previous next

Chapter 7: fiction II--contemporaries of Cooper.

Carl Van Doren

It is mere coincidence that Cooper was born in the year which produced The power of sympathy and that when he died Uncle Tom's Cabin was passing through its serial stage, and yet the limits of his life mark almost exactly the first great period of American fiction. Paulding, Thompson, Neal, Kennedy, Simms, Melville, to mention no slighter figures, outlived him, but not, as a current fashion, the type of romance which had flourished under Cooper. Although by 1851 tales of adventure had begun to seem antiquated, they had rendered a large service to the course of literature: they had removed the stigma, for the most part, from the word novel. For the brutal scrapes of eighteenth-century fiction the new romance had substituted deeds of chivalrous daring; it had supplanted blunt fleshliness by a chaste and courtly love, and had tended to cure amorous sentimentalism by placing love below valour in the scale of virtues. Familiar life, tending to sordidness, had been succeeded by remote life, generally idealized; historical detail had been brought in to teach readers who were being entertained. Cooper, like Scott, was more elevated than Fielding and Smollett, more realistic than the Gothic romancers, more humane than Godwin or Brown. The two most common charges against the older fiction, that it pleased wickedly and that it taught nothing, had broken down before the discovery, except in illiberal sects, that the novel is fitted both for honest use and for pleasure.

In Europe, at Cooper's death, a new vogue of realism had begun, but America still had little but romance. With so vast [308] and mysterious a hinterland free to any one who might come to take it, novelists, like farmers, were less prompt in America than in Europe to settle down to cultivate intensively known fields. There is a closer analogy, indeed, between the geographic and the imaginative frontier of the United States than has been pointed out. As the first advanced, thin, straggling, back from the Atlantic, over the Alleghanies, down the Ohio, beyond the Mississippi, across the Great Plains and the Rockies to the Pacific, the other followed, also thin and straggling but with an incessant purpose to find out new territories over which the imagination could play and to claim them for its own. “Until now,” wrote Cooper in 1828, “the Americans have been tracing the outline of their great national picture. The work of filling up has just seriously commenced.” He had in mind only the physical process, but his image applies as well to that other process in which he was the most effective pioneer. Two years after his death the outline of the national picture, at least of contiguous territory, was established, and the nation gave itself to the problem of occupation. In fiction, too, after the death of Cooper the main tendency for nearly a generation was away from the conquest of new borders to the closer cultivation, east of the Mississippi, of ground already marked.

As late as 1825 Jared Sparks thought ten American novels a striking output for one year, but during the second quarter of the century Cooper had many helpers in his great task. In New England Neal, Miss Sedgwick, Mrs. Child, and D. P. Thompson had already set outposts before Hawthorne came to capture that section for classic ground. Paulding and Hoffman assisted Cooper in New York, and Paulding took Swedish Delaware for himself; for Pennsylvania Bird was Brown's chief successor; Maryland had Kennedy; Virginia, without many native novels, began to undergo, in the hands of almost every romancer who dealt with the founders of the republic, that idealization which has made it, especially since the Civil War, the most romantic of American states; South Carolina passed into the pages of Simms; Georgia and the lower South brought forth a school of native humorists who abounded in the truth as well as in the fun of that border;1 the Mississippi and the Ohio [309] advanced to a place in the imagination with the Hudson, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the James. North of the Ohio romance achieved relatively little, but on the southern bank Kentucky, “Dark and bloody ground,” rivalled its mother Virginia. Bird ventured into Mexico at a time when Irving and Prescott were writing romantic histories of the Spanish discovery and conquest. Melville, the most original and perennial of Cooper's contemporaries, concerned himself with the wonders of the Pacific and the deeds of Yankee whalers. Some of these novels dealt with contemporary life, but the large majority used history to lend depth to the picture which was being filled in. This was the age during which there grew up the heroic conceptions of the first settlements and of the Revolution which still prevail; the novelists stand side by side with the orators and the popular biographers in the creation of those powerful legends. Crude style and bombastic characters abound, but so do great vigour and idealism. Although such romances do not present a solid record of actual life in America at the time they were written, they offer important evidence regarding the life of the imagination, its aims, methods, and conventions, as it existed in those formative years.

