Until Richard H. Dana and Herman Melville wrote, the commercial sailor of Great Britain and the United States was without representation in literature. Dana and Melville were Americans. They were the first to lift the hatch and show the world what passes in a ship's forecastle; how men live down in that gloomy cave, how and what they eat, and where they sleep; what pleasures they take, what their sorrows and wrongs are; how they are used when they quit their black sea-parlors in response to the boatswain's silver summons to work on deck by day or by night. These secrets of the deep Dana and Melville disclosed. By doing so, they -- the one by a single volume, the other by four or five remarkable narratives -- expanded American literature immeasurably beyond the degree to which English literature had been expanded by, say, the works of two-thirds of the poets named in Johnson's Lives, or by the whole series of the Waverley novels, or by half the fiction, together with much of the philosophy, theology, poetry, and history, that has been published since the death of Charles Dickens.

For compare what the vast proportion of poets and novelists and philosophers and the rest have done with what these two men did. Dana and Melville created a world, not by the discovery, but by the interpretation of it. They gave us a full view of the life led by tens of thousands of men whose very existence, until these wizards arose, had been as vague to the general land intelligence as the shadows of clouds moving under the brightness of stars....

Herman Melville, as I gather from an admirable account of this fine author by Mr. Arthur Stedman, a son of the well-known poet, went to sea in 1841. He shipped before the mast on board a whaler and cruised continuously for eighteen months in the Pacific. He saw much ocean life, and his experiences were wild and many. I will not compare him with Dana: his imagination was soaring and splendid, yet there are such passages of pathos and beauty in Dana's book as persuade me that he might have matched Melville's most startling and astonishing inventions, had taste prompted him or leisure invited. There is nothing in Melville to equal in simple, unaffected beauty Dana's description of an old sailor lying over a jibboom on a fine night and looking up at the stirless canvas white as sifted snow with moonlight. Full of rich poetry, too, is Dana's description of the still night broken by the breathing of shadowy shapes of whales. Melville is essentially American: Dana writes as a straight-headed Englishman would; he is clear, convincing, utterly unaffected. A subtle odor of the sea freshens and sweetens his sentences. An educated sailor would swear to Dana's vocation by virtue of his style only -- a style as plain and sturdy as Defoe's. In truth, I know of no American writer whose style is so good. Yet are Melville's pictures of the forecastle life, his representation of what goes on under the deck of that part of the ship which is thumped by the handspike of the boat-swain when he echoes in thunder the order of "All hands!" marvellously and delightfully true. I will not speak of his faithful and often beautiful and often exquisite sketches of the life and scenery of the South Sea Islands, nor of his magnificent picture of Liverpool, and the descriptions of London and of English scenery in Redburn, and the wonderful opening chapters of Moby Dick. I link him with Dana; I place the two side by side as men of genius, but sailors first of all, and I claim, in their name, that to American literature the world owes the first, the best, and the enduring revelation of the secrets of one great side of the ocean life....

Melville wrote out of his heart and out of wide and perhaps bitter experience; he enlarged our knowledge of the life of the deep by adding many descriptions to those which Dana had already given. His "South Seaman" is typical. Dana sighted her, but Melville lived in her. His books are now but little read. When he died the other day, -- to my sorrow! for our correspondence had bred in me a deeper feeling than kindness and esteem, -- men who could give you the names of fifty living American poets and perhaps a hundred living American novelists owned that they had never heard of Herman Melville; which simply means that to all intents and purposes the American sailor is a dead man, and the American merchant service to all intents and purposes a dead industry. Yet a famous man he was in those far days when every sea was bright with the American flag, when the cotton-white canvas shone starlike on the horizon, when the nasal laugh of the jolly Yankee tar in China found its echo in Peru. Famous he was; now he is neglected; yet his name and works will not die. He is a great figure in shadow; but the shadow is not that of oblivion....

Two American sailors, men of letters and of genius, seizing the pen for a handspike, prized open the sealed lid under which the merchant-seaman lay caverned. The light of heaven fell down the open hatch, and the story of what had been happening for centuries in the British service, for years in the American, was read. Did any good come of it? I should have to ask your patience for a much longer paper than this to answer that question. But as a literary feat! in an age, too, when men thought most things known. Americans! honor your Dana and your Melville. Greater geniuses your literature has produced, but none who have done work so memorable in the history of their native letters.

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