Herman Melville

Herman Melville

“Instead of a landsman’s grey-goose quill, he seems to have plucked a quill from a skimming curlew, or to have snatched it, a fearful joy, from a hovering albatross, if not from the wings of the wind itself.”

This extract, from the pages of a bygone review, is a sample of the outburst of interest and admiration which greeted the appearance of Herman Melville’s earlier volumes more than forty years ago. Such books as Typee, Omoo, and Mardi challenged attention by the originality of their style, their suggestive piquancy of tone, the strangeness of the experiences of which they purported to be the record, and not least by the very grotesqueness of the titles themselves. Who and what was the narrator of these mysterious adventures among the islands of the Pacific? Was he, as his stories implied, a common seaman serving before the mast—now on a whaler, now on an American frigate, and devoting the interim of his voyages to the publication of his diary; or was he rather, as might be surmised from the cultured tone of his writings and the fictitious aspect of some of his “narratives,” a man of liberal education and imaginative temperament, who promulgated these romantic accounts of perils in the South Seas from some comfortable quarters in London or New York? The critics, intent on such questions as these, were fairly puzzled as to Herman Melville’s identity; even his name was declared by some to be a nom de plume. “Separately,” said one wiseacre, “the names are not uncommon; we can urge no valid reason against their juncture; yet, in this instance, they fall suspiciously on our ear.”

Herman Melville, once the cause of this lively commotion in the dovecots of criticism, but now so far forgotten by a later and ungrateful generation as to be too often confused with Herman Merivale on the one side, or Whyte Melville on the other, was born at New York, August 1st, 1819. His father, Allan Melville, who came of an old Scotch family, was a well-to-do merchant, who had read much and travelled widely. “Of winter evenings,” says his son, “by the well-remembered sea-coal fires in old Greenwich Street, New York, he used to tell my brother and me of the monstrous waves at sea, mountain-high, and of the masts bending like twigs.” These anecdotes, together perhaps with the influence of an uncle, “an old white-haired sea-captain,” seem to have been instrumental in fostering the boy’s roving disposition and natural inclination to the sea; he indulged in long childish reveries about distant voyages; used to pore by the hour over old books and sea-pictures, especially over a miniature glass ship which formed one of the ornaments in his father’s house; and on one occasion, as he tells us, he gazed with absolute reverence on a man pointed out to him as having once been in Stony Arabia. While he was still quite young his father became bankrupt and died, and his mother removed from New York to a village on the Hudson river—a change of fortune which left a painful and lasting impression on the boy’s mind. “It is a hard and cruel thing,” he wrote many years later, “thus in early youth to taste beforehand the pangs which should be reserved for the stout time of manhood.” At the age of eighteen he shipped as a common sailor on a merchantman bound to Liverpool, of which voyage he has given an account in Redburn, an apparently authentic record of the experiences of a poor, proud, simple-minded youth, who, embittered by poverty, goes to sea “with a devil in his heart,” and is gradually initiated into the hardships and horrors of nautical life.

But in spite of these early disappointments, Herman Melville’s roving propensities remained as strong as ever, and to go to sea occasionally as a common sailor became for him a fixed habit, “a way of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.” “As for me,” he wrote in 1851, “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote; I love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts.” And elsewhere: “Oh, give me again the rover’s life—the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! Let me leap into thy saddle once more! I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares, sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me snuff thee up, sea-breeze, and whinny in thy spray!” In 1841 he embarked for his second voyage, this time on a whaling vessel bound for the Pacific; but becoming weary of the monotony of this occupation, he deserted from the ship in the harbour of Nukahiva, one of the Marquesas Islands, and spent four months in a sort of honourable captivity among the warlike tribe of the Typees. Escaping at last on an Australian whaler, he voyaged to Tahiti, roamed about for some time on adjacent islands, and finally worked his way home to Boston on an American frigate, after an absence of three years—a series of adventures which afterwards provided material for three narrative volumes, Typee, Omoo, and While Jacket, and presumably also suggested at least the outline of some of his more imaginative productions. In 1847 he married, and in 1850 took up his residence at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, whence he returned a few years later to New York, and was given a post at the Custom House. His love of travel, however, had not forsaken him, for he is said to have embarked in 1860 for a tour round the world. At the present time he is still living, an old man of seventy years.

His books may be roughly divided into two classes, according to the predominance of the practical or the fantastic element. Typee, the “narrative of a four months’ residence in the Marquesas Islands,” appeared in 1846, and takes precedence of all his other writings, in merit no less than in date. Few indeed are the books of adventure that can vie with this charming little volume in freshness, humour, and literary grace, above all in the extraordinary interest which the story, simple as it is, inspires in the mind of the reader, from the first page to the last. The rhythmical drifting of the whaler “Dolly” before the equable trade-winds of the Pacific; the arrival in the dream-like harbour of Nukahiva; the escape of the two malcontents Tom and Toby; their wanderings on the mountains, and descent into the dreaded valley of the redoubtable Typees; their hospitable reception by the natives; the departure of Toby and long retention of “Tommo”; the wild beauty of the valley, with its flashing streams and rich groves of bread-fruit trees and cocoa-nuts; the mild, placid, healthful life of the inhabitants, varied by an occasional indulgence in a cannibal banquet,—all this is depicted with the firmness of outline indicative of a true narrative, yet invested (such is the literary skill of the narrator) with the filmy mystery of a fairy tale. The characters of those particular islanders among whom “Tommo’s” lot was cast are drawn with wonderful clearness; the warrior-chief Mehevi, the aged Marheyo, the housewife Tinor, the faithful but officious Kory-Kory, and above all the gentle and beautiful Fayaway—surely one of the most charming maidens ever sketched by poet or novelist—stand before us to the life. There is much valuable information in the book about various native customs, such as the mysterious edict of the “taboo,” the process of tatooing, the manufacture of the white “tappa” cloth, the polyandrous marriage system, and certain superstitious creeds and ceremonials. The remarks also on the comparative happiness of civilised and uncivilised nations are extremely interesting and suggestive. “Civilisation,” says Melville, “does not engross all the virtues of humanity; she has not even her full share of them. . . . . I will frankly declare that after passing a few weeks in this valley of the Marquesas, I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had ever before entertained.” On the whole, in spite of the complaint of some of Melville’s critics that they would have been better satisfied “had the annotations of time been more distinctly marked,” there seems no reason to doubt the author's assertion that his account of Typee and its inhabitants was “the unvarnished truth”; indeed, explicit testimony has been borne to this effect by a later traveller.[1]

Omoo (i.e., in Polynesian dialect, “a rover”) was published a year later than Typee, to which it supplies the sequel. It is altogether a more desultory and discursive book than its predecessor; but there is much vigour in the narrator’s description of his voyage from Typee to Tahiti on board the “Little Jule,” and his subsequent adventures in the Society Islands. Some remarks in which he commented severely on the errors committed by Christian missionaries in their treatment of the native Polynesians gave great offense to the critics, who attempted to discount the effect by impeaching the character of the sailor-novelist, especially on the subject of his relations with the charming Fayaway. “We shall not pollute our pages,” wrote one grandiloquent reviewer, “by transferring to them the scenes in which this wretched profligate appears self-portrayed as the chief actor.” But, as a matter of fact, these scenes are drawn with the most admirable tenderness of feeling and delicacy of touch, and contain nothing whatever of which their author had cause to be ashamed.

Redburn (1849) and White Jacket (1850) complete the category of Melville’s distinctly autobiographical writings. The former has already been mentioned as giving an account of his first voyage; the latter embodies the experiences which he gained during his year’s service on the American man-of-war with which he returned from a Pacific harbour to Boston, after the events narrated in Omoo. This vessel, which he calls the “Neversink,” is said to have been in reality the “United States,” which in 1812 captured the English frigate “Macedonian.” White Jacket is a careful study of all the doings on board a man-of-war, its sum and substance being a strong protest, on humane grounds, against the over-bearing tyranny of the naval officers and the depravity of the crew. “So long as a man-of-war exists,” he says, “it must ever remain a picture of much that is tyrannical and repelling in human nature.” The serious tone of the book is, however, relieved and diversified by some brilliant touches of humorous description, among which may be mentioned the account of the white jacket (whence the title), an extempore surtout manufactured for himself by the narrator, in default of the ordinary seaman’s costume, out of a white duck frock, stuffed for the sake of warmth with old socks and trouser-legs. A coating of paint to make it waterproof was the crowning desideratum; but owing to the scarcity of the commodity in question this was denied him. ‘Said old Brush, the captain of the paint-room, “Look ye, White Jacket,” said he, “ye can’t have any paint.” ’ The ill-fated garment accordingly acted as a sort of sponge, a “universal absorber,” so that White Jacket’s heartless shipmates would dry themselves at his expense by standing up against him in damp weather. “I dripped,” he says, “like a turkey a-roasting; and long after the rainstorms were over, and the sun showed his face, I still stalked a Scotch mist, and when it was fair weather with others, alas! it was foul weather with me.” He is at length rid of his encumbrance by nothing less than a fall from the masthead, in which he entirely loses his white jacket, and nearly loses his life.

Melville’s later works must be considered as phantasies rather than a relation of sober facts. He was affected, like so many of his countrymen, by the transcendental tendency of the age, and the result in his case was a strange blending of the practical and the metaphysical, his stories of what purported to be plain matter-of-fact life being gradually absorbed and swallowed up in the wildest mystical speculations. This process was already discernible in Mardi, published as early as 1849, the first volume of which is worthy to rank with the very finest achievements of its author, while the rest had far better have remained altogether unwritten. The story of Mardi is apparently an imaginary variation of that told in Typee, for here too the narrator deserts from a whaling-vessel in the Pacific, and makes his way in the boat “Chamois,” together with old Jarl, a fellow-mariner, to an island of ideal felicity, where he is entertained by a chieftain, Media, who bears considerable resemblance to the royal Mehevi of Typee. The “watery world” of the Pacific, with its blazing tropical sun by day and magical phosphorescence by night, as seen from the solitary whale-boat, is described in Melville’s most graphic and suggestive manner, the chapter on sharks, in particular, being a masterpiece of fact melting into phantasy. The Pacific, he tells us, is “populous as China. Trust me, there are more sharks in the sea than mortals on land;” and he proceeds to expatiate on the various species of the sea-monster—the brown shark, “a grasping, rapacious varlet, that in spite of the hard knocks received from it often snapped viciously at our steering-oar”; the dandy blue shark, “a dainty spark,” like a Bond Street beau, that “lounged by with a careless fin and an indolent tail”; the tiger shark, “a round, portly gourmand, with distended mouth and collapsed conscience”; and the ghastly white shark, a “ghost of a fish,” for ever gliding solitary just below the surface. But the great charm of the book centres round Yillah, the mysterious white maiden—a sort of spiritualised Fayaway—whom the hero rescues from being sacrificed to the pagan deities, and takes with him to the island of Mardi, only to lose her there through some mystic supernatural agency. At this point an extraordinary change comes over the whole tone of Mardi, the remainder of which is devoted to the search for Yillah, who is apparently typical of ideal love, and the rejection of the allurements of Hantia, the goddess of earthly passion—all of which, with much more, is narrated with an excess of fantastic conception and gorgeous word-painting that is positively bewildering. A writer in the Revue des deux Mondes has described Mardi as “the dream of a badly-educated midshipman, drunk on hasheesh, and swinging asleep at the masthead of a ship in a warm tropical night.” As applied to the latter portion of the book, this criticism is scarcely exaggerated; never did a story which began with such promise end in such disappointment.