The first confessed follower of Cooper, it seems, began his career on other models. John Neal (1793-1870), a native of Maine, was in Baltimore when The spy appeared, engaged in the production of four long novels in six or seven months. Full of a history of the Revolution on which he had been working, he was fired by Cooper's example to write Seventy-Six (1823) with incredible rapidity. The work, however, is little more like Cooper than the three which had preceded it, Logan (1822), Randolph (1823), and Errata (1823). In all these Neal's real master was Byron, whom he followed with a fury of rant and fustian which would have made him, had he been gifted with taste and humour as well, no mean follower. Three years spent in England as a writer on American topics, where he became one of Bentham's secretaries and a utilitarian in all but atheism, modified Neal somewhat so that in his long later career he seemed almost a man of sense if never a man of humour or taste. Brother Jonathan (1825) and The down-easters (1833), however, which promise at first to be real pictures of New England life and character, soon run [310] amuck into raving melodrama. For all his very unusual originality and force Neal has ceased to be read, the victim of a bad education and uncritical times. Equally unread, as novelists, are two other writers famous in their day, Catherine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867) and Lydia Maria Child (1802-80), who, through long and busily useful years, touched fiction here and there, both beginning with historical romances in the early days of The spy's fame and later drifting to more solid shores with the tide of realism. Less gifted than Neal, both had greater charm. Mrs. Child is remembered for her devoted opposition to slavery, but Miss Sedgwick was the more important novelist. Redwood (1824), Hope Leslie (1827), and The Linwoods (1835), her best and most popular stories, exhibit almost every convention of the fiction of her day.

One novelist of New England before Hawthorne, however, still has a wide, healthy public. Daniel Pierce Thompson (1795-1868) knew the Vermont frontier as Cooper knew that of New York. After many struggles with the bitterest poverty he got to Middlebury College, studied law, became a prominent official of his native state, and somewhat accidentally took to fiction. Of his half-dozen novels, which all possess a good share of honest realism, Locke Amsden (1847) gives perhaps the most truthful record of frontier life, but The Green Mountain boys (1840) is the classic of Vermont. It is concerned with the struggles of the Vermonters for independence first from New York and second from Great Britain; its hero is the famous Ethan Allen. Thompson had none of Cooper's poetry and was little concerned with the magic of nature. He took over most of the tricks of the older novelists, their stock types and sentiments. But he made little effort to preach, he could tell a straight story plainly and rapidly, and he touched action with rhetoric in just the proportion needed to sell fifty editions of the book by 1860 and to make it in the twentieth century a standard book for boys which is by far the most popular romance of the immediate school of Cooper.

The Middle States had no secondary novelist who has survived so sturdily as Thompson. Charles Fenno Hoffman2 is remembered for his lyrics, not for Greyslaer (1840). James Kirke Paulding,3 though nearer Irving than Cooper, had [311] considerable merit as a novelist, particularly in the matter of comedy, which most of the romancers lacked. Koningsmarke (1823) contains some pleasant burlesquing in its stories of adventures among the Delaware Swedes. Here, as in his later works, Paulding laughed at what he called “Blood-Pudding literature.” He was too facile in lending his pen, as parodist or follower, to whatever fashion happened to be approved to do any very individual work, but The Dutchman's fireside (1831), probably his masterpiece, deserves to be mentioned with Mrs. Grant's Memoirs of an American Lady (1809), on which it is based, and Cooper's Satanstoe, much its superior, as a worthy record of colonial life along the Hudson. New Jersey and Pennsylvania appear in nothing better than the minor romances of Robert Montgomery Bird (1803-54),4 The Hawks of hawk Hollow (1835), Sheppard Lee (1836), and The adventures of Robin day (1839), vigorous and sometimes merry tales but not of permanent merit.

To the school of his friend Irving may be assigned the urbane John Pendleton Kennedy (1795-1870). Of excellent Virginia connections, he was born and educated in Baltimore, which, like New York, made rapid progress after the Revolution, first in commerce and then in taste. Having served bloodlessly enough in the War of 1812 and been admitted to the bar, Kennedy lived as merrily as Irving in the chosen circles of his native town. With Peter Hoffman Cruse he issued The red Book (1818-19),5 a kind of Baltimore Salmagundi in prose and verse, and after several years devoted to law and politics made a decided success with Swallow Barn (1832), obviously suggested by Bracebridge Hall but none the less notable as a pioneer record of the genial life of a Virginia plantation. Although the story counts for little, Kennedy's easy humour and real skill at description and the indication of character make the book distinguished. His later novels, Horse-Shoe Robinson (1835), in which he dealt with the Revolution in the Carolinas, and Rob of the bowl (1838), which has its scene laid in colonial Maryland, are nearer Cooper, with the difference that Kennedy depended, as he had done in Swallow Barn, on fact not invention for almost all his action as well as for his details of topography and costume. Indeed, [312] he founded the career of Horse-Shoe Robinson upon that of an actual partisan with such care that the man is said later to have approved the record as authentic. Decidedly Kennedy's gift was for enriching actual events with a finer grace and culture than many of the rival romancers could command. His style is clear, his methods always simple and rational. Of his miscellaneous writings The annals of Quodlibet (1840) is tolerable satire, and the Memoirs of the life of William Wirt (1849), substantial biography. Kennedy's range of friendship with other authors was wide; he had a full and honourable public career in city, state, and national affairs.

