Friday, February 17, 2017

Toronto reader protests slander of the Duke of Wellington in Moby-Dick

via Regency History
In this 1851 letter to the editor of The Albion signed "Fair Play," one early reader of Moby-Dick writes from Toronto to protest Melville's satirical treatment of the Duke of Wellington in the "Heads or Tails" chapter. The disposition of commas in the longer quotation (setting off the clause "if for the future") actually matches the punctuation in the British rather than American edition. If he had only the British version, Melville's Canadian critic would have missed the boldest and most objectionable of all Melville's digs at Arthur Wellesley, deleted from The Whale:
Is this the still militant old man, standing at the corners of the three kingdoms, on all hands coercing alms of beggars? --Moby-Dick
From The Albion: A Journal of News, Politics and Literature, December 13, 1851:
Toronto, December 7, 1851

SIR,—Moby-Dick is a great character, and Herman Melville may be as smart a whale-man as he is certainly a fine writer, and, therefore justly to be admired by all of Saxon breed; but when from under the lee of Moby-Dick, he takes upon him to dart a malicious lance at that grand old warrior of the Anglo-Saxons, whose name is never spoken throughout the British empire but with reverence, it behoves to look keenly if that lance has struck true.

He begins his story with a high-flown description of the poor fishermen of Dover giving hard chase to a whale, and after their much toil being set upon by a stony-hearted agent of the Warden's to surrender their hard-earned prize, as much to their astonishment as disgust. Now, Sir, if my recollection of the circumstance is correct, the whale in question was a stranded one. But to let that pass, it is not true that the whole of the whale so caught belongs to the Warden; his share amounts in general to about one-fifth part, and in this particular case, when the author sets down the value of the fish as £150, the Warden's share was only £25. Of course the fishermen are all well aware beforehand of the Warden's claim; and the astonishment and remonstrances with the agent, so pathetically described by the author, are altogether to be set down to that vivid fancy, which has made gods out of savages, and turned man-eating Typee into a paradise.

The author goes on thus:—"In a word, the whale was seized and sold, and his Grace the Duke of Wellington received the money. (This as I have shewn, cannot be true.) Thinking, that viewed in some particular lights, the case might by a bare possibility in some small degree be deemed, under the circumstances, a rather hard one, an honest clergyman of the town respectfully addressed a note to his Grace, begging him to take the case of those unfortunate mariners into full consideration. To which my Lord Duke in substance replied, (both letters were published) that he had already done so, and received the money, and would be obliged to the reverend gentleman, if for the future, he (the reverend gentleman) would decline meddling with other people's business."

It might be remarked on this, that after all, law is law, and good or bad, until altered, it must be obeyed, as none have been more obstinate in enforcing than the Americans themselves—witness the Fugitive Slave Law; but "mark how plain a tale will set him down." In the first place, it was not an "honest clergyman" who wrote, and who might have been excused as having the welfare of his parishoners at heart, but a meddling busy-body of a surgeon, who had no more to do with the matter than Moby-Dick himself, unless may-be he wanted the Duke's autograph. Secondly, the letter was by no means respectful, but on the contrary, decidedly impertinent. Lastly,—a circumstance which takes the last sting out of this low piece of slander, and which, for his own sake, I hope Melville was ignorant of, is that, after a short time, the Duke returned the money.
I am, Sir, &c.,


Our correspondent is thanked for not abusing us, that we did not take up the cudgels on behalf of the Duke; but libels on great men may very well be left to themselves. If "Fair Play" desire another subject for his indignation, he will find one in Mr. Horace Greeley's "Glances at Europe," lately published here. That author, in allusion to intemperance, gravely states that the aristocracy of England "drink, almost to a man"!!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that legislated laws of "loose fish"--once they are made "fast"--brings about a Canadian complaint about America's Fugitive Slave Act. It becomes tempting to read abolitionist criticism into Melville's misrepresention of the 1/5 tax as ownership rights for an entire "fast fish." Further tempting to imagine this as Melville's disguised censure of his father-in-law's Wellingtonian decision to uphold the Act.