Herman Melville completes our Trio. A friend has informed us that "Herman Melville" is merely a nom de plume, and if so, it is only of a piece with the mystification which this remarkable author dearly loves to indulge in from the first page to the last of his works. We think it highly probable that the majority of our readers are only familiar with his earliest books; but as we have read them all carefully (excepting his last production, Israel Potter, which is said to be mediocre) we shall briefly refer to their subjects seriatim, ere we consider the general characteristics of his style. His first books were Omoo and Typee, which quite startled and puzzled the reading world. The ablest critics were for some time unable to decide whether the first of these vivid pictures of life in the South Sea Islands was to be regarded as a mere dexterous fiction, or as a narrative of real adventures, described in glowing, picturesque, and romantic language; but when the second work appeared, there could no longer exist any doubt, that although the author was intimately acquainted with the Marquesas and other islands, and might introduce real incidents and real characters, yet that fiction so largely entered into the composition of the books, that they could not be regarded as matter-of-fact narratives. Both these works contain a few opening chapters, descriptive of foremast-life in whaling-ships, which are exceedingly interesting and striking.
Melville's next work was entitled Redburn, and professed to be the autobiographical description of a sailor-boy's first voyage across the Atlantic. It contains some clever chapters, but very much of the matter, especially that portion relative to the adventures of the young sailor in Liverpool, London, &c., is outrageously improbable, and cannot be read either with pleasure or profit. This abortive work -- which neither obtained nor deserved much success -- was followed by Mardi; and a Voyage Thither. Here we are once more introduced to the lovely and mysterious isles of the vast Pacific, and their half-civilised, or, in some cases, yet heathen and barbarous aborigines. The reader who takes up the book, and reads the first half of volume one, will be delighted and enthralled by the original and exceedingly powerful pictures of sea-life, of a novel and exciting nature, but woful will be his disappointment as he reads on. We hardly know how to characterise the rest of the book. It consists of the wildest, the most improbable, nay, impossible, series of adventures amongst the natives, which would be little better than insane ravings, were it not that we dimly feel conscious that the writer intended to introduce a species of biting, political satire, under grotesque and incredibly extravagant disguises. Moreover, the language is throughout gorgeously poetical, full of energy, replete with the most beautiful metaphors, and crowded with the most brilliant fancies, and majestic and melodiously sonorous sentences. But all the author's unrivalled powers of diction, all his wealth of fancy, all his exuberance of imagination, all his pathos, vigour, and exquisite graces of style, cannot prevent the judicious reader from laying down the book with a weary sigh, and an inward pang of regret that so much rare and lofty talent has been wilfully wasted on a theme which not anybody can fully understand, and which will inevitably repulse nine readers out of ten, by its total want of human interest and sympathy. It is, in our estimation, one of the saddest, most melancholy, most deplorable, and humiliating perversions of genius of a high order in the English language.
Next in order -- if we recollect rightly as to the date of publication -- came White Jacket; or the World in a Man-of-war. This is, in our opinion, his very best work. He states in the preface that he served a year before-the-mast in the United States frigate, Neversink, joining her at a port in the Pacific, where he had been left by -- or deserted from, for we do not clearly comprehend which -- a whaling-ship, and that the work is the result of his observations on board, &c. We need hardly say that the name Neversink is fictitious, but from various incidental statements we can easily learn that the real name of the frigate is the United States -- the very same ship that captured our English frigate Macedonian in the year 1812. The Macedonian, we believe, is yet retained in the American navy. White Jacket is the best picture of life-before-the-mast in a ship of war ever yet given to the world. The style is most excellent -- occasionally very eccentric and startling, of course, or it would not be Herman Melville's, but invariably energetic, manly, and attractive, and not unfrequently noble, eloquent, and deeply impressive. We could point out a good many instances, however, where the author has borrowed remarkable verbal expressions, and even incidents, from nautical books almost unknown to the general reading public (and this he does without a syllable of acknowledgment). Yet more, there are one or two instances where he describes the frigate as being manoeuvred in a way that no practical seaman would commend indeed, in one case of the kind he writes in such a manner as to shake our confidence in his own practical knowledge of seamanship. We strongly suspect that he can handle a pen much better than a marlingspike -- but we may be wrong in our conjecture, and shall be glad if such is the case. At any rate, Herman Melville himself assures us that he has sailed before the mast in whalers, and in a man-of-war, and it is certain that his information on all nautical subjects is most extensive and accurate. Take it all in all, White Jacket is an astonishing production, and contains much writing of the highest order.
The last work we have to notice is a large one, entitled The Whale, and it is quite as eccentric and monstrously extravagant in many of its incidents as even Mardi; but it is, nevertheless, a very valuable book, on account of the unparalleled mass of information it contains on the subject of the history and capture of the great and terrible cachalot, or sperm-whale. Melville describes himself as having made more than one cruise in a South-sea-whaler; and supposing this to have been the fact, he must nevertheless have laboriously consulted all the books treating in the remotest degree on the habits, natural history and mode of capturing this animal, which he could obtain, for such an amazing mass of accurate and curious information on the subject of the sperm-whale as is comprised in his three volumes could be found in no other single work or perhaps in no half-dozen works -- in existence. We say this with the greater confidence, because we have written on the sperm-whale ourselves, and have consequently had occasion to consult the best works in which it is described. Yet the great and undeniable merits of Melville's book are obscured and almost neutralised by the astounding quantity of wild, mad passages and entire chapters with which it is interlarded. Those who have not read the work cannot have any conception of the reckless, inconceivable extravagancies to which we allude. Nevertheless, the work is throughout splendidly written, in a literary sense; and some of the early chapters contain what we know to be most truthful and superlatively-excellent sketches of out-of-the-way life and characters in connexion with the American whaling trade....
Perhaps we have so far indicated our opinion of the merits and demerits of Herman Melville in the course of the foregoing remarks, that it is hardly necessary to state it in a more general way. Yet, in conclusion, we may sum up our estimate of this singular author in a few short sentences. He is a man of genius -- and we intend this word to be understood in its fullest literal sense -- one of rare qualifications too; and we do not think there is any living author who rivals him in his peculiar powers of describing scenes at sea and sea-life in a manner at once poetical, forcible, accurate, and, above all, original. But it is his style that is original rather than his matter. He has read prodigiously on all nautical subjects -- naval history, narratives of voyages and ship-wrecks, fictions, &c. -- and he never scruples to deftly avail himself of these stores of information. He undoubtedly is an original thinker, and boldly and unreservedly expresses his opinions, often in a way that irresistibly startles and enchains the interest of the reader. He possesses amazing powers of expression -- he can be terse, copious, eloquent, brilliant, imaginative, poetical, satirical, pathetic, at will. He is never stupid, never dull; but, alas! he is often mystical and unintelligible -- not from any inability to express himself, for his writing is pure, manly English, and a child can always understand what he says, but the ablest critic cannot always tell what he really means; for he at times seems to construct beautiful and melodious sentences only to conceal his thoughts, and irritates his warmest admirers by his provoking, deliberate, wilful indulgence in wild and half-insane conceits and rhapsodies. These observations apply mainly to his latter works, Mardi and The Whale, both of which he seems to have composed in an opium dream; for in no other manner can we understand how they could have been written.
Such is Herman Melville! a man of whom America has reason to be proud, with all his faults; and if he does not eventually rank as one of her greatest giants in literature, it will be owing not to any lack of innate genius, but solely to his own incorrigible perversion of his rare and lofty gifts.
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