South of the Potomac there were relatively few novelists during Cooper's lifetime. The great tradition of Virginia was sustained by her orators and scholars rather than by her writers of fiction, but Nathaniel Beverley Tucker (1784-1851) was both scholar and novelist. His George Balcombe (1836) Poe thought the best novel by an American; his Partisan leader (1836), primarily famous because it prophesied disunion, is clearly a notable though little known work. No other American of the time wrote with such classical restraint and pride as Tucker. No book, of any time, surpasses The partisan leader for intense, conscious Virginianism. Mention should be made of Dr. William Alexander Caruthers (1800-46), perhaps less for his genial novels, The Cavaliers of Virginia (1835) and The Knights of the Horse-Shoe (1845), than for his widely-known sketch Climbing the natural Bridge.6 The lower states best appeared in the pages of their native humorists, who seldom wrote novels. South Carolina produced the writer who, among all the American romancers of the first half century, ranks nearest Cooper for scope and actual achievement.

William Gilmore Simms has been, to a pathetic degree, the victim of attachment to his native state. It was one of his strongest passions. He loved every foot of South Carolina, he honoured its traditions and defended its institutions even when they hurt his own fame. His best work was largely devoted to an heroic account of the Revolution in the Carolinas. But, whether his birth did not admit him to the aristocracy of Charleston, or because of a traditional disrespect for native [313] books, South Carolina refused Simms the honour certainly due his powers. In this the whole South was negligent; Simms had to depend too largely upon the North for publishers and a public. Unfortunately, Northern readers, though hospitable to his tales from the first, were not as familiar with Southern manners and traditions as with those nearer home, and Simms had not the mastery of illusion which might have overcome this disadvantage. The solid grounds, therefore, of his romance were partly wasted upon an audience not competent to recognize them. Time must have taught South Carolina more cordiality to her best writer had not the Civil War forced all literary matters into the background for a generation. When, later, the South became eager to establish its claims to a literature, the vogue of historical romance had passed, and Simms, not yet having found the public he deserved, never has found it.

Unlike Poe, he had not the art or patience to make himself independent of general approval. Born in Charleston, 17 April, 1806, son of a merchant of Irish birth who lost both his wife and his fortune during the winter of 1807-8, Simms got but a bare schooling and was early apprenticed to a druggist. He seems, during his youth, to have been as bookish as Brockden Brown, but it was romantic poetry and history which claimed his attention, not romantic speculation. From his grandmother, with whom he lived as a boy, he heard innumerable legends of the Revolution, South Carolina's heroic age, and cherished them with a poetic and patriotic devotion. When he was eighteen he went to visit his father, who had left Charleston for the West, become friend and follower of Andrew Jackson, and finally settled on a plantation in Mississippi. The young poet was thus shown the manners of a frontier which corresponded, in many ways, to that of Cooper, and he seems, during extended travels, to have observed its rough comedy and violent melodrama with sharp eyes. But the border was not, for Simms, his first love, and he went back, against his father's advice, to the traditions and dreams of Charleston. There he was married in 1826, was admitted to the bar the next year, published the first of his many volumes of verse, and suffered the death of his young wife. Thence, in 1832, he set out to the North on a career of authorship in which [314] necessity confirmed his training and temper by urging him to immense industry and careless work.

It is unnecessary to say more of the miscellaneous tasks of Simms than that he wrote moderate poetry to the end of his life, including three tragedies, that he edited the apocryphal plays of Shakespeare, that he produced popular histories of South Carolina and popular biographies of Marion, Captain John Smith, the Chevalier Layard, and General Greene, and that he kept up a ceaseless flood of contributions to periodicals. His range of interest and information was large, but he commonly dealt with American, and particularly Southern, affairs. His really significant work, as a romancer, he began in 1833 with a Godwinian tale of crime, Martin Faber, which was so well received that he followed it in 1834 with Guy Rivers and in 1835 with The Yemassee, two romances in which almost the full extent of his powers was instantly displayed. Guy Rivers, a conventional piece as regards the love affair which makes a part of the plot, is a tale of deadly strife between the laws of Georgia and a fiendish bandit. A born story-teller, like Cooper, Simms was as heedless as Cooper of structure and less careful as to style, but he was too rapid to be dull and he revealed to the reading world a new adventurous frontier. In The Yemassee his concern for the history of South Carolina bore fruit, a moving tale of the Yemassee War of 1715. This book is to the famous Revolutionary group what The spy is to the Leather-Stocking tales, a romance standing somewhat by itself at the beginning of the author's career and yet quite the equal of any of the most representative volumes. Once again Simms took hints from current romances, but when he set himself to describing the rich landscape of South Carolina or to recounting its annals he was more fully master of his material than in Guy Rivers and more admirable in proportion as his subject was more congenial to him. He gave his Indians the dignity and courage which, he said, they must have had at an earlier period; he invented for them a mythology. The white and black characters have somewhat less heroic dimensions, but they are done with great vigour and some realism.

