Has America a literature? I am inclined to think it a grave mistake to argue seriously with those afflicted persons who periodically exercise themselves over this idlest of academic questions. It is wiser to meet them with a practical counter-thrust, and pointedly inquire, for example, whether they are familiar with the writings of Herman Melville. Whereupon, confusion will in most cases ensue, and you will go on to suggest that to criticise Hamlet, with the prince’s part omitted, would be no whit more fatuous than to demonstrate the non-existence of an American literature, while taking no account of its true intellectual giants. When it was announced, a few months ago, that “Mr. Herman Melville, the author,” had just died in New York at the age of seventy-two, the news excited but little interest on this side of the Atlantic; yet, forty years ago, his name was familiar to English, as to American readers, and there is little or no exaggeration in Robert Buchanan’s remark that he is “the one great imaginative writer fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with Whitman on that continent.”
It was in 1846 that Melville fairly took the world by storm with his “Typee: the Narrative of a four months’ residence in the Marquesas Islands,” the first of a brilliant series of volumes of adventure, in which reality was so deftly encircled with a halo of romance that readers were at once captivated by the force and freshness of the style and puzzled as to the personality of the author. Who and what was this mysterious sojourner in the far islands of the Pacific—this “Marquesan Melville,” as a writer in Blackwood denominated him? Speculation was rife, and not unaccompanied by suspicion; for there were some critics who not only questioned the veracity of Herman Melville’s “Narratives,” but declared his very name to be fictitious. “Separately,” remarked one sagacious reviewer, “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, however, was far from being a mythical personage, though in his early life, as in his later, he seems to have instinctively shrunk from any other publicity than that which was brought him by his books. He was a genuine child of nature, a sort of nautical George Borrow, on whom the irresistible sea-passion had descended in his boyhood, and won him away from the ordinary routine of respectable civilised life, until, to quote his own words, to travel had become a necessity of his existence, “a way of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.” The son of a cultured American merchant, of Scotch extraction, he had early imbibed from his father’s anecdotes a romantic attachment to the sea. “Of winter evenings,” he says, “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.” At the age of eighteen, his father having died in bankruptcy, he found himself unexpectedly face to face with poverty and disappointment, and was forced to embark as a common seaman in a merchant vessel bound to Liverpool, a voyage of disillusionment and bitter experience, of which he has left us what is apparently an authentic record in one of his early volumes.
Returned from this expedition, he essayed for a time to gain a quiet livelihood as a teacher. But destiny and his natural genius had willed it otherwise; it was no academic lecture-room, but the deck of a whale-ship, that was to be “his Yale College and his Harvard.” “Oh, give me again the rover's life,” he exclaims, “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!” So in 1841 the child of nature was again aboard, and off to the Pacific on a whaler; and it was the adventures that befell him, during this absence of nearly four years’ duration, that subsequently furnished the material for the chief series of his volumes. In “Typee” he related the story of his romantic captivity among a tribe of noble savages in the Marquesas; in “Omoo” we have his further wanderings in the Society and Sandwich Islands; in “White Jacket,” his return voyage as a common sailor in a man-of-war. “Mardi,” on the other hand, is a phantasy, in which the imaginative element, having slipped from the control of the narrative, runs riot in the wildest and most extravagant luxuriance.
“Typee” must be regarded as, on the whole, the most charming of Melville’s writings, and the one which may most surely count on lasting popularity; it is certainly the masterpiece of his earlier period, during which the artistic sense was still predominant over those transcendental tendencies which characterised his later volumes. Coming at a time when men’s minds were filled with a vague, undefined interest in the wonders of the Pacific, and when the French annexation of Tahiti, of which Melville was an eyewitness, had drawn universal attention to that quarter of the globe, it gained an instantaneous and wide-spread success, both in America and England, and was quickly translated into several European tongues. Alike in the calm beauty of its descriptive passages, and in the intense vividness of its character-sketches, it was, and is, and must ever be, a most powerful and fascinating work. Indeed, I think I speak within the mark in saying that nothing better of its kind is to be found in English literature, so firm and clear is it in outline, yet so dreamily suggestive in the dim mystic atmosphere which pervades it. Here is a passage from one of the early chapters, itself as rhythmical as the rhythmical drifting of the whaler “Dolly” under the trade-winds of the Pacific:
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 beard but the occasional breathing of the grampus and the rippling at the cutwater.
