Monday, August 29, 2016

Henry Major Tomlinson's ecstatic first take on Moby-Dick

Henry Major Tomlinson
vintage snapshot print, 1922 by Lady Ottoline Morrell
 Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London
Or, one conversation starter for the 11th International Melville Conference next year in London... 

In Moby-Dick as Doubloon, editors Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford present four pieces by H. M. Tomlinson in praise of Melville's great whale book:
  1.  [The Odd Priorities of American Professors: Time for Wordsworth but not Melville] (1921)
  2. [A Supreme Test of a Reader] (1921)
  3. [Melville's Emergence from Limbo] (1923)
  4. [The Great War and Moby Dick] (1926)
The second of four extracts by Tomlinson (editorially titled "A Supreme Test of a Reader") is from The Literary Review of the New York Evening Post, Nov. 5, 1921. In More Evidence of H. M. Tomlinson's Role in the Melville Revival, Mary A. Taylor gives a related piece, Tomlinson's juicy letter to Christopher Morley from the New York Evening Post, February 5, 1921. This earlier 1921 item was reprinted in The Publishers Weekly, Volume 99 - February 12, 1921:

There's the letter to Morley and more Tomlinson in Critical Essays on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, edited by Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker. Tomlinson also wrote the insightful preface to the 1929 E. P. Dutton edition of Melville's Pierre. Hershel Parker has a good deal to say about H. M. Tomlinson in the "Historical Note" to the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Moby-Dick. Reprised and developed engagingly in Reading Billy Budd; and in Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative. The 1922 photo of Henry Major Tomlinson (with Lord David Cecil) shown above is one of several by Lady Ottoline Morrell in the Photographs Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. As remarked in the Northwestern-Newbery edition of Moby-Dick (page 748), "a surprising number of Lady Ottoline Morrell's friends came to know The Whale or Moby-Dick."

But here's something I don't remember seeing before: the first ecstatic response to Moby-Dick (World's Classics edition, Oxford University Press) signed "H. M. T." in The Nation Volume 28 (January 1, 1921): 483. "H. M. T." is definitely Henry Major Tomlinson (1873-1958), author of The Sea and the Jungle and literary editor of The Nation. Tomlinson's review appeared in the first number of 1921, only a month before The Nation (edited by H. W. Massingham) merged with The Athenaeum to become The Nation & The Athenaeum. This then will be H. M. Tomlinson's first public take on Moby-Dick, bringing us closer than ever to the "consternating ecstasy in the office of The Nation" that Hershel Parker reenacts in the back of the Northwestern-Newberry Moby-Dick. Tomlinson gets so excited he relocates Father Mapple's chapel from New Bedford to Nantucket.

The World of Books.


IT was a book I had always known I was fated to read, but it never came my way till recently, when the Oxford University Press, as the unconscious agent of Providence, sent it to me in its new dress as a World’s Classic. There being 700 pages of it (but only at half-a-crown, and for the pocket), and each page full of lively words that, like the colors of the kaleidoscope, flowed incessantly to form new pictures and strange, I was, of course, carrying the book about with me, as a ready means of escape from these latter days. I met a friend whose opinions of books must be listened to with respect, and occasionally with pain and annoyance, and having this packet of newly-found magic in my pocket I said to him: "Do you know ‘Moby-Dick '?" Usually he is prompt with a creditable comment, but this time he hesitated, as though I had touched crudely on a matter that was personal and difficult. “I have known it for years,” he said presently; “but it is a book I seldom recommend, as I am hardly ever sure that the other fellow deserves it." He had never recommended it to me.

* * *
Perhaps my friend is right. Perhaps “ Moby-Dick" ought not to be divulged, except with care. But there is another way of looking at it. If a reader of books wants to know the truth about his understanding of English prose, whether it is natural and genuine, or whether his interest in it is but artificially suggested, like going to church or voting at elections, there is a positive test. Let him read this book by Herman Melville about a whale. If he doesn’t like it, then he—well, he can go to church.“Moby-Dick," written when Melville was thirty-two, was first published in New York in 1851. This edition from the Oxford Press has an introduction by Viola Meynell, who says that in it Herman Melville has endowed human nature with writing that she believes to be absolutely unsurpassed. “To read it and absorb it is the crown of one’s reading life." That may seem somewhat extravagant. When I read her introductory praise of the book (though not before I had followed the whale to the end) I thought, first, it was extravagant; though extravagance in praise of such a work is naturally the way one’s surprise and gratitude would instantly go. But now I am not sure. There is an important sense in which Miss Meynell is exactly right. I think it very likely that anyone who finds he cannot read “Moby-Dick” with delight, wonder, and some fear, has reason to doubt that he is more than learning to read.

