novel switches from a parody of the family novel to an exploration of literary individualism, but she misjudges the significance of this transition (135). Rather than, as Brown argues, endorsing the autonomous masculine author freed from domesticity, Melville treats this figure with ambivalence, as he reveals the impossibility of avoiding domesticity and the foolishness of the bachelor’s self-centered perspective. As Tara Penry argues, Melville presents two dominant models of manhood in Pierre: romantic manhood, which implies rebellion against patriarchy and the resulting attempt to create oneself anew, and sentimental manhood, which is built on the formation of relationships and the clasping of hands. By comparing bachelors to Titans, Melville suggests that bachelorhood constitutes a lonely rejection of sentimental manhood, no matter how much the bachelor tries to compensate for this lack of connection through dreaming. Yet romantic manhood—the solitary struggling of Pierre—leads to defeat and misery. Through his portrait of the artist, Melville illustrates the failings of American literary culture, which is divided between the shallow gentility of Pierre the juvenile author and the Platonic hubris of the Apostle Pierre.

Like Reveries of a Bachelor, which had been published only two years earlier, Pierre presents a bachelor as its protagonist and examines dreaming, detachment, and the analogy between writing and character. Rather than using a whimsical, garrulous first person narrator such as Ik Marvel or Ishmael, Melville employs an ambiguous third-person narrator, who announces the impossibility of understanding “the confusions and confoundings in the soul of Pierre” (171) and declares him a victim of “Civilization, Philosophy, Ideal Virtue!”(302). Whereas many readers regarded Ik Marvel as a sentimental exemplar for his flowery effusions over imagined loves, Melville’s nightmares of the bachelor picture the decline of a man who rejects marriage, is tormented by seemingly irreconcilable conflicts, invents a “blasphemous rhapsody” (356), and ends up declaring himself to be neuter. Exposing the ironic underside of the sentimental bachelor, Melville shows that his idealism is narcissistic and deluded, his detachment leads to isolation and self-righteousness, his spectating reflects back his own sinfulness, and his art is impotent.

The Broken Engagement Plot

Typically the marriage plot resolves conflict and integrates the characters into a harmonious family. However, as befits a novel so troubled by ambiguity, Pierre refuses the happy ending, focusing instead on fractured ambitions and failed union (Otter 239). Reversing the narrative trajectory of a comedy or romance, the novel begins happily, with Pierre and Lucy swearing their “boundless admiration and love” (4). Of course, as James Creech argues, Melville ultimately attacks the normative family, depicting the mother as a Gorgon, the father as a liar, the “sister” as a manipulator, the cousin as a competitor, and the girlfriend as a threat despite her seeming innocence (84). Yet it is Pierre’s ironic decision to pose as a husband while remaining a bachelor that obstructs the happy ending and brings about the disintegration of his family. Melville insists

that not always doth life’s beginning gloom conclude in gladness; that wedding-bells peal not ever in the last scene of life’s fifth act… yet the profounder emanations of the human mind, intended to illustrate all that can be humanly known of human life; these never unravel their own intricacies, and have no proper endings; but in imperfect, unanticipated, and disappointing sequels (as mutilated stumps), hurry to abrupt intermergings with the eternal tides of time and fate. (141)

By rejecting the conventional ending of a wedding, Melville instead builds a “profounder” novel around bachelorhood, which is a state of incompletion, a union yet to be made. As he inverts the marriage plot, Melville takes the bachelor narrative to an exaggerated and ironic end, emphasizing the bachelor’s isolation despite the sentimental presence of surrogate sister-wives, his blindness despite his visionary impulses, and the impotence of his art in spite of his paternal ambitions. In Pierre, love is distorted by incest, illegitimate birth, fear of sexuality, jealousy, and celibacy. None of these relationships result in legitimate offspring, and each, in its way, exposes the falsity behind the “smoothness and genteelness of the sentiments and fancies expressed” in Pierre’s works as a juvenile author (245), thus undercutting the conventions of sentimental fiction.

What disrupts the marriage plot is Pierre’s discovery of his apparent half-sister Isabel. Ironically, Pierre had fantasized that the brother/sister relationship would serve as a prototype for the tender balance of marriage:

So perfect to Pierre had long seemed the illuminated scroll of his life thus far, that only one hiatus was discovered by him in that sweetly-writ manuscript. A sister had been omitted from the text…. He who is sisterless, is as a bachelor before his time. For much that goes to make up the deliciousness of a wife, already lies in the sister. (7)

Melville mocks Pierre’s naiveté on two levels: first, his notion that the relationship between siblings parallels that of spouses, and second, his assumption that life unfolds like a novel (although in this case of course he is correct, given that Pierre is a fictional character caught in the convoluted plot of a novel). As we have seen, conventional views identified marriage with a harmonizing of masculine and feminine, but the fake marriage between Pierre and Isabel upsets this balance. The sibling bond is more ambiguous than marriage; brother and sister are made from the same but different stuff. Although Pierre thinks of his life proceeding as a “sweetly writ” romantic narrative, Melville exposes the weak foundations of such sentimental stories, as Isabel introduces both “Tartarean misery and Paradisiac beauty” into his life (43).

If the life of the Glendinning scion Pierre has been on the surface a well-structured narrative, the orphan Isabel’s life is an incoherent manuscript. As she appeals to Pierre for sympathy, Isabel cries, “Oh, my dear brother—Pierre! Pierre!—could’st thou take out my heart, and look at it in thy hand, then thou would’st find it all over written, this way and that, and crossed again, and yet again, with continual lines of longings, that found no end but in suddenly calling thee” (158). To describe the incoherence of Isabel’s character and the deceptions of sentimental communication, Melville compares her heart to a constantly revised manuscript. By associating his characters with texts, Melville reveals the essential problem that Pierre probes: the difficulty of literary expression constrained by artificial genres, the limitations of the imagination and intellect to discern truth, and the ambiguity of moral action.

(Per)versions of the Author

Just as the first half of the novel catalogs the ironies of love, so the second half satirizes different approaches to artistic creation. Pierre depicts five models of authorship, all of which are associated with the bachelor: the male sentimentalist, the naïve idealist, the greedy producer and consumer of commodities, the nihilist, and the deluded prophet. Initially Pierre appears as a sentimental bachelor:

For even at that early time in his authorial life, Pierre, however vain of his fame, was not at all proud of his paper. Not only did he make allumettes of his sonnets when published, but was very careless about his discarded manuscripts; they were to be found lying all round the house; gave a great deal of trouble to the housemaids in sweeping; went for kindlings to the fires; and were forever flitting out of the windows, and under the door-sills, into the faces of people passing the manorial mansion. In this reckless, indifferent way of his, Pierre himself was a sort of publisher. (263)

Like Irving’s Pindar Cockloft, Pierre “publishes” by letting his papers scatter about the house, and like Ik Marvel he turns the proceeds and products of his authorship into cigars, as the production of literature becomes like reverie, pleasing yet quick to vanish in smoke. A sentimentalist, the leisured author prefers to operate in the ethereal realm of ideas instead of the physical world of concrete objects. Rather than autographing young ladies’ albums, he “kiss[es] lipographs upon them,” since “actual feeling is better than transmitted sight” (251). Such statements echo Donald Grant Mitchell’s pronouncement that the dream is superior to reality. Embracing abstraction, the juvenile author refuses to commit himself to a single image; his autographs lack uniformity (253), and he declines to have a Daguerreotype taken, since “instead of… immortalizing a genius, a portrait now only dayalized a dunce” (254). According to Gillian Brown, Pierre’s avoidance of fame illuminates Melville’s hostility toward domesticity and the market (141-43). At another level, Melville satirizes the hazy idealism of male sentimentalists by mocking Pierre’s reluctance to allow his “genius” be captured in a physical form, whether an autograph or a photograph. Since Pierre’s own identity shifts with his emotions, no fixed icon can capture his essence.

To expose the failings of naïve idealism, Melville focuses on Pierre’s neighbors at the Apostles, a former church and lawyers’ office building that has become a haven for intellectuals and artists. Echoing his warnings against reverie in Moby-Dick, Melville characterizes the writers and philosophers who live at the Apostles as fools: “But these poor, penniless devils still strive to make ample amends for their physical forlornness, by resolutely reveling in the region of blissful ideals.… Often groping in vain in their pockets, they can not but give in to the Descartian vortices” (267). As David Leonard explains, Melville uses the vortex to represent a hell of meaningless, inexorable circular motion that pulls all in, so that transcendental faith in the imagination spins into pessimistic mechanism. Even the most inspiring ideas cannot satisfy a gnawing hunger, as Melville insists that the bachelor Apostles must operate within the constraints of the physical world.

Whereas the idealistic Apostles attempt to deny physical reality, the professional author focuses on the production and consumption of material goods, treating ideas as tokens that can be bought and sold. When he moves to the city and realizes that he must support the tangible needs of his household, Pierre decides to subject himself to the “metamorphosing mill” (246) of publication and commits himself to “literary enterprise” (285). Yet despite—indeed, because of—his labor over his writing, Pierre does not fit the mold of the professional author, since his aspirations go beyond just churning out pages for profit. While Pierre struggles over the dilemma that dogged Melville, the clash between “the burning desire to deliver what he thought to be new, or at least miserably neglected Truth to the world; and the prospective menace of being absolutely penniless” (Correspondence 283), the bachelor Charlie Millthorpe stands for a false compromise. Like a mill (hence his name), the “sophomorean” Millthorpe rapidly manufactures faux-philosophical works: “peculiar secret, theologoico-politico-social schemes of the masonic order of the seedy-coated Apostles; and pursuing some crude, transcendental Philosophy, for both a contributory means of support, as well as for his complete intellectual aliment” (276, 280). A genial scrivener, Millthorpe produces texts more to satisfy his appetites than to disseminate truth.

Whereas the hack writer Millthorpe focuses on production (of writing) and consumption (of the goods brought in through his literary efforts), the nihilist gives out nothing. Plinlimmon, the false prophet whose pamphlet haunts Pierre, embodies the emptiness of a philosophy that passively negates rather than confronts or resolves conflicts. Plinlimmon projects an attitude of “non-Benevolence”—not actively evil, but devoid of goodness (290). Just as some bachelors are defined by their renunciation of marriage and family, their deliberate embrace of nothing, so Plinlimmon negates affection, effort, or imagination: “He seemed to have no family or blood ties of any sort. He never was known to work with his hands; never to write with his hands (he would not even write a letter); he never was known to open a book. There were no books in his chambers” (290). In describing Plinlimmon’s separation from family or work, two defining spheres of nineteenth-century America, the narrator links his isolation with his unwillingness to read or write. If Plinlimmon is neither a reader nor a writer, he is all the more inscrutable, since Melville often presents character in relation to text.

Not only does Plinlimmon negate personal feeling, but he also seems to project nothing in others. The scene in which Pierre stares at Plinlimmon through a window reprises a common moment in bachelor literature, where the single man surveys life from his perch in the garret. But in Melville’s version of the scene, Plinlimmon, another bachelor spectator, stares back, so that Pierre is both looking and looked at. Rather than escaping from his own subjectivity through his window-sill reveries, Pierre receives a shocking vision of his own isolation. Pierre fears that the philosopher of nothing acts both as a microscope, scrutinizing his lies and sins, and a mirror, reflecting his emptiness. At this moment, Melville hints that Plinlimmon’s nihilism and Pierre’s idealism are intimately related. Through his utter failure to relate or react to what he observes, the fraudulent philosopher challenges the very foundations of sentimental literature: “For that face did not respond to anything…. If to affirm, be to expand one’s isolated self; and if to deny, be to contract one’s isolated self; then to respond is a suspension of all isolation” (293). Plinlimmon embodies complete detachment without any possibility of intimacy or sympathetic response.

In contrast to Plinlimmon’s complete passivity, Pierre aims to produce “some thoughtful thing of absolute Truth” (283). In reaching for divine truth, Pierre begins to think of himself as a prophet, declaring, “Isabel, I will write such things—I will gospelize the world anew, and show them deeper secrets than the Apocalypse!” (273). So great is his ambition that he believes he must abandon family relations, commanding Isabel to “Call me brother no more!” (273). Sadly, the narrator reveals Pierre to be a deluded prophet, characterizing him as an immature author attempting a mature work (282). Pierre resembles a prophet only in his asceticism, as he denies himself food and warmth while he labors in an unheated room that contains “an indigent bachelor’s pallet,” a crude desk made out of a board on two barrels, and little else (270). Through his excruciating description of the physical deprivations and emotional anguish associated with authorship, Melville undermines Pierre’s idealism and repudiates the assumption implicit in bachelor literature that writing consists of leisurely dreaming.

According to the knowing narrator, Pierre’s failures result from his rigid subjectivity, exaggerated ambitions, and deliberate isolation. By undermining Pierre’s perception of himself as a prophet, Melville dispels Platonic idealism, which, as we saw in Chapter 1, was frequently associated with the bachelor. “[S]illy” Charlie Millthorpe echoes this association by claiming Plato as the predecessor to the modern artist (338): “The great men are all bachelors, you know. Their family is the universe: I should say the planet Saturn was their elder son; and Plato their uncle” (281). By constructing this absurd genealogy, Melville parodies both the view of artistic tradition as smooth patriarchal succession and the assumption that the bachelor serves the greater good because he is not bound to a single family.[2] As the Titan Kronos in Greek myth, Saturn castrated and overthrew his father Ouranos to become king of the gods. To preserve his power, he consumed his own children, but his wife and sister Rhea (aka Ops) tricked him into swallowing a stone rather than his son Zeus, who ultimately revolted against his father and exiled him to Tartarus. Bachelor creators are likewise overthrown by artists of the next generation, so their godlike aspirations to negate family and assume power are thwarted.

Although Pierre aspires to become like a god through his authorship, he becomes instead a monstrous failure, a chastened Titan. As he labors over his book, Pierre “began to feel that in him, the thews of a Titan were forestallingly cut by the scissors of Fate” (339). The conditions of authorship and the “everlasting elusiveness of Truth” cripple and mock him (339). Indeed, in his “unnatural struggle” to produce a great work (340), Pierre becomes like the earth-born giant Enceladus, a monstrous product of incest whose rebellion against the gods fails: “still, though armless, resisting with his whole striving trunk… still turning his unconquerable front toward that majestic mount eternally in vain assailed by him” (345). Enceladus’s chastened defiance reflects Pierre’s own failures, as he is “mutilated,” “distorted,” “impotent,” and “shamefully recumbent” (345-6). By making Enceladus an icon of Pierre, Melville warns against men attempting to make themselves gods, since such celestial aspirations can only lead to monstrous “botches” and misery (Correspondence 191).

By dubbing Plato the bachelors’ uncle, Melville satirizes the association of the bachelor with the avuncular activity of philosophizing, questioning Pierre’s naïve attempt to produce “some thoughtful thing of absolute Truth” (283). Melville suggests that true art depends on the marriage of reality and the ideal rather than the subjective isolation of the artist. What most troubles Pierre is the conflict between soul and world, as he juxtaposes the Sermon on the Mount’s description of how the world should be with reality as experienced through the senses. Hence “the world seems to lie saturated and soaking with lies” (208). In responding to this clash, he can, like “good and wise people,” accept that despite all of the lies “there is much truth in this world,” succumb to pessimism or nihilism, turn to philosophy for truth, or rebel against the world’s lies and create his own truths (208). Ultimately Pierre chooses to reject the phenomenal world, instead diving into philosophy and becoming, in effect, a modern-day Titan. Still, Melville’s narrator disparages philosophy, calling Plato, Spinoza, and Goethe “self-impostors” who only pretend to know the truth (208).

Melville uses his bachelor philosopher to critique absolute idealism, as Pierre’s “psychological intimations and self-generated preconditions” lead to false understandings and self-destruction (Wenke 585). When he hears that Glen Stanley is wooing Lucy, Pierre finds that “there is no faith, and no stoicism, and no philosophy, that a mortal man can possibly evoke, which will stand the final test of a real impassioned onset of Life and Passion upon him” (289). Thus Pierre suggests that even seemingly detached authors are subject to the human emotions of desire, rage, and sympathy, which cannot but help distort how truth is perceived. As Merton Sealts argues, Pierre stands as a “virtual repudiation” of idealism and Platonic philosophy (319). In his zealous pursuit of a single truth, Pierre fails to understand that to create something original “all existing great works must be federated in the fancy; and so regarded as a miscellaneous and Pantheistic whole” (284). By suggesting that creative influences must be “federated in the fancy,” Melville echoes associationist psychology, which held that the real and the imaginary must be “mingled” to produce “valid,” truthful literature (Bell 18). Whereas the fictional author Pierre takes a celibate approach to creativity, detaching himself and focusing on the mind rather than experience, Melville himself endorses a more holistic, integrated approach to authorship, where different influences come together in the imagination.

Although Isabel’s arrival precipitates Pierre’s crisis, far deeper problems underlie his bachelorhood: his repression of eros, his insistence on purity and his fear of—yet fascination with—“tainting” his fiancée Lucy. The narrator compares Pierre and Lucy to “two Platonic particles, after roaming in quest of each other, from the time of Saturn and Ops till now” (27), alluding to Aristophanes’s myth in the Symposium, “which views each person as half of a unified primordial whole in search of the displaced complementary mate” (Wenke, Muse 173).[3] According to Wenke, Melville mocks the simple-minded assumption that an individual can complete himself or herself by finding his or her other half, but we can also see in this allusion a deeper desire for unity between real and ideal. The coming together of “Platonic particles” troubles Pierre, who imagines the contrast between himself as crude material and Lucy as the heavenly ideal:

This to be my wife? I that but the other day weighed an hundred and fifty pound of solid avoirdupois;–I to wed this heavenly fleece? Methinks one husbandly embrace would break her airy zone, and she exhale upward to that heaven whence she hath hither come, condensed to mortal sight. It can not be; I am of heavy earth, and she of airy light. By heaven, but marriage is an impious thing! (58)

Questioning whether marriage should be viewed as a balancing or a fusion, Pierre imagines masculinity crushing femininity, the physical evaporating the ideal. Melville implicitly links Pierre’s idealism and his bachelorhood, as he refuses (yet longs for) physical union. Pierre’s celibacy fits into larger patterns in Melville’s works, the false allegiance to the ideal and failure in holding two irreconcilables together in a dynamic balance.

Glad to be uxorious once more

Although Gillian Brown argues that Pierre replaces “sentimental nurture networks by a system of self-generation,” the novel shows that self-generation is not possible and that creation occurs in the context of social relations, no matter how fractured (160). Melville characterizes literary creation as an interactive, erotic process:

For though the naked soul of man doth assuredly contain one latent element of intellectual productiveness; yet never was there a child born solely from one parent; the visible world of experience being that procreative thing which impregnates the muses; self-reciprocally efficient hermaphrodites being but a fable. (259).

Explicitly rejecting the isolated subjectivity of the bachelor, Melville insists that genius requires a union of experience (which he tropes as masculine) and inspiration (which he characterizes as feminine). For Melville, experience is the active force that “fertilizes” the imagination and ensures that creative works reflect the context in which they are created. Pierre errs precisely in attempting to deny experience and depend solely on his intellect to produce literature.

