Saturday, January 1, 2022

Melville in Kingston, Ontario

Kingston, Ontario Daily British Whig 
April 27, 1850

Later editions of Melville's first two books were reviewed in the Daily British Whig (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) on December 3, 1850. Not previously collected, this item offers an early instance of Melville's reception in Canada--almost one year before the favorable notice of Moby-Dick in the Toronto Globe on November 29, 1851. The Kingston newspaper gives the publisher of both Typee and Omoo as "Putam & Wily" although the American edition of Omoo (New York, 1847) was published by Harper & Brothers. In 1849 the Harpers had issued their Revised Edition of Typee, first published in America by Wiley & Putnam. By 1850 all five of Melville's published works through White-Jacket were available in Kingston, Ontario. For some reason unable to name Mardi, and a Voyage Thither the Canadian reviewer refers to Melville's third book as a "political romance." 


TYPEE; OR A FOUR MONTHS RESIDENCE IN ONE OF THE MARQUESAS; By Herman Melville—Revised Edition Putnam & Wily, New York; Armour & Ramsay, Kingston.

OMOO; OR ADVENTURES IN THE SOUTH SEAS, being a sequel to Typee, by Herman Melville. Revised edition. Putnam & Wily, New York; Armour & Ramsay, Kingston. 

Mr. HERMAN MELVILLE is a writer whose productions bid fair to create for him a high literary reputation in the world of letters. The books before us have been before the public some few years, and have already passed through a variety of editions, being pirated both at home and abroad. The particular edition now before us seems to have received a considerable portion of the author's revision by the pruning knife, inasmuch as a great many vulgarisms and much tedious gurrulity are no longer to be complained of in the same degree. One or two very offensive expressions still remain and disfigure the edition. There is a great air of truth about these volumes which engages the reader's attention at once. If the events related are not genuine, they are certainly "ben trovati" as the Italians would say. The hero is a common Yankee sailor before the mast, not wholly devoid of education, but making no pretensions to literary acquirements; he is a graceless unmitigated scamp, (on his own shewing,) and commits actions that in a civilized country would lead him to the gallows; but of his own demerits he seems to have no idea and tells his tale throughout with an air of injured innocence that is highly amusing. Who he is, or what he is, the reader has no information, for his name or former occupation is never once mentioned or alluded to. Charity should induce us to believe, that Mr. Herman Melville is not the hero of his own stories; and yet some passages in these books, and also some others in his tale of "Redburn," would induce us to form a contrary opinion. This supposition does no honor to Mr. Herman Melville; for to be a deserter without cause, a mutineer without occasion, and a receiver of stolen goods without necessity, is a character unsuited to the author's present standing in society.

Many critics have likened Typee and Omoo to Robinson Crusoe; others again to Dana's Two Years before the Mast. They certainly have not the raciness of old Defoe, nor is the adventure sufficiently interesting to be compared to that of the immortal navigator; and as to Dana's book, they bear no nigher resemblance than in each being the autobiography of a sailor before the mast. The fact is, Mr. Herman Melville has a very pretty style of his own, to which, like Washington Irving, he owes a great portion of his fame. He tells his tales pleasantly and without labor, and tho' evidently well acquainted with nautical phrases, rarely inflicts them upon his readers. The total want of interest in his hero is a great drawback to his books as novels; but this defect is more than compensated by the vast amount of real knowledge of Polynesian life acquired in their attentive perusal. The Missionaries, those cruel pests in Tahiti, are cleverly handled; for without offering any opinion, he places plain facts before the world, which have already had a salutary effect in checking the mischievous tyranny of priestcraft in the South Seas. The American public affected to discredit the statements of the Russian Kotzebue in 1832, but now that one of their own countrymen repeats the tale, disbelief becomes preposterous and ridiculous. This plain fact speaks whole libraries. Capt. Cook estimated the population of the Society Islands at 200,000; when Kotzebue visited the islands, in 1832, "80,000 miserable wretches (we quote the Captain's words) were all that remained of Capt. Cook's numerous and happy Islanders." This was a sad decrease indeed, but nothing comparable to the present actual de-population of these once flourishing islands; for Mr. Herman Melville in 1844 estimates the whole population at less than 8,000 souls, and fearlessly prognosticates the total disappearance of the race—unless the Missionaries are driven from the Islands. Our readers must not misunderstand us—it is not the introduction of Christianity in the Society Islands which has depopulated them, it is the wilful and perverse misgovernment of the Missionaries, who insist upon European habits and European observances being forced upon an indolent people wholly unable to stand the change and exist. The French saw the evil and would have removed it, but cant and fanaticism swayed the English Councils at that time, and no practical good came of their interference. Were it for no other cause than this, Mr. Herman Melville deserves the thanks of the community at large.

