Some years ago we showed Melville's debt in John Marr to the sketch of Oregon Emigrants by J. Henry Carleton in Occidental Reminiscences or Prairie Logbooks. Another source for John Marr is James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie. When Melville calls John Marr "no geologist" after quoting the ex-sailor's impression of the prairie as "the bed of a dried-up sea," Melville is engaging with the particulars of Cooper's introductory scenic description in the first chapter of The Prairie.
The earth was not unlike the Ocean, when its restless waters are heaving heavily, after the agitation and fury of the tempest have begun to lessen. There was the same waving and regular surface, the same absence of foreign objects, and the same boundless extent to the view. Indeed so very striking was the resemblance between the water and the land, that, however much the geologist might sneer at so simple a theory, it would have been difficult for a poet not to have felt, that the formation of the one had been produced by the subsiding dominion of the other. ... (The Prairie)Melville:
Blank stillness would for hours reign unbroken on this prairie. "It is the bed of a dried-up sea," said the companionless sailor—no geologist—to himself, musing at twilight upon the fixed undulations of that immense alluvial expanse bounded only by the horizon, and missing there the stir that, to alert eyes and ears, animates at all times the apparent solitudes of the deep. But a scene quite at variance with one's antecedents may yet prove suggestive of them. Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean. (John Marr)In John Marr's view of the prairie as "the bed of a dried-up sea," Melville succinctly restates Cooper's poetical and speculative idea of how the prairie emerged originally from a "subsiding" ocean. But the real giveaway is the geologist. Melville borrows him, too, for much the same effect. True, geologists confirm the prairie used to be "covered by a warm, shallow inland sea." But Cooper's view in The Prairie is openly impressionistic and opposed, artificially, to the long, scientifically distant view of geologic time. Cooper contrasts his poetical view with the hard science of that sneering geologist. Melville then has Marr adopt Cooper's impressionistic view, along with the narrative device of the imaginary skeptic. Bert Bender gets it, even without reference to Cooper, explaining the operative contrast with reference to another fictive geologist:
No sneering geologist like Margoth, Marr is more like Cooper's poetically minded narrator in the first chapter of The Prairie. As a sailor, however, Marr is presented as more perceptive than Cooper's narrator. Melville makes a point of this difference, in the course of engaging with Cooper's language. Cooper described the boring "absence of foreign objects" as characteristic alike of prairie and sea, but here Melville turns critical and improves Cooper, by insisting on the presence at sea of motion and vitality, "the stir" of life and living creatures that remains perceptible to "alert eyes and ears."The old sailor realizes that “it is the bed of a dried-up sea.” But Melville adds, emphatically, that Marr was “no geologist,” no mere scientific doubter like the villainous Margoth in Clarel. (Sea-Brothers)
Yes the prairie is very like the sea, but with a difference that sailors who pay attention would know.
With further study, more parallels to John Marr could probably be found in The Prairie. Yep, here's another one...
Still, the leader of the emigrants steadily pursued his way, with no other guide than the sun, turning his back resolutely on the abodes of civilisation, and plunging, at each step, more deeply if not irretrievably, into the haunts of the barbarous and savage occupants of the country. (The Prairie)Melville:
To the long-distance traveller the oak-groves, wide apart, and varying in compass and form; these, with recent settlements, yet more widely separate, offered some landmarks; but otherwise he steered by the sun. (John Marr)Related melvilliana post: