In 1891, when Herman Melville died, it seemed likely that the 21st century might never hear of him. At the time of his death, Melville’s books, including Moby Dick, were out of print. His final work, a novella titled Billy Budd, remained unpublished. So, what happened?
It’s actually more about what didn’t happen. As is sometimes the case, history didn’t have its way. But the future did in the form of a new generation that saw in Melville enough to resurrect and grant him a respected place in the annals of literature.
A renewed interest in Melville’s works began in 1919, not quite 30 years after his passing. It was kickstarted by a new era eager to reevaluate what the previous century had discarded. And it wasn’t the first or the last time the future had a definitive say about a writer or artist.
Leni Riefenstahl was the director of Olympia, a documentary about the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin that used tracking shots to follow athletes and slow-motion sequences much like today’s coverage of the same event. She was given royal treatment by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and Walt Disney when she visited the U.S. in 1938. Today, she is known more for her Triumph of the Will and other Nazi propaganda films so that any accomplishments she achieved as a filmmaker remain overshadowed by her politics.
Even impressionist paintings have a complicated backstory. The style can be traced to Parisian artists like Claude Monet in the 1860s, but the term “impressionist” was intended as something very different at the time. In 1874, a critic reportedly reduced all the art at a Paris exhibition as “impressions,” the term meant as a derogatory statement, a punishment for a style blatantly shunning the look of classical art. Over time, the demeaning name was retained by subsequent generations, transforming it from an insult to praise.
And then there are those whose style received a name only after the fact. The British poets of the second half of the 18th century, including William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had not been interested in categorizing themselves with a title, yet today they are classified as Romantic poets.
In his “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth provided a manifesto for this literary revolution that used poetry to celebrate emotion, imagination, individuality and nature, but he did not use the word “romantic.” It was left to the next generation to christen the era during the 1820s, approximately 50 years after the movement had begun and concurrent with the deaths of the three most notable contributors to its second wave: Byron, Shelley and Keats.
Today, we call the music of the Band “Americana,” a term that encompasses the roots music of the U.S. and its legacy. But the members of the Band, most of whom were Canadian, never called it that because “Americana” is a word that started to be applied to music only several decades ago, approximately 30 years after the group’s first album was released. Similarly, Gram Parsons, whose fame peaked 50 years ago, is categorized as alt-country, a classification that didn’t exist until recently. Parsons referred to his songs as “Cosmic American Music.”
All of this is to say that the future has a way of determining the past. Each new era has both the advantage of hindsight and the disadvantage of the hubris that tends to accompany successors. It can embrace what was once unfavored, weed out what it feels does not belong, impose the labels it sees fit to foist on the past and adapt what originated previously to fit its own timeframe. What it never does, though, is contemplate that its own undertakings will become the scrutiny of forthcoming generations.