His third novel having met with popular success, Simms turned to the Revolution and published The partisan (1835), designed as the first volume of a trilogy which should celebrate [315] these valorous times. He later wavered in his scheme, and, though he finally called Mellichampe (1836) and Katherine Walton (1851) the other members of his trilogy, he grouped round them four more novels that have obvious marks of kinship. The partisan traces events from the fall of Charleston to Gates's defeat at Camden; the action of Mellichampe, which is nearly parallel to that of Katherine Walton, the proper sequel of The partisan, takes place in the interval between Camden and the coming of Greene; The scout, originally called The Kinsmen (1841), illustrates the period of Greene's first triumphs; The sword and the Distaff (1852), later known as Woodcraft, furnishes a kind of comic afterpiece for the series. Simms subsequently returned to the body of his theme and produced The Forayers (1853) and its sequel Eutaw (1856) to do honour to the American successes of the year 1781.

Of these The scout is perhaps the poorest, because of the large admixture of Simms's cardinal vice, horrible melodrama; Woodcraft is on many grounds the best, by reason of its rather close-knit plot and the high spirits with which it tells of the exploits and courtships, after the war, of Captain Porgy, the best comic character in the whole range of the older American romance. But neither of these works is quite representative of the series; neither has quite the dignity which, lacking in his sensational tales of the border, Simms always imparted to his work when he was most under the spell of the Carolina tradition. That always warmed him; indeed at times he seems drunk with history. He had a tendency to overload his tales with solid blocks of fact derived from his wide researches, forgetting, in his passionate antiquarianism, his own belief that “the chief value of history consists in its proper employment for the purposes of art,” or, rather, too much thrilled by bare events to see that they needed to be coloured into fiction if they were to fit his narrative. Simms never took his art too lightly. He held that the “modern Romance is the substitute which the people of the present day offer for the ancient epic.” 7 In this sense, the seven novels are his epic of the Revolution. Marion, the Agamemnon of these wars, had already become a kind of legend, thanks to the popular memory and the fantastic ardour of Weems, but it remained for Simms to [316] show a whole society engaged in the task which Marion did best. Simms's defect was that he relied too much upon one plot for all his tales, a partisan and a loyalist contending for the hand of the same girl, and that he repeated certain stock scenes and personages again and again. His great virtue was that he handled the actual warfare not only with interest and power but that he managed to multiply episodes with huge fecundity. He described, in a surge of rhetoric, his favourite material:

Partisan warfare, itself, is that irregular and desultory sort of life, which is unavoidably suggestive of the deeds and feelings of chivalry-such as gave the peculiar character, and much of the charm, to the history of the middle ages. The sudden onslaught — the retreat as sudden — the midnight tramp — the moonlight bivouack --the swift surprise, the desperate defence — the cruel slaughter and the headlong flight-and, amid the fierce and bitter warfare, always, like a sweet star shining above the gloom, the faithful love, the constant prayer, the devoted homage and fond allegiance of the maiden heart!

The passage is almost a generalized epitome of his Revolutionary romances. It also betrays the fact that by “epic” Simms meant not Homer but Froissart. If he is more bloody, he is also more sentimental than Cooper. His women, though Nelly Floyd in Eutaw is strikingly pathetic and mysterious, and Matiwan in The Yemassee is nearly as tragic as romance can make her, are almost all fragile and colourless things, not because Southern women were, but because pseudo-chivalry prescribed. His comedy is successful only, and there not always, in the words and deeds of the gourmand Porgy. Simms is a master in the description of landscapes, from the sterile wastes of Georgia to the luxuriant swamps in which the partisans found a refuge; but he lays little emphasis on the poetry or philosophy of “nature.”

In historical tales, not Cooper's forte, Simms succeeded best; he was inferior when he dealt with the border. This may have been due partly to the intrinsic superiority of the earlier frontier to that which Simms had observed. At least it shows itself chiefly in the fact that Simms grew more melodramatic, as Cooper more poetic, the farther he ventured from [317] regions of order and law. Richard Hurdis (1838), Border Beagles (1840), Beauchampe (1842), and Charlemont (1856) are amazingly sensational. Nor was Simms happy when he abandoned native for foreign history, as in Pelayo (1838), The Damsel of Darien (1839), Count Julian (1845), and Vasconselos (1854). Even more than Cooper, he lacked judgment as to the true province of his art; like Cooper, he constantly turned aside to put his pen to service in the distracted times through which he was fated to live.

