Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Melville "no mawkish philanthropist": White-Jacket reviewed in Utica

From the Oneida Morning Herald (Utica, New York), Saturday Morning, April 6, 1850:

White Jacket.—The Navy.

We gave a brief notice of this work a few days ago. Since then we have read it with great interest, and the perusal has induced us to give it a more extended comment. Herman Melville stands in the front rank of American authors, and in those characteristics where lie his chief excellencies, has few living superiors in English literature on either continent. The purity and directness of his style, the interest, the charm which he throws around all matters he touches, in the hands of other men dull and heavy, the lifelikeness of the pictures he draws, whether of man, the works of man’s hands, or the works of nature, give him place with those authors whose simplicity and naturalness have made their intellectual children immortal. We did not commence this notice for the purpose of complimenting Melville’s powers. Little good can we do a man whose fame is rapidly making its way through all civilization. Our object was a different one.

There are movements making in various parts of the country for the suppression of “flogging in the navy.” Our ignorance as to the necessity or non necessity of flogging for the support of discipline, as well as the fact that under the pretence of philanthropy a thousand absurd and impracticable projects are started in these times, had prevented us from taking any particular interest in the mission of Mr. Holmes. The perusal of White Jacket has done much to enlist strongly our sympathies. It is a story of months of service on a man of war. Its descriptions are truthful even when most painful, and its comments are richly deserved even when most stern.

Herman Melville is no mawkish philanthropist spending his sympathies on criminals and vice, no quack reformer, seeking notoriety by loud professions of humanity and bitter abuse of all who will not adopt his crazy nostrums. He is a clear-headed, large-hearted, impartial delineator of what he saw and of which he was a part. He does not draw vivid contrasts for the purpose of a sensation. He does not present on the one side nought but humble, suffering virtue, and on the other nought but tyrannous depravity. He makes all classes appear just as they are. He holds the scales fairly between private and officer. But he holds up to severe condemnation the multiplied abuses of the American navy. He spares nothing which deserves rebuke. No dignitary on the quarter deck so exalted as to be above his honest lash, no private in the waist so humble as to be beneath his justice.

If what is here set down is true, and no one can doubt it, there is nothing on land or sea that calls louder for reform than a man of war; a reform of course characterized by sound judgment. If Herman Melville has stated facts, a frigate of this Republic deserves the epithet given it by sailors, “a hell afloat.” Mr. Melville does not despise discipline, or the means necessary to secure it, but he lays the axe at the root of the discipline enforced by the articles of war, and by the self-sufficient jealousies and spites of the officers. In our judgment he treats the whole matter not only like a man but like a philosopher. His opinion is worth that of a thousand interested witnesses.

We are glad that for once a gentleman and a scholar, who could appreciate and make allowance for all circumstances, and yet who had a soul to hate and a courage to expose abuses, found himself in the maintop of an American frigate. This work will accomplish good. We hope every one will peruse it. It appeals more to the judgment than to the feelings.—Hence its chief moral beauty, and, the safety with which it can be trusted. It can be had at TRACY’s, also at BEESLEY’s.

(Found at Old Fulton NY Post Cards)
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