OF the trinity of American authors whose births made the year
1819 a notable one in our literary history,—Lowell, Whitman, and
Melville,—it is interesting to observe that the two latter were
both descended, on the fathers' and mothers' sides respectively,
from have families of British New England and Dutch New York
extraction. Whitman and Van Velsor, Melville and Gansevoort, were
the several combinations which produced these men; and it is easy
to trace in the life and character of each author the qualities
derived from his joint ancestry. Here, however, the resemblance
ceases, for Whitman's forebears, while worthy country people of
good descent, were not prominent in public or private life.
Melville, on the other hand, was of distinctly patrician birth, his
paternal and maternal grandfathers having been leading characters
in the Revolutionary War; their descendants still maintaining a
dignified social position.
Allan Melville, great-grandfather of Herman Melville, removed
from Scotland to America in 1748, and established himself as a
merchant in Boston. His son, Major Thomas Melville, was a leader in
the famous 'Boston Tea Party' of 1773 and afterwards became an
officer in the Continental Army. He is reported to have been a
Conservative in all matters except his opposition to unjust
taxation, and he wore the old-fashioned cocked hat and
knee-breeches until his death, in 1832, thus becoming the original
of Doctor Holmes's poem, 'The Last Leaf'. Major Melville's son
Allan, the father of Herman, was an importing merchant,—first in
Boston, and later in New York. He was a man of much culture, and
was an extensive traveller for his time. He married Maria
Gansevoort, daughter of General Peter Gansevoort, best known as
'the hero of Fort Stanwix.' This fort was situated on the present
site of Rome, N.Y.; and there Gansevoort, with a small body of men,
held in check reinforcements on their way to join Burgoyne, until
the disastrous ending of the latter's campaign of 1777 was insured.
The Gansevoorts, it should be said, were at that time and
subsequently residents of Albany, N.Y.
Herman Melville was born in New York on August 1,1819, and
received his early education in that city. There he imbibed his
first love of adventure, listening, as he says in 'Redburn,' while
his father 'of winter evenings, by the well-remembered sea-coal
fire in old Greenwich Street, used to tell my brother and me of the
monstrous waves at sea, mountain high, of the masts bending like
twigs, and all about Havre and Liverpool.' The death of his father
in reduced circumstances necessitated the removal of his mother and
the family of eight brothers and sisters to the village of
Lansingburg, on the Hudson River. There Herman remained until 1835,
when he attended the Albany Classical School for some months. Dr.
Charles E. West, the well-known Brooklyn educator, was then in
charge of the school, and remembers the lad's deftness in English
composition, and his struggles with mathematics.
The following year was passed at Pittsfield, Mass., where he
engaged in work on his uncle's farm, long known as the 'Van Schaack
place.' This uncle was Thomas Melville, president of the Berkshire
Agricultural Society, and a successful gentleman farmer.
Herman's roving disposition, and a desire to support himself
independently of family assistance, soon led him to ship as cabin
boy in a New York vessel bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage,
visited London, and returned in the same ship. 'Redburn: His First
Voyage,' published in 1849, is partly founded on the experiences of
this trip, which was undertaken with the full consent of his
relatives, and which seems to have satisfied his nautical ambition
for a time. As told in the book, Melville met with more than the
usual hardships of a sailor-boy's first venture. It does not seem
difficult in 'Redburn' to separate the author's actual experiences
from those invented by him, this being the case in some of his
A good part of the succeeding three years, from 1837 to 1840,
was occupied with school-teaching. While so engaged at Greenbush,
now East Albany, N.Y., he received the munificent salary of 'six
dollars a quarter and board.' He taught for one term at Pittsfield,
Mass., 'boarding around' with the families of his pupils, in true
American fashion, and easily suppressing, on one memorable
occasion, the efforts of his larger scholars to inaugurate a
rebellion by physical force.
I fancy that it was the reading of Richard Henry Dana's 'Two
Years Before the Mast' which revived the spirit of adventure in
Melville's breast. That book was published in 1840, and was at once
talked of everywhere. Melville must have read it at the time,
mindful of his own experience as a sailor. At any rate, he once
more signed a ship's articles, and on January 1, 1841, sailed from
New Bedford harbour in the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific
Ocean and the sperm fishery. He has left very little direct
information as to the events of this eighteen months' cruise,
although his whaling romance, 'Moby Dick; or, the Whale,' probably
gives many pictures of life on board the Acushnet. In the present
volume he confines himself to a general account of the captain's
bad treatment of the crew, and of his non-fulfilment of agreements.