His life was singularly noble and singularly tragic. Married a second time, in 1836, to Miss Chevillette Roach, and thus master of Woodlands, a respectable plantation in his own state, he led a pleasantly feudal existence, hospitable to many guests, and helpful, as the most prosperous Southern man of letters, to nearly all the authors and journals of the South. He spent the summers in Charleston where he came to preside over a coterie of younger writers; he made not infrequent visits to New York, and was well received. Besides concerning himself unofficially with all public affairs, he served in the state legislature for the session of 1844-46. As the agitation which led to civil war grew more heated, Simms plunged into stormy apologetics for the grounds and virtues of slavery. Just on the eve of the struggle he repeated the success of The Yemassee with a romance of seventeenth-century Carolina, The Cassique of Kiawah (1859), a stirring, varied story which must be ranked with his better books. Then upon him came the disasters of war. At first he was as sure that the South would win as that the South was just. His gradual realization that it was a losing contest would have shattered him had he been of any but the strongest stuff. His house, on the line of Sherman's march, was burned in February, 1865; he witnessed the wicked burning of Columbia. When the war ended he had lost his wife, nine of his fourteen children, (two of them since 1861), many of his best friends, and the whole of his fortune, yet he managed, in a more horrid overthrow than Scott's, to drive himself to work again with courage and energy, and kept up his efforts till his death, undoubtedly hastened by his labour, on 11 June, 1870. Despite his friends and admirers, the eclipse of those last years has never been quite lifted, and the somewhat fitful republication of his romances has left [318] him much less read than he deserves, though few competent judges will put him far below Cooper, at least as regards strength and vigour, in the type of romance in which no third American name can be associated with theirs.

West of the Alleghanies the growth of fiction during the life of Cooper was, of course, scanty. It consisted less of novels than of tales and sketches, which, produced for the most part by writers of Eastern birth dwelling for a time in the new settlements, were chiefly concerned with the representation of manners not known to the seaboard. The wittiest of these writers was Mrs. Caroline Matilda Stansbury Kirkland (1801-64), a native of New York who took advantage of a three years stay in Michigan to produce A New Home-Who'll Follow (1839), a volume of keen and sprightly letters on the frontier avowedly in the manner of Miss Mitford, and a continuation, Forest life (1842), which is less piquant only because it was not the first. In the later Western Clearings (1846) she was somewhat more regular but not so racy and natural. A more representative Western author was James Hall (1793-1868),8 who, born in Philadelphia, went west in search of adventure, lived in Illinois and Ohio, edited an annual and a magazine, and served as interpreter between West and East much as Irving did between America and Europe. Hall's manner, indeed, is like Irving's in its leisurely, genial narrative, its abundant descriptions, and its affection for supernatural legends which could be handled smilingly. He had real powers of fidelity, the only merit he claimed, to the life he knew, but he had also a florid style and a vein of romantic sentiment which too seldom rings true. Legends of the West (1832), Tales of the border (1834), and The wilderness and the War path (1846) contain his best stories; he is perhaps better known, not quite justly, for such books as Sketches of history, life and manners, in the West (1835), wherein he published his wide knowledge of a section then becoming important in the national life. It is as traveller and observer, too, not as romancer, that Timothy Flint (1780-1840) has come to be remembered, though he essayed fiction as well as nearly every other type of authorship in the days when he and Hall divided the West between them as a province to be worked by their [319] versatile pens. Many novels celebrated Kentucky, which, as the first Western state of the Union, had secured a primacy in romance, between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi, that it has never lost. Paulding, Simms, and Bird were chief among those who laid plots there. Bird's best novel, Nick of the woods (1837), an exciting tale of border warfare in 1782, is notable for its attempt to correct Cooper's heroic drawing of the Indian and for its presentation of a type often spoken of in frontier annals, the white man who, crazed by Indian atrocities, gave his whole life to a career of ruthless vengeance.9 The great romance of Kentucky, however, while perpetuated by no single novel or novelist, centres round the life and character of Daniel Boone, who became, by the somewhat capricious choice of tradition, a folk hero, standing among other pioneers as Leather-Stocking stands among native characters of fiction. A similar, though smaller, fame belongs to David Crockett of Tennessee, who comes somewhat closer to literature by the fact of having written an Autobiography (1834).

The region west of the Mississippi continued in the popular mind to be a strange land for which the reports of explorers and travellers did the work of fiction, and Cooper's Prairie had few followers. In 1834, however, Albert Pike (1809-91) published in his Prose sketches and poems some vivid tales of life in the South-west. That same year appeared Calavar, in writing which Bird had the avowed purpose of calling the attention of his public to romantic Mexico. The next year he repeated his success with The Infidel, another story of Cortez and the Conquest. Reading these novels with their tolerable learning in Mexican antiquities, their considerable power, and their superior sense of the pomp of great historical events, one is reminded how few romances of the period ventured beyond native borders. Whatever may be said of the poets, the novelists kept themselves almost always scrupulously at home. One set of exceptions was those who dealt with Spain and Mexico, and even with them the motive was largely, as with the contemporary historians, to honour the ancient bond between America and the European nation which had discovered it. In a more distant scene Mrs. Child laid her [320] Philothea (1836), a gentle, ignorant romance of the Athens of Pericles, the fruit of a real desire to escape from the clang of current life. Not much more remote from any thinkable reality was George Tucker's Voyage to the Moon (1827), in which a sound scholar satirized terrestrial follies in the spirit which seemed to his friends like that of Swift.10 To a slightly later date belong the two novels of William Starbuck Mayo (1812-95), Kaloolah (1849) and The Berber (1850), stories of wild adventure in Africa. The first contains a strange mixture of satire and romance in its account of a black Utopia visited by the Yankee hero Jonathan Romer.

Contemporaries suspected, what Mayo denied,that Kaloolah must have taken hints from Typee. The suspicion was natural at a time when Melville, at the height of his first fame, had not entered the long seclusion which even yet obscures the merit of that romancer who, among all Cooper's contemporaries, has suffered least from the change of fashion in romance. Herman Melville, grandson of the conservative old gentleman upon whom Holmes wrote The last Leaf, and son of a merchant of New York, was born there, I August, 1819. The early death of his father and the loss of the family fortune having narrowed Melville's chances for higher schooling to a few months in the Albany Classical School, he turned his hand to farming for a year, shipped before the mast to Liverpool in 1837, taught school from 1837-40, and in January, 1841, sailed from New Bedford on a whaling voyage into the Pacific. Upon the experiences of that voyage his principal work is founded. The captain of the Acushnet, it seems, treated the crew badly, and Melville, with the companion whom he calls Toby, escaped from the ship to the Island of Nukuheva [Nukahiva] in the Marquesas and strayed into the cannibal valley Typee [Taipi], where the, savages kept Melville for four months in an “indulgent captivity.” Rescued by an Australian whaler, Melville visited Tahiti and other islands of the Society group, took part in a mutiny, and once more changed ship, this time setting out for Honolulu. After some months as a clerk in Hawaii, he joined the crew of the frigate United States and returned by the Horn to Boston, October, 1844. “From my twenty-fifth year,” he told Hawthorne, “I date my life.” Why he held 1844 [321] so important is not clear; he may then first have turned to authorship. Though he had kept no notes of his journeying, within a year he had completed his first book, Typee, the record of his captivity. This was followed the next year by Omoo,11 which completes his island adventures. In 1849 came Redburn, based on his earlier voyage to Liverpool, and in 1850 White-Jacket, an account of life on a man-of-war.

The first two had a great vogue and aroused much wonder as to the proportion of fiction and fact which might have gone to their making. Murray published Typee in England in the belief that it was pure fact. There were others to rank it with Richard Henry Dana's Two years before the mast (1841) as a transcript of real events. But though little is known of Melville's actual doings in the South Seas, it is at least clear that Typee and Omoo are no more as truthful as Two years before the mast than they are as crisp and nautical as that incomparable classic of the sea. Melville must be ranked less with Dana than with George Borrow. If he knew the thin boundary between romance and reality, he was still careless of nice limits, and his work is a fusion which defies analysis. White-Jacket, of these four books, is probably nearest a plain record; Redburn has but few romantic elements. Omoo, as a sequel, has not the freshness of Typee, nor has it such unity. Typee, indeed, is Melville at all but his best, and must be classed with the most successful narrations of the exotic life; after seventy years, when the South Pacific seems no longer another world, the spell holds. The valley of Taipi becomes, in Melville's handling, a region of dreams and languor which stir the senses with the fragrance and colour of the landscape and the gay beauty of the brown cannibal girls. And yet Melville, thoroughly sensitive to the felicities of that life, never loses himself in it but remains the shrewd and smiling Yankee.

The charge that he had been writing romance led Melville to deserve the accusation, and he wrote Mardi (1849), certainly one of the strangest, maddest books ever composed by an American. As in Typee, two sailors escape from a tyrannical captain in the Pacific and seek their fortune on the open sea, where they finally discover the archipelago of Mardi, a paradise [322] more rich and sultry than the Marquesas, which becomes, as the story proceeds, a crazy chaos of adventure and satirical allegory. In Mardi for the first time appear those qualities which made a French critic call Melville “un Rabelais americain,” his welter of language, his fantastic laughter, his tumultuous philosophies. He had turned, contemporaries said, from the plain though witty style of his first works to the gorgeous manner of Sir Thomas Browne; he had been infected, say later critics, with Carlylese. Whatever the process, he had surely shifted his interest from the actual to the abstruse and symbolical, and he never recovered from the dive into metaphysics which proved fatal to him as a novelist. It was, however, while on this perilous border that he produced the best of his, and one of the best of American, romances; it is the peculiar mingling of speculation and experience which lends Moby Dick (1851) its special power.

