Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Whale warmly reviewed in the London Daily News

There is something grand and poetical in the vow of the terrible old Ahab that seizes upon one by main force; and the power and vigour of the author in his descriptive passages are solemnly conspicuous.
In Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews (Cambridge University Press, 1995; paperback 2009) Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker give reviews transcribed from the London News for Redburn (259-60) and White-Jacket (305). Nothing in the News however for Moby-Dick.

We still need to look further, to see if anybody found this one between then and now. High time all these Melville reviews and notices got loaded into one main searchable electronic data base, don't you think?

Update: This London Daily News review of The Whale does not appear among George Moneteiro's Fugitve References in Resources for American Literary Study 33. Not among the finds reported in Melville Society Extracts 89, 106, 113. Not included in Richard Winslow finds collected in the March 2011 Leviathan article, Melville Reviews and Notices, Cont., and before that in Extracts 124. Let's see, what about items discovered by Gary Scharnhorst, presented in Extracts 74, 75, 89 and 106? No, no, no, and no.

This could take a while, so in the meantime enjoy the review, transcribed from the London Daily News, January 12, 1852:


The Whale. By HERMAN MELVILLE, author of "Typee," "Omoo," &c. 3 vols. Bentley.

“The Whale” is not the least remarkable work of a very remarkable writer. About everything that proceeds from the pen of Mr. Melville there is a freshness, an originality, a fascination, that nothing can resist. We defy the reader to take up one of this writer’s fictions, and put it down only partly read. Impossible. He is an ancient mariner, and we are so many wedding guests. We “cannot choose but hear.” Whether the tale has an albatross or a whale for a hero, the compulsion is equally strong; and if Mr. Melville choose to write about a robin-redbreast or a mackerel, it would be most likely all the same.

In “The Whale” as elsewhere the hero is still the same individual—the same adventurous sea-faring philosopher—still, as we may be well pardoned for believing, the author himself. He introduces himself to us at the beginning with most charming want of ceremony as one Ishmael, and states as his simple reason for travelling that he has little or no money in his purse, and nothing in particular to interest him on shore. In this glorious state of independence he chooses whale fishing as a pursuit, and the little island of Nantucket (the hero, we need scarcely state, is an American) as his starting place.

But before getting afloat let us linger for a night with him at the “Spouter” Inn, where nobody but gentlemen in the whale fishery was ever known to go; that has a coffee-room like a cockpit, and a whale’s jaw-bone forming an archway over the bar. Let us share with him his misery at the notion of an inevitable bedfellow, and enter into his conjectures as to what sort of person this bedfellow will prove. The mysterious person in question, who will not make his appearance all the evening, is described by the landlord simply as “a dark gentleman, who eats nothing but beef steaks, and likes ‘em rare.” The young sailor at length is obliged to retire to rest by himself, and in the middle of the night is disturbed by the entrance of his chum—the “dark gentleman” with the peculiar taste in beef steaks—and who proves to be nothing less than a wild Indian, tattooing and all complete. How this eccentric person, having been persuaded as a preliminary not to murder our hero, next shocks him by the ostentatious worship of a little pocket god, and then proceeds to frighten him by smoking in bed, and sleeping in company with his harpoon; how he makes his toilet in the morning by putting on his hat long before any other article of clothing, and even shaving himself under the shade of that appendage; how, in fine, he is discovered to be a most excellent fellow, and by no means vicious; and how he and the hero become all on a sudden the fastest friends on earth—is all capitally told, and is one of the best written parts of the book, for quiet humourous delineation of character.

Ishmael arrives in due course at Nantucket, and makes his agreement with the owners of the Pequod whaling vessel for the three-hundredth lay—that is to say, the three-hundredth share of the profits of the expedition—in return for his services. One of the owners, a very devout Quaker, wishes to give him the seven-hundredth-and-seventy-seventh lay, on the ground that it is not proper to encourage another to lay up to himself treasures on earth; but the sense of justice of another owner—the infidel and utterly lost Captain Peleg—eventually gains the day, and the Quaker Captain Bildad is worsted. Both of these captains by the way are perfect sketches of character in their way; the scene of their dispute, as to the remuneration of Ishmael, is a splendid piece of satire.

But the author is now fairly on board, and here everything is mysterious—and not the least so the ship herself.

The next subject of wonderment is the mysterious seclusion of the captain, whom nobody has yet seen. He does not come on board until the last moment; and then it is silently and in the dark; and after that he secludes himself for some days in his cabin. For some unknown cause, the hero has the greatest apprehension of him; and “foreboding showers” ran over him, when one day the Captain Ahab at last makes his appearance during the afternoon watch. His appearance is peculiar and impressive, but not terrible after all. “He looked like a man cut away from the stake when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compact aged robustness. His whole high, broad form seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck till it disappeared, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish . . . By some tacit consent, throughout the voyage little or no allusion was made to it, especially by the mates. But once, Tashtego’s senior, an old gay-head Indian among the crew, superstitiously asserted that not till he was forty years old did Ahab become that way branded, and then it came upon him, not in the fury of any mortal fray, but in some elementary strife at sea.”

