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

Page 71

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

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