Monday, October 5, 2015

Melville's lecture on The South Seas--Chicago, February 24, 1859


— Most of our readers have doubtless heard of, if they have not read, those most delightful volumes anent Pacific ocean and island life, entitled "Typee" and "Omoo," which were so highly praised, at the date of their publication, by the pen of this country and Great Britain. The author of them, Herman Mellville, Esq., delivers a lecture before the Young Men's Association, this evening, in Metropolitan Hall. Subject, “The South Seas." Prof. Whitney will, on the conclusion of the lecture, give a number of his inimitable impersonations. Admittance twenty five cents. We trust there will be a full house. --Chicago Daily Press and Tribune, Thursday Morning, February 24, 1859.
The next day Melville's South Sea lecture received this extensive review in the Chicago Tribune:

Found on

More on the performance of Professor Whitney:
EVENINGS WITH THE ORATORS.—Prof. Charles Whitney’s entertainment of impersonations, readings and recitations, should not be forgotten by the lovers of elocution and good reading. The specimen of his style at the close of Mr. Melville’s lecture on Thursday evening, was received with much applause.

He was to have made his appearance before an audience in his first entertainment in this city, at Mechanics’ Institute Hall, last evening, but generously yielded the use of the Hall for the Republican Ratification meeting. He will make his first appearance on Monday evening next, and deserves a full house. He stands confessedly among he foremost in his art of impersonating those who have in their day moved listening Senates, and swayed the people by the magic power of eloquence.  --Chicago Daily Press and Tribune, Saturday Morning, February 26, 1859.
This Whitney was a well-traveled speaker and showman. Almost twenty years before he closed Melville's "South Seas" lecture in Chicago, "Charles Whitney, Professor of Elocution" was giving lectures in Albany and Schenectady “upon the art of speaking." Whitney's performances back then featured illustrative imitations of "distinguished orators and tragedians" including scenes from Shakespeare declaimed in the manner of celebrated actors like Vandenhoff, Forest, Booth, Garrick, McCready, Kean. Whitney in 1840 also did impressions of politicians, specifically "McDuffie, Clay, Wise, Hayne, Preston, &c.” (Schenectady Cabinet, Tuesday, February 25, 1840)

On February 7, 1851, the Washington Daily Union announced Whitney's return from a tour of England and Ireland:
Professor Charles Whitney has arrived in this city, and purposes to give lectures, as well as his celebrated impersonations of orators and imitations of American and Indian speeches. The English papers were full of complimentary paragraphs upon his exhibitions when he was in England and Ireland. He returned to this country about six weeks ago. The Dublin Freeman’s Journal speaks of his depicting with effect “the finest and tenderest feelings.” Messers. Clay, Webster, John Randolph, Wirt, Calhoun, McDuffie, and Preston, are among the orators whom he impersonates. He is the person whose repetition of Patrick Henry’s speech on liberty in Dublin, whilst Ireland was so much excited, called down upon him the surveillance of the government. His first night’s lecture in Washington will be announced hereafter.
Wait, Indian speeches? Yes, Whitney could do Red Jacket as well as Hamlet. From the Albany Atlas and Argus, Saturday Morning, April 12, 1856:
So delighted were the large and fashionable audience at the marvelous transformation of Mr. Charles Whitney into Hayne and Webster, Shiel and John Randolph, Hamlet and Red Jacket, that they have requested him to appear once more, on Monday evening, 14th inst.

What can be more enchanting than the play and strife of intellect as portrayed in the Senatorial conflict between Hayne and Webster, Clay and Randolph, McDuffie and Tristram Burgess? Or, the passage in the British Parliament,—Shiel’s scathing invective against Lord Lyndhurst; or the Indian Council fire, where Red Jacket portrays the usurpations of the white man; or, the ridiculous appearance of Counsellor Scolper? Mr. Whitney’s voice is both full and majestic, and its low tones search every thread and fibre of the heart. We are sure Association Hall will again be crowded with the beauty and fashion of the town.
A brief notice in New York Evening Post, February 11, 1868, finds Whitney still doing "remarkably good imitations of famous orators" at Dodworth Hall.

For more of Melville's lecturing, see the related Melvilliana post on Melville's Statues in Rome lecture. Scholarly reconstructions of Melville's three known lectures on "Statues in Rome," "The South Seas," and "Traveling: Its Pleasures, Pains, and Profits" are available in Melville as Lecturer by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. and the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860.

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