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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.

Chapter 3. Romances of Adventure

Section 2. Herman Melville

HERMAN MELVILLE much surpassed Simms and Cooper in boldness and energy of speculation and in richness and beauty of style. A grandson of the conservative old gentleman about whom Holmes wrote The Last Leaf, and son of a merchant of New York, Melville was born there in 1819. The early death of his father and the loss of the family fortune having narrowed Melville’s chances for higher schooling to a few months in the Albany Classical School, he turned his hand to farming for a year, shipped before the mast to Liverpool in 1837, taught school three years, and in 1841 sailed from New Bedford on a whaling voyage into the Pacific. Upon the experiences of that voyage his principal work is founded. The captain of the Acushnet, it seems, treated the crew badly, and Melville, with a companion whom he calls Toby, escaped from the ship to the island of Nukuheva (Nukuhiva) in the Marquesas and strayed into the cannibal valley Typee (Taipi), where the savages kept Melville, Toby having escaped again, four months in an “indulgent captivity.” Rescued by an Australian whaler, Melville visited Tahiti and other islands of the Society group, took part in a mutiny, and once more changed ship, this time setting out for Honolulu. After some months as a clerk in Hawaii he joined the crew of the frigate United States and returned by the Horn to Boston in 1844. “From my twenty-fifth year,” he told Hawthorne, “I date my life.” Why he held 1844 so important is not clear, but it was then that he first thought of authorship. Though he had kept no notes of his journey, within a year he had completed his first book, Typee, the record of his captivity. This was followed the next year by Omoo (the word is Polynesian for “rover”), which completed his island adventures. In 1849 came Redburn, based on his earlier voyage to Liverpool, and in 1850 White Jacket, an account of life on a man-of-war.

The first two had a hearty vogue and all of them aroused much wonder as to the proportion of fact and fiction which might have gone into their making. Murray published Typee in England under the delusion that it was pure fact. There were others to rank it with Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) as a transcript of real events. But though little is known of Melville’s actual doings in the Pacific, it is at least clear that Typee and Omoo are no more as truthful as Two Years Before the Mast than they are as crisp and nautical as that incomparable classic of the sea. Melville must be ranked less with Dana than with George Borrow. If he knew the thin boundary between romance and reality, he was still careless of nice limits, and his work is a fusion which defies analysis. White Jacket, of the four books, is probably the nearest a plain record; Redburn has but a few romantic elements; but neither can approach the Typee-Omoo series in charm. Typee was the earliest notable romance dealing with the South Seas, a region abundantly exploited since. Merely as history the book has real value, with its sympathetic yet sharp-eyed observation of Marquesan customs and its finely colored descriptions. It is, however, of course as fiction that Typee has been generally read, as a romance of the life led by a sophisticated man among perilous, lonely, barbaric surroundings. The valley of Typee becomes, in Melville’s handling, a region of dreams and languor which stir the senses with the fragrance and color of the landscape and the gay beauty of the brown cannibal girls. And yet Melville, though thoroughly sensitive to the felicities of the exotic life, never loses himself in it entirely as did later men, like Lafcadio Hearn and Pierre Loti, but remains always the shrewd and smiling Yankee. Omoo carries Melville through still more cheerful vicissitudes to Tahiti; it is packed with activity and comedy. There is at least the look of reality about his racy sailors, his consuls and beach-combers, and his irresponsible natives hovering between cannibalism and a half-comprehended Christianity. His references to the missionaries led to much controversy with members of their profession, and Melville was, indeed, highly caustic and contemptuous toward them. The tale is dramatic; the teller had just emerged from a world of Edenic simplicity; and his recollection of that little world lends sharpness to his judgments of the tawdry figures he finds on the borders of civilization. Melville was something of a partizan of paradises, as the charm of Typee reveals; but Omoo takes its quality, its keen edge, not so much from his prejudice as from the comic force and the happiness with which he hits off the manners and personages of a heterogeneous community.

The charge that he had been writing romance led Melville to deserve the accusation deliberately, and he wrote Mardi (1849), one of the strangest, maddest books ever composed by an American. As in Typee, two sailors escape from a tyrannical captain in the Pacific and seek their fortune on the open sea, where they finally discover the mysterious archipelago of Mardi, a paradise which is more rich and sultry than the Marquesas and which becomes, as the story proceeds, a crazy chaos of adventure and satirical allegory. In Mardi for the first time appear those traits which made a French critic call Melville “un Rabelais américain,” his welter of language, his fantastic laughter, his tumultuous speculations. He had turned, contemporaries said, from the plain though witty style of his first works to the gorgeous manner of Sir Thomas Browne; he had been infected, say later critics, with Carlylese and the midsummer madness of the New England transcendentalists. Whatever the process, he had surely shifted his interest from the actual to the abstruse and symbolical, and he never recovered from the dive into metaphysics which proved fatal to him as a novelist. It was, however, while on this perilous rim that he produced one of the best of his, and one of the best of American, romances; it is the peculiar mingling of speculation and experience which lends Moby Dick (1851) its special power.

