The first duty of a critic, then, is to remember that, behind every book, there is a man -- or rather, that there is a man in every book. He is to reflect that the mighty names, which ring through the trumpets of foreign or of antique fame, and thrill his fancy with their sounding music, are the names of men, and indicate the measure of the concentrated influences of character and intellect upon the nations of which they are the boast. And when he considers the literature of his own times, he is to examine first into the value of the personalities which inspire that literature, and pass judgment upon the present, and prophesy for the future, according to the results of that examination...
How does our own literature bear the test of such criticism?
Writers we have always had, because we have been always in some degree, at least, an educated people, and education, if it cannot guarantee inspiration, at least continues the traditions of literary ambition, and the phantoms of an interest in literature. But of authors -- of men who communicated themselves to mankind, because there was something in themselves to communicate -- our nation has not been so abundantly prolific. From the settlement of the colonies, down to the epoch of our independence, only two men detach themselves from the multitude of cisatlantic scribes, as emphatic individualities, expressing themselves through the written word. Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin are, as it seems to us, the two permanent realities contributed by colonial America to the literary history of the English race....
Sparks of true fire flashed for a moment from the words of other men who yet drew back from the path of glory, because uncheered by cordial criticism, and unwelcomed by a public which had not yet accommodated itself to all the necessities, nor accustomed itself to all the privileges, of its new national position. As time went on, and the American nationality gathered vigor and consistency, the literature of America began to assume more respectable proportions; and, within the last ten or twelve years, it has developed with a rapidity and a reality which certainly afforded us no reasons for despondent views of the future. A generation of writers is giving way to a generation of authors, and though it is, of course, a very distressing thing that we have not yet produced an authentic and unquestionable Shakespeare, nor even an admitted Pope, we may yet take some small comfort, surely, from the fact, that we have given birth to a certain number of artists in words, whose touch the world has recognised as betraying the individuality of genius, and the reality of manhood....
But it must be confessed that our public criticism is not wholly worthy of our actual rank in the world of letters. Its defects are not sure to be of a mean or malicious kind. We are, happily, not cursed with much of that petty spirit of clique and starveling ill-will, which degrade and make worthless the minor criticism of the London press. But our criticism too commonly wants dignity and sincerity. We deal our praise out very lightly, with a kind of good-natured nonchalance, as if it didn't matter much after all, and it was better for all parties, on the whole, to "laugh than look sad." If life were only one long alternation of dinings and digestions, the philosophy of this jovial old adage would be as sound as it is cheery; but we must not be vexed if a man, who has a serious and intense interest in his art, grows rather sad than merry when all his efforts are rewarded with an undiscriminating salvo of applause, or a patronizing nod of encouragement. Welcome to the true author's soul is the strong, cordial voice which recognizes his honesty and his manliness, and mingles, with sincere praise of that which is beautiful in his work, sturdy reprobation of that which is not beautiful, and a distinct intimation of that which is less than beautiful.
Who can tell how much good Alfred Tennyson gained from that stout, straightforward, large-hearted paper in which old Christopher North took him so smartly to task for his early follies, and commended, with such a fond and generous warmth, his immortal gifts -- his works of real beauty already achieved? Heaven send you such a critic of that first book which you now profoundly meditate, dear and aspiring young friend! You will bless his memory when your laurels are greenest.
If there ever was an author who deserved such a critic, and needed such an one, alike for praise and blame, it is our old acquaintance and esteemed prose-poet, Herman Melville....
Mr. Melville was not only a young man, but a young American, and a young American educated according to the standard of our day and country. He had all the metaphysical tendencies which belong so eminently to the American mind -- the love of antic and extravagant speculation, the fearlessness of intellectual consequences, and the passion for intellectual legislation, which distinguish the cleverest of our people. It was inevitable that he should have stamped himself pretty clearly on his book, and his book was all the more interesting that he had so stamped himself upon it. Still we waited anxiously for number two. It came, and with it came more than we had anticipated of the metaphysics of Typee, and less than we had hoped of its poetry. Had not Mr. Melville been impelled to a good deal of sharp, sensible writing in Omoo, by his wrath against the missionaries, it is clear, we think, that he would have plunged headlong into the vasty void of the obscure, the oracular, and the incomprehensible. But a little wholesome indignation is a capital stimulus to good writing, and the beneficial effects of it were never more clearly apparent than in this very book. We trembled for its successor, and we trembled with reason; for, when Mardi came, or rather when we came to "Mardi," our "voyage thither" affected us much as it would to be literally knocked into the middle of next week.
We frankly own here, and now, and once for all, that we have not, and never expect to have, the faintest notion of why we took a voyage to "Mardi," nor of what we found when we reached "Mardi," if we ever did reach it, nor of how we got away from "Mardi" again, if we ever did get away from that enchanted, mysterious place. We would just as soon undertake to give anybody a connected and coherent account of the Mardi gras of Paris, on coming out of the Bal de 1' Opera at three in the morning, as criticise, or describe, or analyze the Mardi of our friend Mr. Melville. Do we believe, then, that Mr. Melville meant nothing by taking us to "Mardi" -- that he had no purpose at all in his mind, but was carnivalizing when he wrote the book? Not a bit of it; for, dull of perception, and still more dull of instinct must the critic be who does not recognize in every page of Mr. Melville's writings, however vague, and obscure, and fantastic, the breathing spirit of a man of genius, and of a passionate and earnest man of genius. lt is precisely because we are always sure that Mr. Melville does mean something, and something intrinsically manly and noble, too, that we quarrel with him for hiding his light under such an impervious bushel.
Mr. Melville is not a dilettante in metaphysics. If he is fantastically philosophical in his language, it is because he wants to say something subtle and penetrating which he has discerned, or thinks he has discerned, and takes this to be the most effective way of saying it. And this is just the issue we have to make with him. We made it when we read Mardi; we have been obliged to make it, again and again, in reading his subsequent books. What, for instance, did Mr. Melville mean when he wrote Moby Dick? We have a right to know; for he carried us floundering on with him after his great white whale, through all manner of scenes, and all kinds of company -- now perfectly exhausted with fatigue and deafened with many words whereof we understood no syllable, and then suddenly refreshed with a brisk sea breeze and a touch of nature kindling as the dawn. There was so much truth in the book that we knew the author must have meant to give us more, and we were excessively vexed with him for darkening his counsel by words which we could not but esteem to be words without knowledge. Is it not a hard case, O sympathizing reader? Here is a man of distinct and unquestionable genius; a man who means righteously and thinks sensibly; a man whose aims do honor to himself and to his country; a man who wishes to understand life himself, and to help other people to understand it; a man, too, who has proved not once only but fifty, yea, a hundred times, that he can write good English -- good, strong, sweet, clear English -- a man who has music in his soul, and can ring fair chimes upon the silver bells of style -- and this man will persist in distorting the images of his mind, and in deodorizing the flowers of his fancy; a man born to create, who resolves to anatomize; a man born to see, who insists upon speculating.
The sum and substance of our fault-finding with Herman Melville is this. He has indulged himself in a trick of metaphysical and morbid meditations until he has almost perverted his fine mind from its healthy productive tendencies. A singularly truthful person -- as all his sympathies show him to be -- he has succeeded in vitiating both his thought and his style into an appearance of the wildest affectation and untruth. His life, we should judge, has been excessively introverted. Much as he has seen of the world, and keen as his appreciation is of all that is true and suggestive in external life, he has turned away habitually, of late years, at least, to look in upon his own imaginations, and to cultivate his speculative faculties in a strange, loose way. We do not know a more curious and instructive spectacle than some of his books afford, of the conflict between resolute nature and stubborn cultivation.
Nature says to Herman Melville, "You shall tell the world what you have seen and see, in a warm, quick, nervous style, and bring the realities of life and man before your readers in such a way that they shall know your mind without calling on you to speak it. You shall be as true as Teniers or Defoe, without the coarseness of the Fleming or the bluntness of the Englishman."
Obstinate cultivation rejoins: "No! you shall dissect and divide; you shall cauterize and confound; you shall amaze and electrify; you shall be as grotesquely terrible as Callot, as subtly profound as Balzac, as formidably satirical as Rabelais."...
The two latest published books of our author differ considerably from their predecessors, in the degree in which they exhibit the characteristics of the classes of writing to which they respectively belong. Israel Potter is a comparatively reasonable narrative, embodying a story of the national war of independence, which may almost be considered a national legend. In the main, it is a coherent story, and is told with considerable clearness and force, but it lacks the animation that pervades those writings of Mr. Melville which, in other respects, it resembles. Two characters of a somewhat fantastic strain figure in it, Benjamin Franklin being represented as one of the prosiest possible old maxim-mongers, though the epoch of his life selected for the story is just that time at which he was living brilliantly at Paris, and cracking rather irreverent jokes with the Abbé Morellet; and Paul Jones comes and goes through the story -- a veritable hero of melo-drama -- sullen, scornful, unappeasable, and impracticable.
The Confidence Man, on the contrary, belongs to the metaphysical and Rabelaistical class of Mr. Melville's works, and yet Mr. Melville, in this book, is more reasonable, and more respectful of probabilities, possibilities, and the weak perceptions of the ordinary mind than he usually is when he wraps his prophetic mantle about him. The Confidence Man is a thoroughly American story; and Mr. Melville evidently had some occult object in his mind, which he has not yet accomplished, when he began to paint the "Masquerades" of this remarkable personage.