Joined to these peculiarities the captain has lost a leg, and has its place supplied by one of polished sea ivory, fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm whale’s jaw. It is this lost leg that brings him to sea, after forty years of service should have purchased him immunity from its hardships. Not that he comes to seek his lost leg. No. He comes for revenge. He has vowed the death of the monster whale who deprived him of it, and whom he has pursued for years in all seasons and in every sea. This monster white whale, known as “Moby Dick,” is as well known as the Flying Dutchman to all whalers, among whom he bears not a dissimilar reputation. He is believed to bear a charmed life; and to capture him, having long been found to be impossible, is at last believed to be almost impious. “The harpoon is not yet wrought that shall give him his death wound,” say the hardened old whalers, as they shake their heads. So Moby Dick goes on his way as he has probably gone on his way for five hundred years before—the hero of a thousand fights, and the destroyer of perhaps as many boats’ crews. Still there is one stern old man with an artificial leg and a scar upon his face, who, rejecting all professional superstitions with unutterable scorn, has but one object in life, and this object is revenge—revenge against the invincible Moby Dick. His whole mental being is entered in this one idea. His crew capture whale after whale of priceless worth, and gather together in the hold a golden shower in oil and ambergris. The old man takes not the smallest interest in these unimportant matters. His whole counsel to his crew is to look out for the white whale. He even goes so far as to nail up a broad Spanish doubloon to the mast as a reward for the first man who shall “raise” him the white whale. More—he makes the crew in a condition as nearly drunk as may be, and binds them to pledge themselves solemnly to hunt the white whale to the death. The scene in which this pledge is given is most solemn and startling. It is graphic and ghastly to the last degree.

Meantime the vessel speeds on; nearing no land, nor proposing to touch at any. She is in the broad Pacific, and is running in the direction of Japan. Occasionally she speaks a vessel. But no mere civilities are exchanged, at any rate on the part of the Pequod. The sole inquiry, hoarsely bawled from the quarter-deck by the scarred captain, is, “Have you seen the white whale?” No: go your ways then, we have no use for you. Occasionally the answer is “Yes.” Then who shall describe the commotion on board the Pequod, as an ivory leg and a scarred face are lowered into the gig and raised carefully up the side of the strange vessel. Once old Ahab boards an English ship in this manner. The captain, a merry, middle-aged, ease-loving gentleman, has seen the white whale, and adds jocularly, as he points to his empty coat sleeve, that he as reason to remember him. The captain of the Scar is all elate. Here is a point of sympathy. He must know “all about it.” For heaven’s sake satisfy his curiosity. And for the next hour there is nothing but yarn spinning, enough to drive any person with a respectable amount of fastidiousness to despair. But Captain Ahab can gain no sympathy on his one important point—his revenge. The English captain sees no use in hunting after so formidable a foe. These accidents will happen, &c. Will his new acquaintance join him in a bottle of wine? But the new acquaintance, after gaining a clue to the course taken by the enemy, returns sullenly to his ship, and continues his ill-starred pursuit.

Ill-starred, indeed, does the pursuit seem. Each day adds to the discontent of the officers and the gloom of the crew. Mystery upon mystery encompass the captain, whose monomania assumes every new day some new and strange developments. The ship seems to sail under a curse; and the more reflective or superstitious of the officers and crew cannot but attribute it to the unholy object of the captain. Now, the captain causes a new harpoon to be forged—of the nail stubbs of the steel shoes of race horses—“the stubbornest stuffs we blacksmiths ever work” as the ship’s armourer tells him. The barbs he causes to be made from his own razors. This harpoon, taking advantage of a terrible storm, he tempers with lightning, to the infinite peril of the ship and crew. An additional tempering with blood is supposed to complete the virtue of the harpoon; and nothing is wanting to gratify the revenge of the captain but—the white whale.

At length one day the white whale—it can be no other—is descried from the mast-head. The boats are manned. Ahab himself stumps on board, one of them, elate with the coming triumph, his whole soul absorbed in the effort to be made. But Moby Dick, without making any direct attack, flings them contemptuously aside, and swamping every boat with a few calm splashes, proceeds on his way. Ahab is now in a fury, pursues the whale all night, and resumes the attack on the following day. But now even more disastrous results ensue, and the whale seems really invincible. Ahab, however, is not in the habit of yielding in a hurry. The third day—he is still on the track of the enemy, and prepares now for a decisive attack. The crisis has now arrived, and the scene that ensues is terrible indeed. The whale is evidently prepared to take his own revenge. The boats are all smashed, or sunk, or swamped, with their crews clinging to the floating masses.

How the author survives to tell his story is contemptuously left in mystery. That he has contrived to tell his story somehow we, in common with his other readers, must congratulate ourselves. We have not read a book of more absorbing interest for some time. There is something grand and poetical in the vow of the terrible old Ahab that seizes upon one by main force; and the power and vigour of the author in his descriptive passages are solemnly conspicuous. He has great command of character too. We have not had an opportunity of mentioning Starbuck, the first mate—but Starbuck is capital for all that. Stubb, too, is a complete individual; and as for our old friend Queequeg, the Indian harpooner, who accompanies the hero throughout the voyage—he is a triumph. But we have no space to enter into minutiae, for which we must refer the reader to the book itself. We can only once more express our hearty admiration of the performance as a work of interest and art.  --London Daily News (Monday, 12 January 1852); found at The British Newspaper Archive

 Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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