The time was propitious for such a book. The golden age of the whalers was drawing to a close, though no decline had yet set in, and the native imagination had been stirred by tales of deeds done on remote oceans by the most adventurous Yankees of the age, in the arduous calling in which New England, and especially the hard little island of Nantucket, led and taught the world. “The Nantucketer,” says Melville, “he alone resides and riots on the sea.… There is his home; there lies his business, which a Noah’s flood would not interrupt though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Englishman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.” A minor literature of whaling had grown up, chiefly the records of actual voyages and a few novels, like J. C. Hart’s Miriam Coffin (1834). But the whalers still lacked any such romantic record as the backwoodsmen had. Melville brought to the task an exact knowledge of the craft, a large and curious learning in all that pertained to whales ancient and modern, and an imagination which worked with lurid power upon the facts of his own experience, swinging resistlessly over the seven seas and the seventy regions of the earth. Moby Dick, the strange, fierce white whale with his wrinkled forehead and high pyramidical hump, the villain that Captain Ahab pursues with such relentless fury, was already a legend among the whalers, who knew him as Mocha Dick. And Melville was too much a transcendentalist—too richly a romancer—not to invest the chase with some kind of moral or poetic significance. As he handles the story, Ahab, who has lost a leg in the jaws of the whale, is driven by a wild passion of revenge which has maddened him. “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.” Infected himself, Ahab infects his crew with his frenzy, and leaving behind them the vivid actualities of Nantucket they move into a Pacific which seems less a fact than a truth, less a truth than an eternal symbol of the universe. “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness. To any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific, once beheld, must ever after be the sea of his adoption. It rolls the midmost waters of the world, the Indian Ocean and Atlantic being but its arms. The same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday planted by the recentest race of men, and lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans. Thus this mysterious divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth.” In such a setting no wonder that the chase after Moby Dick comes to have the semblance of a conflict between the eternal, unscathable forces of nature and the ineluctable enmity of man; and the eventual catastrophe, which leaves ship and sailors strangling in the water while the great beast shoulders his white way off on other business, seems the crash of a tumbling order. These are the theme and climax, barely reported, but description cannot report the extraordinary mixture in Moby Dick of vivid adventures, minute details, cloudy symbolisms, thrilling pictures of the sea in every mood, sly mirth and cosmic ironies, real and incredible characters, wit, speculation, humor, color. The style is mannered but felicitous, warm, insinuating, pictorial, allusive, and witty; though the book is long, crowded with the lore of the deep, yet the delays of the narrative but arouse more and more faculties of suspense until the end comes, swift and final. Too irregular, too bizarre, perhaps, ever to win the most popular suffrage, the immense originality of Moby Dick must warrant the claim of its admirers that it belongs with the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world.

This stupendous yarn, which Melville told Hawthorne had been cooked in hell-fire, seems to have exhausted its author. Pierre (1852) is hopelessly frantic, the work of a mad Meredith raving over moral ambiguities; Israel Potter (1855), a Revolutionary story, is not markedly original; neither are The Piazza Tales (1856) and The Confidence Man (1857). The verses which Melville wrote in his later years, his sole output, are in a few instances happy and resonant, but more often jagged and harsh. Whatever the cause of his loss of power, he fretted under it and grew more and more metaphysical, tortured, according to Hawthorne, by uncertainty as to a future life, and by his own words shown to have despaired of any future for his writings. The way of metaphysics, for Melville, was madness; his earlier works might have taught him that he was lost without a solid basis of fact; in himself he lacked discipline and form. He moved restlessly about, living now in New York, now in a farmhouse near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, now in New York again, marrying in 1847, lecturing on the South Seas during the years 1857–60 in many cities of the United States and Canada, and visiting Europe and Palestine, about which he wrote a poem—Clarel (1876)—two volumes long and a rival of Mardi in eccentricity. Finally, he was appointed to a place in the New York Custom House in 1866 and served there for twenty years, living a private life of almost entire, though voluntary and studious, seclusion, musing on the philosophies. “How many,” he had said in Moby Dick of Tashtego’s fall into the whale’s head, “have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?” Melville’s death in 1891 removed from American literature one of its most promising and yet most disappointing figures. Of late years, however, his fame shows a tendency to revive, perhaps more considerably in England than in America. Barrie’s Captain Hook is confessedly derived from Melville; John Masefield has said that Moby Dick speaks the whole secret of the sea; Lady Sybil Scott admitted passages from Melville to The Book of the Sea, which, though verse for the most part, she could not think complete without Defoe, Melville, and Joseph Conrad. And while Melville at home has had somewhat slighter praise, an acquaintance with his work is a sign by which it may be learned whether any given American knows the literature of his country.