And Typee itself, the scene of Melville's detention, when he and a companion sailor had deserted from the whale-ship—what a fairyland of tropical valleys, and crystal streams, and groves of cocoa-palms and bread-fruit trees, is here magically depicted for us! How life-like the portraiture of the innocent, placid, happy islanders, who, albeit cannibals at times, were yet far superior to civilised nations in many of the best qualities by which civilisation is supposed to be distinguished! And Fayaway—surely never was Indian maiden so glorified by poet or romancer as is the gentle, beautiful, faithful Fayaway in Melville’s marvellous tale! The strongest and tenderest pictures that George Borrow has drawn for us of his friendly relations with the wandering gipsy-folk by roadside or dingle are not more strong and tender than Melville’s reminiscences of this “peep at Polynesian life.” As Borrow possessed the secret of winning the confidence of the gipsies, so Melville, by the same talisman of utter simplicity and naturalness, was able to fraternise in perfect good fellowship with the so-called savages of the Pacific.
It is, furthermore, significant that Melville's familiarity with these “noble savages” was productive of a feeling the very opposite of contempt; he bears repeated and explicit testimony to the enviable healthfulness and happiness of the uncivilised society in which he sojourned so long. “The continual happiness,” he says, “which, so far as I was able to judge, appeared to prevail in the valley, sprung principally from that all-pervading sensation which Rousseau has told us he at one time experienced, the mere buoyant sense of a healthful, physical existence. And indeed, in this particular, the Typees had ample reason to felicitate themselves, for sickness was almost unknown. During the whole period of my stay, I saw but one invalid among them; and on their smooth, clear skins you observed no blemish or mark of disease.” Still more emphatic is his tribute to their moral qualities. “Civilisation does not engross all the virtues of humanity: she has not even her full share of them. . . . If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature, cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees? So pure and upright were they in all the relations of life, that entering their valley, as I did, under the most erroneous impressions of their character, I was soon led to exclaim in amazement: Are these the ferocious savages, the blood-thirsty cannibals, of whom I have heard such frightful tales! . . . 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. But, alas! since then I have been one of the crew of a man-of-war, and the pent-up wickedness of five hundred men has nearly overturned all my previous theories.”
But here it may be asked by later, as by earlier readers, “Was Melville’s narrative a true one? Is his testimony on these subjects a testimony of any scientific value?” The answer to this question, despite the suspicion of the critics, is a decided affirmative. Not only is Melville’s account of Typee in close agreement with that of earlier voyagers, as, for example, Captain Porter’s “Journal of a Cruise to the Pacific Ocean,” published in 1822, but it has been expressly corroborated by later adventurers. “I cannot resist,” wrote an American naval officer, “paying the faint tribute of my own individual admiration to Mr. Melville. Apart from the innate beauty and charming tone of his narratives, the delineations of island life and scenery, from my own personal observation, are most correctly and faithfully drawn.” Another witness, who has recently been cited, was the Rev. Titus Coan, of the Hawaiian Islands, who “had personally visited the Marquesas group, found the Typee valley, and verified in every detail the romantic descriptions of the gentle but man-devouring islanders.”
After the publication of “Typee,” Melville married the daughter of Chief Justice Shaw, to whom the book was dedicated, and made his home, from 185o to 1863, in an old spacious farmhouse at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, commanding picturesque views of Greytock and the other Berkshire mountains. He was here a neighbour of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was then living at Lenox, and there are records of many friendly intimacies between the two authors, whose intellects were in many ways akin. We read in the Hawthorne diaries of “Mr. Omoo’s visits,” and how he came accompanied by “his great dog,” and how he held transcendental conversations with Hawthorne “about time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters, that lasted pretty deep into the night.” It is during this residence at Pittsfield, the adventurous struggles of his early life being now concluded, that we note the commencement of the second, the transcendental period of Melville’s literary career. It has been truly said of him that “he had all the metaphysical tendencies which belong so eminently to the American mind;” and it is interesting to observe in this, as in other cases, the conjunction of the practical with the metaphysical temperament. “The chief characteristic of Herman Melville’s writings”—so I have elsewhere remarked—“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.”
As “Typee” is the best production of the earlier and simpler phase of Melville’s authorship, so undoubtedly is “The Whale” (or “Moby Dick,” as it is sometimes styled) the crown and glory of the later phase; less shapely and artistic than “Typee,” it far surpasses it in immensity of scope and triumphant energy of execution. It is in “The Whale” that we see Melville casting to the winds all conventional restrictions, and rioting in the prodigality of his imaginative vigour. It is in “The Whale” that we find the fullest recognition of that magical influence of the sea—the “image of the ungraspable phantom of life”—which from first to last was the most vital inspiration of his restless and indomitable genius. (“The ocean,” he finely wrote in a later volume, “brims with natural griefs and tragedies; and into that watery immensity of terror man's private grief is lost like a drop.”) Ostensibly nothing more than a wild story of a strange voyage of vengeance, a “quenchless feud” between a fierce old sea-captain and a particular white sperm-whale of renowned strength and audacity, the book, which abounds with real facts concerning the details of the whale-fishery, has a mystic esoteric significance which lifts it into a wholly different category. In the character of Captain Ahab, who “looked like a man cut away from the stake when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them,” we see a lurid personification of the self-destructive spirit of Hatred and Revenge, while Moby Dick, the white whale, “swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them.” To quote detached passages from a work of such ambitious conception and colossal proportions would he worse than useless; I must therefore content myself with saying that “The Whale,” faulty as it is in many respects, owing to the turgid mannerisms of Melville’s transcendental mood, is nevertheless the supreme production of a master mind—let no one presume to pass judgment on American literature unless he has read, and re-read, and wonderingly pondered, the three mighty volumes of “The Whale.”