Can a work as dark as Pierre—which ends with its protagonist gone mad and all of its main characters dead—offer any kind of satisfactory resolution? According to Wyn Kelley, Pierre rejects marriage and instead provides “a warped utopian alternative” (93), “monastic domesticity” or “domestic fraternity” (108, 109). However, it might be more accurate to say that Melville rejects an imbalanced marriage, where one partner dominates the other, while associating bachelorhood with repression and isolation. Kelley strains her argument by claiming that “Pierre resolves the conflict between the patriarchal house and maternal home by leaving both behind” (99). Pierre’s leaving is no resolution, but an intensification of ambiguity. In Pierre’s cramped quarters at the Apostles, he lives as a bachelor, brother, and utopian, but the dominant image is of his misery: “On either hand clung to by a girl who would have laid down her life for him; Pierre, nevertheless, in his deepest, highest part, was utterly without sympathy from any thing divine, human, brute, or vegetable. One in a city of hundreds of thousands of human beings, Pierre was solitary as at the Pole” (338). Herein lie the failures of sentimentalism, in that sympathy does not always yield comfort or understanding. Each alternative to marriage—the sibling relationship, homosexual romance, or bachelorhood—is shown to be tortured. Pierre ends by emphasizing the ambiguity and unknowability of its bachelor protagonist. As Millthorpe reads the paradoxes inscribed on Pierre’s body, noting the “scornful innocence” of his lips and the “woman-soft” hands of the murderer (362), Isabel taunts him and the reader by gasping, “All’s o’er, and ye know him not!” (362). In the end, Melville questions the power of language to describe a life, leaving the reader ultimately bewildered.

If, as Robert K. Martin has argued, “Moby-Dick’s resolution is hermaphroditic: the heterogeneity of the novel’s final shape is Melville’s attempt to create a form that encompasses forms, a ‘symphony’ or ‘marriage’ that brings together all opposites” (67), then Pierre challenges the possibility of encompassing opposites within a single form and creating something new. By tangling up the binaries that underlie sentimental literature, Melville has knotted himself into a bind. In the opening pages of Pierre, Melville depicts love as empty artifice, yet it seems to be the only alternative to the sterile, frustrated relationships anatomized in the rest of the novel. By criticizing Pierre’s idealism, failure to “federate” opposites in his imagination, and hubris in attempting to reject human needs, Melville dismantles the stereotype of the bachelor author and criticizes the assumptions of art built around this figure. Ann Douglas and others have characterized Pierre as an attack on feminine, sentimental culture—and on the reader who represents this culture—but the novel likewise challenges the model of the author as a bachelor dreamer. Indeed, Melville associates Pierre’s idealism with the bachelor’s abstraction, detachment, and pride:

There is a dark, mad mystery in some human hearts, which, sometimes, during the tyranny of a usurper mood, leads them to be all eagerness to cast off the most beloved bond, as a hindrance to the attainment of whatever the transcendental object that usurper mood so tyrannically suggests. Then the beloved bond seems to hold us to no essential good; lifted to exalted mounts, we can dispense with all the vale; endearments we spurn; kisses are blisters to us; and forsaking the palpitating forms of mortal love, we emptily embrace the boundless and the unbodied air. We think we are not human; we become as immortal bachelors and gods; but again, like the Greek gods themselves, prone we descend to earth; glad to be uxorious once more; glad to hide these god-like heads within the bosoms made of too-seducing clay. (180)

If such an ambiguous work as Pierre can be said to offer a moral, this is it: a warning against disavowing human bonds in the name of higher ideals, or isolating oneself in bachelorhood when the “uxorious bond,” the fusion of flesh and spirit, is really desired. The urge to surrender the “beloved bond” exercises a tyrannical power over the self and produces delusions of godliness. In aspiring to behave like a Titan in rising up against the conditions that limit humanity, Pierre ultimately must fall humbled and tortured to the earth, like Enceladus. Pierre exposes the failings of Titanic ambition: the false notion that pure imagination can lead one to truth.

Paper and Paradise: Melville’s Short Fiction

Following the popular and critical failure of Pierre, Melville turned to writing short fiction for Harper’s (edited by Donald Grant Mitchell and fellow sentimentalist George Curtis) and Putnam’s. “Perfect[ing] the deceptive art of the ironist” (Railton 192), Melville confronts the Irving tradition by writing short stories that on the surface seem smooth and approachable, but challenge readers with their submerged truths. In these fictions, Melville explores the conditions of authorship, Irving’s legacy, and the frustrated potential of American art, often through an “Ik Marvel” character (Douglas 315). In “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (1855), Melville “challenge[s] the Irvingesque sketch as literary and social paradigm” (Hamilton 119), mocks the bachelor sensibility epitomized by Mitchell, and revisits the problems of creativity explored in Pierre. Whereas Irving’s bachelor narrator Crayon discovers “a refuge from modernity” through his rambles and reveries in the hidden parts of London (Hamilton 121), Melville’s perplexed narrator witnesses how the bachelor’s retirement can foster ignorance and lead to the suffering of others. Like Pierre, the narrator journeys from Paradise to Tartarus, yet he finds no Titans struggling to create great works of art, only blank mill maids producing paper while supervised by bachelor bosses. Through his tale of empty leisure and inhuman work, Melville reveals the essential dilemma that faces the author: the two prevailing models for authorship, the genteel amateur and the professional laborer, both circumscribe creativity and rob literature of its vitality.[4] Even as he acknowledges that unmarried men lack the husband’s financial obligations and therefore can more freely pursue art and scholarship, Melville satirizes the bachelor scholar by exposing the selfishness, impotence, and ignorance behind this pose.

In December of 1849, Herman Melville faced a choice between cultivating his art and fulfilling domestic obligations. Two months earlier, he had sailed to England to find a publisher for White Jacket and to gather experiences that would feed his writing. Just before he was to depart for America, Melville received an invitation to visit the Duke of Rutland’s Belvoir Castle, which he was eager to accept because “I should much like to know what the highest English aristocracy really and practically is” and because it offered “such an opportunity of procuring ‘material (Journals 41, 42). However, if he visited the Duke, Melville would have to delay his departure by a month, prolonging his absence from his wife and infant son Malcolm. Though he was sure that his brother and friends would think him a “ninny,” Melville decided to return home, writing in his journal, “Would that One I know were here. Would that the Little One too were here…. I am all eagerness to get home– I ought to be home– my absence occasions uneasiness in a quarter where I must beseech heaven to grant repose” (Journals 41). Melville’s capitalization of the term “One” to refer to his wife and son indicates that he felt a strong sentimental connection to them and that they represented a wholeness he desired.

Yet doubts underlie his intensifying iterations that desire, duty, and Christian sympathy compel him to go home. While in Europe, Melville lived the life of a cultivated bachelor, visiting museums and art galleries, browsing in bookstores, dining with intellectuals and artists, going to plays, and exploring historic sites. One evening shortly before his departure, Melville feasted with a “fine set of fellows” at the Elm Court in one of London’s Inns of Court, which he dubbed “The Paradise of Batchelors” because of its luxury and good cheer (Journals 44). Melville’s journal entry provides only a few details about the evening: his dinner companions included authors and the relatives of famous printers and artists, they dined on the fifth floor, and the evening reminded Melville of Charles Lamb’s stories of “Old Benchers.” Five and a half years later, Melville used his visit to the Temple as the basis for the first part of his diptych “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.”

In “The Paradise of Bachelors,” the tension between domestic obligations and the bachelor’s encumbered ease resurfaces, as Melville describes the vast appetites, small cares, and empty decorum of the lawyers who feast at the Temple. Whereas Melville’s journal entry simply reports his pleasure in the bachelors’ company, his tale criticizes their selfishness, lack of feeling, and ignorance of suffering. While abroad, Melville’s thoughts were frequently of home and family, but bachelors lacked the anxieties and guilt of separation. As Melville’s narrator reports, “you could plainly see that these easy-hearted men had no wives or children to give an anxious thought. Almost all of them were travelers, too; for bachelors alone can travel freely, and without any twinges of their consciences touching desertion of the fireside” (Piazza 193). The bachelors’ carefree attitudes contrast sharply with the anxieties of a husband and father. Outside the monastic court of the Bachelors, Benedick tradesmen scurry past, “with ledger lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon the rise of bread and fall of babies”; they have become texts of men’s obligations to domesticity, their faces marked by worries about supporting a home (Piazza 316). By describing the Benedicks as imprinted paper, Melville lampoons the rhetoric of bourgeois self-making and emphasizes how domestic responsibilities stamp character.

Against the leisure and self-indulgence of the bachelors Melville poses “The Tartarus of Maids,” a paper mill where pale, silent women serve as handmaids to machines. By depicting men as leisured consumers and women as silent producers, Melville reverses conventional expectations of gender. Melville’s idea for this half of the diptych originated in a visit he made to a paper mill not far from his home in Pittsfield in 1851. Initially Melville’s view of the paper-mill lacked the dark irony so evident in “Tartarus”; instead of seeing the mill as producing human misery, Melville associated it with authorship. Commenting in an 1851 letter to Duyckinck on the paper-mill’s proximity, Melville joked: “A great neighborhood for authors, you see, is Pittsfield” (Correspondence 179). Melville’s jest turns on the assumption that proximity to paper promotes authorship in the same way that the easy availability of raw materials serves manufacturing. Melville even joked that the paper mill would enable communication with his ideal reader Hawthorne, as he suggested in a postscript to an effusive letter thanking him for his praise of Moby-Dick:

If the world was entirely made up of Magians, I’ll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand–a million–billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. (Correspondence 213)

Melville imagines the paper-mill as a machine that facilitates his imaginative productivity and establishes a bond between himself and Hawthorne (Hewitt 304). By bringing paper manufacture into the home, Melville makes it an essential part of intimate correspondence. As Melville’s ideal audience, someone who is “One” with him, Hawthorne becomes almost like a spouse, linked through the letter.[5] So much does Melville hope that Hawthorne’s admiration for Moby-Dick will deepen their relationship that he signs himself “Herman” for the first and last time in a letter to someone not from his family. Through the “endless riband” of paper, Melville can connect with Hawthorne, but still retain a separate identity (Hewitt 305-307).

In “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” however, the paper mill becomes a symbol of the degradation and mechanization of human creativity, as Melville creates his most explicit inverted Paradise. Whereas Melville’s fantasy of the home-based mill centered on the idea of intense personal communication with Hawthorne, the paper factory in Tartarus produces cheap blank paper for bureaucracies and an anonymous populace. In part, we can find a biographical explanation for Melville’s shifting view of the paper mill. By the time that Melville wrote “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” the “infinite fraternity” he shared with Hawthorne had become all too finite, as communications between the two authors had almost ceased. Suffering, Melville insists, must go into the making of literature and character. However, the bachelors of Paradise attempt to defend themselves by launching “the heavy artillery of the feast,” denying the existence of pain, and immersing themselves in books such as the Decameron (Piazza 320), where feasting and storytelling provide an escape from the plague.

Critics have offered varying interpretations of “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” arguing that it reveals Melville’s fear of sexuality and femininity, the devaluing of the human as a result of industrialism (M. Fisher, Rogin), the emptiness of sentimental literature (Post-Lauria), the exclusion of women from a society shaped around the male bond (Wiegman), or the pain of the writing process (Renker). Although all of these interpretations have merit, the prominence of the paper mill and the parody of bachelor men of letters suggest that the story is fundamentally concerned with authorship and the inadequacies of the Irvingesque bachelor as a model for the artist. By pitting “Paradise” against “Tartarus,” Melville deepens the allusions to Greek myth that were present in Pierre. Just as Pierre struggles with his authorship in his own hell, so the mill maids engage in the grim industrial process of creating the stuff of authorship, paper. In this ironic inversion of the conventional bachelor tale, the Old Bachelor is an industrial magnate, the philosophic bachelor is a fetcher of wine, and the young Cupid is a cruel taskmaster. Melville places his bachelor tale in the context of consumption (a fine bachelor feast) and production (maids at work in a mill), showing the costs of connoisseurship and the pain of creation.

David S. Reynolds contends that Melville is, in this and other diptyches, “retreating to easily perceived social dualisms” (161), but he overlooks the complex ways that Melville undermines these dualisms, among them rich/poor, England/America, male/female, and consumer/producer. Although he seems to pose the heaven of the bachelors against the hell of the maids, Melville shows that the two groups are both sterile, “disengaged” duplicators. Melville’s bachelors and maids have in common celibacy and books, since the bachelors contribute the rags that the maids transform into paper (and the maids contribute the paper that the bachelor authors turn into “rags”). Both occupy spaces removed from the main currents of society, although the bachelors operate in an Irvingnesque retreat of quiet contemplation, while the maids live in an allegorical landscape of suffering straight out of Dante. One might argue that Paradise and Tartarus represent the concept of philosophical dualism, given that Paradise is associated with the idealistic musings of the bachelor, whereas the maids of Tartarus seem to be automatons whose sole function is to produce physical objects. Yet the bachelor idealists are also sensualists who indulge in an elaborate feast, while Melville hints that the mill maids are really creating souls (or at least the symbols of souls). Although the two halves of the diptych differ in tone, both address what happens when selves become texts, when Locke’s mechanistic metaphor of the blank page dominates human and artistic creation.

In their smug self-absorption, the lawyers of the Temple seem to encompass the three senses of the word “bachelor”: they are unmarried men who fancy themselves aristocrats and scholars. Melville connects the bachelors to the decadent history of the Templars, former crusaders who were suppressed by the Pope in the fourteenth century because of allegations that they engaged in homosexual practices and pursued luxury: “Though no sworded foe might outskill them in the fence, yet the worm of luxury crawled beneath their guard, gnawing the core of knightly troth, nibbling the monastic vow, till at last the monk’s austerity relaxed to wassailing, and the sworn knights-bachelors grew to be but hypocrites and rakes” (Piazza 317). While the original (pre-decadent) Templars wedded themselves to an ideal, the modern Templars violate their “vows” and their “troth,” destroying their “marriage” to something beyond themselves. As a result, the bachelors have become like villains of seduction novels, “rakes” who dispel virtue through their shallow promises and manipulative language. Celibacy is a cover for decadence, Melville implies, whether the active “wassailing” of the Knights Templars or the passive excess of the lawyer Templars.

While the original Templars fought for ideas, the new Templars, lawyers and men-of-letters, dispute through language. With rhetoric as their weapons, the lawyers have surrendered the vigorous pursuit of truth and instead engage in games with words: “In what is now the Temple Garden the old Crusaders used to exercise their steeds and lances; the modern Templars now lounge on the benches beneath the trees, and, switching their patent leather boots, in gay discourse exercise at repartee” (318). With this image of lounging literary men, Melville raises the same concern that troubled Emerson and Thoreau: the scholar has disengaged himself from action and experience, encountering life only through language. As he describes lounging bachelors “switching” their feet, Melville suggests that they do not “stand up” for their ideas, but speak only for the sake of sport. By pointing out that such significant writers as Samuel Johnson and Charles Lamb belonged to the “Brethren of the Order of Celibacy” “tabernacled” at the Inner Temple, Melville satirizes the long association of the British man of letters with cloistered comfort and gentility (Piazza 319).[6]

The bachelor’s lack of commitment to truth results in a decline of art itself. By framing “Paradise” around nine bachelors, Melville implicitly compares them to the nine maiden Muses of Greek mythology.[7] Like the Muses, the bachelors are “free from care,” leisured, and (presumably) celibate.[8] But these male muses represent a degraded art, inspiring only themselves. Claiming that the “full minds and fuller cellars” of the bachelors entitle them to “universal fame,” the narrator calls out “set down, ye muses, the names of R.F.C. and his imperial brother” (318). The narrator’s invocation is a joke, as he fails to provide the full names that should be preserved in history and justifies the bachelors’ fame through what they consume as opposed to what they create. Unlike Clio, Erato, and Euterpe, the muses of history, love poetry, and lyric poetry, the bachelor muses mull over scholarly narratives about the “the private life of the Iron Duke,” the Low Countries, and student life at Oxford (320).[9] William Dillingham argues that these bachelors have metaphorically “not married themselves to an idea,” but the problem seems to be the opposite: they have focused too intently on their own hobby-horses (188). Although the bachelors fancy themselves cultivated, they embody an empty self-culture, self-indulgent and sequestered rather than socially engaged.

Instead of striving for truth and free expression, the bachelors uphold propriety. Melville illustrates the bachelors’ lack of philosophical depth by nicknaming their servant, who has been reduced to fetching wine and ensuring that the bachelors maintain decorum, “Socrates.” By including a diminished Socrates, Melville is likely making an inside joke about his failed aesthetic brotherhood with Hawthorne as well as his personal alienation from Platonic philosophy. In the letter that he wrote to Hawthorne after his friend praised Moby-Dick, Melville exclaimed, “Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon,–the familiar,–and recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes” (142). As Merton Sealts explains, in this letter Melville echoes Alcibiades’s comment in the Symposium that Socrates’s appearance is deceptive, since he looks like a satyr yet demonstrates profound philosophical depth, persuasive power, and immunity to physical needs. Just as he praised Hawthorne for his Socratic ability to see past surfaces to deeper truths, so Melville hoped to join the “corps of thought-divers” (Correspondence 121). By transforming the bearer of Truth into a fetcher of wine, however, the bachelors defend themselves from the ugly truth, the Tartarus that undergirds their Paradise. Wisdom has been subsumed by pleasure and consumption. Because their experiences and imaginations are so limited, the bachelors perceive reality as a fiction and cannot comprehend suffering.

The thing called pain, the bugbear styled trouble–those two legends seemed preposterous to their bachelor imaginations. How would men of liberal sense, ripe scholarship in the world, and capacious philosophical and convivial understanding– how could they suffer themselves to be imposed upon by such monkish fables? Pain! Trouble! As well talk of Catholic miracles. No such thing.–Pass the sherry, sir. (322)

By referring to “bachelor imaginations,” Melville reveals both the men’s lack of contact with the real and the moral emptiness of bachelorhood, since the “bachelor” is often seen as foolish, enervated, and detached. As he quotes their huffy phrases, Melville parodies the effusive table talk and self-satisfied rhetoric of scholars who view everything as myth to be analyzed.

Slyly, Melville criticizes the bachelors for their limited imaginations, their complicity in oppression, and their impotence. Synthesizing his experiences at the Paradise of Bachelors, the narrator exclaims, “Ah! when I bethink me of the sweet hours there passed…my heart only finds due utterance through poetry; and, with a sigh, I softly sing, ‘Carry me back to old Virginny!’” (319). By citing a sentimental American verse performed in blackface revues, Melville mocks the peace of the Temple as a genteel, nostalgic smugness more aligned with the hypocritical tones of Southern aristocracy’s attitude toward slavery than with true depths of feeling. “Virginny,” of course, calls to mind virginity, as the paradise of the “Brethren of the Order of Celibacy” is associated with a sterility of experience (319).[10]

Against the hedonism of the British lawyers and men-of-letters, Melville sets the misery of the mill girls working in a dreary New England factory. Composing an allegory of heaven and hell, Melville contrasts the “cool, deep glen” of the Temple with the freezing, dark hollow of Devil’s Dungeon, where the Tartarus of Maids is located (317). Near the Dungeon stands a paper mill, which presents itself as a place of death and deception “like some whited sepulchre” (324). By setting up a parallel between Tartarus and Paradise, Melville associates both with death, alludes to the Greek myth of the fallen Titans, and suggests that the bachelors themselves resemble the smug Pharisees. “The inverted similitude”—the whiteness of the Tartarus versus the darkness of the Paradise, the frozen walkways of the factory versus the lush gardens of the Temple—reinforces the connections between the two (Piazza 327), as Tartarus is “the same world seen from another angle” (Dillingham 185-86).