Mr. Herman Melville has published several other works since he gave the world his Typee and Omoo, but all of the same character. They are all personal adventures of a common sailor, and whether in White Jacket, or Redburn, or in his political romance of — — he ever keeps up a mysterious concealment of his hero's name and station, as if he affected a desire to be identified with the heroes of his own creation, no mighty honor as we have shewn. That which makes his books so popular is the simple air of veracity that prevails throughout them all. All folks, old or young, love to be deceived in works of fiction. If a boy, when he first got hold of Robinson Crusoe did not implicitly believe in every word of it, he would throw down the volume in disgust. 

-- The Daily British Whig (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) December 3, 1850. 

Belatedly, with suitable apologies, the Kingston editor offered a wonderfully substantial and highly favorable assessment of White-Jacket a year after it was published in New York by Harper & Brothers. Found this New Year's Day 2022 on, the glowing Canadian notice of White-Jacket is transcribed below from the Daily British Whig of March 25, 1851.

25 Mar 1851, Tue The Kingston Whig-Standard (Kingston, Ontario, Canada)
25 Mar 1851, Tue The Kingston Whig-Standard (Kingston, Ontario, Canada)


WHITE JACKET, or the World in a Man of War. By Herman Melville, author of Typee, Omoo, &c. Harper's 12mo Edition — pp. 466. Price $1. E. W. Palmer, Kingston.

Few modern writers of eminence have disappointed us more than Mr. Melville; this is not so much his fault, as our own; for hearing so much said in his praise by the literary world of Europe and America, we believed him to be another Washington Irving, and took up his "Typee" and "Omoo" with the same eagerness that thirty years ago, we snatched at a novel of Walter Scott's. Had we stumbled on the works of our author with the same careless indifference with which Dana's "Two Years before the Mast" first fell into our hands, we might have paid them that deference which their merits deserve; but being greatly over rated and much over praised, (in our estimation,) we rose from their perusal soured, annoyed and disappointed. This accounts for "White Jacket," Mr. Melville's latest publication, although more than a year before the public, not having excited our curiosity to read it, until Saturday last, when Mr. Palmer, the Bookseller, kindly placed it at our disposal. That Mr. Melville has been a common sailor, a very common sailor, the text of all his works clearly proves. That he is a man of strong common sense, good feeling, and possessed of much information, they also clearly make manifest. But, that he is an educated man, despite his ceaseless quotations from dead and living writers, we very much doubt. There is a mystery about him—something of the George Borrow, which the reader would gladly solve; though perhaps no two men are more dissimilar than the Yankee Sailor and the Gipsy Philologist. Still there is a mystery, and in that consists half the notoriety of his books, and more than half their interest.

