Monday, August 28, 2017

Paddling through The South Seas: Melville in Baltimore, February 1859

Baltimore Sun - February 8, 1859

Herman Melville's Lecture.

Who has not read with delight the charming books of Life and Adventure in the South Seas, by Herman Melville? They first truly presented to the world men and manners in this enchanting region. The Mercantile Library Lecture this evening will present their author as a public speaker, and we know of no one half as well qualified as he to transport us, in fancy, to the ever clear sky and ever green shores of the Pacific Islands--to observe the strange life of a people to whom nature offers, without labor, a perpetual feast--or to lead us on the dashing adventures of whale fishing in the surrounding seas. --Baltimore Sun, February 8, 1859
Baltimore Daily Exchange - February 8, 1859
Melville's lecture on "The South Seas" at the Universalist Church in Baltimore was favorably reviewed the next day in the Baltimore Sun. Edited versions by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. in Melville as Lecturer and the Northwestern-Newberrry edition of The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces give fuller reconstructions of all Melville's lectures, based on extant newspaper accounts. But I like this one, transcribed below, for the picture of Melville paddling through his subject.
"He would not repeat old sayings, or summon back the memories of old voyagers, but would paddle among its aspects at large, whether personal or otherwise."
Although banished to endnotes in twentieth-century editions, as a variant, the paddling image sounds like Melville's (rather than the reviewer's) and recalls the way Taji and company canoed from isle to isle in Mardi.

When Melville lectured there in early 1859, the old Universalist Church at Calvert and Pleasant had long served as a public meeting place. Five years later the building was dedicated for worship by the congregation of  St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church, "the first African American Catholic Church in the United States."
St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church - Calvert & Pleasant Streets, Baltimore
via Library of Congress

From the Baltimore Sun, February 9, 1859:
MERCANTILE LIBRARY LECTURES.--Herman Melville, Esq., of Pittsfield, Mass, delivered the tenth lecture of the course before the Mercantile Library Association last night, at the Universalist Church, Calvert street. His subject was "The South Seas," being a narrative of personal experience among the Archipelagoes, and the Polynesian isles that lie scattered through that ocean, like stars in the heavens. His subject, the lecturer said, was literally an expansive one, and embraced an arena he would not dare say how much. He would not repeat old sayings, or summon back the memories of old voyagers, but would paddle among its aspects at large, whether personal or otherwise.

The name South Seas, generally applied to this body of water, is synonymous with Pacific ocean, which was afterwards applied to it because of the tranquility of its waters. Little was known of the "South Seas" by Americans until 1848-- The discovery of gold in California, in that memorable year, first opened the Pacific and made its waters a thoroughfare for American ships. Much might be said of the finny inhabitants of this waste of waters--of the sword-fish, and the tilts he runs with ships; of the devil-fish, and the weird yarns of the sailors concerning him. The lecturer only wondered the great naturalist, Agazzis [Agassiz], did not back his carpet bag and betake him to Nantucket, and from thence to the South Seas--the argosy of wonders. The birds, also, in their variety and strange plumage--birds never seen elsewhere--were a study.

The South Seas, or Pacific Ocean, is reckoned to embrace one-half of the earth's surface, or an expanse of one hundred millions of square miles. Explorations have failed to rend away the veil of its mysteries, and every expedition thither has brought discoveries of new islands until on our maps the ink of one is run into another. A lone inhabitant on one of these islands would be as effectually separated from his fellow man as the inhabitant of another world. They would be good asylums, the lecturer said, for the free lovers and Mormons to rear their pest houses in--provided the natives, degraded as they are, did not object.

The lecturer spoke of several adventurers who went in search of mystical spots, said to be embosomed somewhere in these seas. They were like those who went to Paradise--they probably found the good they sought, for they never returned more. There were only two places where adventurers can most effectually disappear, and they are London and the South Seas.

The lecturer spoke of the "beach hovers," class of adventurers, or those cast by accident or chance upon the Polynesian Isles. This cognomen was derived from the fact that they always hovered upon the shores, and seemed every moment on the point of disembarking. He also alluded to the natives and their modes of tattooing. Unless a man submits to be tattooed, he is looked upon as damned, which was the case with the speaker, as he frequently resisted the importunities of the native artists to sit. The tattooing, like the uniform of a soldier, is here symbolical of the Isle, or class to which the person belongs. The lecture abounded in interesting personal narratives, and held the interest of the audience to the close.
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