University of Virginia Library



Read before the English Institute on 3 September 1957.


That four of his most popular books are slightly fictionalized autobiographical travel rather than novels makes his case the more significant; for it is precisely in this borderland between forms of fact (that is, travel, history, and the literal representation of manners) and forms of fiction, that the American novel became a respectable literary genre (respectable, that is, in the eyes of the cultivated contemporary reader) during the first sixty years of its existence.


Chapt. 43. Melville reports this not as a "modest young man," but as an observer with a touristic and anthropological interest in the "heathenish games and dances which still secretly lingered in the valley." He watches from a hiding place, and the girls are guarded by "hideous old crones who might have been duennas." Rather perversely, however, he points up the sexual symbolism of the dance by recording that it was with difficulty that he restrained his companion from "rushing [out of the bushes] and seizing a partner." The dance was at first a part of the manuscript of Typee, from which he excluded it because, possibly, in that context it would have been more personal than in Omoo. Melville to John Murray, Jan. 29, 1847: "You will perceive that there is a chapter in the book which describes a dance in the valley of Tamai. This description has been modified and adapted from a certain chapter which it was thought best to exclude from Typee."


Chapter 3. The whole chapter is an elaborate exposition of his social status and identity in relation to the character of the common sailor.


See a representative comment by Melville's friend, E. A. Duyckinck: In Moby Dick (which Duyckinck greatly admired) Melville's "extravagant daring speculation is out of place and uncomfortable," and it violates "the most sacred associations of life."


Compare the autobiographical passage in Pierre, where the publishers write the young author, "Sir: — You are a swindler. Upon the pretense of writing a popular novel for us, you have been receiving cash advances from us, while passing through our press the sheets of a blasphemous rhapsody, filched from the vile Atheists, Lucian and Voltaire." Bk. XXVI, Sec. IV.


This was now Melville's view of his earlier works. In explaining to John Murray why he changed Mardi from a continuation of Omoo to a work of fancy, he said, "Well: proceeding in my narrative of facts I began to feel an incurable distaste for the same; & . . . felt irked, cramped & fettered by plodding along with dull common places . . ." Mar. 25, 1848.


See his comment less than a month after it appeared: ". . . my mood has so changed, that I dread to look into it, & have purposely abstained from so doing since I thanked God it was off my hands." April 5, 1849. If one accepts Pierre's writing of his magnum opus as analogous to the writing of Mardi, the second paragraph of Bk. XXI, Sec. I in Pierre suggests that Melville had some regrets about having loaded Mardi with undigested reading.


A unique exception deserves to be remembered: ". . . other parts [of Mardi] require a wide-awake application, or, as in "Gulliver's Travels," one half the aroma will be lost. . . . the book invites study, and deserves . . . close investigation." The Albion, April 21, 1849.


Nothing in Typee and Omoo, and nothing in all the documents printed in Jay Leyda's Melville Log suggests that Melville thought about his writing in terms of genius, or in anything but commercial terms, before Jan. 1, 1848. But in March 25 of the same year he wrote the famous letter to Murray announcing the newly conceived Mardi. Thereafter, the concept of genius pervades his writings and his correspondence with Hawthorne.