Only two males work in the paper factory: the “Bach,” a ruddy bachelor who enjoys presiding over the maidens, and “Cupid,” “a dimpled, red-cheeked, spirited-looking, forward little fellow,” mobile and active as opposed to the “passive-looking girls” (Piazza 329). By making the Bach (which refers to the shortened form of “bachelor,” not the composer) the boss of the factory, Melville links the privileges of the bachelors of Paradise to the suffering of the workers in Tartarus. Like the servant Socrates, this Cupid is ironically named. The narrator laments the “strange innocence of cruel-heartedness in this usage-hardened boy,” who has become so much a part of the industrial system that he unconsciously practices cruelty (331). Cupid’s transformation into a factory overseer and his greed (or “cupidity”) hint at a central theme of “Tartarus,” the destruction of Eros through capitalism and a naïve idealism that denies the body and experience.

In this New England paper mill, maids make paper out of the cast-off shirts of British bachelors, establishing a direct connection between Tartarus and Paradise. As Michael Paul Rogin shows, Melville, whose father was an importer of clothes, shared with Carlyle an interest in the symbolic value of clothing, but Melville focuses on what happens to them after they are discarded. While Carlyle suggests that clothes represent authority and the past, Melville imagines the discarded clothes of the bachelors being torn apart to make a new identity. Upon seeing a pile of rags used as the raw materials for paper making, the narrator observes, “’Tis not unlikely, then…. that among these heaps of rags there may be some old shirts, gathered from the dormitories of the Paradise of Bachelors. But the buttons are all dropped off. Pray, my lad, do you ever find any bachelor’s buttons hereabouts?” (330). By casting off their shirts, the bachelors participate in cultural recycling: female workers produce paper from the rags of British men-of-letters, bringing profits to the bachelor factory owner and providing paper for the scholars. The shirts illustrate the interconnections between the genteel, labor-free economy of the privileged bachelors and the inhumane labor of the maids. In papermaking, both the workers and the raw materials are the cast-offs of bachelors. When the narrator asks about bachelors’ buttons, Cupid believes that he is referring to flowers and asserts that “[t]he Devil’s Dungeon is no place for flowers” (330). In Flora’s Interpreter, or The American Book of Flowers and Sentiments (1832), her treatise on the meaning of flowers, Sarah Josepha Hale claims that bachelor’s buttons symbolize hope in love, a hope that is thwarted in Tartarus, where erotic forces serve the machine. Melville reinforces the notion that paper-making—the machinery of publishing as well as the production of human selves—is opposed to organic growth; indeed, it is a force of death, as the maidens become like grim reapers “whetting the very swords that slay them” (330).

One of Melville’s sources for “Tartarus” may have been C.T. Hinckley’s “The Manufacture of Paper,” which was published in Godey’s Ladies’ Book in April of 1854, two months before Melville submitted his paper-making allegory to Harpers. Comparing Melville’s story to Hinckley’s essay about the history, process, and cultural significance of paper-making illuminates how Melville transformed a description of an industrial process into a complex meditation on social obligation, gender, and creativity.[11] In Tartarus, women participate in all stages of the paper-making process, while Hinckley’s article describes men performing the finishing work and handcrafting the paper. Just as Hinckley insists that the finest rags come from the most civilized countries, so Melville imagines the rags of the bachelors as the raw material for paper making, parodying this assumption of cultural superiority. Hinckley praises the efficiency of making paper by machine, claiming that it reduces the time required from 3 weeks to 3 minutes and produces superior paper (206). In contrast, Melville presents the manufacturing process as a mock miracle of birth in which a slip of paper is re-constituted into pulp and falls nine minutes later “an unfolded sheet of perfect foolscap” (332). As critics have observed, Melville develops a conception and birth metaphor throughout the story, describing ejaculation, as a white substance “pours from both vats into that one common channel yonder”; germination, as the “germinous particles” are grown in “a strange, blood-like abdominal heat”; and gestation, as pulp undergoes as series of transformations until it resembles paper (331). Hence an industrial process becomes a metaphor (and surrogate) for human reproduction, as the factory produces not only the raw material of authorship, but also human selves.

Satirizing the rhetoric of character making, Melville imagines that the paper factory stamps its own emptiness on the female workers: “At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper” (328). The repetition of “blank” adds to the absurdity and emptiness of the scene. “Blank” also recalls Locke’s metaphor of the blank slate, since the mill girls lack the stamp of any character. As Karen Halttunen writes of antebellum notions of character, “Within prevailing Lockean psychology, the youth’s character was like a lump of soft wax, completely susceptible to any impressions stamped upon him” (4). By comparing the process of paper production to the process of giving birth, Melville suggests that the common character is like the average book: cheap and unoriginal. As Cupid says, “foolscap being in chief demand, we turn out foolscap most,” referring not only to mass-produced paper commonly used for cheap books, but also to foolish characters (333). Melville conceives of human life as a series of texts:

All sorts of writings would be writ on those now vacant things–sermons, lawyers’ briefs, physicians’ prescriptions, love-letters, marriage certificates, bills of divorce, registers of births, death-warrants, and so on, without end. Then, recurring back to them as they here lay all blank, I could not but bethink me of that celebrated comparison of John Locke, who, in demonstration of his theory that man had no innate ideas, compared the human mind at birth to a sheet of blank paper; something to be scribbled on, but what sort of character no soul might tell. (333)

In his list of the “characters” that will be marked on the blank sheet, Melville organizes the experiences of life, all of which have been reduced to paperwork: illness, love, marriage, birth, divorce, and death. By placing “character” next to “no soul,” Melville highlights what Locke’s theory leaves out: a sense of soul, of a humanity that has spirit and generative power. In the Lockean view, Melville suggests, the mind passively accepts what is written upon it, rather than authoring itself. In this sense, the development of character would be much like the mechanized creation of a self in which humans are passive participants, ruled by “the inscrutable intricacy” of the machine.

Whereas the bachelor’s paradise is noisy with conversation, in this hellish factory only men and machines make noise: “Nothing was heard but the low, steady overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot” (328). Melville suggests that words are the stuff of humanity and individuality, so the silence of the space eerily reveals the mechanization of character. The narrator remains a silent observer, watching a process that is an odd inversion of the physical and intellectual labor of authorship. Yet the observer cannot escape the chill of this dehumanizing environment, becoming so frozen that the Old Bach pulls him outdoors and “without pausing for a word instantly caught up some congealed snow and began rubbing both of my cheeks” (328). The chill that paralyzes the face of the narrator is the chill of spectatorship. As the narrator’s frozen cheeks begin to thaw, he reports a pain, as “two gaunt blood-hounds, one on each side, seemed mumbling them. I seemed Actaeon” (329). The narrator’s metaphor reveals the costs of the bachelor’s fondness for spectating, given that Actaeon is the hunter who, because he watched the goddess Diana bathing nude in a river, was turned by her into a stag and devoured by his own hunting dogs. Like Actaeon, the narrator is tormented for watching the women participate in the sexual (because de-sexualized) process of production. Only by stepping outside the factory and returning to the harshness of nature can the narrator recover himself and reclaim the power of language.

In this grim comedy about writing’s relation to character formation, Melville plays with both the Lockean imagery of the blank page and the romantic metaphor of growth as organic, like a blooming bachelor’s button. By comparing reproduction and authorship with papermaking, Melville suggests that they involve the painful process of creating character, whether textual or human. Yet some life may come out of the paper that the mill produces, since the narrator of the tale is a seed-man who sends out his seeds—the potential for life—in paper envelopes. By making the narrator a “seed-man,” Melville creates a metaphor that suggests organic growth, authorship, sexual generation, and self-creation. Just as the seed-seller disseminates seeds in paper packets that consumers then plant and tend, so an author publishes works that the audience may use in their own self-creation.[12] As a seed-man, the narrator differs from the bachelor scholars and the maiden laborers, since he can facilitate the creation of new life. In an earlier letter to Hawthorne, Melville describes his own growth in terms of a plant’s:

My development has been all within a few years past. I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould. So I. Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. (130)

This well-known passage describes Melville’s belief that he started growing—indeed, came into being—when he began cultivating himself through reading. Just as the seed-seller disseminates seeds in paper packets to be cultivated by consumers, so an author publishes works that the audience may cultivate or that may fall on rocky ground. Even though the metaphor of seed-production is somewhat optimistic, the narrator must package his ideas in the paper envelopes mass-produced at the Devil’s Dungeon paper-mill, which suggests that ideas must take physical form, be disseminated through the commercial system, and be nurtured by the audience.

Although Melville laments the solitude and infertility of the bachelors and the maids, he does not hold up marriage and domesticity as alternatives. Nevertheless, in showing the absence of creation and connection in both “Paradise” and “Tartarus,” Melville draws from his own feeling of lack among the bachelors of London. Though the narrator seems to sympathize with those he is among—drinking while among the bachelors, falling pale while with the maids—he can partially insulate himself against his experiences. As an outsider and an “ironist” (Dillingham Short Fiction, 206), the narrator rides away from the Tartarus of Maids, “wrapped in furs and meditations” (Piazza 335). In a sense, the narrator escapes because he can construct mental tools to process what he has seen, meditating and telling stories like Ishmael. Still, the narrator is vulnerable to the chill of Tartarus. Unlike the London bachelors, some of whom are “driven snugly to their distant lodgings,” the narrator must shiver through his cold ride home, “all alone with inscrutable nature” (323, 335). Perhaps because he cannot understand his environment—troubled both by “inscrutable nature” and the paper-making machine, “a miracle of inscrutable intricacy”—the narrator remains silent, unable to explain or moralize about his experience.

In this final image of the narrator riding out into the cold, Melville contradicts the hope implicit in an image he used in an 1851 letter to Hawthorne. Grateful for Hawthorne’s endorsement of Moby-Dick, Melville celebrates the intimacy of minds that he believes he has found with Hawthorne. He accepts that he is constantly undergoing metamorphosis, but contends that life’s mutability is enjoyable so long as one has a good traveling companion: “Lord, when shall we be done changing? Ah! it’s a long stage, and no inn in sight, and night coming, and the body cold. But with you for a passenger, I am content and can be happy” (143). As with the concluding image of “Tartarus of Maids,” Melville imagines life and authorship as a pilgrimage to an unknown destination, a pilgrimage undertaken in darkness and cold. Whereas in his letter Melville finds hope in ideal companionship, in “Tartarus” the only hope seems to be in the narrator’s capacity for thought. By 1855, Melville felt that he had lost his ideal traveling companion, as Hawthorne had rejected his attempts at intimacy (Rogin 219). Unable to understand the larger implications of his experience, the narrator can only cry, “Oh! Paradise of Bachelors! and oh! Tartarus of Maids!” (335). Melville leaves it to the reader to decode the significance of that cry, to nurture the seed of thought in the tale.

Coda: Melville’s Re-imagining of “Rip Van Winkle”

Toward Washington Irving, founder of the bachelor tradition in American literature, Melville felt ambivalence. On the one hand, he owed Irving a debt of gratitude, since the established author helped to find a British publisher for Melville’s first book, Typee. Like Irving’s Geoffrey Crayon, Tommo, bachelor narrator of Typee and Omoo, relates his tales of travel in a polished, witty style, although Tommo explores the South Seas rather than Olde England, engages in physically daunting adventures with a chum, pairs up with an island maiden, and criticizes missionaries and other representatives of Western civilization. As Evert Duyckinck noted after the publication of Omoo, Melville “models his writing evidently a great deal on Washington Irving” (qtd. by Bell 64). On the other hand, Melville thought Irving’s writing to be too “smooth” and derivative. As I noted in Chapter 1, in “Hawthorne and His Mosses” Melville pointed to Irving’s smooth imitativeness to explain what American literature should move past. In his works of the 1850s, Melville satirizes the bachelor figures of Irving and his successor Mitchell, exposing the emptiness of their idealism. In the 1890s, Melville returned to the relationship between bachelorhood and art in his final volume of poetry, Weeds and Wildings, with a Rose or Two, which he dedicated to his long-suffering wife Lizzie.[13] In “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac,” Melville confronts Irving’s legacy most directly, contending that the creation and dissemination of art is contingent and accidental, like the wild blossoming of weeds.

Whereas Pierre and “The Paradise of Bachelors” borrow from Greek myth and philosophy, “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac” engages one of the principal American myths, which Melville recasts as a tale about the organic production of beauty from decay and suffering. In an invocation “To a Happy Shade,” Melville justifies his borrowing from his literary predecessor by claiming that the dead little care “as to who peradventure may be poaching in that literary manner which thou leftest behind” (281). With this direct address to Irving, Melville both acknowledges a debt and asserts his own power to create new something out of the material left him by his forbearer, echoing Irving’s own “The Mutability of Literature.” The poem celebrates the wild, accidental, and experiential and criticizes the cold abstraction of those who would view art instrumentally. Human relationships may fail, and humans themselves must die, but Melville sees in Rip’s Lilac the possibility of art perpetuating itself and being appreciated and reinterpreted by successive generations.

“Rip van Winkle’s Lilac” begins where Irving’s tale ends, with a frame tale describing the return of Rip from years of sleep to his transformed home. Whereas Irving’s tale casts Dame van Winkle as a shrew, Melville’s version recalls the early tenderness between Rip and his wife, a unity that dissolved as the husband failed to “advance himself in the workaday world” and to repair his ramshackle cottage (285). Rather than being a bachelor nightmare of marriage, the tale pictures the damage that capitalist values can do to relationships. Melville also dilutes some of the misogyny implicit in Irving’s tale, recalling the happiness of Rip’s early days of marriage and the ways that disappointed expectations distorted it. Unlike Irving’s tale, the revived Rip is not greeted by his daughter, son, and grandson, but returns alone to the site of his old cottage. There he finds a beautiful lilac bush. Although the home is “now a tenantless ruin,” “shooting above the low, dilapidated eaves, the Lilac now laughed where the inconsolable willow had wept,” offering a joyful spirit and “redeeming attractiveness” (286). Whereas the rose symbolizes perfection, the lilac suggests humility, first love, and the perseverance of beauty in the midst of decline. Leslie Fielder contends that the lilac represents the joy that springs forth from the destruction of “hearth and home” (342), but one could instead argue that it signifies the flourishing of a love and beauty once constrained by the walls of civilization. As Elizabeth Renker has noted, throughout Melville’s fiction walls block human creativity, freedom, and life, as Bartleby is penned in by the walls of the office and then the tomb, Pierre is enclosed in the maddening confines of Church of the Apostles, and the maidens of Tartarus silently labor in the sepulchre of the paper factory. Yet in “Rip van Winkle’s Lilacs” the walls enclosing the hearth have crumbled, forming the backdrop for the wild growth of the lilac. Given enough time, limits fall away and beauty flourishes. Beauty is disseminated not through the mechanized production of maids or the leisured detachment of bachelors, but through the organic spreading of seeds. (Perhaps the bush grew out of the seeds dispersed by the seedsman narrator of “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.”)

In the second part of the frame tale preceding the poem, Melville describes the delight taken in Rip’s lilac by a “certain meditative vagabondo” (287), a “bohemian” painter in search of the picturesque (289). In making his proponent of beauty a bohemian, Melville seems to reject bourgeois values and depict the artist as an openhearted, flexible Ishmael rather than an idealistic Pierre. As the bohemian paints “the pink Lilac relieved against the greenly ruinous house,” a “gaunt hatchet-faced stony-eyed” man rides up and asks him why he is capturing such degradation (287). This “cadaver” insists that the artist instead paint “something respectable, or better, something godly” such as a newly constructed tabernacle, but the artist regards this man of the establishment and his cold aesthetics as death (287). Whereas the formalist embraces the artificial structures of religion, the painter stands for a Romantic aesthetics of vitality and color. Life and beauty are embodied by the Lilac bush, while the structures of civilization are just tombs, “dead planks or dead iron smeared over with white-lead” (287). As in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” Melville compares the structures of bourgeois culture—factories and churches—to whited sepulchres, tombs whose whitewash covers over their decaying contents. When the querulous cadaver disdains the “half-rotten” lilac, the artist asserts that “decay is often a gardener,” that beauty can come out of decline (288). As the bohemian defends accidental, “natural” beauty, Melville crafts a meditation on the sketch as a genre that likewise finds art in the everyday.

In the poem that follows, Melville describes the bush’s emergence as a thing of beauty beloved by those who live nearby. Neighbors cut slips from this bush to plant their own, so that the “region now is dowered/ Like the first Paradise embower,/ Thanks to the poor good-for-nothing Rip!” (293). With this fable, itself a lilac growing from the decay of the Irvingesque bachelor tale, Melville defends art that seems to have no social purpose, using romantic language (“dowered,” “embowered”) to argue that it is an inheritance that contributes to the creation of a fleeting Paradise. In the lilac, Melville finds a metaphor for artistic continuity, the regeneration suggested by his own re-imagining of the Rip Van Winkle myth. Whereas Irving makes the bachelor the representative of sentimental rather than biological reproduction, Melville imagines artistic succession as a more accidental, wild process, as blooms sprout up and bring uncalculated beauty. The Lilac does not spring from a bachelor’s musing, but memorializes the early love between Rip and his wife. In telling “of things that posthumously fell” (292), Melville addresses not only Irving’s legacy, but also his own, favoring a wild, fertile aesthetics to Irving’s crumbling cottage or the cold structures of didacticism.

An astute reader of his culture and its literature, Melville flirts with, parodies, and debunks antebellum America’s stereotypes of the bachelor. Whereas Irving adopted the bachelor mask to claim a limited authority and present the author as a leisured dreamer, Melville suggests that authorship requires serious labor and that the detachment of the bachelor causes him to be ignorant rather than insightful. In both Pierre and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” Melville challenges Donald Grant Mitchell’s model for the bachelor author by showing his failure to establish a coherent identity, relate to his audience, or resolve the dilemma between writing for profit or for art. Through his ironic accounts of the bachelor’s reaction to suffering, Melville reveals his own disgust with this figure and with the empty idealism that he represented. Either the bachelor is ignorant of suffering because he fails to participate fully in life (like the naïve scholars in “The Paradise of Bachelors), or he suffers too intensely because he clings to an idealized notion of how life should be (like Pierre). Paradise belongs not to dreaming bachelors, but to lilacs that undergo their own cycles of blossoming and decay.


