"a rhapsody painful in its elaboration and absurd in its conduct."
The Whale. By HERMAN MELVILLE. In Three Vols. Richard Bentley, New Burlington-street.WE have long delayed from want of space our notice of this singular production. It requires notice as much in order to reprehend its glaring and extravagant faults, as to comment upon its power and novelty of thought. We must here observe that there is a race of writers in the present age of literature gifted with sufficient originality, who are nevertheless not content to exhibit these qualities naturally, but must needs display themselves as the fanatics of fact or fiction, romance or philosophy, history or metaphysics, poetry or novel writing. Among these we reckon Carlyle, Tennyson and Disraeli, Dumas and George Sand. In the present instance, the author, who might have given us a rational and yet sufficiently exciting story, without being strained, supernatural and ridiculous, has been pleased to write a rhapsody painful in its elaboration and absurd in its conduct. Not content with saying "smart" things as well as making deep reflections, he frequently is either pompously common-place, leading one through meaningless sentences to a reductio ad absurdum, or else artificially unintelligible. His phraseology is often in the worst style of Carlyle, and his situations forced, grotesque and impossible as those of the Wandering Jew. We do not always object in a romance to supernatural or mysterious agency, but we do not like the farrago of fact and impossibility mixed up in these volumes. There is often a greater difficulty in lending the imagination to belief in a miracle, than even in the gross improbabilities which are just possible. For instance, if we read of a ghost or a vision, of a magic mirror, or the influence of the stars, we yield ourselves to a new world of imagination, oftentimes with pleasure and delight. The Arabian Nights do not pain the mind, but transport it into a new state of existence. Everything is in keeping and harmony. We do no violence to our fancy. How different from this mélange of material whale-fishing and things undreamt of, we should imagine, in any philosophy. The commencement of the work is queer, and antipathetic in the highest degree. The story of the hero sharing his bed with the strange cannibal Queequeg is so opposed to all our notions, experience, and prejudices, that it affects the mind with disgust.
We shall not attempt to give any account of the plot of this romance, the interest of which flags terribly in the second and third volumes, and is eked out by sundry chapters of very unnatural natural history. Plot, indeed, there is none. The idea is that a monomaniac whaling captain is supposed to have lost a leg in an encounter with a much more sensible whale, who, having discovered the vast powers with which nature had gifted him apparently makes the resolution, and keeps it, of turning the tables upon his human adversaries and hunters. Another strange being, relater of the story, but who in the end perishes with the whole ship's crew, leaving none to tell the tale, goes to sea with this ancient one-legged mariner. The rest comprises incidents in whale-fishing, pictured somewhat, we imagine, in the style which might be attributed to a marine Yankee opium-eater. Doubtless landsmen form no adequate idea of the dangers and wonders of a sea-faring life, especially that devoted to the capture of Behemoth. We ourselves have seen enough to be aware of the truth of this proposition. But the Pequod, Captain Ahab, Queequeg, and Moby Dick, the white whale, are creations of fancy so absurd and unnatural as to possess no interest in our eyes. Again, we do not conceive with our author that whale-fishing is the one great mission of humanity. We rather wish, since stay-bones are partially laid aside even by the most redundant daughters of Eve, and since gas has been brought into more general use, that the poor whale should " up flukes" with impunity in the Northern seas. We believe, contrary to the opinion of our author, that the race of whales stands a fair chance of becoming extinct or degenerate, as things are and have been. We look with some sort of sentimental disgust on the torture and destruction of the huge warm-blooded animal the amount of whose vital fluid equals in quantity that of a village containing 2,000 inhabitants! In fact we are not inoculated, even by reading this work, with the frenzy of whale-butchery, even on general grounds. Most certainly we do not sympathize with the private rancour of Captain Ahab.
We have, however, obtained some curious if not valuable information. We know for instance the meaning of the word "gam."
GAM. NOUN—A social meeting of two (or more) whale-ships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats' crews; the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.
There are certainly several other points on which these volumes enlighten us; but we frankly do not think them of much general interest, and on the other hand they are not sufficiently practical to benefit a professional whaler. There is, as we said, some odd but powerful writing. There is also much utter balderdash. The language put in the mouths of the seamen, their soliloquies and conversations, are unworthy of the most contemptible writer of modern fiction. Nor do we altogether commend the quaint extravagance of the steersmen when in pursuit of the whale in boats, which appears to us to be the very exaggeration of South-sea slang and spermaceti-hunting Billingsgate. Let us give a favourable specimen. The boats are pursuing a whale in rivalry of a German whaler:—
"I tell you what it is, men,"—cried Stubb to his crew—"It's against my religion to get mad: but I'd like to eat that villanous Yarman.—Pull—won't ye? Are ye going to let that rascal beat ye? Do ye love brandy? A hogshead of brandy, then, to the best man. Come, why don't some of ye burst a blood-vessel? Who's that been dropping an anchor overboard—We don't budge an inch—we're becalmed. Halloo, here's grass growing in the boat's bottom—and by the Lord, the mast there's budding. This won't do, boys. Look at that Yarman! The short and the long of it is, men, will ye spit fire or not?
"Oh ! see the suds he makes!" cried Flask, dancing up and down—"What a hump!—Oh, do pile on the beef—lays like a log! Oh! my lads, do spring—slapjacks and quohogs for supper, you know, my lads—baked clams and muffins—oh, do, do, spring—here's hundred barreler—don't lose him now—don't, oh don't —see that Yarman—Oh! won't ye pull for your duff, my lads—such a sog! such a sogger! Don't ye love sperm! There goes three thousand dollars, men! — a bank!—a whole bank! The Bank of England!—Oh, do, do, do—What's that Yarman about now?"