The increasing transcendentalism of Melville’s later thought was accompanied and reflected by a corresponding complexity of language, the limpid simplicity so remarkable in “Typee,” and “Omoo,” and “White Jacket” being now succeeded by a habit of gorgeous and fantastic word-painting, which, though brilliantly effective at its best, degenerated, at its worst, into mere bombast and rhetoric, a process which had already been discernible in the concluding portions of “Mardi,” while in “Pierre” (or “The Ambiguities,” as it was appropriately designated) it reached the fatal climax of its development. This unfortunate book, published in 1852, was to a great extent the ruin of its author’s reputation; for the critics not unfairly protested against the perversity of “a man born to create, who resolves to anatomise; a man born to see, who insists upon speculating.” Of “The Confidence Man” (1857), and Melville’s later books in general, it is not necessary to speak; though it is noticeable that in his narrative of “Israel Potter” (1855), and one or two of the short stories in “The Piazza Tales” (1856), he partly recovered his old firmness of touch and delicacy of workmanship.
For, in spite of all the obscurities and mannerisms which confessedly deform his later writings, it remains true that naturalness is, on the whole, Melville’s prime characteristic, both in the tone and in the style of his productions. His narratives are as racy and vigorous as those of Defoe or Smollett or Marryat; his character-sketches are such as only a man of keen observation, and as keen a sense of humour, could have realised and depicted. His seamen and his sea-captains all, his savages ashore or aboard, from the noble unsophisticated Mehevi in “Typee” to the semi-civilised comical Queequeg in “The Whale,” are admirably vivid and impressive, and the reader who shall once have made their acquaintance will thenceforward in no wise be persuaded that they are not real and living personages. Moreover, there is a large-souled humanity in Melville—the direct outcome of his generous, emotional, yet uniformly sane temperament—which differentiates him entirely from the mere artist or littérateur. “I stand for the heart,” he writes, in one of his letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, a statement fully substantiated by the many humane sentiments that find expression in his pages, whether on the subject of modern warfare, or negro slavery, or the barbarities of naval discipline, or the cruel treatment of the harmless “savages” of the Pacific by the more savage apostles of “civilisation.” For the rest of it, Melville appears as a frank, simple believer in common human nature, and so little a respecter of persons that his democracy was described by Hawthorne as “ruthless.” “With no son of man,” says Melville, “do I stand upon any etiquette or ceremony, except the Christian ones of charity and honesty . . . . A thief in jail is as honourable a personage as General George Washington.”
It may be surmised that this uncompromising attitude was scarcely calculated to win the favour of society. A friend who visited Melville at Pittsfield described him as an Ishmael who was “apparently considered by the good people of Pittsfield as little better than a cannibal or a beach-comber.” “In vain,” he says, “I sought to hear of Typee and those Paradise islands; he preferred to pour forth his philosophy and his theories of life. The shade of Aristotle arose like a cold mist between myself and Fayaway. But what a talk it was! Melville is transformed from a Marquesan to a gipsy student, the gipsy element still remaining strong in him. And this contradiction gives him the air of one who has suffered from opposition, both literary and social.”
There is no doubt that Melville’s characteristic reticence on personal matters, together with his increasing love of retirement, was in large measure the cause of his otherwise unaccountable loss of literary fame; for even the well-merited failure of such books as Pierre and The Confidence Man, would be in itself insufficient to explain the neglect of his genuine masterpieces. It is true that for a few years he was induced to lecture, in various parts of the States, on the subject of his voyages to the South Seas; but, as a rule, he could not, or would not, cultivate the indispensable art of keeping his name before the public. The man who could win the affections of a cannibal community in the Pacific was less at home in the intricacies of self-advertisement and “business.” “Dollars damn me,” he remarks in one of his letters. “When 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.” That he felt keenly mortified at the ill success of Pierre, is beyond question. When, on the occasion of a tour in Europe, in 1856, he visited Hawthorne at the Liverpool consulate, he told his friend that “the spirit of adventure had gone out of him.” He is described by Hawthorne as looking “a little paler, perhaps, and a little sadder, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner.... He has suffered from too constant literary occupations, pursued without much success latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind.”
