Saturday, June 29, 2019

Tryphon on Mardi in the Boston Investigator

Here is one freethinking reader's favorable response to Mardi, transcribed from the Boston Investigator of June 13, 1849 (Elizabeth Shaw Melville's 27th birthday). Founded by Abner Kneeland, the self-proclaimed "Infidel Paper--Devoted to the Promotion of Universal Mental Liberty" was then published by Josiah P. Mendum and edited by Horace Seaver.

"Tryphon" had already contributed a series of provocative articles on Reason (April 18, 1849), Atheism (April 25, 1849), Theism (May 2, 1849); Internal Evidence (May 16, 1849); Paley's Evidences (May 23, 1849), and Bishop Wilson (May 30, 1849), answered by a Jersey City "Atheist" and "Anti-Superstition," among other correspondents. "Tryphon's reply" to critics appeared in the Boston Investigator on June 6, 1849, one week before the appreciative review of Mardi.

Mardi and a Voyage Thither--By Herman Melville.

I have not read Typee, nor have I read Omoo, and it was by mere chance that I commenced the perusal of Mardi, so recently issued from the press. A work of fiction, it was my intention to read it as is my wont with most books; to glance at its pages, as I turn the leaves, reading a few words here, and a paragraph there, as the fortune-hunter in the newly discovered El Dorado stops not to wash each foot of soil. Contrary to my usual custom, I commenced with the first sentence; and I had read some 30 or 30 pages before I discovered that I was devouring every word as eagerly as if the loss of a syllable would break the spell. Two volumes, containing 750 pages, were before me; but it was too late for retreat. I had left the "Arcturion," and was in for the voyage; but I had no cause for regret. I do not know how others may like the book, but I was not so imprisoned by Macaulay or by Lamartine.

Mardi is an archipelago of small islands, unconnected with the rest of the world, neir the Friendly Islands, apparently, but not laid down upon the maps. Of the voyage thither, I will only say here, that I was almost sorry when it was concluded and the fabled land was reached. But I had hardly commenced, with Zaji [Taji] and his companions, the tour of the islands, before I was forcibly reminded of Volney's Ruins, and yet I could hardly explain the reason. Babbalanja reminded me of the Genius and the legislators; yet the style of the two works is widely dissimilar. Mardi is not merely an imaginary group of islands, reflecting the follies of Christendom; it is impossible not to recognise in Franko, Bello, Vivenza, and other islands, the nations of France, Great Britain, and America. Nay, even personal allusions can hardly fail to be recognised. The warlike speech of Alanno, of Hishio [Hio-Hio] and the "steel gray hair and wondrous eye" of Nulli, mark the Boanerges of the Senate, and the Nullifier of the South, too strongly to be mistaken. I will not attempt to carry the explanation further. A reperusal alone will satisfy my own mind, and, reader, you can do the same.

I intended to mention a few examples of decided hits; but really, I fear I shall encroach upon your columns, if I begin to quote. The "rich store of reliable information" furnished to Donjalolo; the "canonised derelictions" of the ancients of Ohonoo; the teachings of the blind guide up the mountain of Ofo, with the faith of his followers therein; the story of the nine blind men searching for the true trunk of a banian tree, all confident in having discovered it, clinging to their several branches, and each in leaving his post for a moment to abuse the others for a different faith, returning to a different branch, but still confident that he is and has been right from the first, because it is acknowledged by all that there is but one tree and one trunk in the place; the discovery of a book among the rubbish of an antiquary, wonderful because written by a heathen who had never heard of Alma the son of Oro himself; and the general meditations of Babbalanja, though "possessed of a devil," are too forcible not to be regarded, and at the same time so veiled in the change of names, and so humorously recited, that they cannot offend.

But I cannot refrain from copying a few detached sentences, though I am perfectly conscious that they will convey no more idea of the book, than the brick which the Grecian fool carried, of the house he had to sell.

"As for the possible hereafter of the whales; a creature eighty feet long without stockings, and thirty feet round the waist before dinner, is not inconsiderately to be consigned to annihilation."

"I do not so much quote Bardianna, as Bardianna quoted me, though he flourished before me; and no vanity but honesty to say so."

"My lord, at bottom, men wear no bonds that other men can strike off; and have no immunities of which other men can deprive them. Tell a good man that he is free to commit murder,--will he murder? Tell a murderer that at the peril of his soul he indulges in murderous thoughts,--will that make him a saint?"

"I could weep that Comparative Anatomists are not so numerous now as hereafter they assuredly must become; when their services shall be in greater request; when, at the last, last day of all, millions of noble and ignoble spirits will loudly clamor for lost skeletons; when contending claimants shall start up for one poor, carious spine; and dog-like we shall quarrel over our own bones."

After giving the "celebrated Sandwich system" of creation, our philosopher concludes:--

"Thus fared the old diluvians; arrant gormandisers and beef-bolters. We Mardians famish on the superficial strata of deposits; cracking our jaws on walnuts, filberts, cocoanuts, and clams. My lord, I've done."

"And bravely done it is. Mohi tells us that Mardi was made in six days; but you, Babbalanja, have built it up from the bottom in less than six minutes."

"Nothing for us geologists, my lord. At a word we turn you out whole systems; suns, satellites, and asteroids included. Why, my good lord, my friend Annonimo is laying out a new Milky Way, to intersect with the old one, and facilitate cross-cuts among the comets."

And so saying, Babbalanja turned aside.

 "Communications." Boston Investigator, 13 June 1849. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Accessed 29 June 2019.


  1. Tip of the hat to Scott Norsworthy.
    See my piece in the July 2019 LEVIATHAN for acknowledgment of your review hunting and your discovery of HM's sources. I could not thank you and Gus Cohen in the LofA volume so I did here.

    1. Thanks, Maestro. Seems this Boston "Tryphon" had Bentley's edition of Mardi, with British spellings like "canonised" and "gourmandisers."