* * *
A WELL-KNOWN literary critic once assured me that there were not more than 5,000 people who could read English. As soon as imagination begins to sport with the language, then the familiar words are changed; they take a look of mockery; they seem a little mad; they become free of our rules; they behave indecorously, seem giddy, are translated from dull, well-known lumps into shadows and wraiths uncanny with varying lights and implications; they startle us with half-suggestions of powers we never knew existed; they flit too perilously near the horizon of what we call sanity, and become speculative symbols in the distance weaving a mazy pattern of which we can but guess at the purport. Our own words then seem to have nothing in common with us. That gentleman who thought he had been using “prose" all his life was wrong. All he had been doing was to make noises, prompted by a few primitive instincts, which experience had taught him would be understood by his neighbors. So Miss Meynell is right when she calls this book the crown of one’s reading life. There is no other book like "Moby-Dick." It is about the sea and ships, and a remarkable voyage with some queer characters, and it is also a natural history of the sperm whale. Moby-Dick himself, the whale, is a principal character, but we do not meet him till we are ending the voyage. Yet, as in all great books, something in it is suggested that is beyond and is greater than anything it tells us. Melville’s narrative is drama, and over the little figures of men who move in it there fall shadows and lights from what is ulterior and tremendous. The men, whales, and ships in it, busy weaving the interest of the story, are felt to be relative to a greater and undivulged motive of which the author knows no more than the reader. Through the design made by their voyages and encounters there is determined, as by chance, a purpose not theirs.

* * *
Now I wish to say something about the book, critically, I find it is like trying to criticize the Congo, or the precession of the equinoxes. The book defies the literary critics, who are not yet familiar with sperm whales. Standing before this drama in a scientific spirit is like being a child with a spade and pail determined to investigate the Pacific Ocean. While reading “Moby-Dick” you often feel that the author is possessed, that what he is doing is dictated by something not himself which sometimes makes him use our accepted symbols with obliquity, with an apparent abandon; you fear, now and then, the sad and steady eye of this fascinating Ancient Mariner is on the point of flaring into a mania that may be prophecy, or may be incoherence. His words soar to the limit of their hold, on the known and reasonable. Yet they do not break loose. Nevertheless, we know Herman Melville became mad; and, knowing that, we are forced after reading “Moby-Dick,” to question whether our common-sense is really sanity at all. It is possible we have not sufficient intelligence to raise it to the height at which Melville lost his. After all, what is common-sense? The commonest sense, Thoreau tells us, is that of men asleep, which they express by snoring.

* * *
ALL one can say of “ Moby-Dick " is that it is unique. There is no other book of the sea the least like it. And how should one write of great whales, missing ships, and the Southern Ocean? Perhaps in the mind of the man who would do it the shadows not thrown by what is visible should be already stirring. They should darken and mystify his words, they should be like the forms of the unknown glimpsed deep below us in the pellucid but unfathomed sea. Yet “Moby-Dick ” is not a sad book. There are chapters in it of days along the equator which are radiant. There is an account of an attack by boats on an armada of sperm whales in Japanese seas which, for most of the uses to which English prose has been put, is miraculous in what it conveys. Somehow, Melville’s words are consonant with so immense a spectacle. And is there in all our literature such a picture of a church service as Melville gives us of Father Mapple’s church in Nantucket? Is there a better sermon than that on Jonah and the Whale which we hear preached there to Whalers, and the wives and widows of Whalers? Is there in Dickens or anywhere else such a remarkable inn as the Nantucket “Try Pots"? In fact, I find I have scored almost every page of “Moby-Dick” for quotation. But it is no good trying to quote from the rainbow and the eclipse.

