Friday, September 19, 2014

Herman Melville's Review of Etchings of a Whaling Cruise by J. Ross Browne

Except for the widely anthologized review essay Hawthorne and His Mosses, Herman Melville's known book reviews have been hard enough to find in print, and impossible to get online. Melvilliana began to fill the online gap with exclusive images and text of Mr. Parkman's Tour, Melville's unsigned 1849 review of The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman, Jr. To continue with this project of making Melville's book reviews more generally accessible, here is the first of Melville's known reviews for the New York Literary World, published March 6, 1847. Melville looks into two books, actually: Browne's Etchings together with Sailors' Life and Sailors' Yarns by John Codman, writing under the pseudonym of Captain Ringbolt.

In print, edited manuscript-based versions of the complete text are available in the Northwestern-Newberry editon of Melville's Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860; and in the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick. The New York Public Library, Archives & Manuscripts Division has the manuscript of this review in Melville's handwriting with the Duyckinck family papers, along with other reviews by Melville for the Literary World.

Text below is transcribed from pages 105-6 of The Literary World Volume 1 - 1847 at the University of Minnesota, as digitized by Google Books.

Etchings of a Whaling Cruise, with Notes of a Sojourn on the Island of Zanzibar. To which is appended, a Brief History of the Whale Fishery; its Past and Present Condition. By J. Ross Browne. Illustrated with numerous Engravings on Steel and Wood. Harper & Brothers: 1846. 8vo.
Sailors’ Life and Sailors’ Yarns. By Captain Ringbolt. New York: C. S. Francis & Co. 1847. 12mo.

FROM time immemorial many fine things have been said and sung of the sea. The days have been, when sailors were considered veritable mermen; and the ocean itself as the peculiar theatre of the romantic and wonderful. But of late years there have been revealed so many plain, matter-of-fact details connected with nautical life, that, at the present day, the poetry of salt water is very much on the wane. The perusal of Dana’s “Two Years before the Mast," for instance, somewhat impairs the relish with which we read Byron’s spiritual “Address to the Ocean.” And when the noble poet raves about laying his hands upon the ocean’s mane (in other words manipulating the crest of a wave), the most vivid image suggested is, that of a valetudinarian bather at Rockaway, spluttering and choking in the surf, with his mouth full of brine.

Mr. J. Ross Browne’s narrative tends still further to impair the charm with which poetry and fiction have invested the sea. It is a book of unvarnished facts, and with some allowances for the general application of an individual example, unquestionably presents a faithful picture of the life led by the twenty thousand seamen employed in the seven hundred vessels which now pursue their game under the American flag. Indeed, what Mr. Dana has so admirably done in describing the vicissitudes of the merchant-sailor’s life, Mr. Browne has very creditably achieved with respect to that of the hardy whaleman’s. And the book which possesses this merit, deserves much in the way of commendation. The personal narrative interwoven with it, also, cannot fail to enlist our sympathies for the adventurous author himself. The scenes presented are always graphically and truthfully sketched, and hence fastidious objections may be made to some of them, on the score of their being too coarsely or harshly drawn. But we take it, that as true, unreserved descriptions, they are in no respect faulty; and, doubtless, the author never dreamed of softening down or withholding anything with a view of rendering his sketches the more attractive and pretty. The book is eminently a practical one, and written with the set purpose of accomplishing good by revealing the simple truth. When the brutal tyranny of the Captain of the “Styx” is painted without apology or palliation, it holds up the outrageous abuse to which seamen, in our whaling marine, are actually subjected, or rather, which demands legislation. Mr. Browne himself, it seems, was, to some extent, the victim of the tyranny of which he complains, and, upon this ground, the personal bitterness in which he at times indulges, may be deemed excusable.

As the book professes to embrace a detailed account of all that is interesting in the business of whaling, and essentially possesses this merit, one or two curious errors into which the author has unaccountably fallen, may, without captiousness, be pointed out. We are told, for example, of a whale’s roaring when wounded by the harpoon. We can imagine the veteran Coffins, and Colemans, and Maceys of old Nantucket, elevating their brows at the bare announcement of such a thing. Now the creature in question is as dumb as a shad, or any other of the finny tribes; and no doubt, if Jonah himself could be summoned to the stand, he would cheerfully testify to his not having heard a single syllable, growl, grunt, or bellow engendered in the ventricle cells of the leviathan, during the irksome period of his incarceration therein.

That in some encounters with the sperm whale a low, indistinct sound apparently issues from the monster, is true enough. But all Nantucket and New Bedford are decided as to the causes which produce the phenomenon. Many suppose, however, that it is produced, not by the creature itself, but by the peculiar motion, in the water, of the line which is attached to the harpoon. For, if upon being struck, the whale “sounds” (descends), as is usually the case, and remains below the surface for any length of time, the rope frequently becomes as stiff as the cord of a harp, and the struggles of the animal keep it continually vibrating.