Under these considerations, Melville decided to abandon the vessel
on reaching the Marquesas Islands; and the narrative of 'Typee'
begins at this point. However, he always recognised the immense
influence the voyage had had upon his career, and in regard to its
results has said in 'Moby Dick,'—
'If I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high
hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if
hereafter I shall do anything that on the whole a man might rather
have done than to have left undone… then here I prospectively
ascribe all the honour and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship
was my Yale College and my Harvard.'
The record, then, of Melville's escape from the Dolly, otherwise
the Acushnet, the sojourn of his companion Toby and himself in the
Typee Valley on the island of Nukuheva, Toby's mysterious
disappearance, and Melville's own escape, is fully given in the
succeeding pages; and rash indeed would he be who would enter into
a descriptive contest with these inimitable pictures of aboriginal
life in the 'Happy Valley.' So great an interest has always centred
in the character of Toby, whose actual existence has been
questioned, that I am glad to be able to declare him an authentic
personage, by name Richard T. Greene. He was enabled to discover
himself again to Mr. Melville through the publication of the
present volume, and their acquaintance was renewed, lasting for
quite a long period. I have seen his portrait,—a rare old
daguerrotype,—and some of his letters to our author. One of his
children was named for the latter, but Mr. Melville lost trace of
him in recent years.
With the author's rescue from what Dr. T. M. Coan has styled his
'anxious paradise,' 'Typee' ends, and its sequel, 'Omoo,' begins.
Here, again, it seems wisest to leave the remaining adventures in
the South Seas to the reader's own discovery, simply stating that,
after a sojourn at the Society Islands, Melville shipped for
Honolulu. There he remained for four months, employed as a clerk.
He joined the crew of the American frigate United States, which
reached Boston, stopping on the way at one of the Peruvian ports,
in October of 1844. Once more was a narrative of his experiences to
be preserved in 'White Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War.'
Thus, of Melville's four most important books, three, 'Typee,'
'Omoo,' and 'White-Jacket,' are directly auto biographical, and
'Moby Dick' is partially so; while the less important 'Redburn' is
between the two classes in this respect. Melville's other prose
works, as will be shown, were, with some exceptions, unsuccessful
efforts at creative romance.
Whether our author entered on his whaling adventures in the
South Seas with a determination to make them available for literary
purposes, may never be certainly known. There was no such elaborate
announcement or advance preparation as in some later cases. I am
inclined to believe that the literary prospect was an
after-thought, and that this insured a freshness and enthusiasm of
style not otherwise to be attained. Returning to his mother's home
at Lansingburg, Melville soon began the writing of 'Typee,' which
was completed by the autumn of 1845. Shortly after this his older
brother, Gansevoort Melville, sailed for England as secretary of
legation to Ambassador McLane, and the manuscript was intrusted to
Gansevoort for submission to John Murray. Its immediate acceptance
and publication followed in 1846. 'Typee' was dedicated to Chief
Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts, an old friendship between the
author's family and that of Justice Shaw having been renewed about
this time. Mr. Melville became engaged to Miss Elizabeth Shaw, the
only daughter of the Chief Justice, and their marriage followed on
August 4, 1847, in Boston.
The wanderings of our nautical Othello were thus brought to a
conclusion. Mr. and Mrs. Melville resided in New York City until
1850, when they purchased a farmhouse at Pittsfield, their farm
adjoining that formerly owned by Mr. Melville's uncle, which had
been inherited by the latter's son. The new place was named 'Arrow
Head,' from the numerous Indian antiquities found in the
neighbourhood. The house was so situated as to command an
uninterrupted view of Greylock Mountain and the adjacent hills.
Here Melville remained for thirteen years, occupied with his
writing, and managing his farm. An article in Putnam's Monthly
entitled 'I and My Chimney,' another called 'October Mountain,' and
the introduction to the 'Piazza Tales,' present faithful pictures
of Arrow Head and its surroundings. In a letter to Nathaniel
Hawthorne, given in 'Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife,' his daily
life is set forth. The letter is dated June 1, 1851.
'Since you have been here I have been building some shanties of
houses (connected with the old one), and likewise some shanties of
chapters and essays. I have been ploughing and sowing and raising
and printing and praying, and now begin to come out upon a less
bristling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a
fair piazza at the north of the old farmhouse here. Not entirely
yet, though, am I without something to be urgent with. The 'Whale'
is only half through the press; for, wearied with the long delays
of the printers, and disgusted with the heat and dust of the
Babylonish brick-kiln of New York, I came back to the country to
feel the grass, and end the book reclining on it, if I may.'
Mr. Hawthorne, who was then living in the red cottage at Lenox,
had a week at Arrow Head with his daughter Una the previous spring.
It is recorded that the friends 'spent most of the time in the
barn, bathing in the early spring sunshine, which streamed through
the open doors, and talking philosophy.' According to Mr. J. E. A.
Smith's volume on the Berkshire Hills, these gentlemen, both
reserved in nature, though near neighbours and often in the same
company, were inclined to be shy of each other, partly, perhaps,
through the knowledge that Melville had written a very appreciative
review of 'Mosses from an Old Manse' for the New York Literary
World, edited by their mutual friends, the Duyckincks. 'But one
day,' writes Mr. Smith, 'it chanced that when they were out on a
picnic excursion, the two were compelled by a thundershower to take
shelter in a narrow recess of the rocks of Monument Mountain. Two
hours of this enforced intercourse settled the matter. They learned
so much of each other's character,… that the most intimate
friendship for the future was inevitable.' A passage in Hawthorne's
'Wonder Book' is noteworthy as describing the number of literary
neighbours in Berkshire:—
'For my part, I wish I had Pegasus here at this moment,' said
the student. 'I would mount him forthwith, and gallop about the
country within a circumference of a few miles, making literary
calls on my brother authors. Dr. Dewey would be within ray reach,
at the foot of the Taconic. In Stockbridge, yonder, is Mr. James
[G. P. R. James], conspicuous to all the world on his mountain-pile
of history and romance. Longfellow, I believe, is not yet at the
Oxbow, else the winged horse would neigh at him. But here in Lenox
I should find our most truthful novelist [Miss Sedgwick], who has
made the scenery and life of Berkshire all her own. 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. Another bound of my
flying steed would bring me to the door of Holmes, whom I mention
last, because Pegasus would certainly unseat me the next minute,
and claim the poet as his rider.'
While at Pittsfield, Mr. Melville was induced to enter the
lecture field. From 1857 to 1860 he filled many engagements in the
lyceums, chiefly speaking of his adventures in the South Seas. He
lectured in cities as widely apart as Montreal, Chicago, Baltimore,
and San Francisco, sailing to the last-named place in 1860, by way
of Cape Horn, on the Meteor, commanded, by his younger brother,
Captain Thomas Melville, afterward governor of the 'Sailor's Snug
Harbor' at Staten Island, N.Y. Besides his voyage to San Francisco,
he had, in 1849 and 1856, visited England, the Continent, and the
Holy Land, partly to superintend the publication of English
editions of his works, and partly for recreation.
A pronounced feature of Melville's character was his
unwillingness to speak of himself, his adventures, or his writings
in conversation. He was, however, able to overcome this reluctance
on the lecture platform. Our author's tendency to philosophical
discussion is strikingly set forth in a letter from Dr. Titus
Munson Coan to the latter's mother, written while a student at
Williams College over thirty years ago, and fortunately preserved
by her. Dr. Coan enjoyed the friendship and confidence of Mr.
Melville during most of his residence in New York. The letter
'I have made my first literary pilgrimage, a call upon Herman
Melville, the renowned author of 'Typee,' etc. He lives in a
spacious farmhouse about two miles from Pittsfield, a weary walk
through the dust. But it as well repaid. I introduced myself as a
Hawaiian-American, and soon found myself in full tide of talk, or
rather of monologue. But he would not repeat the experiences of
which I had been reading with rapture in his books. In vain I
sought to hear of Typee and those paradise islands, but 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. We have quite enough of deep philosophy at Williams
College, and I confess I was disappointed in this trend of the
talk. But what a talk it was! Melville is transformed from a
Marquesan to a gypsy student, the gypsy element still remaining
strong within him. And this contradiction gives him the air of one
who has suffered from opposition, both literary and social. With
his liberal views, he is apparently considered by the good people
of Pittsfield as little better than a cannibal or a 'beach-comber.'
