Friday, September 19, 2014

Herman Melville's Review of The Sea Lions by James Fenimore Cooper

Vincennes amongst Ice-bergs
from Charles Wilkes, Narrative, 1845 via The Linda Hall Library


The Sea Lions; or, the Lost Sealers: a Tale of the Antarctic Ocean. By J. Fenimore
Cooper. 2 vols. 12mo. Stringer & Townsend.

AN attractive title, truly. Nor does this last of Cooper‘s novels disappoint the promise held forth on the title-page.

The story opens on the seacoast of Suffolk County, Long Island; and turns mainly upon the mysterious existence of certain wild islands within the Antarctic Circle, whose precise whereabouts is known but to a choice few, and whose latitude and longitude even the author declares he is not at liberty to make known. For this region, impelled by adverse, if not hostile motives, the two vessels, the Sea Lions, in due time sail, under circumstances full of romance.

After encountering a violent gale, described with a force peculiarly Cooper’s, they at last reach the Antarctic seas, finding themselves walled in by “thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice.” Few descriptions of the lonely and the terrible, we imagine, can surpass the grandeur of many of the scenes here depicted. The reader is reminded of the appalling adventures of the United States Exploring Ship in the same part of the world as narrated by Wilkes, and of Scoresby’s Greenland narrative. In these inhospitable regions the hardy crews of the Sea Lions winter—not snugly at anchor under the lee of a Dutch shore, nor baking and browning over the ovens by which the Muscovite warms himself—but jammed in, masoned up, bolted and barred, and almost hermetically sealed by the ice. To keep from freezing into crystal, they are fain to turn part of the vessels into fuel. All this, and much more of a like nature, is told in a style singularly plain, downright, and truthful.

At length, after many narrow escapes from icebergs, ice-isles, fields, and floes of ice, the mariners, at least most of them, make good their return to the North, where the action of the book is crowned by the nuptials of Roswell Gardiner, the hero, and Mary Pratt, the heroine. Roswell we admire for a noble fellow; and Mary we love for a fine example of womanly affection, earnestness, and constancy. Deacon Pratt, her respected father, is a hard-handed, hard-hearted, psalm-singing old man, with a very stretchy conscience; intent upon getting to heaven, and getting money by the same course of conduct, in defiance of the scriptural maxim to the contrary. There is a good deal of wisdom to be gathered from the story of the Deacon.

Then we have one Stimpson, an old Kennebunk boatsteerer, and Professor of Theology, who, wintering on an iceberg, discourses most unctuously upon various dogmas. This honest old worthy may possibly be recognised for an old acquaintance by the readers of Cooper’s novels. But who would have dreamt of his turning up at the South Pole? One of the subordinate parts of the book is the timely conversion of Roswell, the hero, from a too latitudinarian view of Christianity to a more orthodox, and hence a better belief. And as the reader will perceive, the moist, rosy hand of our Mary is the reward of his orthodoxy. Somewhat in the pleasant spirit of the Mahometan, this; who rewards all the believers with a houri.

Upon the whole, we warmly recommend the Sea Lions; and even those who more for fashion’s sake than anything else, have of late joined in decrying our national novelist, will in this last work, perhaps, recognise one of his happiest. 
-- The Literary World 4 (April 28, 1849): 370
For more online texts of book reviews by Herman Melville, see
Critical texts of the five known book reviews by Herman Melville are presented in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860.

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