Moby Dick; or, The White Whale (1851) is perhaps more successful as a whole than Mardi, since its very extravagances, great as they are, work in more harmoniously with the outline of the plot. Ishmael, the narrator, having embarked on board a whaling-vessel with a savage harpooner named Queequeg, whose character is admirably drawn, gradually discovers that they are committed to an extraordinary voyage of vengeance. It seems that, in a former expedition, Captain Ahab, their commander, a mysterious personage, who “looked like a man cut away from the stake when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them,” had lost one of his legs, which had been “reaped away” by Moby Dick, a famous white sperm-whale of unequalled strength and malignity. Frenzied by his loss, he was now devoting the rest of his life to the single object of destroying Moby Dick, who “swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them.” The book is a curious compound of real information about whales in general and fantastic references to this sperm-whale in particular, that “portentous and mysterious monster,” which is studied (as the bird is studied by Michelet) in a metaphysical and ideal aspect—“a mass of tremendous life, all obedient to one volition, as the smallest insect.” Wild as the story is, there is a certain dramatic vigour in the “quenchless feud” between Ahab and Moby Dick which at once arrests the reader’s attention, and this interest is well maintained to the close, the final hunting-scene being a perfect nightmare of protracted sensational description.

Moby Dick was published when Melville was still a young man of thirty-three. Before he was forty he produced several other volumes, none of which were calculated to add in any degree to his fame, one of them, entitled Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, being perhaps the ne plus ultra in the way of metaphysical absurdity.

 “Physic of metaphysic begs defence,
And metaphysic calls for aid on sense.”

It may seem strange that so vigorous a genius, from which stronger and stronger work might reasonably have been expected, should have reached its limit at so early a date; but it must be remembered that the six really notable books of which I have made mention were produced within a period of less than six years. Whether the transcendental obscurities in which he latterly ran riot were the cause or the consequence of the failure of his artistic powers is a point which it would be difficult to determine with precision. His contemporary critics were inclined, not unnaturally, to regard his mysticism as a kind of malice prepense, and inveighed mournfully against the perversity of “a man born to create, who resolves to anatomise, a man born to see, who insists upon speculating,”[2] and warned him, after the publication of Pierre, that his fame was on the edge of a precipice, and that if he were wise he would thenceforth cease to affect the style of Sir Thomas Browne, and study that of Addison. Yet how successfully he could at times reproduce the quaint conceits of the earlier writer may be seen from the following passage of Mardi:—

 “And truly, since death is the last enemy of all, valiant souls will taunt him while they may. Yet, rather, should the wise regard him as the inflexible friend, who, even against our own wills, from life’s evils triumphantly relieves us.

“And there is but little difference in the manner of dying. To die, is all. And death has been gallantly encountered by those who have never beheld blood that was red, only its light azure seen through the veins. And to yield the ghost proudly, and march out of your fortress with all the honours of war, is not a thing of sinew and bone. . . . ’Tis no great valour to perish sword in hand and bravado on lip cased all in panoply complete. For even the alligator dies in his mail, and the sword-fish never surrenders. To expire, mild-eyed, in one’s bed, transcends the death of Epaminondas.”

The chief characteristic of Herman Melville’s writings is this attempted union of the practical with the ideal. Commencing with a basis of solid fact, he loves to build up a fantastic structure, which is finally lost in the cloudland of metaphysical speculation. He is at his best, as in Typee, when the mystic element is kept in check, and made subservient to the clear development of the story; or when, as in certain passages of Mardi and Moby Dick, the two qualities are for the time harmoniously blended. His strong attraction to the sea and to ships, which has already been alluded to as dating from his earliest boyhood, was closely connected with this ideality of temperament; for the sea, he tells us, was to him “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life,” while a ship was “no piece of mechanism merely, but a creature of thoughts and fancies, instinct with life, standing at whose vibrating helm you feel her beating pulse.” “I have loved ships,” he adds, “as I have loved men."

The tone of Melville’s books is altogether frank and healthy, though of direct ethical teaching there is little or no trace, except on the subject of humanity, on which he expresses himself with strong and genuine feeling. He speaks with detestation of modern warfare, and devotes more than one chapter of White Jacket to an exposure of the inhuman system of flogging, then prevalent in the navy, asking at the close if he be not justified “in immeasurably denouncing this thing.” In Typee and Omoo he again and again protests against the shameful ill-usage of the harmless Pacific islanders by their “civilised” invaders. “How often,” he says, “is the term savages incorrectly applied! None really deserving of it were ever yet discovered by voyagers or by travellers. They have discovered heathens and barbarians, whom by horrible cruelties they have exasperated into savages. It may be asserted without fear of contradiction, that in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians Europeans have at some time or other been the aggressors.”

