Contemporary Criticism and Reviews

A page from The Life and Works of Herman Melville

To convey an adequate idea of a book of such various merits as that which the author of Typee and Omoo has here placed before the reading public, is impossible in the scope of a review. High philosophy, liberal feeling, abstruse metaphysics popularly phrased, soaring speculation, a style as many-coloured as the theme, yet always good, and often admirable; fertile fancy, ingenious construction, playful learning, and an unusual power of enchaining the interest, and rising to the verge of the sublime, without overpassing that narrow boundary which plunges the ambitious penman into the ridiculous; all these are possessed by Herman Melville, and exemplified in these volumes.

London Morning Advertiser, October 24 1851

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This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed …

… The result is, at all events, a most provoking book, — neither so utterly extravagant as to be entirely comfortable, nor so instructively complete as to take place among documents on the subject of the Great Fish, his capabilities, his home and his capture. Our author must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who occasionally tantalize us with indications of genius, while they constantly summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessnesses, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise …

We have little more to say in reprobation or in recommendation of this absurd book … Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature — since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.

– Henry F. Chorley, London Athenaeum, October 25 1851

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Of all the extraordinary books from the pen of Herman Melville this is out and out the most extraordinary. Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber.Yet few books which professedly deal in metaphysics, or claim the parentage of the muses, contain as much true philosophy and as much genuine poetry as the tale of the Pequod’s whaling expedition….

To give anything like an outline of the narrative woven together from materials seemingly so uncouth, with a power of thought and force of diction suited to the huge dimensions of its subject, is wholly impossible…. [Readers] must be prepared, however, to hear much on board that singularly-tenanted ship which grates upon civilized ears; some heathenish, and worse than heathenish talk is calculated to give even more serious offence. This feature of Herman Melville’s new work we cannot but deeply regret. It is due to him to say that he has steered clear of much that was objectionable in some of his former tales; and it is all the greater pity, that he should have defaced his pages by occasional thrusts against revealed religion which add nothing to the interest of his story, and cannot but shock readers accustomed to a reverent treatment of whatever is associated with sacred subjects.

… [T]he artist has succeeded in investing objects apparently the most unattractive with an absorbing fascination. The flashes of truth, too, which sparkle on the surface of the foaming sea of thought through which the author pulls his readers in the wake of the whale-ship, — the profound reflections uttered by the actors in the wild watery chase in their own quaint forms of thought and speech, — and the graphic representations of human nature in the startling disguises under which it appears on the deck of the Pequod, — all these things combine to raise The Whale far beyond the level of an ordinary work of fiction. It is not a mere tale of adventures, but a whole philosophy of life, that it unfolds.

London John Bull, October 25 1851

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This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalisms of civilized life, and rhapsody run mad. So far as the nautical parts are appropriate and unmixed, the portraiture is truthful and interesting. Some of the satire, especially in the early parts, is biting and reckless. The chapter-spinning is various in character; now powerful from the vigorous and fertile fancy of the author, now little more than empty though sounding phrases. The rhapsody belongs to wordmongering where ideas are the staple; where it takes the shape of narrative or dramatic fiction, it is phantasmal — an attempted description of what is impossible in nature and without probability in art; it repels the reader instead of attracting him …

The “marvellous” injures the book by disjointing the narrative, as well as by its inherent want of interest, at least as managed by Mr. Melville …

… [M]r. Melville’s mysteries provoke wonder at the author rather than terror at the creation; the soliloquies and dialogues of Ahab, in which the author attempts delineating the wild imaginings of monomania, and exhibiting some profoundly speculative views of things in general, induce weariness or skipping; while the whole scheme mars, as we have said, the nautical continuity of story — greatly assisted by variuous chapters of a bookmaking kind.

The strongest point of the book is its “characters.” Ahab, indeed, is a melodramatic exaggeration, and Ishmael is little more than a mouth-piece; but the harpooners, the mates, and several of the seamen, are truthful portraitures of the sailor as modified by the whaling service….

It is a canon with some critics that nothing should be introduced into a novel which it is physically impossible for the writer to have known: thus, he must not describe the conversation of miners in a pit if they all perish. Mr. Melville hardly steers clear of this rule, and he continually violates another, by beginning in the autobiographical form and changing ad libitum into the narrative … Such is the go-ahead method.

London Spectator, October 25 1851

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… Herman Melville’s last and best and most wildly imaginative story, The Whale … will worthily support his reputation for singularly vivid and reckless imaginative power — great aptitude for quaint and original philosophical speculation, degenerating, however, too often into rhapsody and purposeless extravagance — an almost unparalled power over the capabilities of the language …

– “A.B.R.,” Illustrated London News, November 1 1851

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The Whale is a most extraordinary work. There is so much eccentricity in its style and in its construction, in the original conception and in the gradual development of its strange and improbable story, that we are at a loss to determine in what category of works of amusement to place it …

… The plot is meagre beyond comparison, as the whole of the incident might very conveniently have been comprised in half of one of these three interminable volumes. Nevertheless, in his descriptions of character, in his analysis of the motives of actions, and in the novelty of the details of a whaling expedition, the author has evinced not only a considerable knowledge of the human heart, combined with a thorough acquaintance with the subject he is handling, but a rare versatility of talent…. In describing the idiosyncrasies of all these different castes of men our author has evinced acuteness of observation and powers of discrimination, which would alone render his work a valuable addition to the literature of the day …

… Bating a few Americanisms, which sometimes mar the perspicuity and the purity of the style, the language of the work is appropriate and impressive; and the stirring scenes with which the author concludes are abundant evidence of the power he possesses of making his narrative intensely interesting.

London Britannia, November 8 1851

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… The book is not a romance, nor a treatise on Cetology. It is something of both: a strange, wild work with the tangled overgrowth and luxuriant vegetation of American forests, not the trim orderliness of an English park. Criticism may pick many holes in this work; but no criticism will thwart its facscination …

London Leader, November 8 1851

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Mr. Melville grows wilder and more untameable with every adventure. In Typee and Omoo, he began with the semblance of life and reality, though it was often but the faintest kind of semblance. As he advanced, he threw off the pretense of probability, and wondered from the verisimilitude of fiction into the mist and vagueness of poetry and fantasy, and now in this last venture, has reached the very limbo of eccentricity. From first to last, oddity is the governing characteristic. The extraordinary descriptive powers which Typee disclosed, are here in full strength. More graphic and terrible portraitures of hair breadth ‘scapes we never read. The delineation of character, too, is exquisitely humorous, sharp, individual and never-to-be-forgotten. The description of Father Mapple’s sermon is a powerful piece of sailor-oratory; and passages of great eloquence, and artistic beauty and force, are to be found everywhere. It will add to Mr. Melville’s repute as a writer, undoubtedly, and furnishes, incidentally, a most striking picture of sea life and adventures.

New York Evangelist, November 20 1851

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This mere announcement of the book’s and the author’s name will prepare you in a measure for what follows; for you know just as well as we do that Herman Melville is a practical and practised sea-novelist, and that what comes from his pen will be worth the reading. And so indeed is Moby-Dick, and not lacking much of being a great work …

… Foremost amongst [the characters] is the Captain, in the conception of whose part lies the most original thought of the whole book, stamping it decidedly as the production of a man of genius …

Not only is there an immense amount of reliable information here before us; the dramatis personae … are all vivid sketches done in the author’s best style. What they do, and how they look, is brought to one’s perception with wondrous elaborateness of detail; and yet this minuteness does not spoil the broad outline of each. It is only when Mr. Melville puts words into the mouths of these living and moving beings, that his cunning fails him, and the illusion passes away …

… The rarely imagined character [Ahab] has been grievously spoiled, nay altogether ruined, by a vile overdaubing with a coat of book-learning and mysticism; there is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic. There is nevertheless in it, as we have already hinted, abundant choice reading for those who can skip a page now and then, judiciously …

Mr. Melville has crowded together in a few prefatory pages a large collection of brief and pithy extracts from authors innumerable, such as one might expect as headings for chapters. We do not like the innovation. It is having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish, in place of being scientifically administered sauce-wise.