"White Jacket" is what its second title describes, the picture of life on board a man-of-war. The writer ships at Valparaiso as an ordinary seaman (that is, a common sailor of the second class) on board the U. S. Frigate United States, (called in the book Neversink) and makes in her the homeward voyage. He is upwards of a year on board of her, and his observing eye and ready pen are busy at work during the whole of that period. The scenes he describes are highly characteristic, vastly descriptive, and greatly entertaining. All his pictures are graphic and all his characters are painted to the life. The abuses in the American Navy are pointed out, and the grossness of its tyranny fully exposed. The stupid Commodore, the brutal Captain, the ignorant Doctor, and the obsequious Master-at-arms, cum multis aliis, all fare alike, and if the incidents portrayed are facts, and they bear an air of truthfulness about them, these officers richly deserve the impaling they receive. One part of the book is written with much spirit and zeal, that which treats of corporal punishment. Mr. Melville shews it to be cruel, wanton, unnecessary, and worse than useless; and it is a happiness for him to know, that since the publication of "White Jacket," the United States Legislature has abolished that species of unmanly torture throughout the Naval and Mercantile Services. Should the same practice be discontinued in the British Navy, and discontinued soon it must be, if the British Fleet expect to be manned without impressment, Mr. Melville will have the grand satisfaction of feeling, that he has achieved more for his fellow man, than any other human being since the days of John Howard. To have abolished "Flogging" is more than Nelson and Collingwood dared to do, though they both wished it done!

We hinted a doubt as to Mr. Melville, who certainly writes with the air and ease of an Oxonian, being a man of education. Although his syntax and prosody are generally correct, still he occasionally makes queer confusion with the words "lying" and "laying." These may be printer's errors, and so far he is excusable. But in the following extract no such excuse can avail him.

"There happened to be a lord on board of this ship—the younger son of an earl, they told me. He was a fine looking fellow. I chanced to stand by when he put a question to an Irish captain of a gun; upon the seaman's inadvertently saying Sir to him, his lordship looked daggers at the slight; and the sailor touching his hat a thousand times, said, "Pardon your honor; I meant to have said my lord, sir!" page 194.

Now, a man who is everlastingly quoting Camoens and Chaucer, should know, that "the younger son of an earl" is no lord, not even by courtesy, and can only be made one by patent, like any other commoner. Neither is he correct as to the implied slight; for nothing is more offensive to the ears of a nobleman than everlastingly to be my-lorded. This feeling is so well understood by the London shop-keepers, that strict injunctions are issued by them to all their shopmen, never to address customers by the tittle of "my lord" or "my lady," though they may know them to be the highest personages of the peerage.

Again, our author is incorrect in his his historical reminiscences:—

"And as for old Charles the Fifth (the German Emperor of that name,) again, the gay franked, colored suits of cards were invented to while away his dotage." page 230.

In this short sentence Mr. Melville makes two mistakes. The Emperor Charles V. experienced no dotage, but died in Spain of severe bodily suffering; and cards were invented at an earlier period, to please the sickly fancies of King Charles VI of France, whose daughter our Henry the Fifth married.

But let us cease to find fault, and turn to something more pleasant. Mr. Melville is the only American Naval writer who has the honesty to speak the truth, touching the cause of the loss to Great Britain of her fine frigates. Hear his manly candor:—

"Gazing upon the heavy batteries before him, Cardan said to Decatur, “This is a seventy-four, not a frigate; no wonder the day is yours!” This remark was founded upon the Neversink's (the frigate United States) superiority in guns. The Neversink's main-deck batteries then consisted, as now, of twenty-four pounders; the Macedonian's of only eighteens. In all, the Neversink numbered fifty four guns and four hundred and fifty men; the Macedonian forty-nine guns and three hundred men, a very great disparity, which united to the other circumstances of the action, (the insubordination of the English crew,) deprives the victory of all claims to glory, beyond those that might be set up for a river horse's getting the better of a seal." page 364.
Our space is too small for further extracts, and we must close our somewhat lengthened remarks. We like "White Jacket" better than any of Mr. Melville's writings, because we sat down to read it under a different state of mind. It has impressed us with a higher opinion of him as a man, and we value him more as a writer. When his judgment becomes matured, for he is evidently a young man, he will prove an ornament to his native land, and be worthy of that high reputation, which he has somewhat meretriciously obtained.
-- The Daily British Whig (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) March 25, 1851. 
20 Nov 1851, Thu The Kingston Whig-Standard (Kingston, Ontario, Canada)
"Herman Melville's new book, 'the Whale,' just issued by the Harper's, is well received in England."  -- Daily British Whig (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) November 20, 1851.

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