Monday, July 5, 2021

Jerrold's Weekly News on MARDI, Melville's "poor broken-backed allegory"

Here is a previously uncollected review of  Mardi: and a Voyage Thither in Jerrold's Weekly News and Financial Economist for April 28, 1849; digitized with Douglas Jerrold's Weekly Newspaper and first made available on the British Newspaper Archive July 3, 2021. Two days ago! 

Not in Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker (Cambridge University Press, 1995; paperback 2009). The Cambridge UP volume Contemporary Reviews does reprint glowing notices of Melville's first two books in periodicals associated with Douglas Jerrold. The review of Typee in Douglas Jerrold's Shilling Magazine for April 1846 is given in Contemporary Reviews on pages 29-31. The favorable notice of Omoo in Douglas Jerrold's Weekly Newspaper for May 1, 1847, comparing Melville's second book to De Foe's Robinson Crusoe and Cooper's The Red Rover, appears in Contemporary Reviews on pages 96-97. The Typee review is listed on page 10, the Omoo review on page 33 in the Checklist of Melville Reviews (Northwestern University Press, 1991); revised by Kevin J. Hayes and Hershel Parker from the 1975 Checklist by Steven Mailloux and Hershel Parker. 

Douglas William Jerrold - National Portrait Gallery
by Herbert Watkins. albumen print, arched top late 1850s
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Mardi; and a Voyage thither. By Herman Melville, author of "Typee" and "Omoo." 3vols., post 8vo. R. Bentley.
What a blessing it would be if all men, writers “and else,“ had the gift to know what they are best fitted for doing, and would do that, and not run away moon-raking in inaccessible ponds, into which they are sure to fall, and out of which they will never be got with the breath of common sense in their bodies. Here we have the dashing, clever, sharp-sighted, sharp-shooting, longbow-drawing, animal-spirited, and abundantly-fanciful Herman Melville, starting right away from his own proper sphere, and playing such fantastic tricks in the domains of allegory, satire, and transcendentalism, as must needs make a gentle critic sigh and an ungentle one laugh outright.
The opening of the book is well enough. We find the writer on board a whaler in the South Sea, cruizing about between the tropic of Capricorn and the Line, in search of “the gentlemanly cachalat.” The captain, finding no sport in these parts, suddenly resolves to start off and try “bobbing for the right whale on the Nor’West Coast and the Bay of Kamskatska.” Now, our author has no mind to go to such inhospitable shores, especially as in his covenant with the captain he has stipulated for tropical, or not-far-beyond-tropical, sailing. As the Arcturion is far away from land, the liberty to go on shore is an illimitable amount vested in the impossible, and that the captain makes over to him very readily. However, our adventurer conceives a plan for getting away from the Arcturion in one of her boats, although he knows himself to be a thousand miles from the nearest chain of islands in the Pacific. 
He finds an old sailor, called Jarl, to join in his scheme. One dark night they carry it into execution, and the next morning they are being borne on by a trade wind, in a small whaling boat, with provisions for two or three weeks. Thus far, and throughout the account of this bold boating on the Pacific, Mr. Melville is himself—full of life, vigour, untutored fancy, and a sort of wild boyish mirth which is “a marvel and a mystery” to phalmytic [phlegmatic?] or bilious people who live on land, but which is significant enough of “life on the ocean wave.” After a time they fall in with a dismantled ship, on board which are two Polynesian savages, a male and a female; the latter is subsequently drowned, to the satisfaction of all parties. Then they come across some canoes, one of which is a religious ark, bearing a young female captive to be sacrificed to the supreme god. Of course it is the mission of the Yankee sailor to rescue her. A combat takes place, the high priest is killed, and Yillah, the captive, “of supernatural beauty,” is carefully conveyed on board the victor’s boat. Then they sail away for Mardi, a group of islands in unknown latitude and longitude. And here begins the strangest mixture of pretty descriptions of earthly and watery scenery, with imbecile, common place reflections and insane speculative chatter, like to nothing one has read, heard, or can imagine, unless it be the most surprising portions of “Peter Wilkins,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” Emerson, Carlyle, Southey, and Jean Paul (the last badly translated), all incoherently ground up together and spread at random over the pages. To say that there is nothing worth a straw throughout this poor broken-backed allegory, concerning all the kingdoms of the modern world, and the absurdities of them, would be rash, but to say that there is any whole page good, either for pleasure or profit, would be decidedly much more so. Perhaps the less that is said about it the better. Flat, dull, and heavy is the structure of the allegory; blunt, imitative, and purblind is the satire; and incoherent, vapid, and very transatlantic is the transcendentalism. In short, it will be a capital addition to a library of mad books. From the sane and really interesting early portion of the work we quote the following:— [excerpted from Mardi chapter 13, Of the Chondropterygii]