– William Young, New York Albion, November 22 1851

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The narrative is constructed in Herman Melville’s best manner. It combines the various features which form the chief attractions of his style, and is commendably free from the faults which we have before had occasion to specify in this powerful writer. The intensity of the plot is happily relieved by minute descriptions of the most homely processes of the whale fishery. We have occasional touches of the subtle mysticism, which is carried to such an inconvenient excess in Mardi, but it is here mixed up with so many tangible and odorous realities, that we always safely alight from the excursion through mid-air upon the solid deck of the whaler …

… We part with the adventurous philosophical Ishmael, truly thankful that the whale did not get his head, for which we are indebted for this wildly imaginative and truly thrilling story. We think it the best production which has yet come from that seething brain, and in spite of its lawless flights, which put all regular criticism at defiance, it gives us a higher opinion of the author’s originality and power than even the favorite and fragrant first-fruits of his genius, the never-to-be-forgotten Typee.

– Horace Greeley, New York Tribune, November 22 1851

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A new work by Herman Melville, entitled Moby Dick; or, the Whale, has just been issued by Harper and Brothers, which, in point of richness and variety of incident, originality of conception, and splendor of description, surpasses any of the former productions of this highly successful author…. [T]he author has contrasted a romance, a tragedy, and a natural history, not without numerous gratuitous suggestions on psychology, ethics, and theology. Beneath the whole story, the subtle, imaginative reader may perhaps find a pregnant allegory, intended to illustrate the mystery of human life. Certain it is that the rapid, pointed hints which are often thrown out, with the keenness and velocity of a harpoon, penetrate deep into the heart of things, showing that the genius of the author for moral analysis is scarcely surpassed by his wizard power of description.

… Frequent graphic and instructive sketches of the fishery, of sea-life in a whaling vessel, and of the manners and customs of strange nations are interspersed with excellent artistic effect among the thrilling scenes of the story … These sudden and decided transitions form a striking feature of the volume. Difficult of management, in the highest degree, they are wrought with consummate skill. To a less gifted author, they would inevitably have proved fatal. He has not only deftly avoided their dangers, but made them an element of great power. They constantly pique the attention of the reader, keeping curiosity alive, and presenting the combined charm of surprise and alternation.

– George Ripley, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, December 1851

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Thrice unlucky Herman Melville! …

This is an odd book, professing to be a novel; wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic; in places charmingly and vividly descriptive. The author has read up laboriously to make a show of cetalogical learning…. Herman Melville is wise in this sort of wisdom. He uses it as stuffing to fill out his skeleton story. Bad stuffing it makes, serving only to try the patience of his readers, and to tempt them to wish both him and his whales at the bottom of an unfathomable sea …

The story of this novel scarcely deserves the name … Mr. Melville cannot do without savages so he makes half of his dramatis personae wild Indians, Malays, and other untamed humanities … What the author’s original intention in spinning his preposterous yarn was, it is impossible to guess; evidently, when we compare the first and third volumes, it was never carried out …

Having said so much that may be interpreted as a censure, it is right that we should add a word of praise where deserved. There are sketches of scenes at sea, of whaling adventures, storms, and ship-life, equal to any we have ever met with …

Mr. Herman Melville has earned a deservedly high reputation for his performances in descriptive fiction. He has gathered his own materials, and travelled along fresh and untrodden literary paths, exhibiting powers of no common order, and great originality. The more careful, therefore, should he be to maintain the fame he so rapidly acquired, and not waste his strength on such purposeless and unequal doings as these rambling volumes about spermaceti whales.

London Literary Gazette, December 6 1851

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… [W]e have nothing to allege against his admission among the few writers of the present day who give evidence of some originality; but, while disposed to concede to Mr. Melville a palm of high praise for his literary excellencies, we must enter our decided protest against the querulous and cavilling innuendoes which he so much loves to discharge, like barbed and poisoned arrows, against objects that should be shielded from his irreverent wit….

… In whatever light [Moby-Dick] may be viewed, no one can deny it to be the production of a man of genius. The descriptive powers of Mr. Melville are unrivalled…. Language in the hands of this master becomes like a magician’s wand, evoking at will “thick-coming fancies,” and peopling the “chambers of imagery” with hideous shapes of terror or winning forms of beauty and loveliness. Mr. Melville has a strange power to reach the sinuosities of a thought, if we may so express ourselves; he touches with his lead and line depths of pathos that few can fathom, and by a single word can set a whole chime of sweet or wild emotions into a pealing concert. His delineation of character is actually Shakespearean — a quality which is even more prominently evinced in Moby Dick than in any of his antecedent efforts.

– William A. Butler, Washington National Intelligencer, December 16 1851

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Here, however — in The Whale — comes Herman Melville, in all his pristine powers — in all his abounding vigour — in the full swing of his mental energy, with his imagination invoking as strange and wild and original themes as ever, with his fancy arraying them in the old bright and vivid hues, with that store of quaint and out-of-the-way information — we would rather call it reading than learning — which he ever and anon scatters around, in frequently unreasonable profusion, with the old mingled opulence and happiness of phrase, and alas! too, with the old extravagance, running a perfect muck throughout the three volumes, raving and rhapsodising in chapter after chapter — unchecked, as it would appear, by the very slightest remembrance of judgment or common sense, and occasionally soaring into such absolute clouds of phantasmal unreason, that we seriously and sorrowfully ask whether this can be anything other than sheer moonstruck lunacy …

London Morning Chronicle, December 20 1851

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In all those portions of this volume which relate directly to the whale … the interest of the reader will be kept alive, and his attention fully rewarded…. In all the scenes where the whale is the performer or the sufferer, the delineation and action are highly vivid and exciting. In all other aspects, the book is sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous. Mr. Melville’s Quakers are the wretchedest dolts and drivellers, and his Mad Captain … is a monstrous bore…. His ravings, and the ravings of some of the tributary characters, and the ravings of Mr. Melville himself, meant for eloquent declamation, are such as would justify a writ de lunatico against all the parties.

Charleston Southern Quarterly Review, January 1852

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Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon. He is gauging, at once, our gullibilty and our patience. Having written one or two passable extravagancies, he has considered himself privileged to produce as many more as he pleases, increasingly exaggerated and increasingly dull…. In bombast, in caricature, in rhetorical artifice — generally as clumsy as it is ineffectual — and in low attempts at humor, each one of his volumes has been an advance among its predecessors … Mr. Melville never writes naturally. His sentiment is forced, his wit is forced, and his enthusiasm is forced. And in his attempts to display to the utmost extent his powers of “fine writing,” he has succeeded, we think, beyond his most sanguine expectations.

The truth is, Mr. Melville has survived his reputation. If he had been contented with writing one or two books, he might have been famous, but his vanity has destroyed all his chances for immortality, or even of a good name with his own generation. For, in sober truth, Mr. Melville’s vanity is immeasurable. He will either be first among the book-making tribe, or he will be nowhere. He will centre all attention upon himself, or he will abandon the field of literature at once. From this morbid self-esteem, coupled with a most unbounded love of notoriety, spring all Mr. Melville’s efforts, all his rhetorical contortions, all his declamatory abuse of society, all his inflated sentiment, and all his insinuating licentiousness.

Typee was undoubtedly a very proper book for the parlor, and we have seen it in company with Omoo, lying upon tables from which Byron was strictly prohibited, although we were unable to fathom those niceties of logic by which one was patronized, and the other proscribed. But these were Mr. Melville’s triumphs. Redburn was a stupid failure, Mardi was hopelessly dull, White-Jacket was worse than either; and, in fact, it was such a very bad book, that, until the appearance of Moby Dick, we had set it down as the very ultimatum of weakness to which its author could attain. It seems, however, that we were mistaken.

We have no intention of quoting any passages just now from Moby Dick. The London journals, we understand, “have bestowed upon the work many flattering notices,” and we should be loth to combat such high authority. But if there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English, we will take the liberty of recommending to them this precious volume of Mr. Melville’s.

New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review, January 1852

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