His attitude seemed to me something like that of Ishmael; but
perhaps I judged hastily. I managed to draw him out very freely on
everything but the Marquesas Islands, and when I left him he was in
full tide of discourse on all things sacred and profane. But he
seems to put away the objective side of his life, and to shut
himself up in this cold north as a cloistered thinker.'
I have been told by Dr. Coan that his father, the Rev. Titus
Coan, of the Hawaiian Islands, personally visited the Marquesas
group, found the Typee Valley, and verified in all respects the
statements made in 'Typee.' It is known that Mr. Melville from
early manhood indulged deeply in philosophical studies, and his
fondness for discussing such matters is pointed out by Hawthorne
also, in the 'English Note Books.' This habit increased as he
advanced in years, if possible.
The chief event of the residence in Pittsfield was the
completion and publication of 'Moby Dick; or, the Whale,' in 1851.
How many young men have been drawn to sea by this book is a
question of interest. Meeting with Mr. Charles Henry Webb ('John
Paul') the day after Mr. Melville's death, I asked him if he were
not familiar with that author's writings. He replied that 'Moby
Dick' was responsible for his three years of life before the mast
when a lad, and added that while 'gamming' on board another vessel
he had once fallen in with a member of the boat's crew which
rescued Melville from his friendly imprisonment among the
While at Pittsfield, besides his own family, Mr. Melville's
mother and sisters resided with him. As his four children grew up
he found it necessary to obtain for them better facilities for
study than the village school afforded; and so, several years
after, the household was broken up, and he removed with his wife
and children to the New York house that was afterwards his home.
This house belonged to his brother Allan, and was exchanged for the
estate at Pittsfield. In December, 1866, he was appointed by Mr. H.
A. Smyth, a former travelling companion in Europe, a district
officer in the New York Custom House. He held the position until
1886, preferring it to in-door clerical work, and then resigned,
the duties becoming too arduous for his failing strength.
In addition to his philosophical studies, Mr. Melville was much
interested in all matters relating to the fine arts, and devoted
most of his leisure hours to the two subjects. A notable collection
of etchings and engravings from the old masters was gradually made
by him, those from Claude's paintings being a specialty. After he
retired from the Custom House, his tall, stalwart figure 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;
for, in spite of the melodramatic declarations of various English
gentlemen, Melville's seclusion in his latter years, and in fact
throughout his life, was a matter of personal choice. More and
more, as he grew older, he avoided every action on his part, and on
the part of his family, that might tend to keep his name and
writings before the public. A few friends felt at liberty to visit
the recluse, and were kindly welcomed, but he himself sought no
one. His favorite companions were his grandchildren, with whom he
delighted to pass his time, and his devoted wife, who was a
constant assistant and adviser in his literary work, chiefly done
at this period for his own amusement. To her he addressed his last
little poem, the touching 'Return of the Sire de Nesle.' Various
efforts were made by the New York literary colony to draw him from
his retirement, but without success. It has been suggested that he
might have accepted a magazine editorship, but this is doubtful, as
he could not bear business details or routine work of any sort. His
brother Allan was a New York lawyer, and until his death, in 1872,
managed Melville's affairs with ability, particularly the literary
During these later years he took great pleasure in a friendly
correspondence with Mr. W. Clark Russell. Mr. Russell had taken
many occasions to mention Melville's sea-tales, his interest in
them, and his indebtedness to them. The latter felt impelled to
write Mr. Russell in regard to one of his newly published novels,
and received in answer the following letter:
July 21, 1886.
MY DEAR Mr. MELVILLE, Your letter has given me a very great and
singular pleasure. Your delightful books carry the imagination into
a maritime period so remote that, often as you have been in my
mind, I could never satisfy myself that you were still amongst the
living. I am glad, indeed, to learn from Mr. Toft that you are
still hale and hearty, and I do most heartily wish you many years
yet of health and vigour.