The "Confidence Man" comes into the book, a mute, on board of a Mississippi steam-boat. He is "a man in cream-colors, whose cheek was fair, whose chin downy, and whose hair flaxen, and whose hat was of white fur with a long, fleecy nap." But for the fact that this singular being is presented to us as quite dumb, one might suppose that Mr. Melville meant to give us the portrait of a distinguished metropolitan editor, and, in this way, to suggest some clue to his purpose in the story. But this theory, of course, cannot be advanced for a moment, and the cream-colored man in the white hat goes off again into space at the end of this part (for the volume already published only begins the work) just as much masked as when he came.
In the interval, he does a great many very odd and rather reprehensible things. He comes and goes very mysteriously, and assumes new shapes, though he always betrays himself by a certain uniformity in the style of his thoughts and his machinations, which also communicates itself to the conduct and the conversation of the parties whom he meets. From the barber on the Mississippi boat to the Methodist minister, who believes in the sword of the Lord, there is not a character in the book who does not talk very much like all the others. Save for its greater reasonableness and moderation, the Confidence Man ought to be ranked with Moby Dick and Mardi, as one of those books which everybody will buy, many persons read, and very few understand.
Ought Mr. Melville to write such books? Will he continue to write such books always? We do not hesitate to return an emphatic "No!" to both these questions. Mr. Melville has rare gifts; he has a sound heart, a warm and lively, though not now healthy, imagination, a vigorous intellect -- somewhat given to crooked courses -- and a brilliant reputation, which is also a gift, as enabling a man to work his best work to the best advantage. We expect much from him. To use the emphatic words of a Winnebago chief, who dissented from the missionary doctrine of the goodness of Providence, on the ground that the Winnebagoes invariably had more rain in their country than they wanted, while the Sacs and Foxes had more cattle than they could eat, we expect, from Mr. Melville, "more beef and less thunder." We desire him to give up metaphysics and take to nature and the study of mankind. We rejoice, therefore, to know that he is, at this moment, traveling in the Old World, where, we hope, he will enjoy himself heartily, look about him wisely, and come home ready to give us pictures of life and reality. It cannot be possible, that a man of Mr. Melville's genius is to go on forever producing books which shall deserve such praise as was bestowed upon Mardi by a bewildered French critic in the Revue des Deux Mondes -- books which resemble "the dream of a badly-educated midshipman, drunk on hasheesh, and swinging asleep at the mast-head of a ship in a warm, tropical night!"
The thing is absurd; and Maga, who loves her step-son Melville, as if he were wholly her own, knows perfectly well that he is destined to do her and his country much honor and much good.
Honor and good, too, Maga expects from Mr. Melville's younger brother in letters, Mr. George William Curtis. For he, too, has an individuality of his own, and has won for himself a distinct place in our young literature.
If the five volumes, which bear his name, and lie before us now, cannot be taken as the measure of their author's capacity, they do, at least, indicate very fairly the qualities of his mind. A stronger contrast than they afford to the works of Mr. Melville it would be hard to find. Both writers are, evidently, men who wish to be thought and felt to be in earnest; but Mr. Melville takes as much pains to protest his earnestness as Mr. Curtis takes to conceal his. Mr. Melville is always as grave in his gayeties as Mr. Curtis is gay in his gravities. Mr. Melville has so much fancy and so little taste that he goes about accompanied by a grotesque troop of notions, whose preposterous attire more provokes the laugh than their numbers excite the respect of the world. Mr. Curtis has not so much fancy, but a great deal of fine instinctive grace, and the ideas which he introduces always do him credit by their style and accoutrements. Neither of these writers is natural enough, and enough at his ease to do himself full justice; for, while Mr. Melville throws himself off his balance by an over-eagerness to be prophetic and impressive, Mr. Curtis loses his through an over-anxiety to be moderate, judicious, and experienced.
The same kind of mischief which has been done to Mr. Melville, by his study of Rabelais, has been done to Mr. Curtis by his admiration of Thackeray. In the one case, as in the other, we cannot but commend the fanaticism whose effects we deplore and try to point out; for a good, hearty, unreasonable love of anything or anybody is an excellent thing for body and soul, and we shall never quarrel with it. But, in the one case as in the other, we wish to see the admirers shake themselves free of their admiration so far as to find out that it is leading them astray....
Return to Contemporary
Return to Melville Home Page
Please address all correspondence on this Site to email@example.com
The Life and Works of Herman Melville is brought to you by Multiverse.