H. M. T.
--The Nation v28 - Saturday, January 1, 1921 - page 483 This is the Google-digitized volume from the University of Michigan, now accessible online courtesy of the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
After his New Year's Day effusion (composed actually at the end of 1920, the night before New Year's Eve), Tomlinson received numerous "letters of genuine gratitude" which he playfully acknowledged in The Nation on February 12, 1921--again in the "World of Books" section:
A few weeks ago THE NATION shook out some signal bunting (There she Blows!) on sighting “ Moby Dick." The signal, it must he confessed, was more like dressing the ship rainbow-fashion, irregular if you like, but certainly the sign that something very unusual was in view. The result may be interesting to those who, before they address themselves once more to the golf-cure, hold that the public has no more interest in literature than themselves. “Moby Dick" is not a book which a bookish man would consider to be one that would draw a large and pressing crowd to the shop-windows. Yet if I had recommended a prayer in answer to which the Income Tax Commissioners would assuredly let go their hold of a victim, I could hardly have received more letters of genuine gratitude. Several of the letters were incoherent, because, I suppose, written immediately after reading the last chapter, when Ahab has perished, and the white whale has sounded once again and for ever. It was evident that some of those letter-writers would not have noticed it if, at that moment, the Income Tax had made another of its terrifying leaps. I have the certain assurance of a miracle. During the past month a certain number of men and women have been fascinated—and possibly changed, in a lasting way, in very nature—not by a grave speech by the Premier, not by the fall in prices, not by the immediate promise of revolution, not by the noble eloquence, choked with emotion, of Bottomley, not by the nervous agitation in Sunday papers for the family circle as to whether the ladies really do intend to lengthen their skirts again; no. By nothing the Press even mentioned. By something of which its tape machines are utterly ignorant. By a sperm whale which never existed, except as a bee in a sailor’s bonnet.
--The Nation v28 - February 12, 1921 - page 665
Maybe the earliest published response to Tomlinson was that of  "A Wayfarer," writing three weeks later in The Nation, January 21, 1921 as follows:
IT is clear that the wind of the spirit, when it once begins to blow through the English literary mind, possesses a surprising power of penetration. A few weeks ago it was pleased to aim a simultaneous blast in the direction of a book known to some generations of men as “Moby Dick.” A member of the staff of THE NATION was thereupon moved in the ancient Hebrew fashion to buy and to read it. He then expressed himself on the subject, incoherently indeed, but with signs of emotion as intense and as pleasingly uncouth as Man Friday betrayed at the sight of his long-lost father. While struggling with his article, and wondering what the deuce it could mean, I received a letter from a famous literary man, marked on the outside “Urgent,” and on the inner scroll of the MS. itself “A Rhapsody." It was about “Moby Dick.” Having observed a third article on the same subject, of an equally febrile kind, I began to read “ Moby Dick” myself. Having done so I hereby declare, being of sane intellect, that since letters began there never was such a book, and that the mind of man is not constructed so as to produce such another; that I put its author with Rabelais, Swift, Shakespeare, and other minor and disputable worthies; and that I advise any adventurer of the soul to go at once into the morose and prolonged retreat necessary for its deglutition. And having said this, I decline to say another word on the subject now and for evermore.
This last bit of controlled excitement appeared in The Nation along with other items in the regular "London Diary" of "A Wayfarer"--pseudonym of editor H. W. Massingham, as Kevin J. Hayes points out in The Critical Response to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. It's reprinted in the Hayes volume on page 44 as "[A Moby-Dick Testimonial]." Massingham's verdict must have been valued at Oxford University Press as weighty and authoritative. A snippet of the early and almost sobering response to Tomlinson by "A Wayfarer" was rapidly incorporated in the advertisement for the Oxford Moby-Dick which appeared in The Nation and The Athenaeum on February 19, 1921:
"... I hereby declare, being of sane intellect, that since letters began there never was such a book, and that the mind of man is not constructed so as to produce such another; that I put its author with Rabelais, Swift, Shakespeare, and other minor and disputable worthies; and that I advise any adventurer of the soul to go at once into the morose and prolonged retreat necessary for its deglutition."

Related post:

  • Reade's Whale

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