Your books I have in the American edition. I have 'Typee,
'Omoo,' 'Redburn,' and that noble piece 'Moby Dick.' These are all
I have been able to obtain. There have been many editions of your
works in this country, particularly the lovely South Sea sketches;
but the editions are not equal to those of the American publishers.
Your reputation here is very great. It is hard to meet a man whose
opinion as a reader is worth leaving who does not speak of your
works in such terms as he might hesitate to employ, with all his
patriotism, toward many renowned English writers.
Dana is, indeed, great. There is nothing in literature more
remarkable than the impression produced by Dana's portraiture of
the homely inner life of a little brig's forecastle.
I beg that you will accept my thanks for the kindly spirit in
which you have read my books. I wish it were in my power to cross
the Atlantic, for you assuredly would be the first whom it would be
my happiness to visit.
The condition of my right hand obliges me to dictate this to my
son; but painful as it is to me to hold a pen, I cannot suffer this
letter to reach the hands of a man of so admirable genitis as
Herman Melville without begging him to believe me to be, with my
own hand, his most respectful and hearty admirer, W. Clark
It should be noted here that Melville's increased reputation in
England at the period of this letter was chiefly owing to a series
of articles on his work written by Mr. Russell. I am sorry to say
that few English papers made more than a passing reference to
Melville's death. The American press discussed his life and work in
numerous and lengthy reviews. At the same time, there always has
been a steady sale of his books in England, and some of them never
have been out of print in that country since the publication of
'Typee.' One result of this friendship between the two authors was
the dedication of new volumes to each other in highly complimentary
terms—Mr. Melville's 'John Marr and Other Sailors,' of which
twenty-five copies only were printed, on the one hand, and Mr.
Russell's 'An Ocean Tragedy,' on the other, of which many thousand
have been printed, not to mention unnumbered pirated copies.
Beside Hawthorne, Mr. Richard Henry Stoddard, of American
writers, specially knew and appreciated Herman Melville. Mr.
Stoddard was connected with the New York dock department at the
time of Mr. Melville's appointment to a custom-house position, and
they at once became acquainted. For a good many years, during the
period in which our author remained in seclusion, much that
appeared in print in America concerning Melville came from the pen
of Mr. Stoddard. Nevertheless, the sailor author's presence in New
York was well known to the literary guild. He was invited to join
in all new movements, but as often felt obliged to excuse himself
from doing so. The present writer lived for some time within a
short distance of his house, but found no opportunity to meet him
until it became necessary to obtain his portrait for an anthology
in course of publication. The interview was brief, and the
interviewer could not help feeling although treated with pleasant
courtesy, that more important matters were in hand than the
perpetuation of a romancer's countenance to future generations; but
a friendly family acquaintance grew up from the incident, and will
remain an abiding memory.
Mr. Melville died at his home in New York City early on the
morning of September 28, 1891. His serious illness had lasted a
number of months, so that the end came as a release. True to his
ruling passion, philosophy had claimed him to the last, a set of
Schopenhauer's works receiving his attention when able to study;
but this was varied with readings in the 'Mermaid Series' of old
plays, in which he took much pleasure. His library, in addition to
numerous works on philosophy and the fine arts, was composed of
standard books of all classes, including, of course, a proportion
of nautical literature. Especially interesting are fifteen or
twenty first editions of Hawthorne's books inscribed to Mr. and
Mrs. Melville by the author and his wife.
The immediate acceptance of 'Typee' by John Murray was followed
by an arrangement with the London agent of an American publisher,
for its simultaneous publication in the United States. I understand
that Murray did not then publish fiction. At any rate, the book was
accepted by him on the assurance of Gansevoort Melville that it
contained nothing not actually experienced by his brother. Murray
brought it out early in 1846, in his Colonial and Home Library, as
'A Narrative of a Four Months' Residence among the Natives of a
Valley of the Marquesas Islands; or, a Peep at Polynesian Life,'
or, more briefly, 'Melville's Marquesas Islands.' It was issued in
America with the author's own title, 'Typee,' and in the outward
shape of a work of fiction. Mr. Melville found himself famous at
once. Many discussions were carried on as to the genuineness of the
author's name and the reality of the events portrayed, but English
and American critics alike recognised the book's importance as a
contribution to literature.