[1] Based upon a search of all of Melville’s fictions in the Electronic Text Center’s Modern English Collection, the term “bachelor” is applied to the following: the chiefs in Typee (many of whom turn out to be married); the failed gentleman Jimmy Rose; the male scholars, factory owner, and overseer in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”; the Missouri cynic of The Confidence Man; the carefree king Abrazza, philosopher Babbalanja, and author Bardianna in Mardi; Captain Vere of Billy Budd; Captain Riga and Max of Redburn; and the former owner of the narrator’s home in “I and My Chimney.” Although he does not use “bachelor” to refer to Pierre or to the narrator of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Melville makes clear their single status and gives them the traits commonly associated with bachelors.

[2] By using the language of genealogy, Melville also echoes his argument that pure originality is impossible. As he wrote in an 1849 letter to Duyckinck: “The truth is that we are all sons, grandsons, or nephews or great-nephews of those who go before us. No one is his own sire” (Correspondence 121).

[3] Given Pierre’s frequent references to the rebellions of Titans and monsters against the Olympian gods, it is worth noting that according to Aristophanes’s myth Zeus ordered humans to be split in two to prevent their rebellion, so that sexual desire is a means of controlling god-like aspirations.

[4] My reading essentially agrees with that of Michael Newbury, who argues that “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” presents two unsatisfactory models of authorship, the “genteel male camaraderie” of the Bachelors and the commercialized, feminine productivity of the Maids (51-70). Newbury suggests that Melville felt excluded from the genial atmosphere of men’s and bachelor’s club, and that he associated women writers with mechanized creation. But I don’t see Melville taking on female authorship, since the tale doesn’t associate women with any kind of expression, but casts them as victims of capitalism.

[5] In the same letter, Melville writes, “The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question–they are One” (Correspondence 213).

[6] A number of writers were members of the Temple, including Congreve, Sheridan, Shadwell, and Cowper.

[7] Alternatively, nine might refer to the number of original Templars (Thompson 37).

[8] Edith Hamilton uses this phrase to refer to the Muses in Mythology (37).

[9] In selecting these topics, Melville may have been making subtle allusions to homosexuality: Just what was the Iron Duke doing in private? The Low Countries might suggest the geography of the body, and student life at Oxford sometimes involved intimate male relationships. Such allusions would fit into the homosociality of this scene, which seems to attract Melville with its congeniality but repel him with its irrelevance and detachment from deeper concerns.

[10] “Virginny” might also refer back to Melville’s “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” in which Melville presents himself as “a Virginian Spending July in Vermont.” Critics have noted the sexual language that Melville uses in describing how he has been seduced and overwhelmed by Hawthorne’s powerful, elusive prose, as if this Virginian is innocent no more. Yet the bachelors of Tartarus seem to have been titilated rather than transformed when they read the Decameron.

[11] It is quite possible that Melville was familiar with this article, given that it was published in a popular magazine to which the Melville family had subscribed, and that many details in the two sketches overlap (Post-Lauria 172). If Melville were familiar with the essay, then we have further evidence for the overlap between what might be characterized as masculine and feminine reading.

[12] Other critics have interpreted the envelope as an unwillingness to find the core—a sort of self-protective sheath—but ideas need some vehicle for dissemination, and in the publishing world, that is paper.

[13] Weeds and Wildings was completed in 1891, but it was not published until the 1920s.

Chapter 3: Reading with a Tender Rapture: Reveries of a Bachelor and the Rhetoric of Detached Intimacy

If you looked at an illustration of an antebellum American family enjoying domestic comforts, a book would probably appear somewhere in the picture. As scholars studying the cultural functions of reading have recently argued, the book ranked as one of the most important instruments and symbols of domesticity. In the iconography of the home, the book represented taste, shared learning, and love. Consider, for instance, Figure 1, “Home.”

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Figure 1: Home

In this domestic tableau, a father relaxes with his newspaper and cigar, while a mother reads a large book, perhaps a primer or a Bible, with her three children. The mother points out a significant word or idea to the children, who look on attentively. One child even reaches out her hand, as if to touch on the same point and to connect with the mother. Instructing the children seems to be the work of the mother, but the family comes together around the act of reading, enjoying productive leisure, intimacy, and comfort.

This drawing renders a scene that recurs throughout nineteenth-century domestic fiction. In novels such as Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World and Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter, family members and friends develop their love for and sympathy with each other by reading, at first together, then apart. What begins as a close human relationship—the mother reinforcing lessons of Christian rectitude through conversation—is displaced into a textual relationship, as the book comes to represent the loving authority of the mother. As Richard Brodhead argues, domestic novels bring attention to the act of reading itself, treating reading as “the nurture-centered home’s chief pastime, gathering point, and instrument of domestic instruction” (45). According to Brodhead, the middle-class family embraced reading to teach the mutually reinforcing values of obedience and sentiment, or, in his terms, to inculcate “disciplinary intimacy,” discipline through love. Likewise pointing to the instructive functions of reading, Jane Tompkins argues that female readers learned how to endure pain by ingesting stories of young heroines suffering and surviving. In each case, the reader begins to read under the supervision of a mother or mentor figure who ensures that the proper lessons are learned.

While Tompkins and Brodhead focus on reading’s disciplinary functions, other critics contend that antebellum reading in sentimental literature was escapist, luring readers away from an engagement with serious issues into a synthetic, cotton-candy view of the world. Perhaps Ann Douglas most eloquently voices this position’s concerns: “’Reading’ in its new form was many things; among them it was an occupation for the unemployed, narcissistic self-education for those excluded from the harsh school of practical competition. Literary men of the cloth and middle-class women writers of the Victorian period knew from firsthand evidence that literature was functioning more and more as a form of leisure, a complicated mass dream-life in the busiest, most wide-awake society in the world” (10). According to Douglas, such reading fed a consumerist ethos in which Americans purchased mass-produced fantasies, placing greater value on what one owned rather than what one made.

Both of these descriptions of reading assume that the typical reader is female, and both emphasize the power of some external force (whether domestic or consumer culture) over her. But what if we focus instead on someone outside the normal boundaries of domesticity? What if we examine how the single male reader was imagined in the nineteenth century? Consider, for example, Figure 2, “By a City Grate.”

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Figure 2: By a City Grate

In some ways, the two images resemble each other. Both show scenes of leisure set by the hearth, and both include an elegantly but comfortably dressed gentleman lounging over a cigar and looking over—or beyond—a text. But of course “By a City Grate” lacks elements crucial to the traditional image of domestic intimacy: wife and children. Instead of portraying a contented family sharing in the purposeful project of learning, “By a City Grate” shows a solitary man absorbed in thought. While the first illustration projects a sense of warmth, calm, and edification, in the second a shadow hovers about the thinker, suggesting his melancholy mood. Books are scattered on his table as if he just threw them aside, and a letter rests in his lap, but the reclining figure focuses on something else, something to which the viewer has no access. In reading the letter, he seems to have become distracted from the parlor before him and been transported into a private dream-world, a world elsewhere. While the former image portrays a relationship of family harmony centered on the book, the latter image suggests a dream relationship, as the man turns his thoughts from the letter to something not quite visible, but still powerfully moving. Although the dreamer has stopped reading, the letter seems to have sparked an act of creation, perhaps an attempt to reach, through the mind, the sender of the letter.

As incisive as both the disciplinary and the escapist descriptions of antebellum reading are, they ignore the ways in which reading relies upon distance as well as identification, and how distance leads to desire and imaginative power. Moreover, both theories deny readers any self-consciousness and instead view them as passive elements in the reading process.[1] In contrast, “By a City Grate” represents a mode of reading and relating to the world that I call detached intimacy, in which the reader, though swept over by feeling, still keeps fantasy at arm’s length, wrapped up between the boards of a book. According to the conventional view of escapist literature, the reader becomes so engrossed in fantasy that she loses herself in it, unable to distinguish between dream and reality. Yet detached intimacy suggests that the reader can engage in a profound identification with the book even as she remains conscious that she is actively constructing a fantasy. Detached intimacy fits somewhere between narcissistic escapism and rigorous discipline—although the reader is aware of social roles and responsibilities, he or she is inspired by the book to dream up different ways of fulfilling or stretching those roles. Whereas theorists of disciplinary reading argue that the book stands in for the sentimental authority of the mother, and escapists contend that the commodity substitutes for experience, detached intimacy is both relational and solitary. By investing him- or herself in a book, the reader develops an imagined intimacy with its central characters, while remaining a singular, self-conscious individual curled up by the hearth.

This self-creating, fanciful approach to reading is represented in many fictions, but it appears perhaps most compellingly in the literature of bachelor sentimentalism, which focuses on the fantasies and sufferings of the single man (Bertolini 710). In these narratives, the bachelor emerges as a specific kind of reader, one who is solitary, speculative, and remote. Donald Grant Mitchell’s (aka Ik Marvel) Reveries of a Bachelor, one of most popular works of the 1850s (Becket 412), offers a rich opportunity to study detached intimacy, since it focuses on reading and fantasy and uses a rhetorical strategy that simultaneously invites readers’ participation and pushes them away. So popular and influential was the book that it sold over a million copies by the end of the century, sparked dozens of piracies, and inspired several imitations. Commenting on the book’s cultural impact and staying power, one late nineteenth- century critic compared it to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Kimball 187).

The book’s popularity suggests that it spoke to deep desires in antebellum America–among others, the desire that literature stimulate feeling, legitimate fantasy, and establish, through the text, relationships that are full of feeling yet controllable. Reverie epitomizes this detached intimacy, since the dreamer abstracts herself from the body and from concrete reality, yet remains awake and conscious. As the title suggests, Reveries centers on the production of dreams and illusions, offering four sketches in which Ik Marvel, a sentimental bachelor, fantasizes about what it would be like to be married. To put into context the illustrations discussed above, “By a City Grate,” from a 1906 edition of Reveries, shows Ik Marvel dreaming, while Figure 1, from a 1931 edition of Reveries, represents his dream of married life.[2] While Ik daydreams that marriage will bring him into true sympathy with another soul, he fears that he will lose his independence and control by committing himself to another. As perhaps the most significant work of bachelor fiction, Reveries offers insights into the connections and distinctions between “masculine” and “feminine” sentimental traditions and offers a glimpse of the attractions of self-aware fantasy.

A Most Unassured Whimsical Being: The Bachelor as Fervent Observer

In Reveries of a Bachelor, Mitchell promotes detached intimacy through his rhetoric of displaced fantasy and the example of his charming but distant narrator, a bachelor and connoisseur of feeling named Ik Marvel. Mixing fantasy with essayistic commentary, Mitchell presents four reveries dreamed up by Ik. Perhaps to evade personal identification with the reveries, Mitchell adopts a complex strategy in narrating the bachelor’s dreams. The byline on the title page is given to Ik Marvel, but the copyright is ascribed to Donald Grant Mitchell. For the most part, the first three reveries are narrated in the first person voice of Ik Marvel, but sometimes the narrator describes “you,” the reader, as the central character. In the fourth and longest reverie, Morning, Noon, and Evening, Ik has a reverie in which Paul, briefly alluded to in the first reverie, takes over as narrator and describes the course of his life from his young, innocent love for his cousin to his mature love for his wife and children. Paul is a dream character conceived of by Ik Marvel, who was himself dreamed up by Donald Grant Mitchell. In a sense, Reveries is a meta-dream, a fantasy about the power of fantasy. A liminal state between waking and sleeping, control and passivity, reverie suggests “daydream, meditation… illusion, enchantment… conscious fantasy” (de Bianchedi 128). As befits his marvelous name, Ik Marvel insists upon the superiority of the dream world, which was to be the title of Mitchell’s follow-up work. Although the scene of each reverie shifts, as Ik moves from his country home to his city apartment to his spinster aunt’s rural retreat to his maternal estate, they all follow a similar pattern: an image of light—be it the anthracite used to sustain a glowing fire, a cigar, or the sun—sparks Ik’s often-morbid fantasies of maturation, courtship, and marriage, as well as his meditations on the symbolic meaning of the light. As each reverie leads Ik through various possibilities—the dreamer might be bound to a cold-hearted flirt, or he might lose wife and children to disease, or he might find true happiness—it is shot through with the bachelor’s uncertainties and indecision. Yet Mitchell deals with this indecision by embracing it, putting forward the idea that the dreamer can embark on imaginary excursions but still return to his solitary, independent life.

In making Ik a bachelor, Mitchell drew upon an established tradition linking the solitary male to imagination, detachment, and sentimentality. By associating Marvel with such characteristics, Mitchell constructs the bachelor as a representative dreamer whose insights depend on his tense relationships with the two poles of antebellum American life: the home and the marketplace. Ik fulfilled the need for a figure who could celebrate the dream life and, as Emily Dickinson put it, “interpret these lives of ours” (Selected Letters 67). In advancing reverie, Mitchell faced some lingering hostility toward the imagination and suspicion for not participating in “practical” enterprises. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed of Americans, “No man are less addicted to reverie than the citizens of a democracy, and few of them are ever known to give way to those idle and solitary meditations which commonly precede and produce the great emotions of the heart” (qtd. by Leverenz 11). Yet Mitchell presents reverie as a salutary, revelatory mental and emotional state, justifying the leisured arts of dreaming, self-cultivation, and artistic creation.

Ik manifests two traits that define his vision as a bachelor: detachment and imaginative flexibility. Although his status as an outsider would seem to deny him any authority to comment on family life, Ik turns such distance into the basis of his insight, claiming that “bachelors are the only safe, and secure observers of all the phases of married life. The rest of the world have their hobbies; and by law, as well as by immemorial custom are reckoned unfair witnesses in everything relating to their matrimonial affairs” (vi). Although typically bachelors like Sterne’s Uncle Toby are associated with their own “hobby horses,” Ik insists that married people are themselves eccentric and biased, and that only bachelors (and perhaps spinsters) can be reliable interpreters of domestic life. Such a detached perspective both activates the imagination and allows for critical insight; in a sense, the bachelor is like the reader, witnessing rather than acting.

As an unbiased observer, the bachelor shifts from one perspective–and one identity–to the next, refusing to be tied down to a single reality. By calling attention to how Ik’s “floating Reveries… drifted” from glee to gloom, Mitchell embraces the stereotype of the bachelor as moody and uncommitted (v). One example of this stereotype appeared in The Literary World, where an anonymous critic called Ik “a most unassured whimsical being… inconsequential, loosely attached to society, and, as a consequence, when he presumes to write a book utterly insecure of his style and position” (“Review”). For this reviewer, the flightiness and instability that distinguish Reveries result from the narrator’s status as a bachelor, yet he or she recommends the book for offering a respite from the everyday and for the random insights that it provides. Such insights come from the bachelor’s shifting sympathies, as Ik imagines the lives of a confused youth, a jilted lover, a beleaguered husband bossed around by his domineering wife, a widower beset by the devastating loss of his family, or a happy husband. In his extensive dreaming, the bachelor could even take on feminine traits; as Putnam’s critic Fitz-James O’Brien remarked, Mitchell’s prose demonstrated “almost feminine delicacy… He takes us captive with those gentle spells for which the sex are famous” (74, 75). Comparing Mitchell’s artistry to that of a woman captivating a lover, O’Brien identifies reverie as a typically feminine act, one that takes place in private, temporarily settles upon the passive dreamer, and elicits an emotional response. Of course, such a statement reveals O’Brien’s own prejudices that feeling belongs to women, action to men (Otter 215). The bachelor thus transcends gender-based categories, providing a model for experimentation in identity and broadening his appeal to male and female readers, all of whom could see themselves in (or with) him.

Although the bachelor is a man of feeling, Mitchell deliberately contrasts him to those who come under the sway of the literature of Sensibility, which we might see as sentimentality without the self-control of detached intimacy. According to Mitchell, Sensibility takes advantage of “a weak, warm-working heart,” as it does with a reader of Mackenzie who finds that “your eye, in spite of you, runs over with his sensitive griefs” (66). Mitchell contrasts the Sensibility indulged in by “you” (both a character within the narrative and, implicitly, the reader of Mitchell’s text) with the self-control exercised by the bachelor narrator. Whereas the reader who indulges in the “habit of sensibility” loses his or her ability to stop weeping, the bachelor carefully manages his feeling, moving between different emotional states without being tied down to any of them: “But what a happy, careless life belongs to this Bachelorhood, in which you may strike out boldly right and left! Your heart is not bound to another which may be full of only sickly vapors of feeling; nor is it frozen to a cold, man’s heart under a silk boddice” (66). Setting up an implicit comparison between reading and marital status, Mitchell suggests that whereas a Sensible reader, like a married man, comes under the sway of a single state of feeling (a potentially cold or hollow one, at that), the bachelor reader can choose among many modes. As Mitchell argues,

And have you not the whole skein of your heart-life in your own fingers to wind, or unwind, in what shape you please? Shake it, or twine it, or tangle it, by the light of your fire, as you fancy best…. Reading is a great and happy disentangler of all those knotted snarls–those extravagant vagaries, which belong to a heart sparkling with sensibility… (67)

According to Samuel Otter, the subtext of this passage is masturbatory, as the power of stimulation is in the bachelor’s hands. Yet the passage is also remarkable in the way that Mitchell plays with the metaphor of heart strings. He puts the dreamer in the feminized position of one who knits by the fire, yet he emphasizes that the creative activity the dreamer engages in is winding and unwinding, a means of working through a maze rather than presenting a nicely knitted end-product. Mitchell advances a reader-centered aesthetics, where the reader can determine how—and how long—he or she will spin out the dream before reeling it back in.

Through reading, the bachelor establishes dream relationships in which the text acts both as a companion to and amplification of the self. Sometimes Mitchell sounds like a doctor formulating a prescription, as he insists that different authors can stimulate, even incarnate, different moods: “There is old, placid Burton, when your soul is weak, and its digestion of life’s humours is bad; there is Cowper, when your spirit runs into a kindly, half-sad, religious musing” (67). In prescribing his emotional tonics, Mitchell recommends the works of two sentimental bachelors, implicitly suggesting a correlation between the single life and feeling. The text stands for the author, but the bachelor reader remains in control of the imagined relationship, so that he can easily drop, for instance, Burton’s placidity for Rousseau’s “soul-culture” (68). In Ik’s reading, then, we see both identification—the association of the self with the text—and detachment—the ability to control one’s moods and shape the self through the selection of reading materials.

As a bachelor, and as a reader, Ik can synthesize emotion, but then he can close the book, let the reverie burn out, and go to sleep without having his “real life” disturbed, as the bachelor does at the end of his own reveries: “I wonder, thought I, as I dropped asleep, if a married man with his sentiment made actual, is, after all, as happy as we poor fellows in our dreams” (96). Mitchell proposes that solitary dreams can bring greater happiness and fewer risks than messy experience. Not only do dreams cultivate emotional responses, but they also take on the status of art. Rebutting the utilitarian bias against dreaming for being “useless,” Mitchell asserts, “Useless, do you say? Aye, it is as useless as the pleasure of looking hour upon hour, over bright landscapes; it is as useless as the rapt enjoyment of listening with heart full and eyes brimming, to such music as the Miserere at Rome; it is as useless as the ecstasy of kindling your soul into fervor and love, and madness, over pages that reek with genius” (81). As Snyder argues, Mitchell echoes Pater’s defense of art for art’s sake by rejecting economic terms for success, instead promoting the pursuit of ecstasy and valuing ideas over experience (58). Mitchell advances reverie for reverie’s sake, as the dreamer becomes both artist and audience in savoring the beauty and genius of the dream.

Even when the bachelor dreams of marriage, he negotiates his relationship to his dreamed-of wife by making her like a book, a text for his imaginings. For Marvel, the ideal marriage is one that feeds the husband’s fantasies and validates his authority, one in which the wife acts as muse, audience, and “second self.” In one scene, Ik envisions a husband and wife sharing a sentimental dream-space. While the wife reads, the husband stares and fantasizes:

The arm, a pretty taper arm, lies over the carved elbow of the oaken chair; the hand, white and delicate, sustains a little home volume that hangs from her fingers. The forefinger is between the leaves, and the others lie in relief upon the dark embossed cover. She repeats in a silver voice a line that has attracted her fancy; and you listen– or, at any rate, you seem to listen–with your eyes now on the lips, now on the forehead, and now on the finger, where glitters like a star, the marriage ring– the little gold band, at which she does not chafe, that tells you–she is yours! (87).

Such a cozy domestic scene—lovely wife, doting husband, open book—recurs throughout antebellum literature, but in this context it suggests that the dreamer’s desire for a fantasy wife resembles his love of reading; both stimulate the imagination, making possible at least temporary possession of the ideal. Although the husband is supposed to be listening to the dream wife read what has captivated her own imagination, he acts more like a voyeur, creating his own fantasy of possession symbolized by the ring. Even as he gazes at the wife’s hands and face, the dreamer is also drawn by the book, which both suggests and contains the fantasy; it is the source of the lines that the wife reads and the backdrop for her beautiful fingers. From the autoerotic fantasies of bachelorhood, Ik has moved into the erotics of marriage—but of course these lines come in one of Ik’s autoerotic fantasies and reinforce both his tendency to view the world poetically (he imagines that the ring is like a star) and to set himself apart as a voyeur whose pleasure comes in possessing through his gaze. As attractive as this fantasy wife may be to the dreamer, at the end of Reveries we are reminded that Ik Marvel, bachelor and dreamer, invented this ideal wife (and killed off several wives in the course of his imaginings), and that a bachelor and dreamer Ik Marvel remains. Like the reader of a book, Ik is drawn into feeling, but at the end he is left with a representation of experience rather than the experience itself, free to dream up the next encounter. Ik negotiates the middle ground between feeling and thinking, passivity and action, and escape and discipline, using his fantasies to imagine possible lives and to gain power over his own.

Although authors struggled with the bias against fiction during the early nineteenth century (Bell), Nina Baym suggests that by the 1840s and 1850s Americans embraced fiction as an appropriate form of entertainment and moral enlightenment (176). Reveries of a Bachelor and other works of male sentimentalism likely brought about greater acceptance of fiction-making. As William Charvat explains, works by Mitchell, G.W. Curtis, and O.W. Holmes popularized the reverie as a form of fiction (245). In Dream Life, Mitchell argues for the superiority of the imagination and of feeling and articulates a link between bachelorhood and the imagination:

It is true there is but one heart in a man to be stirred; but every stir creates a new combination of feeling, that like the turn of a kaleidoscope will show some fresh color, or form. A bachelor to be sure has a marvellous advantage in this; and with the tenderest influences once anchored in the bay of marriage, there is little disposition to scud off under each pleasant breeze of feeling. Nay, I can even imagine… that after marriage, feeling would become a habit, a rich and holy habit certainly, but yet a habit, which weakens the omnivorous grasp of the affections, and schools one to a unity of emotion, that doubts and ignores the promptness and variety of impulse, which we bachelors possess. (18)

Mitchell associates bachelorhood with the variety of imagination and feeling that produces beauty and sympathy, preferring plurality over unity, shifting impulse over the stability of habit. Others invoked Reveries in justifying works of the imagination. For instance, in “Fact and Fiction” (1854), the noted children’s author Oliver Optic describes two sisters, one romantic (Mary) and one dutiful (Susan). While Mary reads Mitchell, Dickens, Irving, and other fiction writers, Susan studies only religious texts recommended by her hoped-for fiancée, a minister. Although the minister shakes his head in disapproval upon learning that Mary has read Reveries of a Bachelor and Dream Life, she ultimately convinces him that “the world is the better for novels” (272) and wins his heart. In this way, Reveries of a Bachelor helped to overcome the cultural condemnation of fiction and illustrate the moral and spiritual benefits of fantasy.

The Bachelor’s Letter to the World

Although the subtext reveals the bachelor’s desire to remain a detached, self-sufficient dreamer, Mitchell uses several rhetorical and stylistic strategies to create the illusion that Ik’s readers can come into his private space and know his soul, as if distance breeds intimacy and insight. Even as Mitchell offers Ik’s dreams to a public audience, he preserves their “private character” by writing contemplative prose filled with gaps, questionings, hesitations, revisions, and shifts in perspective, trying to replicate a refined, imaginative mind at work (vii). By using such a seemingly spontaneous, sincere style, Mitchell makes readers participants and correspondents, inviting them into the private parlor of the sentimental essay.[3] Yet the bachelor remains a mysterious figure who holds back personal information even though he effusively describes his dreams. Through detachment, the bachelor narrator maintains control over his fantasies and, by extension, his readers. As Ann Douglas argues, “The sentimental narrator’s ever-present consciousness that he is but dreaming, and dreaming dreams that he can at any moment disperse, is but a subtle reminder that he is the dictator as well as the servant of his feminine readers’ imaginative needs. He never forgets that he has the author’s power—which becomes all-important when literature is commercialized—of withholding; he can interfere with the reader’s range and rate of consumption” (240). Ik illustrates his power over his audience when he bets his strict but tender-hearted spinster aunt that if he makes her weep by relating one of his reveries, she will allow him to smoke his cigar on the porch. By the end of his story, he has gained the right to puff away. Yet readers also exercise power in this relationship, choosing to fill in the gaps in Ik’s fantasies with their own, to question his evasions and assert their own identities.

By employing a personal, conversational rhetoric, Mitchell crafts a narrator who appears to reveal his own secrets and thus opens up the hearts of his readers. As James Melvin Lee noted in 1909, Reveries captivated so many readers because of the narrator’s seeming sincerity and approachability:

A mind like that of ‘Ik Marvel’ finds its best expression in dreams and reveries… In this form of literature it is the personal element that attracts the reader. In other words, the charm of fireside musings lies in the atmosphere which the author himself creates. Unless he is willing to lay bare his heart, he labors in vain. (398)

Mitchell develops this “personal element” by urging readers to accept the book as one which was “never intended for publication,” to come inside his dream world and share—rather than judge—the bachelor’s fantasies (iii). By describing his visions as essentially private, Marvel seems to be establishing an intimate relation between reader and writer, as if they were of one heart, but at the same time he seems to be evading any responsibility for his work, since he is merely transcribing his dreams. In a sense, the bachelor narrator wants his audience to be like his ideal wife, sympathetic rather than critical, reflecting his genius back on him. He maintains the authority, even as he evades the responsibilities of authorship.

Throughout Reveries, Marvel employs a questioning voice that suggests his ambivalence and enhances the hypothetical, speculative nature of the book. He opens the first sketch, “Smoke–Signifying Doubt,” with a litany of questions that extends for five pages, beginning with:

“A wife? thought I; yes, a wife. And why?

“And pray, my dear sir, why not–why? Why not doubt; why not hesitate; why not tremble?” (19)

Although the narrator appears to be questioning himself, another voice seems to come in with “my dear sir.” Mitchell does not make clear if this voice is that of the narrator, the imagined reader, or society. By pursuing questions rather than offering answers, Mitchell refuses to side with any single perspective toward marriage and domesticity, introducing both disastrous and enticing possibilities. As the narrator asks questions about the wisdom of marriage, so does the reader, arriving ultimately at the tenuous resolution: “Why not, I thought, go on dreaming?” (21). This comedy of indecision runs through the entire volume, although the comedy becomes pathetic as the narrator’s fantasies of marriage end in catastrophe. The reader becomes a participant in the questioning, meditating upon the dilemmas of the dreaming bachelor but not reaching a stable conclusion—and thus continuing the dreaming.[4]

Mitchell makes his readers identify with, yet remain at a safe distance from, the bachelor’s reveries by slipping between different perspectives. Although Mitchell narrates the frame tales surrounding the reveries from the first-person perspective of Ik Marvel, the reverie itself focuses either on “you” or is projected onto a sensitive young man named Paul, who is mentioned briefly in the first reverie and is the primary subject of the last one. By displacing the reveries onto “you” or “Paul,” Ik dissociates them from himself (further dissociating Mitchell who, of course, has named Ik as the author). As he introduces other perspectives into his reveries, Ik acts not only as the producer of fantasies, but also as the audience and the interpreter. By describing his own tearful responses to his dream productions, Ik gives his audience cues as to how they should feel and offers ways of understanding such feelings. Yet even as he meditates upon the meaning of dream experience, he backs away from the experience itself by making “you”—the audience as well as a masked version of himself—the central character of the reverie. For instance, in describing a young man whose hopes of marrying a beautiful young woman have been frustrated by the machinations of her status-seeking uncle, he writes, “You struggle with your moods of melancholy, and wear bright looks yourself—bright to her, and very bright to the eye of the old curmudgeon who has snatched your heart away” (127). By displacing the narrative onto a “you,” Mitchell dissociates himself from the fantasy and invites his readers to participate in the story. In terms of the narrative, this “you” is a male upset that he can’t marry a young woman because he lacks money and reputation, but the “you” has stereotypically feminine qualities, since ”you” are melancholic, consumed with thoughts of your broken heart but determined to put on a social face. At the same time, as female “you’s” are invited into the narrative, they “become” male. Whereas the reader might feel like a voyeur spying on other lives, by including a “you” who experiences events Ik becomes the voyeur reporting on what he sees and coming under the sway of its excitement. In turn, the reader feels the thrill of being both the watcher and the watched, the reader and the read, so that the distinctions between reader, character, and author are hazy.

As David Leverenz has argued, the rhetoric of “I” and “you,” narrator and reader, structures many works of the American Renaissance. Alienated from the bourgeois male identity, writers such as Melville, Emerson, and Hawthorne set up their readers as “foils,” both attacking them and attempting to refashion them through their dense, distancing, and evasive texts: “A conventionally manly ‘you’ is accused and appealed to, as double, potential convert, and comrade for the self-refashioning ‘I.’ Male rivalry looms under the fraternity… and the rivalry returns in the self-refashioning” (34). Such an argument helps to account for the difficulty and elusiveness of the American romance, but it assumes that the male response to an environment of competition is further competition. In contrast, Samuel Otter and Katherine Snyder contend that male sentimentalists employed the “I/you” rhetoric to establish bonds with their readers. Countering the view that all male authors of the American Renaissance had quarrels with their audience, Snyder argues, “Unlike his currently canonized male contemporaries, whose agon of professional authorship may be their distinguishing shared trait, Mitchell embraced wholeheartedly the nascent mass audience which his writing helped to shape. The rhetoric of ‘I and you’ in Reveries effects a sentimental commerce between author and his readers which finally troubles the boundaries of individuality and the bounds of normative manhood” (60). Likewise, Otter emphasizes the merger between self and other, author and reader, that takes place in Reveries: “The ‘I’ enunciates the ‘you’; the ‘you’ is scripted into the ‘I.’ Such splittings and enmeshings of subjects and objects enable Mitchell’s sentimental exchanges” (222). As Otter and Snyder suggest, one of the key rhetorical strategies that distinguishes male sentimentalists from high-cultural authors is the way that they address the audience, seeking sympathy and detached participation rather than competition.

In arguing that Mitchell brings his readers into his fantasies, Otter and Snyder focus on the author’s perspective, overlooking how actual readers responded to Mitchell’s invitation and negotiated sentimental exchanges with the author. Both distance and intimacy define the pose adopted by bachelor authors such as Mitchell; to use a chemical metaphor, polarity—setting two opposites in relation to each other—forms bonds. As some of Mitchell’s readers realized, Ik’s embrace of his audience was conflicted; through his evasions and shifts in tone, he pushed away even as he extended the circle of feeling. By casting his readers in the role of a character, Mitchell drops them into an emotional landscape of his creation, while still retaining the authority of the interpreter to comment upon the fantasy and to establish sentimental boundaries. That is, though Mitchell participates in a sentimental economy, it is a protectionist one, in which the narrator can determine what passes into the heart. Likewise, as we’ll see in the next section, readers guarded the borders of their own selfhood, sharing their dreams with Ik while protecting their privacy.

In the letter Mitchell finds a rhetorical form that meets his simultaneous desire for intimacy with and detachment from his audience. After publishing his first reverie, “Smoke, Flame, and Ashes,” in Southern Literary Messenger (September 1849) and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (October 1850), Mitchell received a number of notes from sympathetic admirers. In his second reverie, “Sea-Coal and Anthracite,” Mitchell refers to these letters as evidence of the emotional power of his own work, reminding his current readers that his words have moved mothers and fathers wrestling with the deaths of their children as well as girls confused by love. (Oddly, Mitchell does not list bachelors among the people who have responded to his reveries, which suggests either that they are not the intended audience or that their sympathy with Ik is taken for granted.) Although a letter represents the fixed expression of an idea and is typically written in solitude, it is constructed with a specific audience in mind, as the author shapes a persona calculated to win over the letter-reader, who is also a letter-writer (Lebow 73-74). Written after an event, the letter captures the detachment of its author as he or she reflects upon the situation. However, it also creates the sensation of a controlled, private, and intimate conversation between author and reader, making it an effective forum for the expression of sentiment; indeed many sentimental novels are epistolary, taking advantage of the letter’s capabilities as a “a heart-expressing medium between organized prose and gesture, differing markedly from social speech” (Todd 87).

Calling letters “the only true-heart talkers” and “a true soul print” (54) Mitchell maintains that only through the writing of letters can one honestly express emotions, and only through the reading of letters can one receive and understand those feelings. Mitchell emphasizes both the communicative characteristics of letters (“heart talkers”) and the mimetic (“soul print”). While conversation is “social and mixed,” a kind of joint authorship in which the participants’ unique voices are diminished, the solitary act of writing, which he calls “individual” and “integral,” enables one to create oneself on paper without interference (53). In explaining why letters enable one to express greater truth than conversation, Mitchell invokes a sexual metaphor that reveals the detached intimacy at the heart of his book: “there you are, with only the soulless pen, and the snow-white, virgin paper. Your soul is measuring itself by itself, and saying its own sayings… Utter it then freely–write it down–stamp it–burn it in the ink!” (54). Defining a celibate’s aesthetic, Mitchell insists on the solitary practice of sentiment, where the writer can control and make permanent the flow of feeling, replacing, it seems, partner with paper.

To articulate how the letter both elicits and contains feeling, Ik describes a cherished packet of correspondence that he rereads when he wants to evoke a particular mood. In this packet he keeps not only the letters of family members, but also testimonials from people who were moved by his first reverie. Discounting the public statements of critics, Marvel places most value on these fan letters, since they measure literary success through sympathy. As he touts the feeling that he inspires in readers and that they inspire in him, Ik makes the packet of letters represent his own heart: “Let me tie them together, with a new and longer bit of ribbon–not by a love knot, that is too hard—but by an easy slipping knot, that so I may get at them the better. And now, they are all together, a snug packet, and we will label them…. Souvenirs du Coeur” (58). Just as Marvel terms his packet of letters “Souvenirs du Coeur”—keepsakes of the heart—so he subtitles Reveries “Book of the Heart,” suggesting that the text produces, commemorates, contains, and stands for the heart, which itself is a metaphor for feeling.[5] In describing his love of letters, Marvel re-imagines the author as a reader, collecting private experiences to prompt his own reminiscences and feelings. Despite his passionate declarations, Ik remains a bachelor even in the way that he treats his correspondence. Rather than tying a “love knot,” which would imply commitment and single-mindedness, he uses an “easy slipping knot” to slide into—and out of—states of feeling. (An “easy slipping knot” can be a knot, or not, as the situation requires.) There is sympathy and correspondence, but Ik can maintain control over his emotions; he is able to take out the letters when he wants to fall into a reverie, but then can tie them up when he wants to turn to other modes of feeling.

“For Private Use”

By rhapsodizing over the moving experience of reading—and rereading—his correspondents’ “heart-letters,” Mitchell inspired many of his readers to actually write to him (or to Ik, who represented the ideal dreamer). Referring to Ik’s habit of treasuring letters as the artifacts and vehicles of feeling, one correspondent indicated her desire to continue a relationship with the narrator, “not only aspir[ing] to having my letter placed in the ribbon bound pacquet with those other treasured ones but also indulg[ing] in hopes of receiving a reply” (ECW, September 16).[6] As his fans hoped, their letters did move Mitchell, enough so that he diligently preserved them. [7] Between 1850 and 1853, readers sent at least 38 letters to Mitchell, and a dozen more trickled in through 1900. These fan letters, which no scholar seems to have commented upon since Waldo Dunn’s 1922 biography of Mitchell, offer an excellent opportunity to study the culture of letters in which Reveries participated, particularly nineteenth-century reading practices, notions of authorship, and male sentimentalism. While most recent commentary on reading scenes and practices is based on interpretive speculations, these documents allow us to ground theories of reader response in a historical study of reading practices, as we examine how actual readers (at least a self-selected group of enthusiasts) received Reveries.

Not only is the desire for detached intimacy elaborated within the text of Reveries, but also in the contexts surrounding it. Ann Douglas argues that the works of male sentimentalists encouraged consumption rather than production and duped their mostly female audience, but the fan letters received by Mitchell suggest the opposite: Reveries sparked fantasies of alternative identities, appealed to men as well as women, and stimulated challenging responses. In their letters, readers practiced detached intimacy as they voiced their sympathy with Ik, playfully challenged him, and asserted their own autonomy as interpreters and creators. Readers embraced Reveries in part because it allowed them to imagine themselves beyond the gendered spheres of work and domesticity, so that men often focused on leisure and feeling, while women dreamed about traveling across the ocean, indulging in a wild romance, or creating works of art. As much as fans identified with Reveries and saw it as the source of wisdom, they also questioned whether Ik was a reliable dream-guide, and whether the dreams of a bachelor were applicable to a mother, a husband, and, in particular, an unmarried woman. To explore the cultural and personal dimensions of detached intimacy, I will examine how Reveries defines and promotes this mode, how fans responded to the book, and how it was revised by female readers and writers who created the more communal or socially conscious reveries of a spinster.

Both reader response and the study of authorship are gaining increasing critical attention, but often critics explain what readers do with texts by invoking theory or analyzing the texts themselves, ignoring the lived experience of readers. Critics such as Janice Radway and Cathy Davidson have demonstrated the value of examining readers’ self-descriptions and annotations, but the richness of antebellum American fan letters remains to be studied. In the few critical studies of fan letters, critics have focused more on what they say about authorship or the culture of celebrity than what they tell us about how readers interacted with particular texts. For instance, in “Widening the World: Susan Warner, Her Readers, and the Assumption of Authorship,” Susan S. Williams uses Warner’s fan letters to argue that in response to her readers’ demands that she produce reverent, sentimental fiction, Warner suppressed her own inclination toward adventurous, worldly writing. Although such a study is valuable in recognizing the intimate relationship between reader response and authorial creation, it pays little attention to why Warner’s readers preferred sentimental fiction, how they engaged with her work, and how they presented themselves to Warner. Such absences also mar Thomas N. Baker’s brief analysis of Nathaniel Parker Willis’s relationship in letters with Emily Chubbuck, an aspiring author whom he promoted. Even though Baker provides testimony to the ways in which affectionate relationships in the nineteenth century often were “bonds woven chiefly of words” (94), he does not account for why Chubbuck found Willis a source of inspiration or how their experience of reading one another’s works led to a sense of intimacy.

Unlike entries in a diary or comments made in the margins, fan letters are consciously shaped for a particular audience, as readers-turned-authors construct their own personas and interact with the creator of the work that they love. In the letters that enthusiastic readers sent to Ik Marvel, a narrator whom many viewed—or wanted to view—as both a real person and the embodiment of fantasy, we can follow how an intimacy developed between readers and a particular author in antebellum America, an intimacy made possible through the exchange of the written word and negotiated around the literary personality constructed in the text. In their letters, Mitchell’s fans insisted that they were continuing a friendship initiated when they first opened Reveries, that the personal, spontaneous style of the book created such a vivid tone of invitation that readers presumed to write directly to Ik just as he had, they assumed, written directly to them. Since they took Ik as their audience, his correspondents focused on what he meant to them and even what he could do for them, and they often constructed personae calculated to appeal to Ik’s sensibilities. Even so, they acknowledged that the friendship might be a fiction, detecting remoteness in Ik Marvel’s professions of feeling and questioning whether Ik the narrator and Mitchell the author were the same. Conscious of Mitchell’s performance, they staged their own, using his celebration of fantasy to justify their experiments in identity. Often these experiments involved crossing normative gender boundaries, so that men found a space apart from enterprise and profession, while women could dream about travel and authorship. In their approach to Reveries, Mitchell’s fans exemplified detached intimacy, since their relationship with Mitchell—and with their own dreams—depended in large part on distance and control. Through their letters, readers became authors and creators, denying the commonplace that sentimental literature forms passive readers who lose themselves in mass-produced fantasies.

My study focuses on twenty-five letters in the Mitchell collection that offer direct commentary on Reveries of a Bachelor and that exemplify the playfulness and self-awareness of his correspondents. Mitchell carefully preserved these letters, in many cases writing the name of the correspondent and the place from which she or he was writing on the back. Based on the information that the correspondents offer about themselves in their letters, it seems that sixteen were female, nine male; thirteen appear to have been unmarried, seven married, and the marital status of five is difficult to determine. At least twelve appear to be under thirty, while eight seem to be over thirty and five do not reveal enough about themselves to substantiate a guess. In their letters, seventeen address Donald Grant Mitchell, four Ik Marvel, and four omit direct addresses altogether. Five of the correspondents (all women) sent Mitchell Valentine’s greetings, while four correspondents (apparently all women) enclosed poems. In general, most of the letters that Mitchell preserved from the 1850s were written by young unmarried women and men looking for inspiration and approval from their mentor, while most that he saved from the 1880s (after he published the second revised edition of Reveries) were written by married, middle-aged men thanking him for taking them back to the dreams of their youth. On the whole, younger readers read hopefully, older readers retrospectively.[8] Alongside the fan letters, I have examined the marginal notations that Patrick Henry of Vicksburg, Mississippi, made in his copy of Reveries in 1886, as well as the copy that Emily Dickinson read and the letters that she wrote expressing her delight with Mitchell’s work.

According to critics and, indeed, Mitchell himself, Reveries held particular appeal for the young. William Dean Howells, fondly reminiscing about his own boyhood reading, remembered that along with Irving, Shakespeare, Goldsmith, and Cervantes he admired “the gentle and kindly Ik Marvel, whose Reveries of a Bachelor and whose Dream Life the young people of that day were reading with a tender rapture” (64). Howells’s response demonstrates the extent to which readers identified the book with its benevolent narrator as well as its power to stimulate soft, emotional dreams. By labeling the audience as young, Mitchell, Howells, and other authors called upon the antebellum understanding of youth as a stage in which the mind is undisciplined, romantic, and extremely sensitive to sensations, “a time of high spirits, but also volatile and thoughtless”—a time, in other words, well-suited for reverie (Kett, Rites 103). Whereas religious counselors encouraged youths to wrestle this impulsive, passionate spirit under control, Ik Marvel preached the secular gospel that reverie led one closer to ideal truth and allowed one to play with identity without sacrificing autonomy.

Along with youth, gender was a significant category for describing Reveries’s readers. Critics recommended the book to men in particular. As an anonymous reviewer for the Literary World noted, “Reader, bachelor or Benedict, you will be all the better for possessing this daintily arranged book of Ik Marvel’s Reveries” (“Review”). Even though the reviewer identifies the audience as being predominantly either married or unmarried men, he uses a term of refinement, even femininity, to describe the reveries, as if such “daintily arranged” musings will add a necessary touch of ornate delicacy to a man’s life. The book’s appeal, however, was not limited to men. Writing in the early twentieth century, Waldo Dunn characterized Mitchell’s most fervent readers as being women who sought to win over the author: “Languishing Adas, and Claras, and Carries, and Jennies, and Dorothys, and Mary ‘darlings,’ showered him with valentines. Other and more ardent maidens wrote to inquire whether the author really was a bachelor; and, with the assurance that their hearts alone could understand and comfort that of Ik Marvel, coyly offered themselves in marriage” (230). Dunn’s exaggerated rhetoric reveals his own biases, but male and female readers did present themselves differently in their fan letters, with women more often apologizing for the intrusion or marveling at their daring in writing to him. Yet women as well as men took on aspects of the bachelor’s pose, joining him in fireside fantasies. Still, some wondered if a bachelor’s reveries could really be a woman’s, whether he could really know a woman’s heart, and whether women would have the freedom to enjoy Ik’s rapturous leisure.

Although the tone, content, and style of these letters differed as much as the correspondents themselves, they showed that the need to dream cut across categories of identity.[9] Most of Ik’s readers described themselves as facing circumstances of confinement or instability, whether because they were young men unsure about what course in life to pursue, “old maids” pained by their limited choices, mothers bedridden by illness, or young women anxious about their romantic prospects. Inspired by Ik’s reveries, many readers imagined selves that were able to transcend the social roles normally assigned to them, so that a poor youth could fantasize about economic success, a medical student could find an alternative to scientific learning, a young woman could dream of supporting her family through writing, and a would-be traveler could embark on imaginary adventures. Just as Ik was a fickle, ever-changing figure who could bridge public and private, the real and the ideal, so his readers used him as the touchstone for their own attempts to transcend boundaries. Yet readers did not bow to Ik Marvel or read uncritically; they detected his distance (and were drawn to it), wondered over the claims that he made, and revised his fantasies to construct their own. In so doing, each individually became a bachelor of arts, observant, wry, unstable.[10]

In their responses to Reveries, readers demonstrated several kinds of reactions, sometimes simultaneously: identification with Ik Marvel, the need to question and challenge the authorial persona, and the desire to push beyond the fantasies spun by Ik and articulate their own. Throughout these letters, we see readers borrowing from Mitchell’s language in expressing their attraction to his persona and asserting their own dreams. Just as Mitchell described his heart as “a bundle of letters,” so Carrie, a savvy reader from Ohio, invoked the metaphor in explaining how Ik had uncovered her own feelings, writing in a tone of amused outrage that

I have just finished the last chapter of your “Reveries” and lay down the book, feeling that you are indeed, a marvel of a man: for, how did you know what I had been thinking and feeling for this long time? How did you know that I had such an affection for letters, and find out that [I] had such a pacquet tied with a ribbon ‘almost too short’? By what necromancy did you get even a blind peep into that one corner of my heart which, I thought, was hermetically sealed–Didn’t you see the label ‘For private use’? (Carrie, October 30, 1851, 1)[11]

Even as she accuses Ik of voyeurism, Carrie plays with his metaphor for his own experience of reading letters and transforms it, rethinking the packet as her own heart and Marvel as its sympathetic reader. Thus she exchanges the reader/author positions with Ik and asserts her own imaginative authority, challenging the “you” who presumed to pronounce the feelings that she had been keeping bound up. In constructing her own pose as a witty, self-revealing reader, Carrie imitates many features of Marvel’s style—quotation (here from Marvel himself), punning (on “marvel”), and questioning—to suggest her own intense, almost surprising investment in the text. Teasingly protesting Ik’s transgression, Carrie describes him as a sort of magician who can bridge the gap between public and private through the mutuality that reading and writing make possible. Then she takes on that power herself. Ultimately, what Carrie and many other readers sought in Ik was not just sentimental connection but also imaginative license—the power to peer into possible futures and to look at themselves from different perspectives, to play with new possibilities for the “I” in the same way that Ik invented and spectated on his dream selves.

What readers found most compelling about Reveries was Mitchell’s insistence that dreams possessed even greater value than everyday experience. As he wrote in defending his reveries, “What if they have no material type–no objective form? All that is crude–a mere reduction of ideality to sense” (50). In addressing the author, many readers emphasized that he seemed to understand them as no one else did, suggesting their own sense of alienation from a culture that seemed to place material reality above dreams. For instance, Carrie lamented that she was mocked by practical thinkers for expressing her feelings and fantasies, but thanked Mitchell for validating her sentimental self-expression:

Enthusiastic and impulsive, I gave full expression to the emotion that seemed, at the moment, my very life, but my friends, the bystanders, only stared at me, and one man laughed. You remember it? –It was the sort of laugh which you might expect an iceberg to make if it only could laugh. And, when he said something about “romantic aims”–I became, suddenly, silent and have remained so ever since. But you have come to my relief and spoken for me, giving utterance to so may things which during the long silence I have thought and felt. (Oct. 30, 1851)

Here Carrie asserts that sentimental connections matter more than real-life association; Carrie’s friends are “bystanders,” belittling her through their laughs and stares, while Ik Marvel is a soul-mate, who can understand and express her feelings and dreams even though he has never met her. Just as Mitchell uses “you” to make his readers present in his reveries, so does Carrie, who casts “you,” Ik Marvel, as a spectator (and savior) at her scene of humiliation. At once, Carrie records her disenchantment with materialist values and describes how she was able to recover a relation to society—a voice—through a sentimental union with Mitchell. By imagining Mitchell as a gallant hero defending dreams, Carrie implies that she needs him to be a public voice for private values, yet she also asserts her own right to see the world romantically. When, to her glee, Mitchell wrote back to her, Carrie acknowledged that she would violate social convention by continuing a relationship in letters with the beloved author, but she insisted that the values of the heart should overrule those of the head:

–Shall I write to you again? This is a question which I have asked myself many times and many voices, conventional and providential, have croaked me out an ugly “No”– But one voice, clearer and more powerful than the rest, and coming from out my heart–says, simply, “Write”– and, so– (Dec 12, 1851)

For Carrie, exchanging letters with Ik meant not only that she could find a spokesperson for an idealist philosophy, but also that she could speak for herself in the strong, clear voice of the heart.

So intensely did some readers identify with Marvel’s reveries that they compared themselves to, or even described themselves as, characters in his work, eroding the boundaries between self and other, fiction and reality. For instance, in the extensive marginal notes that Mississippian Patrick Henry made in his copy of Reveries, he recorded his deep sense of identification with the bachelor narrator, even writing a ditty about the sad lot of the “poor old bachelor” in the margins.

Patrick Henry’s annotations

Figure 3: Patrick Henry’s annotations

When Ik described “a Bachelor of seven and twenty,” Patrick crossed out the seven and wrote in “four,” presumably inserting his own age and thereby merging his identity with the bachelor narrator’s.[12] By rewriting the text to reflect himself, Henry worked through his own fears and aspirations as a bachelor, since he shared “self-same feelings” with Ik.

While most male correspondents identified with the bachelor, young women often imagined themselves as his beloved, and some older women related to Ik’s unmarried aunt. Playing with the fiction that Ik was real and that she was a part of his reveries, Carrie of Ohio enthusiastically observed the correspondence of her name with the name of the beloved wife in “Morning, Noon, and Night”: “It will not be hard for you to direct your letter, for my own, real name is Carrie” (October 30, 1851). For Carrie, such a coincidence in names helped to explain why she felt such a deep sympathy with Ik; it is almost as if mailing the letter were an unnecessary step, since Carrie saw herself as the living embodiment of the dream wife that Mitchell had created. But Carrie did mail the letter in order to make real a relationship that had only been imagined in Reveries. While Carrie’s imaginative relation was based on romance, Dorothy, a middle-aged unmarried woman, identified with Ik’s spinster Aunt Tabithy, gently chastising him for calling her “old” at forty and for saying that she took snuff (March 1, 1852).

As much as these correspondents attempted to insert themselves into Ik’s fantasy (which we might also regard as a savvy attempt to elicit Ik’s attention), there is an important difference between the Carrie that Mitchell created and the one who wrote to him: unlike Mitchell’s creations, his correspondents articulated their own desires and shaped their own fantasies, talking back to him. When Mitchell responded, Carrie articulated her excitement and wonder that a dream relationship could assume tangible form:

You did write to me–dear Ik Marvel!–When the letter was brought to me, I held it in my hand, wondering–doubting, half-fearing that it was only a snowflake which the driving storm had sent in; and that, in the glow of my excitement, it would dissolve–and be no more.– But, it is a real letter–with your seal upon the envelope, and your spirit in its words. I have it safe–there in my covered work-basket–I see it shining through the meshes–and there it shall stay–unless, indeed, it should some day have a companion–then I will get them a snug little box where they shall go to house-keeping. (December 12, 1851)

Just as Reveries is concerned with the relationship between the real and the ideal, so is Carrie’s letter, as she expresses surprise that something sent out by the evanescent Marvel could assume physical reality. Yet as much as Carrie delights in the spirit of Mitchell’s words, she dwells upon the letter’s material form, which is the sign of her connection to the author. To describe her hopes that she will receive another letter, Carrie chooses a metaphor that might have terrified a bachelor by suggesting that the two notes would marry and set up housekeeping, making the relationship in letters a domestic one. Whereas Mitchell describes tying up his letters and setting them aside, Carrie places her letter from Mitchell in her work basket, where it is enclosed but visible from behind the meshes, part of an arrangement of domestic tools within easy reach. For Carrie, it seems, the letters introduce an element of fantasy into home life, even as they are being integrated into that life.

In striving to establish a sentimental relationship with Mitchell, fans praised his virtues, professed interest in his personal life, and imagined themselves as part of his reveries. Yet their letters also attest to the ways in which the narrator’s distance both intensified their fascination with him and caused them to refuse the union between I and you. Perplexed by the ambiguity of the author’s identity—was Ik Marvel a pen name, or was he an invented narrator entirely separate from Donald Grant Mitchell?—fans persistently questioned whether Mitchell was recording his authentic feelings. What drew particular attention to the relationship between the real and the ideal, and more specifically between Mitchell the author and Ik the narrative persona, was the debate over whether Mitchell really were a bachelor. Following the publication of the first reverie, “Smoke, Flame, and Ashes,” a critic stirred up the controversy by asserting that a bachelor could not possibly write such rich descriptions of domestic life. The debate opened up crucial questions about genre, literary persona, and authorship: To what extent is a work that presents itself as the authentic thoughts of a narrator autobiographical, and to what extent should it be? Can a bachelor understand marriage? By frowning upon Mitchell for supposedly inventing his bachelorhood, the critic implied that the conventions of the sentimental essay demanded a correlation between the author’s experience and the narrator’s musings, that the sentimental essayist must inscribe reality rather than explore fantasy. To the charge that he made up his bachelorhood, Mitchell replied, “I thank [the critic] for thinking so well of me,” then went on to assert that the bachelor best depicts domesticity because he is apart from it and without bias (ii).

Mitchell’s fans went a step further in promoting his bachelorhood, insisting that the idealist, one whose only experience of marriage is imagined, provides the truest description of domesticity precisely because he is not restricted by crude fact. As an anonymous reader stated in her Valentine’s message to Mitchell, “Still I can scarce conceive it possible for one to describe as you have, love, domestic happiness and what a ‘good wife’ should be without having experienced it all:–yet I have heard others reason that proves the very fact of your bachelorship” (February 14, 1852). According to the idealist view, Ik’s sentimental power resulted from his very distance from domesticity, since as an unmarried man he could feel all the more intensely what he lacked and use his imagination to create moving images of family life. In his preface to Dream Life, his follow-up to Reveries, Mitchell concurred, insisting that what matters is not fact, but feeling; if his work made someone weep real tears, then it was in a deep sense true: “if I have made the feeling real, I am content that the facts should be false. Feeling indeed has a higher truth in it, than circumstance” (15). Mitchell claimed that the bachelor, who could “scud off under each pleasant breeze of feeling” (Dream Life 18), was best positioned to explore the nature of feeling and consciousness because he was not moored to any set reality.

Still, readers wanted to know the truth about Mitchell, to verify that the feelings, if not the experience, were true. By writing to Mitchell, many readers hoped to peek behind the veil shielding his privacy and come to know this sympathetic, but intensely detached, author. In her Valentine (addressed to Mitchell, not Ik), Aggie Bee Smallwood admitted, “I have wondered while perusing it, whether your real heart of hearts, breathed forth those beautiful words and ideas. ‘Twould seem so, and I wish to believe it.–I would love, so dearly, to become acquainted with the history of your life,” (February 14, 1853, Tomsville, Ohio). Using sentimental language such as “heart of hearts” and “breathed forth,” language that Mitchell used in his own book of the heart, Smallwood tests the truth of the words that so moved her, hoping that external statement matches internal experience. By “real,” she means the emotional conditions of Mitchell’s life, especially his relationship with female family members: Is he married? Has he, like Smallwood, lost a mother? If so, author and reader share a common experience, putting them in greater sympathy. Even as Smallwood embraces sentimental values, she hints at her fear that Mitchell’s beautiful words might be illusory, produced by the brain rather than the heart. For some readers, experience intensified the emotional impact of the ideas.

While Smallwood worried whether Mitchell the author matched Ik the narrator, other readers were drawn by Ik’s remoteness. One, a seventeen year-old who called herself “Enigma,” contended that Ik (whom she addressed rather than Mitchell) was the real enigma:

I wish I knew you— I always wish it–when I finish reading one of your precious volumes, all of which I hold as sacred works in my own little library–why I always put a paper between your books and the ones on either side… What a strange man you are–how you must hate the world–do you? you have such a fine mind, such a noble heart– do you pity or despise us–or is pity mingled with scorn– I cannot tell your character by reading your books, for you change so often, and draw your pictures equally well–Do you wish any one to know what you are— oh! how strange. (n.d.)

Enigma’s letter, broken up and intensified with dashes and asides, captures the tension between separateness and intimacy that drives Reveries.[13] In Ik, Enigma senses both ideal, “noble” feeling and a detached, almost godlike observer. As she organizes her library, Enigma imitates Ik’s own moves in setting him—or at least the “sacred works” that embody him—apart, suggesting that for some fans his remoteness led to even greater adulation. Enigma links the bachelor’s ability to “draw pictures” to his variability, as if his habits of self-disguise and self-transformation contributed to his artistry. In this passage in which “I” attempts to understand “you,” Enigma takes on the voice of an author as she expresses her admiration and suspicion of this mysterious creator. She too assumes a mask, protecting her privacy and making her reader wonder how to decode the enigma.

Paradoxically, many readers’ identification with Ik depended on their distance from him. By peering at him from afar, they could protect their vision of him—and of themselves. Reveries’ fans responded enthusiastically when Mitchell, capitalizing on the success of his book, embarked on a lecture tour, since they were able to sit in the audience and study the beloved author without having to engage directly with him. Remarking on her experience watching Mitchell lecture, an anonymous reader confessed that “To speak truly, I was slightly disappointed when I first saw you last Monday evening but the fire of genius that shone through your eye and the kindness and gentleness that spoke through your lips, completely won my —fancy. And as I watched you I could not help imagining it was yourself alone, I had portrayed to my mind before” (February 14, 1852). To recover from the disappointment that Mitchell was not as she imagined him to be, this correspondent activated her imagination to recast the actual speaker as the dreamed-of Ik, an “Ikon” that she cherished in private. Replicating Mitchell’s own habit of transmuting everyday objects into spiritual symbols, she reads his face for signs of virtue, for what she wanted out of the ideal narrator: genius, kindness, and gentleness. The power of this scene of reading—an interpretation of Mitchell’s physiognomy rather than his writing—comes from the correspondent’s ability to see him without being herself seen. In reading Reveries, writing to the author, and listening to him lecture, readers claimed the power to control the sentimental fantasies sparked by Mitchell.

Even as they scrutinized and re-imagined Ik, many readers imitated him by drawing a veil over their own private lives. Ten of Mitchell’s correspondents—all presumably women writing to him in the 1850s—either adopted pen names, used only their initials, or left off their last names from their letters. As much as they participated in what Samuel Otter calls the sentimental project “to make the personal public and to scrutinize the subjective,” his correspondents wanted both to protect their own privacy and to claim a personal intimacy with Mitchell (218). Women, it seems, were especially afraid that they were trespassing by contacting an unknown author, suggesting that the author/ reader relationship was more complex and fraught than a simple transaction in the sentimental economy. Yet by keeping their identities mysterious, Mitchell’s fans could also arouse his curiosity and assert their ability to author their own personae. Staging self-conscious performances, readers were thrilled to present themselves as more romantic and more courageous than they thought themselves to be in everyday life. Enigma acknowledged that she was creating a braver self in her letter and predicted, “You will know who I am some time—but will not recognize me as the same independent soul—of creature, who writes to strangers on her own account merely to please her fancy.” Even as she admitted that she differed from the self shaped in rhetoric, Enigma nevertheless asserted her own pleasure in this imaginative game, as under the cover of a letter she could construct a mysterious, fantastic identity that might shade into the self she revealed to others.

As Enigma’s comments suggest, several correspondents acknowledged that how Mitchell perceived them would reflect who they were—that is, as authors, how their audience received their “work” (the self as constructed in their letters) would help to define it. Readers thus wanted to imagine Ik as a sentimental, kind-hearted reader and author, hoping that he would view them with the same softness as he did his dream characters in Reveries. But such hopes were disturbed when one fan, Carrie, began reading The Lorgnette, the book Mitchell had published under the pen name Timon immediately before he wrote Reveries. In an inverse of Reveries’s emotional registers, the cynical bachelor Timon narrates a satirical account of New York society. The essence of Timon’s kind of bachelor narration is represented by the picture that heads every chapter: a gentleman holds up to his eyes a lorgnette (opera glasses), obscuring his face (and therefore his identity) and making his prying gaze the focus of the picture.[14] While Ik gazes with misty eyes at his dream creations, Timon scrutinizes the pretentiousness and foolishness of the fashionable. With this discomfiting image in mind, Carrie refused to be brought under such terrifying, anonymous scrutiny, protesting “Do not ever peer at me through those great Owlish glasses—which “boo” at one… I am yet true to the ‘Reveries’—and would be regarded only by the kindly—meditative eye of Ik Marvel” (December 12, 1851). Although Carrie wanted to believe that Ik and Donald Grant Mitchell were essentially the same, she worried that Mitchell might be more Timon than Marvel. By contrasting Ik with another bachelor narrator, Carrie makes clear what was important about the beloved figure: his gently thoughtful, “kind” eyes, eyes through which she would liked to be seen and defined. If Timon squints at her, she might be a silly, superficial belle; if Ik beholds her, however, she is a beautiful icon of womanhood, invested with spiritual meaning. A keen reader herself, Carrie defines her own ideal reader, demanding the power not only over what she read but also how she would be read.

Carrie knew that she was embracing a fiction, but she insisted that her romantic values, values that Ik embodied, should supersede any vision that strips away romance. Thus Carrie asserted her own imaginative freedom in defining how she would see Ik. As she wrote,

I have wished, while looking at the true portrait on the frontispiece—speaking still of the Lorgnette—that I could lift the hand and read the signs of the face it hides. But I have a portrait which fancy calls a faithful likeness, and it has great advantage over any picture which steel or paint can produce, for, it changes countenance, and puts on expression to suit its various moods, but is earnest—ever! (December 12, 1851)

Through her imagination, Carrie could make Ik whatever she wanted him to be, and so shape her own identity as a fellow dreamer. In her dream vision of Ik, she could integrate intimacy and detachment; that is, she could insist upon the sincerity of his feelings yet embrace his refusal to commit to any static identity.

If Ik was going to drive their fantasies, then his devoted readers wanted to exercise some control over how he would appear, preferring text to experience, Ik Marvel to Donald Grant Mitchell. For them, Ik represented a romantic, dreamy, and transitory mood, the kind of mood that encouraged, for instance, flirtation with an unknown bachelor. In this sense, Ik’s distance made him all the more enthralling, since his persona invited interpretation and revision. Acknowledging the attractiveness of the dream persona, an anonymous correspondent blurted, “So farewell and remember if you think too harshly of my forwardness, that I have written to Ik Marvel the ideal, and not to Donald Mitchell the substantial–and also it is St. Valentines day and leap year” (February 14, 1852). Even as this correspondent defends her own action in boldly addressing Ik, she also suggests that she could write precisely because Ik was not real, because she was tapping the hazy feeling that he represented. By insisting that their fantasies of Ik were more compelling than the real thing, his readers claimed their own authority as interpreters and creators.[15] Readers were so insistent in defining their Ik Marvel because they used him to prompt, even mediate, their own fantasies. Some men saw in Reveries a reminder to cultivate feeling and domestic retirement, while some women felt pulled by the attractions of what we might call the public sphere—travel, writing, and open flirtation with unknown men. Still, their dreaming was tentative and self-aware. Spanning both public and private, masculine and feminine, Mitchell enabled his readers to stretch the boundaries of identity, yet to do so from relatively safe, uncommitted positions.

For many men, Ik demonstrated that manliness and sentimentality were compatible, and that a man could hold onto the dreams of youth even as the concerns of adulthood pressed on him. As Dr. J. Holton wrote

I have found it really a book of the heart—of my heart—an echo of my own reveries, for I too like you have even in my childhood hours been a dreamer and every thing that was then bright for me lived in the future… Through my professional studies I was a dreamer still… For while poring—with a indulgence which necessity could alone enforce—over the musty pages of scientific research, such a volume as your “reveries” was worth more to me than a thousand that contained the records of the healing art. (Kent, Maryland, February 20, 1853)

While professional books focus on practical knowledge and present necessities, Reveries offered Holton broad visions of the future, yet it also connected him to the past, to the living energies and hopes of youth. Holton loved the book because it called to mind his idealized conception of himself as a dreamer and enabled him to heal himself through feeling. While Holton associated Reveries with his own youthful dreams, other men emphasized how the book guided them through the stages of manhood. Writing in 1886, when the second revised edition of Reveries was published, J. Macdonald Oxley commended Mitchell for producing a book that aided his own growth as a man and shaped his understanding of love. He noted how he read this book, a work of “perennial power and charm,” at different stages—as a youth, as he was preparing for marriage, as a young father, and as a middle-aged man—and how each reading illuminated new feelings: “I enjoyed the dear delicious Reveries more than at the first… I know that I owe you no small debt of gratitude because of the pure ennobling image you present of love that is guiltless of lust, and of the profound impressions that your work made upon me in the formative period of my life” (May 14, 1886). For Oxley, Mitchell provided a vision of love and marriage that shaped his own life, as if the ideal expression preceded and enhanced the actual experience. With Mitchell as a touchstone, Oxley constructed a model of manhood that emphasized dreaming and feeling over work and reputation. Like Carrie, Oxley describes how Ik could have different meanings at different times, as the fluidity of the reverie stimulated readers’ experiments in shaping themselves and their understanding of the text according to psychological needs.

Holton’s and Oxley’s appreciation for the ways in which Reveries rejuvenated them and shaped their sense of manhood echoes the book’s published reviews. Although Katherine Snyder argues that Reveries offered an alternative vision of manhood in which the inner life is given priority (62), Reveries’ reviewers articulated a more dialectical view of masculinity, in which a few hours spent cultivating the inner life prepared a man for return to the public life. As Fitz-James O’Brien commented: “When you have been all day long slaving at some hard, dry business, that chokes up all kindly sympathies, and parches every secret spring, come home, put on your dressing-gown, place a cup of delicate French chocolate on a table near you, and read the third chapter of ‘reveries of a Bachelor’” (74). O’Brien recommends to bourgeois men that when the demands of enterprise have sucked them dry, they temporarily become like Ik, embracing the bachelor’s domesticity by dressing in the garments of leisure, drinking a sweet, comforting beverage, and spilling tears over a book. Rather than locating the restorative power of the private sphere with wife and children, O’Brien suggests that sentimental literature by and about men can revitalize male readers for work. Likewise, a reviewer for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine wrote in recommending the illustrated edition of Reveries (which was issued just in time to satisfy the sentimental urgings of the Christmas holidays), “We can recommend Ik Marvel’s lifesome, soul-ful pages to all whose spirits are chafed with the wear and tear of this working-day world” (“Literary” 281). Both of these reviewers recognized an interaction between, rather than a strict separation of, the spheres, viewing feeling as a necessary balance to industry but insisting that Reveries had value in restoring men to the “working-day world.”

Even as Reveries connected some men with domestic values, others saw it as a celebration of bachelor independence, feeling, and fraternity. Like Oxley, William Thompson claimed that Reveries helped to make him into a thinking, feeling man, but he insisted upon maintaining his distance from domesticity: “I am poor and illiterate–know nothing but what I learnt from newspapers and magazines, was almost old enough to marry before I began to think, about anything–but thank God I am not married– I tried for a long time to find something to read that suited my feelings and never found it till I got your ‘Reveries’” (July 1, 1852). Thompson describes himself as a self-made man—or rather a man in the making—and suggests that Marvel furnishes a model for determined independence that is energized by feeling. In order to preserve this sense of autonomy, Thompson contends not only that he needs to remain single, but also his role model, begging “Dont marry for a while, Ik. I’m going to New York, and I’ll see you some of these days: but you’ll never see me. Just write a few words, Ik” (St. Louis, July 1, 1852). Thompson’s letter captures the tension between intimacy and detachment, as he insists that his mobility and his emotional energy depend upon not only Ik’s continued availability, but also on his own ability to remain hidden. At once, Thompson expressed his desire for emotional connection and for distance, his hope to gaze at Ik but not be seen by him. By peering at Ik, whether on the street or between pages, Thompson could feel thrilled, but he didn’t risk the direct give-and-take of an actual relationship.

In a sense, Thompson’s note is a love letter in which he voices a deep identification with Ik, yet draws back, implying that part of the appeal is the author’s very inaccessibility. Likewise, many women sent Mitchell letters in which they voiced affection and love for the author, yet acknowledged the fragility of their feelings. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, four of the sixteen letters written by women are explicitly Valentine’s messages. By writing to the meditative bachelor, female readers could commit a small rebellion against social boundaries without exposing themselves to real danger. Imagining Ik as an ideal lover, an anonymous reader attested to the conflict between domestic duty and romantic inclination that Reveries called forth. Touting the book’s sentimental values, she wrote in her Valentine’s message, “I lay down your books, always with a sense of humility, a fresh clinging love for home, and its inmates, and a kindlier feeling towards the world in general” (February 14, 1852). Yet in this same letter, the anonymous correspondent blurts out that she has evaded the surveillance of her father in order to write to Ik:

it is a little, secret romantic mystery to think over–a happy consciousness that you (perhaps not) have read, actually read words that I have written–an involuntary impulse to–pshaw–what would dear Papa say (if he only knew) who is now sleeping so contentedly below, little dreaming what his ‘sissy Mary’ is doing just over his head, well I cannot write so well or so bad by daylight, it throws too broad a matter of fact glare over nonsense, but when all the household is still, and I alone with odd thoughts and fancies, at the witching hour of night– why then, I feel as if I could dare to cast off the restraint of ‘what would the world say’ if–as that little if what a world of joy or sorrow it is the gate to… (unnamed correspondent, February 14, 1852, 2-3)

This anonymous reader seems to be inviting Ik to be a voyeur, to sneak past the supervision of her father and stare at her moonlit fantasies, creating an intimacy that unites the looker and the looked-at (for she is peering at Ik just as he is staring at her). In writing to Ik, the correspondent takes one step toward resisting “what would the world say” and following her own desires, which are tinged with eroticism, pursued in solitude, and activated by the seeming availability of the bachelor-dreamer. Nevertheless, she indicates that these dreams, like Ik’s, are only temporary, and that once day returns she will continue to be governed by the authority of her father (with occasional forays into fantasy, a fantasy that ultimately reinforces domesticity by focusing on marriage as its aim).

While some female readers were inspired by Reveries to dream of love, others developed professional ambitions. E.C.W., a young woman from North Carolina, asked Ik to use her letter as a “specimin” in judging whether she could make money as an author.[16] For her, the dream of authorship presented an alternative to domestic work. However, sensing that her culture frowned upon female economic enterprise, E.C.W. insisted that she would write only to support her family:

This is only one of those pet schemes that will give me incalculable amount of pleasure if it succeeds; but there will be no harm done if it lives only in my fancy– Beyond making my home a happy one to Father and brothers, lightening my Mothers cares and smoothing the path of my only sister–a child as yet– I have no ambition–and I will sit down as cheerfully to home duties Mr. Marvel with your rebuke for my presumption in my pocket along with the keys, as if I had dreamed of any higher priveledge than the making of puddings and pies for these dear ones to eat– (Wilmington NC, Sep 16th)

Here E.C.W. articulates a central tension found in many of the women’s letters between obligations to home and dreams of transcending their quotidian tasks by creating poetry. Yet E.C.W. is careful to put her dream of writing into practical, self-sacrificing terms, as she promises that she would support her family through her imaginative efforts. Like many readers (and indeed like Ik himself), she backs away from the violation that a career as a writer might imply—and from the possibility of disappointment—by saying that she is content to let the dream remain just a dream.

Reading Reveries enabled some to look beyond limited gender roles and to imagine alternative lives, yet they were conscious of the potential violation behind their dreams.[17] For instance, Carrie proclaimed that Mitchell’s descriptions of European travels in his Fresh Gleanings activated her own dream life, yet worried about the consequences of fulfilling such dreams:

I have never been in Europe myself–Not I… But I want to go–have a great longing for a flight, out and up, among the free, bold, glorious things of this wide earth… I try to convince myself, that, such a glad flight would unfit me for a contented return to the common, homely scenes which now surround me…. I will hope to go yet–and if my bright dreams are never realized–yet, I will still dream on–and never cease to long for the grand and the beautiful. (Urbana, Ohio, October 30, 1851, 3-4)

Here Carrie arrives at a fundamental question that many female readers confronted: could Ik Marvel’s dreams, as alluring as they are, be their own? By reading about Ik’s travels, Carrie was captivated by the desire to go off on her own adventures, but she also acknowledged the warnings of her culture that such travels are not for unaccompanied ladies. In response, Carrie takes on a typically Ik Marvelish position, insisting that the dream is supreme because it connects one to beauty without threatening to unsettle reality.

If men embraced Reveries because it could restore their sentimental energies, women often enacted a more resistant yet fascinated relationship with the text, both seeking the ideals represented by the bachelor narrator and questioning whether they were appropriate. As compelling as many women readers found Ik Marvel’s Reveries, they detected some distortions in his depictions of women and therefore asserted their right to speak for themselves. Rather than presenting complex, developed female characters, Mitchell dreamt up stereotypes of women: the flirt; the crusty but tender-hearted spinster aunt; the sweet but dying girl cousin; the outwardly beautiful but inwardly cruel wife; and the bluestocking. Disturbed by such stereotypes, Carrie reprimanded Ik for presuming to know women’s inner dreams: “But, Isaac, though you are an excellent reader of hearts–you, a man, cannot read a Woman’s heart-writing. It has hieroglyphics which a woman, alone, can translate. You might, perhaps, understand something from her interpretation” (October 30, 1851, 2). By chastising Ik for his presumption, Carrie asserted women’s rights to translate the mysterious language of their hearts and justified women becoming writers as well as readers. Taking on the powerful voice of Ik’s Aunt Tabithy (who calls him Isaac), Carrie demanded that Ik read what women have written (both literally and metaphorically) rather than pretending to produce their stories himself.

Why not have the reveries of a spinster?

As Carrie asserts, the Reveries of a Bachelor could not be equated with the dreams of a woman. However, several female authors rewrote Reveries from a woman’s perspective, rejecting the solitude and solipsism of the bachelor’s model of sentimental production and instead constructing one based on human relationships. An anonymous author published “The Reverie of an Old Maid” (1851) less than a year after the original Reveries was published, and Mitchell’s book continued to claim cultural importance 46 years later, when Helen Davies wrote Reveries of a Spinster (1897). In a sense, we could label these texts “spinster fictions” rather than “bachelor fictions,” since they focus on single women and the challenges they must face, considering but ultimately deriding the bachelor’s habits of detached fantasizing. Perhaps the most angry repudiation of Ik’s idealism and detachment comes in “The Reverie of an Old Maid,” which appeared in The National Era less than a year after Mitchell’s book was published. Focusing on the suffering of a solitary spinster rather than a bachelor, the author insists that, for women, happiness can only be found in marriage: “A bachelor is a solitary being certainly, but men do not feel, like women, the need of home sympathy and home affections…. He does not feel any craving for family joys; he has no vacant chamber, haunted by a sense of its own loneliness, in his heart” (412). This anonymous author reworks Mitchell’s language of the heart by giving priority to domesticity, equating a vacant house with an empty, unfulfilled heart. According to Ik, fantasy provides insight into suffering, but also offers a means of avoiding it; yet the unmarried woman in this story discovers that fantasizing only increases her despair by tempting her away from Christian acceptance of her fate.

Likewise, Helen Davies’ Reveries of a Spinster criticizes the passivity and social withdrawal of the bachelor, but it is nevertheless drawn by the fantasy that Mitchell promotes. As the title hints, Reveries of a Spinster takes Mitchell’s work as its touchstone, but Davies transforms the narrative of bachelor sentimentalism by using as her protagonist an unmarried, impoverished schoolteacher named Marjory Jones.[18] Whereas Ik occupies a comfortably middle-class situation, shuttling between his home in the country and his apartment in the city, Marjory describes her spinsterhood in terms of economic and emotional deprivation. She must eke out a meager living, subsist in a small, threadbare boardinghouse room, and deal with the disappointment of unfulfilled maternal urges. With this drearier setting, Reveries of a Spinster raises questions about the values that the leisured Ik puts forward: Is it really better to dream than to live in the real world? Is a solitary life preferable to raising a family? Do dreamers have any obligation to act so that they can alleviate the pain of others?

Initially Marjory embraces Mitchell’s view that art and fantasy can be superior to experience, finding comfort in the few works of art that decorate her room—the cheap prints of Madonna and Child tacked to the wall, the old volumes of Thackeray, Dickens, and Shakespeare that line her single shelf of books. Like Mitchell’s fans, Marjory uses her tokens of art to call forth memories and to inspire acts of dreaming. When most works fail to console her heartache, Marjory pulls down her “well-thumbed” copy of Reveries of a Bachelor and insists that its romantic message should apply as much to an unmarried woman as a bachelor: “Why not have the Reveries of a Spinster?…. Why do I care if I live in the third story back-room in a boarding-house, shut away from life and love, if I can create for myself a hidden world of romance, in which I can roam at will, with the chosen companion of my heart?” (21-22). As much as Marjory escapes from her plight through fantasy, she ultimately finds it inadequate to experience, since fancy can only heighten emotional expectation rather than resolving real problems.

Although Reveries of a Spinster duplicates the Reveries of a Bachelor by including scenes of lonely fireside dreaming, the former emphasizes social duty and imagines an approach to art that confronts real-world suffering through spontaneous, sincere expression of feeling. Marjory befriends a muckraking Scottish journalist named Kenneth, who takes her to a crowded, dilapidated tenement. When she meets an impoverished, abused woman and her hungry child, Marjory employs the imaginative practices that Ik teaches—she transmutes the real into the ideal, seeing in everyday life a sign of a moral or emotional truth. But Marjory pushes beyond Sensibility and accepts the injunction to offer these sufferers real help, paying for the woman and her child to escape urban turmoil and move to a country home. In order to afford this commitment, Marjory must give up her plans to purchase more volumes of Thackeray, but she decides that “[t]he books may come some day, and if they never do, I shall have more pleasure out of this. Human beings are more interesting reading than printed pages” (150). Here we might see a crucial distinction between bachelors’ reveries and spinsters’, as Marjory commits herself to act and decides that her own pleasure in reading should be sacrificed for a greater good. By no means does Davies reject art; instead, she imagines a social function for it, as Marjory soon becomes an improvisatrice who interprets “the sorrow and pathos of living” at the piano and crafts moral art inspired by reverie (162).

In the end, Reveries of a Spinster backs away from the dream of a single life dedicated to art and service and upholds domesticity. Although Davies does expand women’s roles to include artist and social worker, she suggests that a woman cannot be both an artist and a mother, so Marjory becomes “a virgin knight” for her art (180). Yet this sacrifice is ill-conceived, since at the end of the novel Marjory misses the concrete fulfillment (rather than abstract dream) of love and motherhood. In the last scene, as Marjory muses in a marveling pose by the fire, she realizes that real life should come before the dream life: “There are times like to-night, when my inspiration fails me. It seems vague and unsatisfying. It is like trying to warm frozen fingers on a winter’s night by the light of the moonbeams, instead of by a genial coal fire…. I want earth love to-night, tangible and real” (214-15). Even though women’s dreams may encompass the bachelor’s, Davies suggests that a bachelor’s dreams are too insubstantial, inconsequential, and superficial to merit adoption by women, who yearn for home and family.

Unlike Davies, Emily Dickinson wholeheartedly embraced the act of dreaming, but she rejected the pure solitude that Ik represented, positing instead a vision of companionate dreaming and radical creation. Although (and perhaps partly because) Dickinson’s father Edward detested Reveries, his children Austin, Emily, and Lavinia adored it, using it as the touchstone for their own dreams and as a justification for art (Reynolds 34). As Emily laughingly lamented in a letter to Austin, their father could not comprehend their attraction to such “frivolous” writing:

Father was very severe to me; he thought I’d been trifling with you, so he gave me quite a trimming about “Uncle Tom” and “Charles Dickens” and those “modern Literati” who he says are nothing, compared to past generations, who flourished when he was a boy. Then he said there were “somebody’s rev-e-ries,” he didn’t know whose they were, that he thought were very ridiculous– so I’m quite in disgrace at present, but think of that ‘pinnacle’ on which you always mount, when anybody insults you, and that’s quite a comfort to me. (April 2, 1853; I: 237)

Reveries brought out a fundamental generational conflict over “sentimental” versus “serious” literature. Yet Emily Dickinson adopts a typically Ik Marvelish response in dealing with her father’s disdain—she jokes and separates herself from her father’s views, imagining herself above it all with Austin on Parnassus.

Why was Emily Dickinson so enamored of this book? We can find some hints in the copy of Reveries of a Bachelor that once belonged to the Dickinson family and that is now held by the Beinecke Library, for in this volume Emily Dickinson drew lines or asterisks next to passages that held special significance for her.[19] Dickinson marked her enthusiasm for Ik Marvel’s meditations on love, death, and the idealized future, as well as for his resistance to the social injunction that he marry just to marry. Though Dickinson’s marks are enigmatic, she—like many other readers—appeared to be moved by Marvel’s idealism, as well as his sense of passion and potential bubbling beneath the surface. Thus she marked “There lies in the depth of every man’s soul a mine of affection, which from time to time will burn with the seething heat of a volcano, and heave up lava-like monuments, through all the cold strata of his commoner nature…. Affection is the stepping stone to God. The heart is our only measure of infinitude” (259). For Dickinson, this passage, one of the vital statements of this “book of the heart,” might have signified the yet unrealized power of feeling to achieve transcendence, an explosion of the everyday. Like Mitchell, Dickinson incorporated the metaphor of volcanoes in her own work, exploring the tension between external and internal, what is and the disruptive potential of what could be.[20] Dickinson also joined Mitchell in mocking stereotypical women who lacked depth, placing marks next to passages belittling flirts—“She is always gay, because she has no depth of feeling to be stirred” (74)—and busybodies—“some country women, who wore stiff bonnets, and eat fennel, and sung with the choir” (173-4). A passage about overzealous relatives pushing the young toward marriage merited enough attention for Dickinson to put a plus sign next to it, as if she shared Marvel’s annoyance at “pleasant old ladies, and trim, excellent, good-natured, married friends, who talk to [the bachelor] about nice matches–‘very nice matches,’–matches, which never go off?” (133).

One is tempted to hypothesize that Dickinson admired Marvel in part for giving grandeur to being single, representing it as a state of heightened imagination and independence of thought. Through celibacy, both Mitchell and Dickinson were able to commit their resources to contemplation and creation, crafting artistic identities that attempted to avoid the separation of spheres by positing a zone of imaginative production that existed in tension with both. In a letter to Mrs. Josiah Holland, Emily Dickinson developed metaphors for the fluidity of identity and playfully referred to her own bachelorhood. Imagining the thrill that Holland would feel upon her husband’s return from a lecture tour, Dickinson wrote, “I gather from ‘Republican’ that you are about to doff your weeds for a Bride’s Attire. Vive le fireside! Am told that fasting gives to food marvellous Aroma, but by birth a Bachelor, disavow Cuisine” (Letters II:350). In this ambivalent portrait of domesticity, Dickinson suggests that the wife’s state of being is entirely dependent upon the husband, so that his absence makes her a widow who must renounce pleasure, while his presence brings about a wedding feast of sorts. Yet Dickinson’s almost monastic asceticism, her refusal to even taste fine foods, yields its own rewards; if she doesn’t know what she is missing, she doesn’t feel the lack. Whereas the wife’s identity shifts between widow and bride, Dickinson asserts that her bachelorhood is inherent, with her from birth. By claiming this conventionally masculine identity, she asserts the power of deliberate renunciation. Perhaps in describing the “marvellous Aroma” that fasting brings to food, Dickinson is punning on Mitchell’s pen name and playing with his aesthetics of distance. In disavowing rather than making vows, perhaps she had in mind Ik Marvel’s version of bachelorhood, where the dream is preferable to the fulfillment.

Yet Dickinson, an imaginative and critical reader, rejected Mitchell’s insistence on solitary dreaming and claimed the right to succeed him.[21] Using Reveries as the inspiration for her own imaginative flights, Emily Dickinson wrote to her close friend (and future sister-in-law) Susan Gilbert,

It was such an evening, Susie, as you and I would walk and have such pleasant musings–if only you were here perhaps we would have a ‘Reverie’ after the form of ‘Ik Marvel,’ indeed I do not know why it would’nt be just as charming as of that lonely Bachelor, smoking his cigar– and it would be far more profitable as “Marvel” only marvelled, and you and I would try to make a little destiny to have for our own…. Dont you hope he will live as long as you and I do–and keep on having dreams and writing them to us… We will be willing to die Susie– when such as he have gone, for there will be none to interpret these lives of our’s. (Selected Letters 66-67)

By using the word “interpret,” Dickinson shows why Mitchell was so important to his readers: rather than imposing a vision on them, he seemed to give significance to their own dreams and lives. Although Dickinson suggests that Marvel brings meaning to the inner lives that she and Susan lead, she moves beyond Marvel’s fantasies and builds one of her own—a fantasy of mutuality, of shared dreaming between two female friends, a fantasy that she hopes to put into practice, for personal “profit” and pleasure. What Dickinson wants to implement is dreaming as a loving bond that is at once revelatory and comforting. We find in Dickinson’s dreams of collaborative dreaming a description of her own relationship with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, a relationship that Martha Nell Smith has recently shown to be crucial to Dickinson’s poetry. With Emily Dickinson, then, we see two modes of reading coming together: individualist and social, receptive and creative, worldly and fantastic.

Mitchell continued to be a touchstone for Emily Dickinson’s imaginings, yet in her comments on his next book, Dream Life, she asserted an almost Bloomian will to surpass the bachelor author. As she wrote in a letter to Austin,

“Dream Life” is not near so great a book as the “Reveries of a Bachelor[“], yet I think it full of the very sweetest fancies, and more exquisite language I defy a man to use; on the whole I enjoy it very much, tho’ I can’t help wishing all the time, that he had been translated like Enoch of old, after his Bachelor’s Reverie, and that the “chariot of fire, and the horses thereof,” were all that was seen of him, after that exquisite writing. (I: 178)

Here Dickinson invokes the tale of Elijah to explain her sense of the depletion of Marvel’s creative powers—and perhaps her own desire to become an Elisha, performing her own aesthetic miracles while infused with Marvel’s spirit. The narrative that Dickinson taps is one of succession: the prophet Elijah is to be carried away by God, but his servant Elisha insists on accompanying him and asks that he “inherit a double share of [Elijah’s] spirit.” A chariot and horses of fire take Elijah to heaven as Elisha shouts, “My Father! My father! Chariot of Israel and its chargers” (2 Kings 2:11). Elisha goes on to become a great prophet himself, charged by Elijah’s spirit. For Dickinson, this story might have represented her own ambitions to become a great poet, to draw upon Ik Marvel’s powers as she replaced him.

With Emily Dickinson, we see how detached intimacy could promote creativity, as the distant but passionate commentary of Ik Marvel seemed to shape Dickinson’s own ambitions and ideas as a poet. As Cathy Davidson argues, readers participate in a “dialogue” with the text, reading actively and critically—to which we might add imaginatively. By examining fan letters to Mitchell in the context of Reveries of a Bachelor, we have seen how readers modeled themselves after the narrator yet insisted upon maintaining a distance from him, embracing his call to dream but insisting on their own rights to control their dreams. The I/you relationship was not so much a balanced sentimental exchange as a constantly renegotiated treaty in which each party declared common interests but also imaginative independence. In reading Reveries, Mitchell’s fans were able to peer across the boundaries of identity in bourgeois America, so that young women could shape more daring dream selves and young men could imagine themselves as leisured dreamers.


[1] Both Tompkins and Brodhead have valid reasons to avoid emphasizing the escapist function of domestic fiction, since past critics have discounted domestic novels by labeling them escapist. But I aim to see the fantasies produced by reading not as pejorative, but as self-creating, a means of accessing the external world while remaining cushioned in the home.[2] The 1931edition was published by Holborn House, while the 1906 edition was published by Bobbs-Merrill.

[3] Nineteenth century critics acknowledged how the sentimental essay resembled the letter in its ability to create feelings of intimacy and replicate or induce reverie. As the sentimental essayist Henry Tuckerman observed in his tribute to Charles Lamb, another bachelor author, “It is particularly agreeable to be talked to in a book, as if the writer addressed himself to us particularly. Next to a long epistle from an entertaining friend, we love, of all things in the world, a charming essay;–a concise array of ideas–an unique sketch, which furnishes subjects for an hour’s reflection, or gives rise to a succession of soothing day-dreams” (Rambles and Reveries, 326).

[4] Fitz-James O’Brien criticized Mitchell for his refusal of closure: “Mr. Mitchell, in his books, has dreams within dreams. He dreams of a hero, who dreams in turn of himself, or some one else in whom he is interested, and so rolls an endless chain of reveries, like the long perspective of receding mirrors, that we see when we place two looking-glasses face to face. This produces, in the end, a most unsatisfactory result. We see no Finis, nor ever will see one” (74). Yet this “chain of reverie” captivated many readers, who saw their own dream lives reflected in Ik’s.

[5] Whereas Mitchell validates emotions, many canonical male narratives dramatize the narrator’s detachment from feeling (Leverenz 62). Yet both fear being overwhelmed by feeling—Marvel consciously controls it, while Emerson separates himself from it altogether in works like “Experience.”

[6] Perhaps because Mitchell initially disguised his authorship under a pen name, critics, too, referred to the author as “Ik,” a practice that continued into the twentieth century. Conscious that he was being confused with his fictional creation, Mitchell began to distinguish between himself and Ik; whereas the original 1850 preface to Reveries is signed “Ik Marvel,” Mitchell signed his 1883 preface “D.G.M.”

[7] Mitchell, a graduate of Yale and resident of New Haven, donated these letters to his alma mater, and they now are held in the Mitchell Collection at the Beinecke Library. We cannot necessarily assume that these letters represent the typical response to Reveries, since few of the book’s readers probably wrote to Mitchell, and the author may not have saved all of the letters he received. However, examining these fan letters help to explain why Reveries ­was so popular and what role it played in nineteenth-century American culture.

[8] Perhaps Mitchell’s choice of which letters to preserve was based upon his own psychological need at a particular time; as a bachelor perhaps he was most drawn to adoring Valentine’s messages, while as a middle-aged man he may have been eager to recover his youth.

[9] Part of the appeal of studying Reveries in the context of response is that this book, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Wide, Wide World, seemed to resist the fragmentation of the reading audience that Ronald J. Zboray argues characterized publishing in the mid nineteenth century (“Antebellum Reading” 196).

[10] For a case study of the ways that readers, particularly girls, have used their reading “[a]s an important arena for shared friendship as well as a means of creating a world more satisfying than the one ordinarily inhabited, a world in which to formulate aspirations and try out different identities,” see Barbara Sicherman, 208.

[11] These letters are part of the Mitchell Collection (ZA Mitchell 56) at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. In citing them, I am including the author’s name or nom de plume, the date of the letter, and the place where the correspondent is writing from, to the extent that this information is available.

[12] Patrick Henry’s comments were discovered in the margins of an 1886 edition of Reveries held at Alderman Library, University of Virginia.

[13] Initially I had the hunch that Enigma was Emily Dickinson, since the style of the letter is so reminiscent of hers, and since she was so fond of Mitchell’s book. However, the handwriting in the letter is different from Dickinson’s, and the biographical information does not match up: Dickinson would have been 21 when the letter was written, not 17. Nevertheless, this letter indicates that others were writing somewhat like Dickinson.

[14] The etymology of “lorgnette” suggests why some found Timon’s pose objectionable: it comes from the French verb “to leer.” An image from The Lorgnette is at the beginning of the Introduction.

[15] My findings concur with John Fiske’s analysis of fans’ responses to popular literature: “Fans are productive: Their fandom spurs them into producing their own texts” (147)

[16] In writing to Ik and articulating their own fantasies, his correspondents became producers as well as consumers, revising Reveries for their own needs. Not only did Mitchell receive letters, but also poems (and a polka!) dedicated to the beloved author. Several correspondents asked for guidance in writing; we know that others, including William Dean Howells, were inspired by Ik to give writing a try.

[17] Carla Peterson has observed a similar phenomenon in Madame deStael’s Corinne and Balzac’s Louis Lambert, as she argues that “Reading leads the protagonist to reverse the sexual conventions established by society and run counter to traditional sex roles. Thus reading ‘masculinizes’ Corrine; through it she becomes sexually knowledgeable and, beyond that, independent and assertive. In contrast, reading ‘femininizes’ Louis; it turns him inward, encouraging in him a passive attitude toward life, inhibiting physical–especially sexual–action and expression” (70). But for Ik’s readers, the transformations in identity wrought by reading were temporary and self-conscious.

[18] In part, the ideological differences between “Reveries of an Old Maid” and Reveries of a Spinster can be explained by time period, since Spinster reflects some of the uncertainties of the late nineteenth- century “New Woman” movement, while “Old Maid” echoes the domestic ethos of the 1850s.

[19] According to Richard B. Sewall, who has studied these markings along with many others found in books once owned by the Dickinson family, the lines and asterisks found in the margins of Reveries are likely Emily’s—and if not hers, then they belong to another of the younger Dickinsons. See his discussion of Emily Dickinson’s reading of Reveries in The Life of Emily Dickinson (II: 678-683).

[20]We can also see resemblances between Mitchell’s style and Dickinson’s, particularly the frequent use of the dash and the reliance on symbolic images such as light and smoke.

[21] In a subtle way, Dickinson became like an editor of Mitchell’s prose when she inserted in her copy an “m” after the second “who” in the phrase “you wonder who the tall boy was, who you saw walking with her” (112). I’ve observed this habit of correcting the author’s mechanical errors in a number of books that I’ve examined; there seems to be a sort of joy in spotting an error, as well as an intolerance towards mistakes in volumes that the owners love.