Considering the disenchanting nature of the revelations of sea-life, with which we are presented in Mr. Browne's book, we are inclined to believe that the shipping agents in our various cities, by the merchants of New Bedford, will have to present additional inducements to “enterprising and industrious young Americans of good moral character,” in order to persuade them to embark in the fishery. In particular, the benevolent old gentleman in Front street (one of the shipping agents of whom our author discourseth), who so politely accosted Browne and his comrade, upon their entering his office for the purpose of seeking further information touching the rate of promotion in the whaling service—this old gentleman, we say, must hereafter infuse into his address still more of the suaviter in modo.

As unaffectedly described by Browne, the scene alluded to is irresistibly comic. The agent’s business, be it understood, consists in decoying “green hands” to send on to the different whaling ports. A conspicuous placard, without the office, announces to the anxious world, that a few choice vacancies remain to be filled in certain crews of whalemen about to sail, upon the most delightful voyages imaginable (only four years’ long). To secure a place, of course, instant application should be made.

Our author and his friend, attracted by the placard, hurry up a ladder, to a dark loft above, where the old man lurks like a spider in the midst of his toils. But a single glance at the gentlemanly dress and white hands of his visitors, impresses the wily agent with the idea that, notwithstanding their calling upon him, they may very possibly have heard disagreeable accounts of the nature of whaling. So, after making a bow, and offering a few legs of a chair, he proceeds to disabuse their minds of any unfavorable impressions. Succeeding in this, he then becomes charmingly facetious and complimentary; assures the youths that they need not be concerned because of their slender waists and silken muscles, for those who employed him were not so particular about weight as beauty. In short, the captains of whaling vessels preferred handsome young fellows who dressed well, and conversed genteelly—in short, those who would reflect credit upon the business of tarring down rigging, and cutting up blubber. Delighted with the agreeable address of the old gentleman, and with many pleasant anticipations of sea-life, the visitors listen with increased attention. Whereupon the agent waxes eloquent, and enlarges upon his animating theme in the style parliamentary. “A whaler, gentleman,” he observes, “is the home of the unfortunate—the asylum of the oppressed,” &c., &c., &c.

Duped Browne! Hapless H———! In the end they enter into an engagement with the old gentleman, who subsequently sends them on to New Bedford, consigned to a mercantile house there. From New Bedford the adventurers at length sail in a small whaling barque bound to the Indian Ocean. While yet half dead with sea sickness, the unfortunate H——— is sent by the brutal captain to the masthead, to stand there his allotted two hours, on the look-out for whale-spouts. He receives a stroke of the sun which, for a time, takes away his reason, and endangers his life. He raves of home and friends, and poor Browne, watching by his side, upbraids himself for having been concerned in bringing his companion to such a state. Ere long the vessel touches at the Azores, where H———, being altogether unfit for duty, is left, to be sent home by the American consul.

He never recovered from the effects of his hardships; for, in the sequel, Browne relates that, after reaching home himself, he visited his old friend in Ohio, and found him still liable to temporary prostrations, directly referable to his sufferings at sea.

With a heavy heart our author, after leaving the Azores, weathers the Cape of Good Hope, and enters upon the Indian Ocean. The ship’s company, composed mostly of ignorant, half-civilized Portuguese from the Western Islands, are incessantly quarreling and fighting; the provisions are of the most wretched kind; their success in the fishery is small; and to crown all, the captain himself is the very incarnation of all that is dastardly, mean, and heartless.

We cannot follow Browne through all his adventures. Suffice it to say, that heartily disgusted with his situation, he at length, with great difficulty, succeeds in leaving the vessel on the coast of Zanzibar. There he tarries for some months, and his residence in this remote region (the eastern coast of Africa, near Madagascar) enables him to make sundry curious observations upon men and things, of which the reader of his work has the benefit. From Zanzibar he ultimately sails for home in a merchant brig, and at last arrives in Boston, thoroughly out of conceit of the ocean.

Give ear, now, all ye shore-disdaining, ocean-enamored youth, who labor under the lamentable delusion that the sea—the “glorious sea” is always, and in reality, “the blue, the fresh, the ever free!” Give ear to Mr. J. Ross Browne, and hearken unto what that experienced young gentleman has to say about the manner in which Barry Cornwall has been humbugging the rising generation on this subject. Alas! Hereafter we shall never look upon an unsophisticated stripling, in flowing “duck" trowsers and a light blue jacket, loitering away the interval which elapses before sailing on his maiden cruise, without mourning over the hard fate in store for him. In a ship’s forecastle, alas! he will find no Psyche glass in which to survey his picturesque attire. And the business of making his toilet will be comprised in trying to keep as dry and comfortable as the utter absence of umbrellas, wet decks, and leaky forecastles will admit of. We shudder at all realities of the career they will be entering upon. The long, dark, cold night-watches which, month after month, they must battle out the best way they can; the ship pitching and thumping against the bullying waves—every plank dripping—every jacket soaked—-and the captain not at all bland in issuing his order for the poor fellows to mount aloft, in the icy sleet and howling tempest. “Bless me, Captain, go away up there this excessively disagreeable night?” “Aye, up with you, you lubber—bare, I say, or look out for squalls”—a figurative expression, conveying a remote allusion to the hasty application of a sea-bludgeon to the head.