Melville, in a letter to Hawthorne, speaks of himself as having
no development at all until his twenty-fifth year, the time of his
return from the Pacific; but surely the process of development must
have been well advanced to permit of so virile and artistic a
creation as 'Typee.' While the narrative does not always run
smoothly, yet the style for the most part is graceful and alluring,
so that we pass from one scene of Pacific enchantment to another
quite oblivious of the vast amount of descriptive detail which is
being poured out upon us. It is the varying fortune of the hero
which engrosses our attention. We follow his adventures with
breathless interest, or luxuriate with him in the leafy bowers of
the 'Happy Valley,' surrounded by joyous children of nature. When
all is ended, we then for the first time realise that we know these
people and their ways as if we too had dwelt among them.
I do not believe that 'Typee' will ever lose its position as a
classic of American Literature. The pioneer in South Sea
romance—for the mechanical descriptions of earlier voyagers are not
worthy of comparison—this book has as yet met with no superior,
even in French literature; nor has it met with a rival in any other
language than the French. The character of 'Fayaway,' and, no less,
William S. Mayo's 'Kaloolah,' the enchanting dreams of many a
youthful heart, will retain their charm; and this in spite of
endless variations by modern explorers in the same domain. A faint
type of both characters may be found in the Surinam Yarico of
Captain John Gabriel Stedman, whose 'Narrative of a Five Years'
Expedition' appeared in 1796.
'Typee,' as written, contained passages reflecting with
considerable severity on the methods pursued by missionaries in the
South Seas. The manuscript was printed in a complete form in
England, and created much discussion on this account, Melville
being accused of bitterness; but he asserted his lack of prejudice.
The passages referred to were omitted in the first and all
subsequent American editions. They have been restored in the
present issue, which is complete save for a few paragraphs excluded
by written direction of the author. I have, with the consent of his
family, changed the long and cumbersome sub-title of the book,
calling it a 'Real-Romance of the South Seas,' as best expressing
The success of his first volume encouraged Melville to proceed
in his work, and 'Omoo,' the sequel to 'Typee,' appeared in England
and America in 1847. Here we leave, for the most part, the dreamy
pictures of island life, and find ourselves sharing the extremely
realistic discomforts of a Sydney whaler in the early forties. The
rebellious crew's experiences in the Society Islands are quite as
realistic as events on board ship and very entertaining, while the
whimsical character, Dr. Long Ghost, next to Captain Ahab in 'Moby
Dick,' is Melville's most striking delineation. The errors of the
South Sea missions are pointed out with even more force than in
'Typee,' and it is a fact that both these books have ever since
been of the greatest value to outgoing missionaries on account of
the exact information contained in them with respect to the
Melville's power in describing and investing with romance scenes
and incidents witnessed and participated in by himself, and his
frequent failure of success as an inventor of characters and
situations, were early pointed out by his critics. More recently
Mr. Henry S. Salt has drawn the same distinction very carefully in
an excellent article contributed to the Scottish Art Review. In a
prefatory note to 'Mardi' (1849), Melville declares that, as his
former books have been received as romance instead of reality, he
will now try his hand at pure fiction. 'Mardi' may be called a
splendid failure. It must have been soon after the completion of
'Omoo' that Melville began to study the writings of Sir Thomas
Browne. Heretofore our author's style was rough in places, but
marvellously simple and direct. 'Mardi' is burdened with an
over-rich diction, which Melville never entirely outgrew. The scene
of this romance, which opens well, is laid in the South Seas, but
everything soon becomes overdrawn and fantastical, and the thread
of the story loses itself in a mystical allegory.
'Redburn,' already mentioned, succeeded 'Mardi' in the same
year, and was a partial return to the author's earlier style. In
'White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War' (1850), Melville
almost regained it. This book has no equal as a picture of life
aboard a sailing man-of-war, the lights and shadows of naval
existence being well contrasted.