In 1863, Melville found it necessary, for the better education of his children, to leave his home at Pittsfield, and to take up his quarters at New York, where for many years he held an inspectorship in the custom-house. His life became now altogether one of quietude and retirement; content to let the noisy world go by, he made no attempt to recover the fame which had once been his, and to which he still possessed an inalienable title. During these years, however, he published two volumes of poetry; Battle Pieces, which deals mainly with incidents of the civil war, and Clarel, a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, described by Melville himself, in a letter to an English correspondent, as “a metrical affair, a pilgrimage or what not, of several thousand lines, eminently adapted for unpopularity.” More interesting than these is a little story, John Marr and other Sailors, issued in 1888, and limited to twenty-five copies—a limitation which affords a pathetic and significant comment on the acumen of a “reading public” which had allowed itself to become almost entirely oblivious of the author of “Typee” and “The Whale”! We need not doubt, however, that Melville found ample compensation for this neglect in that assurance of ultimate and lasting recognition which is seldom denied to men of genius. “His tall, stalwart figure,” says Mr. Stedman, “until recently could be seen almost daily, tramping through the Fort George district or Central Park his roving inclination leading him to obtain as much out-door life as possible. His evenings were spent at home, with his books, his pictures, and his family, and usually with them alone.”
His love of literature was fully sustained to the end. I have before me a most interesting batch of letters, dated between 1884 and 1888, addressed by him to Mr.James Billson, of Leicester, and mostly dealing with the poems of James Thomson (“B.V.”), of which he was a great admirer. Some of these comments and appreciations are in Melville’s best style. “ ‘Sunday up the River,’ ” he writes, “contrasting with the ‘City of Dreadful Night,’ is like a Cuban humming-bird, beautiful in faery tints, flying against the tropic thundercloud. Your friend was a sterling poet, if ever one sang. As to pessimism, although neither pessimist nor optimist myself, nevertheless I relish it in the verse, if for nothing else than as a counterpoise to the exorbitant hopefulness, juvenile and shallow, that makes such a muster in these days—at least in some quarters.”
“Exorbitant hopefulness” could indeed have been hardly otherwise than distasteful to one who, like his own “John Marr” (a retired sailor whose fate it was to live on a “frontier-prairie,” among an unresponsive inland people who cared nothing for the sea), had so long experienced the solitude of disappointed genius. But it is impossible to believe that this undeserved neglect can be permanent. The opinion of those competent judges who are students of Melville’s works is so clear and emphatic in his favour, that it is not too much to say that to read his books is generally to appreciate them; nor is it only those who have what is called an “educated taste” who are thus impressed, for I have been told of instances in which English working-men became his hearty admirers. It is satisfactory to know that a new edition of his best books is forthcoming, both in America and England, and that the public will thus have an opportunity, I will not say of repairing a wrong done to a distinguished writer, for, as I have already shown, the decay of his fame was partly due to circumstances of his own making, but at least of rehabilitating and confirming its earlier and truer judgment. Herman Melville will then resume his honourable place in American literature (for, to end as I began, I hold that the existence of an American literature is a fact and not a supposition), as the prose-poet of the Pacific—
the sea-compelling man,
Before whose wand Leviathan
Rose hoary-white upon the deep,
With awful sounds that stirred its sleep;
Melville, whose magic drew Typee,
Radiant as Venus, from the sea.
1 Redburn, his First Voyage: being the Sailor-boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the the Son of a Gentleman in the Merchant Service, 1849.
2 Unless it be Paquita, in Joaquin Miller’s Life among the Modocs.
3 Lieut. Wise, in Los Gringos, a volume of travels published in 1849.
4 For this and other particulars I am indebted to the courtesy of Mr. Arthur Stedman of New York, the friend and literary executor of Herman Melville.
5 Art Review, November 1889.
6 The Whale was dedicated to Hawthorne, and is referred to in his “Wonderful Book.” “On the hither side of Pittsfield sits Herman Melville, shaping out the gigantic conception of his ‘White Whale,’ while the gigantic shadow of Greylock looms upon him from his study window.”
7 Dr. Titus Coan’s letter, quoted in the New York World’s obituary notice of Melville.
8 New York Tribute, October 1, 1891.
9 I may instance Mr. William Morris, Mr. Theodore Watts, Mr. R. L. Stevenson, Mr. Robert Buchanan, and Mr. Clarke Russell.
10 Robert Buchanan’s Socrates in Camden.
The Gentleman's Magazine, March, 1892