Monday, February 20, 2017

Melville in Joseph Gostwick's 1856 Handbook of American Literature

The reader who is wearied by sentimental fiction, may find relief in turning to the tales of adventure by Dr Mayo, Lieutenant Wise, and Hermann Melville. To write a grave critique on these books, would be ridiculous; and to make any protest against the extravagances of the writer last named, would be useless; for it would never be read by those who find delight in the pages of Mardi, Kaloolah, and similar tales. It must not be supposed that we deny the peculiar merits of these romances: we intend only to shew the impossibility of giving any critical account of them. They must be received as reports of the fluent, careless, and often brilliant talk of imaginative travellers, or dreamers of travel, who have written without any care for rules of art, or fear of critics. The passion for reading of the class to which we refer, is a curious feature in recent years. It prevails in England and Germany as in America. As practical life becomes tame and monotonous, the youthful imagination goes back to barbarism and the wildness of nature, to find excitement. Tales of adventure by land and sea, in the forests, or on the prairies of the far west, or highly coloured pictures of sensuous and luxurious life in the islands of the South Seas—these supply the intellectual refreshment of numerous young readers, and lure away their minds from the study of realities. The wildness of Melville's stories—Typee, Omoo, Mardi, and others—seems to be infectious; for in a review of Mardi, we find a critic writing in the following style:—'Reading this wild book, we can imagine ourselves mounted upon some Tartar steed, golden caparisons clank around our person, ostrich plumes of driven whiteness hang over our brow, and cloud our vision with dancing snow. . . . . Away, away, along the sandy plain!' &c. This is perhaps our most concise mode of indicating the rhapsodical style of the book itself. Typee, the first of Melville's books, tells the story of two sailors who escaped from their ship, and landed on an island of the Pacific, where they were received by the Typee natives, with whom they lived luxuriously, feasting on sucking-pigs and breadfruit, and enjoying all the licence of a primitive state of society. Mardi intermingles with its voluptuous scenery a dreamy philosophy of which we can give no clear account. --Joseph Gostwick, Handbook of American Literature
Joseph Gostwick (1814-1887) compiled well-received surveys of  German Literature, and also wrote influentially on The spirit of German poetry and English Poets.

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