BLTC Press Titles


available for Kindle at Amazon.com


The Characters of Theophrastus

Theophrastus


The Revolt of the Netherlands

Friedrich Schiller


Further Adventures of an Irish R. M.

Edith Somerville and Martin Ross


The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. DuBois


Herman Melville, mariner and mystic

by Raymond Melbourne Weaver

Excerpt:

Mariner and Mystic

RAYMOND M. WEAVER

To Professor Carl Van Doren, to Miss Cora Paget, and to Mrs. Eleanor Melville Metcalf, I am, in the writing of this book, very especially indebted. By Professor Van Doren's enthusiasm and scholarship I was instigated to a study of Melville. It has been my privilege to enjoy Miss Paget's very valuable criticism and assistance throughout the preparation of this volume. Mrs. Metcalf gave me access to all the surviving records of her grandfather: Melville manuscripts, letters, journals, annotated books, photographs, and a variety of other material. But she did far more. My indebtedness to Mrs. Metcalf's vivid interest, her shrewd insight, her keen sympathy can be stated only in superlatives. To Mrs. and Mr. Metcalf I owe one of the richest and most pleasant associations of my life.

Raymond M. Weaver. October I, 1921.

HERMAN MELVILLE

CHAPTER I

Dev1l's Advocate

"if ever, my dear Hawthorne," wrote Melville in the summer of 1851, "we shall sit down in Paradise in some little shady corner by ourselves; and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won't believe in a Temperance Heaven) ; and if we shall then cross our celestial legs in the celestial grass that is forever tropical, and strike our glasses and our heads together till both ring musically in concert: then, O my dear fellow mortal, how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold which now so much distress us." This serene and laughing desolation—a mood which in Melville alternated with a deepening and less tranquil despair—is a spectacle to inspire with sardonic optimism those who gloat over the vanity of human wishes. For though at that time Melville was only thirty-two years old, he had crowded into that brief space of life a scope of experience to rival Ulysses', and a literary achievement of a magnitude and variety to merit all but the highest fame. Still did he luxuriate in tribulation. Well-born, and nurtured in good manners and a cosmopolitan tradition, he was, like George Borrow, and Sir Richard Burton, a gentleman adventurer in the barbarous outposts of human experience. Nor was his a kid-gloved and expensively staged dip into studio savagery. "For my part, I abominate all honourable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever," he declared. And as proof of this abomination he went forth penniless as a common sailor to view the watery world. He spent his youth and early manhood in the forecastles of a merchantman, several whalers, and a man-of-war. He diversified whale-hunting by a sojourn of four months among practising cannibals, and a mutiny off Tahiti. He returned home to New England to marry the daughter of Chief Justice Shaw of Massachusetts, and to win wide distinction as a novelist on both sides of the Atlantic. Though these crowded years had brought with them bitter hardship and keen suffering, he had sown in tears that he might reap in triumph. But when he wrote to Hawthorne he felt that triumph had not been achieved. Yet he needed but one conclusive gesture to provoke the world to cry this as a lie in his throat: one last sure sign to convince all posterity that he was, indeed, one whom the gods loved. But the gods fatally withheld their sign for forty years. Melville did not die until 1891.

None of Melville's critics seem ever to have been able to forgive him his length of days. "Some men die too soon," said Nietzsche, "others too late; there is an art in dying at the right time." Melville's longevity has done deep harm to his reputation as an artist in dying, and has obscured the phenomenal brilliancy of his early literary accomplishment. The last forty years of his history are a record of a stoical—and sometimes frenzied—distaste for life, a perverse and sedulous contempt for recognition, an interest in solitude, in etchings and in metaphysics. In his writings after 1851 he employed a world of pains to scorn the world: a compliment returned in kind. During the closing years of his life he violated the self-esteem of the world still more by rating it as too inconsequential for condemnation. He earned his living between 1866 and 1886 as inspector of Customs in New York city. His deepest interest came to be in metaphysics: which is but misery dissolved in thought. It may be, to the all-seeing eye of truth, that Melville's closing years were the most glorious of his life. But to the mere critic of literature, his strange career is like a star that drops a line of streaming fire down the vault of the sky—and then the dark and blasted shape that sinks into the earth.


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