Thursday, April 27, 2023

Whitman and "Marquesan Melville" in the ALBANY ARGUS

Orion constellation Hevelius
But a week or so ago there passed from earth a strong, virile and poetic mind that met nothing but contempt in America for years.

Notwithstanding the borrowed title "Marquesan Melville," the 1892 article transcribed herein begins with high praise for the late Walt Whitman as "a strong, virile and poetic mind." (Whitman died on March 26, 1892; Herman Melville passed the year before on September 28, 1891.) Previously unrecorded? Not in the Walt Whitman Archive, anyhow. This dual tribute to Whitman and Melville appeared on page 4 of the Albany NY Argus for Sunday morning, April 10, 1892. As indicated in the article, the heading and extensive quotations are taken from Henry S. Salt's long, lavish memorial of "Marquesan Melville" in the March 1892 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine

Herman Melville, despite embarrassing nationwide neglect of his writings, was "a man well known personally" in the Albany area. Nonetheless, criticism of Melville's supposedly ruinous descent into transcendentalism and mysticism follows Salt on "Marquesan Melville." Also from Salt, the cite of John Marr and Other Sailors as privately printed "story" and the closing quotation from Robert Buchanan's poem Socrates in Camden

But the comparison of Melville to The Farthing Poet Richard Hengist Horne, author of Orion: An Epic Poem, seems different and distinctive. Elizabeth Shaw Melville gave Herman's copy of Horne's Exposition of the False Medium and Barriers Excluding Men of Genius to Edmund Clarence Stedman. With markings by Horne and Melville, whereabouts unknown; Horne's Exposition is Sealts Number 284 in the catalog at Melville's Marginalia Online. Number 285 is a volume of three tragedies by Horne, owned by Stedman and borrowed by Melville. Shared interest in Whitman and Horne suggests that E. C. Stedman might have written or otherwise influenced the writing of "Marquesan Melville" as revisited in the Albany Argus.


It is generally conceded that leading traits in the American character are self-esteem and assertiveness. One of the reasons the race has advanced so rapidly and now holds such high place is because of its thorough belief and confidence in itself. We know that our institutions are admirable, and that our natural resources are unlimited. We are certain that our destiny is as grand as that of any of the sons of man. We feel that our past stands in need of no apology. We are tenacious of our repute in the arts and sciences, and proclaim upon the housetops the undying fame of our writers. These general facts standing unchallenged, it is very peculiar that a single one of our master-minds should lack full recognition and appreciation in his own country. But a week or so ago there passed from earth a strong, virile and poetic mind that met nothing but contempt in America for years. It is true that at the last we were shamed into a tardy acceptance of the splendid gifts of Walt Whitman by the generous encouragement of the English people. Without attempting to understand the charm of his utterances, we admitted his genius and soothed his dying bed with sympathy. There were laid upon his bier some eloquent tributes from his countrymen, but these were rather the outpourings of love and sympathy than critical appreciation. It was England that recognized that a strong and original singer had left the earthly choir.

A case very similar to this was that of Herman Melville, a man well known personally in this vicinity. The difference between the two was that Melville had a measure of transient popularity during his early productive period, while at his death he was almost completely forgotten. His very name was unknown to the younger generation of American readers, and the rather perfunctory tributes in a few newspapers, when he died a number of months ago, were read with a mild interest not unmixed with astonishment. Here, again, England had an eye for genius when we were blind. It will surprise many here, even among those who would be critical, to learn that Robert Buchanan classes him as "the one great imaginative writer fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with Whitman on that continent," and that William Morris, Theodore Watts, Robert Louis Stevenson and W. Clark Russell, enroll themselves among the number of his enthusiastic admirers. It may be doubted whether the name of Melville is included among those that figure in the handbooks of American literature. it is certain, at any rate, that he has no following of readers here.

It is not to our credit that the first critical estimate of Melville should appear in England, and yet such is the case. Mr. Henry S. Salt writes an appreciative, discriminating and sympathetic sketch of the writer in the Gentleman's Magazine. He makes no allusion to the fact that Melville was so sadly lacking in appreciation from his own countrymen, and his article has a ring of triumphant admiration with no trace of apology nor pleading. It is impossible to summarize Mr. Salt's estimate, but we can quote a few detached passages. He declares that Melville was a genuine child of nature, a sort of nautical George Borrow, to whom he likens him more than once. Of "Typee," his masterpiece, he says: "Alike in the calm beauty of its descriptive passages and in the intense vividness of its character sketches, it was, and is, and must ever be, a most powerful and fascinating work--indeed, I think I speak within the mark in saying that nothing better of its kind is to be found in English literature, so firm and clear is it in outline, yet so dreamily suggestive in the dim, mystic atmosphere which pervades it." Then turning to his later work, Mr. Melville [rather, Mr. Salt] says: "As 'Typee' is the best production of the earlier and simpler phase of Melville's authorship, so undoubtedly is 'The Whale' the crown and glory of the later phase; less shapely and artistic than 'Typee,' it far surpasses it in immensity of scope and triumphant energy of execution. It is in 'The Whale' that we see Melville casting to the winds all conventional restrictions, and rioting in the prodigality of his imaginative vigor. It is the supreme production of a master mind; let no one presume to pass judgment on American literature until he has read, and re-read, and wonderingly pondered the three mighty volumes of 'The Whale.'"

One more brief quotation may be permitted: "His narratives are as racy and vigorous as those of Defoe, or Smollett, or Marryat; his character sketches are such as only a man of keen observation and as keen a sense of humor could have realized and depicted."

The man was well nigh as interesting as the author. Herman Melville, who, by the way, was a relative of leading Albany families, resided for years in Pittsfield. Here he was the near neighbor of Hawthorne, whose home was at  Lenox. He soon became a transcendentalist, and his beliefs strongly colored his writings. We have noted above the change between his earlier works, as exemplified in "Typee," and his later, as shown in "The Whale." As the mood grew upon him, his style became turgid and his books were filled with mysticism. It was the death blow to his popularity, and the fickleness of the public reacted strongly upon his nature. He became almost a recluse. He would do nothing to keep his name before the public, and in a spirit akin to that which led Hengist Horne to issue his grand epic "Orion" at a farthing, he limited one of the most beautiful of his later stories to twenty-five copies.

It is pleasant to know that the widow of the novelist has just sold the copyrights of her husband's works to an enterprising publisher, and that new editions of them all are to be brought out in America and England. An opportunity will be given us to atone for our neglect of this genius, of whom Buchanan, in his tribute to Whitman, wrote--

"The sea compelling man,
Before whose wand Leviathan
Rose hoary-white upon the deep,
With awful sounds that stirred its sleep;
Melville, whose magic drew Typee,
Radiant as Venus, from the sea."

-- Albany Argus, April 10, 1892. Found on; images are also accessible courtesy of New York State Library via NYS Historic Newspapers.

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