That Melville, in spite of his early transcendental tendencies and final lapse into the “illimitable inane,” possessed strong powers of observation, a solid grasp of facts, and a keen sense of humour, will not be denied by any one who is acquainted with his writings. Among the best of his humorous passages may be instanced the admirable scene in Redburn where the young Peter Simple of the story, who imagines that a sailor’s life will be one of dignified comfort, has his first interview with the wily Captain Riga; or the difficulties experienced by the narrator of Mardi in correctly playing the part of “the White Tagi,” a long-expected demi-god for whom he is mistaken by the delighted islanders; or, again, the amusing account in Moby Dick of the terrors of sharing a bed at a crowded hostelry with Queequeg, the barbarian harpooner. As a portrayer of character Melville is almost always successful. His sea-captains, from the effeminate “Miss Guy” to the indomitable Ahab, and his seamen one and all, from Toby to old Jarl, are lifelike pictures; nothing could be better than the brief, pointed sketch of Doctor Long Ghost, the odd, cadaverous, mischief-loving physician, who figures so largely in the pages of Omoo; while his characters of the natives of Polynesia are probably more faithful, as they are certainly more vivid, than those drawn by any other writer. His literary power, as evidenced in Typee and his other early volumes, is also unmistakable, his descriptions being at one time rapid, concentrated, and vigorous, according to the nature of his subject, at another time dreamy, suggestive, and picturesque. The fall from the mast-head in White Jacket is a swift and subtle piece of writing of which George Meredith might be proud; the death of the white whale in Moby Dick rises to a sort of epic grandeur and intensity. Here is a charming passage of the contrary kind, taken from an early chapter of Typee:—

“The sky presented a clear expanse of the most delicate blue, except along the skirts of the horizon, where you might see a thin drapery of pale clouds which never varied their form or colour. The long, measured, dirge-like swell of the Pacific came rolling along with its surface broken by little tiny waves, sparkling in the sunshine. Every now and then a shoal of flying fish, scared from the water under the bows, would leap into the air, and fall the next moment like a shower of silver into the sea. Then you would see the superb albicore, with his glittering sides, sailing aloft, and, often describing an arc in his descent, disappear on the surface of the water. Far off, the lofty jet of the whale might be seen, and nearer at hand the prowling shark, that villainous foot-pad of the seas, would come skulking along, and at a wary distance regard us with his evil eye. At times some shapeless monster of the deep, floating on the surface, would, as we approached, sink slowly into the blue waters, and fade away from the sight. But the most impressive feature of the scene was the almost unbroken silence that reigned over sky and water. Scarcely a sound could be heard but the occasional breathing of the grampus and the rippling at the cutwater.”

When one reads such passages as this (and it is but one taken almost at random out of many others of equal excellence), it is hard to account for the indifference of the present generation to Herman Melville’s writings.[3] In an age which has witnessed a marked revival of books of travel and adventure, and which, in its greed for narrative or fiction of this kind is often fain to content itself with works of a very inferior quality, it is a cause for regret that the author of Typee and Mardi should have fallen to a great extent out of notice, and should be familiar only to a small circle of admirers, instead of enjoying the wide reputation to which his undoubted genius entitles him.

1 Los Grinas, a volume of travels published in 1849 by Lieut. Wise, of the U.S. Navy. But we decline to believe that the Fayaway seen hy Lieut. Wise at Nukahiva, who was acting as maid-of-all-work to a French officer, was identical with the romantic nymph of Melville's narrative.
2 Putnam’s Magazine, 1857.
3 When Mr. Robert Buchanan was on a visit to America, he heard that Herman Melville was dwelling “somewhere in New York, having resolved, on account of the public neglect of his works, never to write another line.”—Universal Review, May 1889.

H. S. Salt

The Scottish Art Review, November, 1889