With 'Moby Dick; or, the Whale' (1851), Melville reached the
topmost notch of his fame. The book represents, to a certain
extent, the conflict between the author's earlier and later methods
of composition, but the gigantic conception of the 'White Whale,'
as Hawthorne expressed it, permeates the whole work, and lifts it
bodily into the highest domain of romance. 'Moby Dick' contains an
immense amount of information concerning the habits of the whale
and the methods of its capture, but this is characteristically
introduced in a way not to interfere with the narrative. The
chapter entitled 'Stubb Kills a Whale' ranks with the choicest
examples of descriptive literature.
'Moby Dick' appeared, and Melville enjoyed to the full the
enhanced reputation it brought him. He did not, however, take
warning from 'Mardi,' but allowed himself to plunge more deeply
into the sea of philosophy and fantasy.
'Pierre; or, the Ambiguities' (1852) was published, and there
ensued a long series of hostile criticisms, ending with a severe,
though impartial, article by Fitz-James O'Brien in Putnam's
Monthly. About the same time the whole stock of the author's books
was destroyed by fire, keeping them out of print at a critical
moment; and public interest, which until then had been on the
increase, gradually began to diminish.
After this Mr. Melville contributed several short stories to
Putnam's Monthly and Harper's Magazine. Those in the former
periodical were collected in a volume as Piazza Tales (1856); and
of these 'Benito Cereno' and 'The Bell Tower' are equal to his best
'Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile' (1855), first printed
as a serial in Putnam's, is an historical romance of the American
Revolution, based on the hero's own account of his adventures, as
given in a little volume picked up by Mr. Melville at a book-stall.
The story is well told, but the book is hardly worthy of the author
of 'Typee.' 'The Confidence Man' (1857), his last serious effort in
prose fiction, does not seem to require criticism.
Mr. Melville's pen had rested for nearly ten years, when it was
again taken up to celebrate the events of the Civil War. 'Battle
Pieces and Aspects of the War' appeared in 1866. Most of these
poems originated, according to the author, in an impulse imparted
by the fall of Richmond; but they have as subjects all the chief
incidents of the struggle. The best of them are 'The Stone Fleet,'
'In the Prison Pen,' 'The College Colonel,' 'The March to the Sea,'
'Running the Batteries,' and 'Sheridan at Cedar Creek.' Some of
these had a wide circulation in the press, and were preserved in
various anthologies. 'Clarel, a Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy
Land' (1876), is a long mystical poem requiring, as some one has
said, a dictionary, a cyclopaedia, and a copy of the Bible for its
elucidation. In the two privately printed volumes, the arrangement
of which occupied Mr. Melville during his last illness, there are
several fine lyrics. The titles of these books are, 'John Marr and
Other Sailors' (1888), and 'Timoleon' (1891).
There is no question that Mr. Melville's absorption in
philosophical studies was quite as responsible as the failure of
his later books for his cessation from literary productiveness.
That he sometimes realised the situation will be seen by a passage
in 'Moby Dick':—
'Didn't I tell you so?' said Flask. 'Yes, you'll soon see this
right whale's head hoisted up opposite that parmacetti's.'
'In good time Flask's saying proved true. As before, the Pequod
steeply leaned over towards the sperm whale's head, now, by the
counterpoise of both heads, she regained her own keel, though
sorely strained, you may well believe. So, when on one side you
hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other
side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor
plight. Thus, some minds forever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye
foolish! throw all these thunderheads overboard, and then you will
float right and light.'
Mr. Melville would have been more than mortal if he had been
indifferent to his loss of popularity. Yet he seemed contented to
preserve an entirely independent attitude, and to trust to the
verdict of the future. The smallest amount of activity would have
kept him before the public; but his reserve would not permit this.
That reinstatement of his reputation cannot be doubted.
In the editing of this reissue of 'Melville's Works,' I have
been much indebted to the scholarly aid of Dr. Titus Munson Coan,
whose familiarity with the languages of the Pacific has enabled me
to harmonise the spelling of foreign words in 'Typee' and 'Omoo,'
though without changing the phonetic method of printing adopted by
Mr. Melville. Dr. Coan has also been most helpful with suggestions
in other directions. Finally, the delicate fancy of La Fargehas
supplemented the immortal pen-portrait of the Typee maiden with a
speaking impersonation of her beauty.
New York, June, 1892.