"At intervals in our lonely voyage, there were sights which diversified the scene: especially when the constellation Pisces was in the ascendant.
"It's famous botanizing, they say, in Arkansas' boundless prairies; I commend the student of ichthyology to an open boat, and the ocean moors of the Pacific. As your craft glides along, what strange monsters float by! Elsewhere, was never seen their like. And nowhere are they found in the books of the naturalists.
"Though America be discovered, the Cathays of the deep are unknown. And whoso crosses the Pacific might have read letters [lessons] to Buffon. The sea-serpent is not a fable; and in the sea, that snake is but a garden worm. There are more wonders than the wonders rejected, and more sights unrevealed than you or I ever ever dreamt of. Moles and bats alone should be sceptics: and the only true infidelity is for a live man to vote himself dead. Be Sir Thomas Brown our ensample; who, while exploding 'Vulgar Errors,' heartily hugged all the mysteries in the Pentateuch.
"But look! fathoms down in the sea; wherever saw you a phantom like that? An enormous crescent with antlers like a reindeer, and a Delta of mouths. Slowly it sinks, and is seen no more.
"Doctor Faust saw the devil; but you have seen the "Devil Fish."
"Look again! Here comes another. Jarl calls it a Bone Shark. Full as large as a whale, it is spotted like a leopard; and tusk-like teeth overlap its jaws like those of the walrus. To seamen, nothing strikes more terror than the near vicinity of a creature like this. Great ships steer out of its path. And well they may; since the good craft Essex, and others, have been sunk by sea-monsters, as the alligator thrusts his horny snout through a Carribean canoe.
"Ever present to us, was the apprehension of some sudden disaster from the extraordinary zoological specimens we almost hourly passed.
"For the sharks, we saw them, not by units, nor by tens, nor by hundreds; but by thousands and by myriads. Trust me, there are more sharks in the sea than mortals on land.
"And of these prolific fish there are full as many species as of dogs. But by the German naturalists Müller and Henle, who, in christening the sharks, have bestowed upon them the most heathenish names, they are classed under one family; which family, according to Müller, king-at-arms, is an undoubted branch of the ancient and famous tribe of the Chondropterygii.
"To begin. There is the ordinary brown shark, or sea attorney, so called by sailors; a grasping, rapacious varlet, that in spite of the hard knocks received from it, often snapped viciously at our steering oar. At times, these gentry swim in herds; especially about the remains of a slaughtered whale. They are the vultures of the deep.
"Then we often encountered the dandy blue shark, a long, taper and mighty genteel looking fellow, with a slender waist, like a Bond-street beau, and the whitest tiers of teeth imaginable. This dainty spark invariably lounged by with a careless fin and an indolent tail. But he looked infernally heartless.
"How his cold-blooded, gentlemanly air, contrasted with the rude, savage swagger of the tiger shark; a round, portly gourmand; with distended mouth and collapsed conscience, swimming about seeking whom he might devour. These gluttons are the scavengers of navies, following ships in the South Seas, picking up odds and ends of garbage, and sometimes a tit-bit, a stray sailor. No wonder, then, that sailors denounce them. In substance, Jarl once assured me, that under any temporary misfortune, it was one of his sweetest consolations to remember, that in his day, he had murdered, not killed, shoals of tiger sharks." * * *

"But of all sharks, save me from the ghastly white shark. For though we should hate naught, yet some dislikes are spontaneous; and disliking is not hating. And never yet could I bring myself to be loving, or even sociable, with a white shark. He is not the sort of creature to enlist young affections.

"The ghost of a fish is not often encountered, and shows plainer by night than by day. Timon-like, he always swims by himself; gliding along just under the surface, revealing a long, vague shape, of a milky hue; with glimpses now and then of his bottomless white pit of teeth. No need of a dentist hath he. Seen at night, stealing along like a spirit in the water, with horrific serenity of aspect, the white shark sent many a thrill to us twain in the Chamois." 

From this it will be seen that Mr. Melville is as full of spirits and as full of talk of an amusing kind as ever. It is a pity he has allowed his high spirits to carry him far away from the confines of good taste and good sense. We wish him a safe voyage back to his proper Southern Hemisphere, and we are ready to cruize with him there for an indefinite length of time.

-- Jerrold's Weekly News and Financial Economist, Saturday, 28 April 1849. 

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