The time was propitious for such a book. The golden age of the whalers was drawing to a close, though no decline had yet set in, and the native imagination had been stirred by tales of deeds done on remote oceans by the most heroic Yankees of the age in the arduous calling in which New England, and especially the hard little island of Nantucket, led and taught the world. A small literature of whaling had grown up, chiefly the records of actual voyages or novels like those of Cooper in which whaling was an incident of the nautical life. But the whalers still lacked any such romantic record as the frontier had. Melville brought to the task a sound knowledge of actual whaling, much curious learning in the literature of the subject, and, above all, an imagination which worked with great power upon the facts of his own experience. Moby Dick, the strange, fierce white whale that Captain Ahab pursues with such relentless fury, was already a legend among the whalers, who knew him as “Mocha Dick.” 12 It remained for Melville to lend some kind of poetic or moral significance to a struggle ordinarily conducted for no cause but profit. As he handles the story, Ahab, who has lost a leg in the jaws of the whale, is driven by a wild desire for revenge which has maddened him and which makes him identify Moby Dick with the very spirit of evil and hatred. Ahab, not Melville, is to blame if the story seems an allegory, [323] which Melville plainly declared it was not13; but it contains, nevertheless, the semblance of a conflict between the ancient and scatheless forces of nature and the ineluctable enmity of man. This is the theme, but description can hardly report the extraordinary mixture in Moby Dick of vivid adventure, minute detail, cloudy symbolism, thrilling pictures of the sea in every mood, sly mirth and cosmic ironies, real and incredible characters, wit, speculation, humour, colour. The style is mannered but often felicitous; though the book is long, the end, after every faculty of suspense has been aroused, is swift and final. Too irregular, too bizarre, perhaps, ever to win the widest suffrage, the immense originality of Moby Dick must warrant the claim of its admirers that it belongs with the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world.

Married in 1847, Melville lived for three years in New York and then for thirteen years in a farmhouse near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Although he did not cease to write at once, Moby Dick seems to have exhausted him. Pierre (1852) is hopelessly frantic; Israel Potter (1855) is not markedly original; neither are The Piazza tales (1856), and The confidence man (1857). The verses which he wrote in his later years, his sole output, are in a few instances happy, but far more often jagged and harsh. Whatever the causes of his loss of power, he fretted under it and grew more metaphysical, tortured, according to Hawthorne, his good friend, by uncertainty as to a future life. That way, for Melville, was madness; his earlier works should have taught him that he was lost without a solid basis in fact. He moved restlessly about, lecturing on the South Seas during the years 1857-1860 in many cities of the United States and Canada. He visited Europe and Palestine. Finally, having returned to New York, he was appointed to a place in the Custom House in 1866, and served there for twenty years, living a private life of almost entire, though voluntary and studious, seclusion. His death, 28 September, 1891, after nearly forty silent years, removed from American literature one of its most promising and most disappointing figures. Of late his fame has shown a tendency to revive.

Another type of romance which had some vogue during the [324] later years of Cooper was the religious romance, of which, though many essayed it, the chief writers were William Ware (1797-1852), and Sylvester Judd (1813-53). Ware, a clergyman and fair classical scholar, wrote three novels, Letters from Palmyra (1837), later called Zenobia, Probus (1838), a sequel now known as Aurelian, and Julian (1841), which, though strongly biased in favour of the creed Ware preached, and often diffuse and monotonous, had still enough force and charm to have continued to be read by those to whom all books dealing with the origins of Christianity are an equal duty and delight. Judd has not been so widely read as Ware, though generally considered a novelist of superior truth and subtlety. His first novel, Margaret (1845), was born of a desire to show that Unitarians could produce imaginative literature. Its special merits are its vivid fidelity to the life of rural Massachusetts just after the Revolution, its thorough, loving familiarity with the New England temper and scene, and a kind of spiritual ardour which pervades the whole book; but it is badly constructed and it runs, toward the close, into a region of misty transcendentalisms where characters and plot are lost. Richard Edney (1850), a companion piece with its hero a boy and its setting contemporary, suffers, either as narrative or sense, from the same theological obsession, which appears in Judd's poems as little less than pathological.

By 1851 there were, or had been, many novelists whose names could find place only in an extended account of American fiction14: writers of adventure stories more sensational than Simms's or of moral stories more obvious than Miss Sedgwick's and Mrs. Child's, authors for children, authors preaching causes, authors celebrating fashionable or Bohemian life in New York. Not only regular novels and romances but briefer tales multiplied. The period which could boast in Cooper but one novelist of first rank could show three such tale-tellers as Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe. The annuals and magazines met the demand for such amusement and fostered it,15 but the novel was encouraged more than it was hurt by the new type. Prose fiction, in fact, though somewhat late in starting, [325] had firmly established itself in the United States by the middle of the century, and Cooper, followed in Great Britain by the nautical romancers, and on the Continent by such writers about wild life as Karl Anton Postl ( “Charles Sealsfield” ), Friedrich Gerstacker, and Gustave Aimard, and everywhere read, had become a world figure. [326]

1 See Book II, Chap. XIX.

2 See also Book II, Chap. V.

3 See also Book II. Chaps. I, III, IV, and V.

4 See also Book II, Chap. II.

5 See also Book II, Chap. V.

6 First published in The Knickerbocker Magazine, July, 1838.

7 Preface to The Yemassee (1853).

8 See also Book II, Chap. XX.

9 For the play founded on this novel, see Book II, Chap. II.

10 For Tucker, see also Book II, Chap. XVII.

11 The word is Polynesian for “rover.”

12 See Reynolds, J. N., Mocha Dick, Knickerbocker magazine, May, 1839.

13 Moby Dick, Chap. XLV.

14 See Northrup, C. S., The novelists, in A Manual of American Literature, ed. Stanton, T., 1909.

15 See Book II, Chap. XX.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
James Cooper (37)
William Gilmore Simms (30)
Herman Melville (22)
Moby Dick (10)
John Pendleton Kennedy (9)
John Neal (8)
Robert Montgomery Bird (8)
James Kirke Paulding (7)
Washington Irving (7)
Lydia Maria Child (6)
Daniel Pierce Thompson (5)
Hawthorne (5)
William Ware (4)
Catherine Maria Sedgwick (4)
Guy Rivers (4)
Sylvester Judd (4)
Edgar Allan Poe (3)
William Starbuck Mayo (3)
Greene (3)
Brockden Brown (3)
Ahab (3)
Kirke White (2)
Katherine Walton (2)
Nathaniel Beverley Tucker (2)
George Tucker (2)
Walter Scott (2)
J. Robinson (2)
Francis Marion (2)
Caroline Matilda Stansbury Kirkland (2)
Julian (2)
Charles Fenno Hoffman (2)
Basil Hall (2)
Richard Henry Dana (2)
William Alexander Caruthers (2)
Swallow Barn (2)
Zenobia (1)
William Wirt (1)
M. L. Weems (1)
Vasconselos (1)
Beverley Tucker (1)
Toby (1)
D. P. Thompson (1)
Swift (1)
T. Stanton (1)
Jared Sparks (1)
Smollett (1)
John Smith (1)
Roger Sherman (1)
Shakespeare (1)
Robert Sedgwick (1)
Charles Sealsfield (1)
Jonathan Romer (1)
Chevillette Roach (1)
J. N. Reynolds (1)
Redwood (1)
Randolph (1)
Rabelais (1)
Probus (1)
Prescott (1)
Israel Potter (1)
Karl Anton Postl (1)
Porgy (1)
Pericles (1)
C. S. Northrup (1)
Lindley Murray (1)
Mary Russell Mitford (1)
C. A. Logan (1)
Sheppard Lee (1)
Diedrich Knickerbocker (1)
Andrew Jackson (1)
Richard Hurdis (1)
Homer (1)
O. W. Holmes (1)
Anne McV Grant (1)
William Godwin (1)
Friedrich Gerstacker (1)
Gates (1)
Nelly Floyd (1)
Timothy Flint (1)
Fielding (1)
Martin Faber (1)
Richard Edney (1)
Carl Doren (1)
Swedish Delaware (1)
Peter Hoffman Cruse (1)
David Crockett (1)
Cortez (1)
Byron (1)
Thomas Browne (1)
Daniel Boone (1)
Jeremy Bentham (1)
Border Beagles (1)
George Balcombe (1)
Locke Amsden (1)
Gustave Aimard (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1835 AD (7)
1840 AD (6)
1836 AD (6)
1851 AD (5)
1849 AD (4)
1838 AD (4)
1837 AD (4)
1834 AD (4)
1823 AD (4)
1856 AD (3)
1852 AD (3)
1850 AD (3)
1846 AD (3)
1845 AD (3)
1841 AD (3)
1839 AD (3)
1832 AD (3)
1870 AD (2)
1868 AD (2)
1860 AD (2)
1857 AD (2)
1854 AD (2)
1853 AD (2)
1847 AD (2)
1844 AD (2)
1842 AD (2)
1833 AD (2)
1827 AD (2)
1825 AD (2)
1812 AD (2)
1809 AD (2)
1795 AD (2)
1793 AD (2)
1780 AD (2)
1909 AD (1)
1895 AD (1)
September 28th, 1891 AD (1)
1891 AD (1)
June 11th, 1870 AD (1)
1867 AD (1)
1866 AD (1)
February, 1865 AD (1)
1864 AD (1)
1861 AD (1)
1859 AD (1)
1855 AD (1)
October, 1844 AD (1)
January, 1841 AD (1)
May, 1839 AD (1)
July, 1838 AD (1)
1831 AD (1)
1828 AD (1)
1826 AD (1)
1824 AD (1)
1822 AD (1)
August, 1819 AD (1)
1819 AD (1)
1818 AD (1)
1813 AD (1)
1808 AD (1)
1807 AD (1)
April 17th, 1806 AD (1)
1803 AD (1)
1802 AD (1)
1801 AD (1)
1797 AD (1)
1789 AD (1)
1784 AD (1)
1782 AD (1)
1781 AD (1)
1753 AD (1)
1715 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: