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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Herman Melville (1819–1891)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN 1846 appeared a volume of travel and adventure called ‘Typee,’ with the name of Herman Melville on the title-page. It created a stir, which in these days would be called a sensation, which speedily spread to England. What was Typee? What was this South Sea island? Did it exist, with its soft airs and compliant people, only in romance? The romantic name “Herman Melville” must be only a nom de plume. The critics and the newspapers took up the mystery and tossed it about. Was the whole thing an invention of a clever romancer? Was there any such person as Melville and his sailor comrade “Toby”? The newspapers were facetious about the latter, and headed their paragraphs “To Be or not To Be.” It was a great relief when one day the veritable sailor Toby turned up in Buffalo, New York, and made affirmation to the truth of the whole narrative.  1
  ‘Typee’ was the first of the long line of books of travel, adventure, and romance about the South Seas; and Fayaway was the first of the Polynesian maidens to attract the attention of the world. The book not only opened a new world, but it gave new terms—like taboo—to our language. It led the way to a host of other writers, among whom recently are Pierre Loti and Stevenson. The ‘Mariage de Loti,’ in its incidents and romanticism, copies ‘Typee.’ It is not probable, however, that Pierre Loti ever saw Melville’s book, or he would not have made such an imitation.  2
  Herman Melville, son of a New York merchant, and born in that city in October 1819, in a state of life which hedged him about with a thousand social restrictions, early “came to live in the all,” as Goethe has it; though Melville himself put the transformation much later, when he broke away from home, became a sailor on a whaling vessel, and there endured innumerable hardships and cruelties. Finally escaping from his tyrants, he reached the Marquesas Islands, where he enjoyed strange adventures for many months,—a captive in a tribe of cannibals in the Typee Valley. An Australian ship having taken him aboard, he returned home, the hero of strange tales which he at once chronicled in the romances ‘Typee’ (1846) and ‘Omoo’ (1847). No sooner were these volumes published than his promise of lasting fame “was voluble in the mouths of wisest censure,” while his actual success put him in the first rank of American authors at the age of twenty-six. But for some mysterious reason (for most of his other books were written on the subject which inspired ‘Typee’ and ‘Omoo,’ and were possessed with the same enthusiasm) ‘Moby Dick,’ published when he was only thirty-two years old, disclosed that he had “come to the last leaf in the bulb.” He wrote several books afterwards, musings and stories, and three volumes of poems which just miss the mark. Mr. R. H. Stoddard, his kindly and sympathetic critic, said of him that he thought like a poet, saw like a poet, felt like a poet; but never attained any proficiency in verse, because, though there was a wealth of imagination in his mind, it was an untrained imagination, and “a world of the stuff out of which poetry is made, but no poetry, which is creation, not chaos.”  3
  At one time Melville and Hawthorne were near neighbors,—when Hawthorne lived on the brink of Stockbridge pool, and Melville at Lenox; and it is possible that each was influenced by the genius of the other. Mr. Stoddard thinks there were dark, mysterious elements in Melville’s nature akin to those that possessed Hawthorne; but that unlike Hawthorne, Melville did not control his melancholy, letting it rather lead him into morbid moods. Certainly, in the days of ‘Omoo’ and ‘Typee’ Melville exhibited no such traits; but he had probably, like Emily Brontë, “an intense and glowing mind” to see everything through its own atmosphere. Really to know Melville the man, it is necessary to read the letters that passed between Hawthorne and himself, which are printed in Mr. Julian Hawthorne’s memoir of his parents. There Melville pours out his sad strange views of life, which on the whole had treated him kindly, given him a success which would have intoxicated another man with joy, and the promise of favors to come.  4
  His later years were passed in the world of thought rather than of action. He published nothing; and New York, his old camping-ground, seldom knew him. But when he appeared, his gray figure, gray hair and coloring, and piercing gray eyes, marked him to the most casual observer. Though a man of moods, he had a peculiarly winning and interesting personality, suggesting Laurence Oliphant in his gentle deference to an opponent’s conventional opinion while he expressed the wildest and most emancipated ideas of his own.  5
  Herman Melville died in New York, September 28th, 1891; and in his death he was revived in the memories of many of his old-time associates and admirers, to whom his personality had become shadowy, but who still regarded ‘Omoo’ and ‘Typee’ as landmarks in American literature.  6
  The Marquesas Islands, when Melville visited them, were virgin soil; the report that their inhabitants were cannibals having kept the country safe from the invading tourist. Melville soon ingratiated himself with the gentle creatures who ate human beings, as Emerson’s savage kills his enemy, only out of pure compliment to their virtues, fancying that the qualities of a great antagonist will pass into his conqueror. The feminine element came in to add romance; and though a human soul, even that of a South Sea Islander, is always more interesting than all the coral reefs and the cocoanut palms in the world, and Melville’s beautiful heroines are a little too subsidiary to scenery, the critic must remember that the primitive woman is a thing of traits, not of peculiarities, and therefore alike the world over.  7
  We should therefore judge him not too harshly because there is little character-drawing in his romances; and be thankful to breathe—as he makes us breathe—the soft airs, see the blue sky, and visit the coral caves, of the South Seas. His great advantage is in placing his stories in a sort of poetic or fairy precinct, where the groves are sylvan haunts and the very names full of romance; while his dramatis personæ, if not marked, are a people gentle but lofty, eloquent, and full of poetry and hospitality. All this he embodied in his first novels; and although he had the advantage of “breaking ground,” as the farmers say, he had to compete not with the literature of a new country, but with the prejudices of a new country against anything not produced in the old. ‘Omoo’s’ charms, however, penetrated the conservatism of Blackwood and the Edinburgh Review; while his confrères—Lowell, Hawthorne, Bayard Taylor, and the rest—were proud of his recognition abroad.  8
  A re-reading does not destroy the illusion of his reputation. The spirit of his books is as fresh and penetrating as when they were first written, his genius keeping for him the secret of eternal youth. His vocabulary is perhaps too large, too fluent; it has been called unliterary: but what he lacks in conciseness is atoned for in spontaneity. And although his romances are permeated with languid airs and indolent odors, and although flower-decked maidens turn their brown shoulders and their soft eyes to the captive hero, the books have a healthy, manly ring as far from sensuousness as from austerity; the reader knows that after all it is a captive’s tale, and that one day, when the winds blow to stir him to action, he will sail away to a more bracing clime.  9
 
 
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