Then the whaling part of the business.—My young friends, just fancy yourselves, for the first time, in an open boat (so slight that three men might walk off with it), some twelve or fifteen miles from your ship, and about a hundred times as far from the nearest land, giving chase to one of the oleaginous monsters. “Pull, pull, you lubberly hay makers!” cries the boat-header, jumping up and down in the stern-sheets in a frenzy of professional excitement, while the gasping admirers of Captain Marryatt and the sea, tug with might and main at the truckling oars—“Pull, pull, I say; break your lazy backs!” Presently the whale is within “darting distance,” and you hear the roar of the waters in his wake. How palpitating the hearts of the frightened oarsmen at this interesting juncture! My young friends, just turn round and snatch a look at that whale. There he goes, surging through the brine, which ripples about his vast head, as if it were the bow of a ship. Believe me, it’s quite as terrible as going into battle, to a raw recruit.

“Stand up and give it to him!" shrieks the boat-header at the steering oar, to the harpooner in the bow. The latter drops his oar, and snatches his “iron.” It flies from his hands—and where are we then, my lovelies? It‘s all a mist, a crash,—a horrible blending of sounds and sights, as the agonized whale lashes the water around him into suds and vapor—dashes the boat aside, and at last rushes madly through the water, towing after him the half-filled craft, which rocks from side to side, while the disordered crew clutch at the gunwale to avoid being tossed out. Meanwhile, all sorts of horrific edged tools, lances, harpoons, and spades, are slipping about; and the imminent line itself—smoking round the logger-head, and passing along the entire length of the boat—is almost death to handle, though it grazes your person.

But all this is nothing to what follows. As yet, you have but simply fastened to the whale; he must be fought and killed. But let imagination supply the rest; the monster staving the boat with a single sweep of his ponderous flukes; taking its bows between his jaws (as is frequently the case) and playing with it as a cat with a mouse. Sometimes he bites it in twain, sometimes crunches it into chips, and strews the sea with them.

But we forbear. Enough has been said to convince the uninitiated what sort of a vocation whaling in truth is. If further information is desired, Mr. Browne’s book is purchasable, in which they will find the whole matter described in all its interesting details.

After reading the “Etchings of a Whaling Cruise," a perusal of “Sailor’s Life and Sailor’s Yarns” is, in one respect at least, like hearing “the other side of the question.” For, while Browne's is a “Voice from the Forecastle,” Captain Ringbolt hails us from the quarter deck, the other end of the ship. Browne gives us a sailor’s version of sailors’ wrongs, and is not altogether free from prejudices acquired during his little experience on ship-board; Captain Ringbolt almost denies that the sailor has any wrongs, and more than insinuates that sea-captains are not only the best natured fellows in the world, but that they have been sorely maligned. Indeed, he explicitly charges Mr. Dana and Mr. Browne with having presented a decidedly one-sided view of the matter; and he manfully exclaims that the Captain of the Pilgrim—poor fellow!—died too soon to vindicate his character from unjust aspersions. Now, as a class, ship-owners are seldom disposed partially to judge the captains in their employ; and yet we know of a verity, that at least one of the owners of the Pilgrim, an esteemed citizen of the good old town of Boston, will never venture to dispute, that to the extent of his knowledge, at least, Mr. Dana‘s captain was a most “strict and harsh disciplinarian,” which words, so applied by a ship-owner, mean that the man in question was nothing less than what Mr. Dana describes him to have been. But where is Browne’s captain? He is alive and hearty, we presume. Let him come forward then, and show why he ought not to be regarded in the decidedly unfavorable light in which he is held up to us in the narrative we have noticed. Now, for aught we know to the contrary, this same captain of the Styx, who was such a heartless, domineering tyrant at sea, may be quite a different character ashore. In truth, we think this very probable; for the god Janus never had two more decidedly different faces than your sea-captain. Ashore his Nautical Highness has nothing to ruffle him, friends grasp him by the hand, and are overjoyed to see him after his long absence—he is invited out, relates his adventures pleasantly, and everybody thinks what lucky dogs his sailors must have been to have sailed with such a capital fellow. But let poor Jack have a word to say. Why, sir, he will tell you that when they embarked, his Nautical Highness left behind him all his “quips and cranks and wreathed smiles." Very far, indeed, is the captain from cracking any of his jokes with his crew—that would be altogether too condescending. But then there is no reason why he should bestow a curse every time he gives an order—there is no reason why he should never say a word of sympathy to his men. True, in this respect all sea-captains are not alike; but still, there is enough of truth in both Mr. Dana’s and Mr. Browne's statements to justify nearly to the full, the general conclusions to be drawn from what they have said on this subject.

But Captain Ringbolt’s book is very far from being a mere plea for the class to which he belongs. What he has to say upon the matter is chiefly contained in one brief sketch under the head of “Sailor’s Rights and Sailor's Wrongs.” The rest of the book is made up of little stories of the sea, simply and pleasantly told, and withal entertaining.
--The Literary World - March 6, 1847
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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1 comment:

  1. I sometimes think that Melville only ever wrote one book, and that book was Moby-Dick. Everything he wrote before was recycled into it, and everything he wrote after was recycled out of it. :-)

    "Another rendering now, but still one text."