"The unmannerly Dutch dogger!" cried Stubb. "Pull now, men, like fifty thousand line-of-battle-ship loads of red-haired devils. What d'ye say, Tashtego; are you the man to snap your spine in two-and-twenty pieces for the honour of old Gayhead? What d'ye say?"
"I say, pull like god-dam," cried the Indian.
The following is rather American in its phraseology:—
"Don't be afraid, my butter-boxes," cried Stubb, casting a passing glance upon them as he shot by; ye'll be picked up presently—all right—l saw some sharks astern —St. Bernard's dogs, you know—relieve distressed travellers. Hurrah! —this is the way to sail now. Every keel a sunbeam! Hurrah!—Here we go like three tin kettles at the tail of a mad cougar! This puts me in mind of fastening to an elephant in a tilbury on a plain—makes the wheel-spokes fly, boys, when you fasten to him that way; and there's danger of being pitched out too, when you strike a hill. Hurrah! this is the way a fellow feels when he's going to Davy Jones—all a rush down an endless inclined plane! Hurrah! this whale carries the everlasting mail!"
Let us now turn to some of the merits, as extraordinary as the faults of this work. The following is a felicitous morsel of description:—
As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as a single groan or cry of any sort—nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble—came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony! Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended, like the big weight to an eight-day clock? Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said—"Can'st thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth not the straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!" This the creature? this he? Why, with the strength of a thousand thighs in his tail, Leviathan has run his head under the mountains of the sea, to hide him from the Pequod's fish-spears!
The following description of a certain American quaker is applicable to some quakers here. Who does not remember Cobden's reproof to the pugnacious man of peace who represents Manchester? "John Bright, if thou had'st not been a quaker, thou would'st assuredly be a prize-fighter:"—
Though refusing, from conscientious scruples, to bear arms against land invaders, yet himself had illimitably invaded the Atlantic and Pacific; and though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tuns upon tuns of leviathan gore. How now in the contemplative evening of his days, the pious Bildad reconciled these things in the reminiscence, I do not know; but it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man's religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends.
Does not this, too, find its English application:—
For a pious man, especially for a quaker, he was certainly rather hard-hearted, to say the least. He never used to swear, though, at his men they said; but somehow he got an inordinate quantity of cruel, unmitigated hard work out of them.
Again, here is a descriptive feature:—
On his long gaunt body he carried no spare flesh, no superfluous beard, his chin hiving a soft economical nap to it, like the worn nap of his broad-brimmed hat.
The Quaker Bildad asks the mariner Peleg, if, when the three masts went overboard in a typhoon off Japan, he did not think of death and judgment:—
"Hear him, hear him now," cried Peleg, marching across the cabin, and thrusting his hands far down into big pockets,—"hear him, all of ye. Think of that! When every moment we thought the ship would sink! Death and the Judgment then! What? With all three masts making such an everlasting thundering against the side, and every sea breaking over us, fore and aft. Think of Death and the Judgment then? No! no time to think about Death then. Life was what Captain Ahab and I was thinking of: and how to save all hands —how to rig jury-masts—how to get into the nearest port—that was what I was thinking of."
We learn that there are now more whalemen in America than in all the rest of the world together—700 vessels, manned by 18,000 men, making 7,000,000 dollars per annum. We must conclude our somewhat lengthy notice by giving a specimen of whale philosophy and comparative ethics on the subject of Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish.
The Temple of the Law, like the Temple of the Philistines, has but two props to stand on.
Is it not a saying in every one's mouth, possession is half of the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole of the law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow's last mite but Fast-Fish? What is yonder undetected villain's marble mansion with a door-plate for a waif; what is that but a Fast-Fish? What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets from poor Woe-begone, the bankrupt on a loan to keep Woe-begone's family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the Archbishop of Savesoul's income of 100,000 l., seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of thousands of broken-backed labourers; what is that globular 100,000 l. but a Fast-Fish? What are the Duke of Dunder's hereditary towns and hamlets but Fast-Fish? What to that redoubted harpooneer, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a Fast-Fish? What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas, but a Fast-Fish? And concerning all these, is not possession the whole of the law?
But if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so. That is internationally and universally applicable.
What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waifing it for his royal master and mistress? What was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish.
What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men's minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in many of us but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish, and a Fast-Fish, too?
We must remark, in conclusion, that the author is undoubtedly a man not devoid of genius and power; but that, not content with the natural exhibition of his strength, he resembles the unfortunate athlete who subjected himself to be drawn by horses in order to astonish the world, and in consequence received the fearful injuries of smashed thigh-bones and broken legs. We have too much of the galoanic [galvanic] school at present.
--British Army Despatch, Friday 16 January 1852; found on The British Newspaper Archive. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
The British Army Despatch (3 December 1852) did not like Uncle Tom's Cabin either, granting the author's "melodramatic power" and "good motives" but deeming it "devoid of truth, principle, and reality." The negative review of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 blockbuster in the British Army Despatch circulated in American newspapers during the first month of 1853, reprinted for example in the Washington DC Daily Republic on January 1, 1853 and the Boston, MA Liberator on January 21, 1853. Excerpted in the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer on January 13, 1853 under the heading, "Uncle Tom in England." From London, Samuel Colt provided a copy of the "very caustic review of 'Uncle Tom'" to the editor of The Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia.