BECK index

American Literature 1845-66

by Sanderson Beck

Lowell, Longfellow & Whitman
Stowe & Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Hawthorne’s Novels
Melville’s Sea Novels
Melville’s Satirical Novels

Lowell, Longfellow & Whitman

Literature of Irving, Cooper & Whittier

      In December 1844 James Russell Lowell (1819-91) wrote his best poem “The Present Crisis.” Here it is:

When a deed is done for Freedom,
      through the broad earth’s aching breast
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime
Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.

Through the walls of hut and palace shoots the instantaneous throe,
When the travail of the Ages wrings earth’s systems to and fro;
At the birth of each new Era, with a recognizing start,
Nation wildly looks at nation, standing with mute lips apart,
And glad Truth’s yet mightier man-child
      leaps beneath the Future’s heart.

So the Evil’s triumph sendeth, with a terror and a chill,
Under continent to continent, the sense of coming ill,
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels his sympathies with God
In hot tear-drops ebbing earthward, to be drunk up by the sod,
Till a corpse crawls round unburied, delving in the nobler clod.

For mankind are one in spirit, and an instinct bears along,
Round the earth’s electric circle, the swift flash of right or wrong;
Whether conscious or unconscious, yet Humanity’s vast frame
Through its ocean-sundered fibres feels the gush of joy or shame;—
In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have equal claim.

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
      offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand,
Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land?
Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet ’t is Truth alone is strong,
And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng
Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to enshield her from all wrong.

Backward look across the ages and the beacon-moments see,
That, like peaks of some sunk continent, jut through Oblivion’s sea;
Not an ear in court or market for the low foreboding cry
Of those Crises, God’s stern winnowers,
      from whose feet earth’s chaff must fly;
Never shows the choice momentous till the judgment hath passed by.

Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness ’twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great,
Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn this iron helm of fate,
But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din,
List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,—
“They enslave their children’s children
      who make compromise with sin.”

Slavery, the earth-born Cyclops, fellest of the giant brood,
Sons of brutish Force and Darkness,
      who have drenched the earth with blood,
Famished in his self-made desert, blinded by our purer day,
Gropes in yet unblasted regions for his miserable prey;—
Shall we guide his gory fingers where our helpless children play?

Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’t is prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified,
And the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

Count me o’er the earth’s chosen heroes,—
      they were souls that stood alone,
While the men they agonized for hurled the contumelious stone,
Stood serene, and down the future saw the golden beam incline
To the side of perfect justice, mastered by their faith divine,
By one man’s plain truth to manhood and to God’s supreme design.

By the light of burning heretics Christ’s bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back,
And these mounts of anguish number how each generation learned
One new word of that grand Credo
      which in prophet-hearts hath burned
Since the first man stood God-conquered
      with his face to heaven upturned.

For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the martyr stands,
On the morrow, crouches Judas with the silver in his hands;
Far in front the cross stands ready and the crackling fagots burn,
While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe return
To glean up the scattered ashes into History’s golden urn.

’Tis as easy to be heroes as to sit the idle slaves
Of a legendary virtue carved upon our father’s graves,
Worshippers of light ancestral make the present light a crime;—
Was the Mayflower launched by cowards,
      steered by men behind their time?
Turn those tracks toward Past or Future,
      that make Plymouth Rock sublime?

They were men of present valor, stalwart old iconoclasts,
Unconvinced by axe or gibbet that all virtue was the Past's;
But we make their truth our falsehood,
      thinking that hath made us free,
Hoarding it in mouldy parchments, while our tender spirits flee
The rude grasp of that great Impulse
      which drove them across the sea.

They have rights who dare maintain them; we are traitors to our sires,
Smothering in their holy ashes Freedom’s new-lit altar-fires;
Shall we make their creed our jailer? Shall we, in our haste to slay,
From the tombs of the old prophets steal the funeral lamps away
To light up the martyr-fagots round the prophet of to-day?

New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward,
      who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her campfires? We ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower,
      and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.1

      Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) became an abolitionist and published a few short poems on slavery in 1842, and John Greenleaf Whittier published his second collection of anti-slavery poetry as Voices of Freedom in 1846. Longfellow is best known for his epic poems Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847) and The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Hiawatha lived in the 16th century.
      Evangeline is a sad story set in the mid-18th century in the Acadian Province about a young French couple who have just become betrothed when British soldiers arrive and drive the men and later the women out of their homes. Evangeline searches for her lover Gabriel and joins the Quakers in Philadelphia.
      In The Song of Hiawatha the hero is portrayed as the son of Wenonah and the west wind Mudjekeewis. He abandons Wenonah, and she dies of grief. Hiawatha is raised by his grandmother Nokomis and tries to go after his father; but he cannot overcome him and learns that his father is immortal. Gitche Manito (Great Spirit), the mighty creator of nations, gives Hiawatha the following wise advice:

   O my children! my poor children!
Listen to the words of wisdom,
Listen to the words of warning,
From the lips of the Great Spirit,
From the Master of Life, who made you!
   I have given you lands to hunt in,
I have given you streams to fish in,
I have given you bear and bison,
I have given you roe and reindeer,
I have given you brant and beaver,
Filled the marshes full of wild-fowl,
Filled the rivers full of fishes;
Why then are you not contented?
Why then will you hunt each other?
   I am weary of your quarrels,
Weary of your wars and bloodshed,
Weary of your prayers for vengeance,
Of your wranglings and dissensions;
All your strength is in your union,
All your danger is in discord;
Therefore be at peace henceforward,
And as brothers live together.
   I will send a Prophet to you,
A Deliverer of the nations,
Who shall guide you and shall teach you,
Who shall toil and suffer with you.
If you listen to his counsels,
You will multiply and prosper;
If his warnings pass unheeded,
You will fade away and perish!
   Bathe now in the stream before you,
Wash the war-paint from your faces,
Wash the blood-stains from your fingers,
Bury your war-clubs and your weapons,
Break the red stone from this quarry,
Mould and make it into Peace-Pipes,
Take the reeds that grow beside you,
Deck them with your brightest feathers,
Smoke the calumet together,
And as brothers live henceforward!2

Eventually Hiawatha helps to organize the Iroquois confederation.

      Walt Whitman was born on 31 May 1819 on Long Island and grew up there before moving to Brooklyn. He left school when he was eleven and became an apprentice printer. In 1835 he got a job in New York City as a printer, but major fires that year caused a depression. He began teaching school on Long Island in 1836. He loved children and played educational games with them such as Twenty Questions. In 1842 he began advocating the prohibition of alcohol. In March 1846 Whitman became the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. In February 1847 he spoke on “Free Seminaries in Brooklyn” and criticized the public schools, saying,

As a general thing the faults of our public schools system
are—crowding too many students together,
insufficiency of books,
and their cost being taxed directly on the pupil—
and the flogging system, which in a portion of the schools
still holds its wretched sway.3

After he wrote an editorial favoring the Wilmot Proviso, he was fired in January 1848. In September he began editing the Brooklyn Freeman, a Free Soil newspaper, but its last issue was one year later.
      In 1855 in the preface to the first edition of his Leaves of Grass Whitman wrote,

   The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth
have probably the fullest poetical nature.
The United States themselves
are essentially the greatest poem.
In the history of the earth hitherto
the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly
to their ampler largeness and stir.
Here at last is something in the doings of man that
corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night.
Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.
Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to
particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses.
Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes.
Here are the roughs and beards and space
and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves.
Here the performance disdaining the trivial unapproached
in the tremendous audacity of its crowds and groupings
and the push of its perspective spreads
with crampless and flowing breadth
and showers its prolific and splendid extravagance.
One sees it must indeed own
the riches of the summer and winter,
and need never be bankrupt
while corn grows from the ground
or the orchards drop apples
or the bays contain fish
or men beget children upon women.4

The first poem was “Song of Myself” in which he wrote,

And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God
   is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers .…
   and the women my sisters and lovers.5

Whitman sent a copy to Emerson and others, and on July 21 Emerson replied in a letter,

I find incomparable things said incomparably well,
   as they must be.
I find the courage of treatment, which so delights me,
& which large perception only can inspire.6

Whitman continued to work as a journalist and an editor of newspapers. During the Civil War on 21 December 1862 he went to Fredericksburg, where his brother George had been wounded, and he began visiting soldiers in hospitals. He started working as a clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in January 1865.

Stowe & Uncle Tom’s Cabin

      Harriet Elizabeth was born on 14 June 1811 the seventh of nine children to the minister Lyman Beecher by his first wife who died in 1816. In 1823 Harriet went to the Hartford Female Seminary which her sister Catherine had founded. The Beecher family moved to Cincinnati in 1832 so that Lyman could be president of the Lane Theological Seminary. Harriet married Calvin Stowe in January 1836, and that year she bore the twins Harriet and Eliza. In 1843 she published the Mayflower: or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters Among the Descendants of the Puritans. Calvin and Harriet’s family moved to Brunswick, Maine in 1850 so that he could teach at Bowdoin College.
      After the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850, Harriet’s sister-in-law in a letter urged her to use her writing ability to “make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” While attending church in February 1851 Harriet had a vision of a saintly black man praying for his torturers while he was being flogged cruelly until he died. Her first chapter was published in the anti-slavery newspaper, The National Era, in Washington DC, and the popularity of these chapters motivated her to keep writing more. Installments were printed weekly from June 1851 for ten months. The completed Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly was published in two volumes on 20 March 1852 in Boston, and in the first year it sold over 300,000 copies in the United States and one million in the British Empire.
      In 1853 Harriet Beecher Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded. Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. This book also got many positive and negative responses, and it sold 90,000 copies in the first month. The large book included the story of Josiah Henson who was born in 1789 and was severely beaten, breaking both his shoulder blades; but he stayed a loyal slave for many years, became a good overseer, a Methodist minister, and tried to buy his freedom before eventually escaping with his family to Canada. Stowe wrote another anti-slavery novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp that was published in 1856.
      In Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in the first chapter,

Whoever visits some estates there,
and witnesses the good-humored indulgence
of some masters and mistresses,
and the affectionate loyalty of some slaves,
might be tempted to dream the oft-fabled poetic legend
of a patriarchal institution, and all that;
but over and above the scene there broods
a portentous shadow — the shadow of law.
So long as the law considers all these human beings,
with beating hearts and living affections,
only as so many things belonging to a master—
so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence,
or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day
to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence
for one of hopeless misery and toil—
so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful
or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery.7

Mr. Shelby is a Kentucky farmer who trusts his slave Tom because he became a Christian at a revival four years ago. Tom did business for him and brought home $500. The New Orleans slave dealer Haley takes Tom as payment for part of Shelby’s debt along with Eliza’s child Harry. Eliza’s husband George Harris is a slave on a neighbor’s plantation. Eliza takes Harry and escapes with him across the ice on the Ohio River. Haley hires Marks and Loker to catch the slaves and promises them Eliza. Senator Bird and his wife give Eliza and Harry shelter, and he takes them to a conductor on the Underground Railroad. George Harris also runs off, and he finds Eliza at the home of the Quakers, Rachel and Simon Halliday.
      Emily Haley’s son George told Tom that he would buy him back. Haley takes Tom in chains to a riverboat going to New Orleans, and Tom becomes friends with the white girl Eva St. Clare who is also a devout Christian. When she falls overboard, Tom jumps in and saves her. In gratitude her father Augustine St. Clare buys Tom from Haley. Augustine brings back his cousin Ophelia to take care of Eva, and he buys the child Topsy to show Ophelia that blacks are not bad. St. Clare explains to Ophelia how cruelty gets worse.

The horrid cruelties and outrages that once and a while
find their way into the papers,—
such cases as Prue’s, for example,—
what do they come from?
In many cases, it is a gradual hardening process
on both sides,—the owner growing more and more cruel,
as the servant more and more callous.
Whipping and abuse are like laudanum;
you have to double the dose as the sensibilities decline.
I saw this very early when I became an owner;
and I resolved never to begin,
because I did not know when I should stop,
and I resolved, at least, to protect my own moral nature.8

At the St. Clare plantation Tom becomes head coachman.
      Loker and Marks find Eliza and George who wounds Loker. Marks flees, and Eliza takes Loker to the Quakers who give him medical care. As Loker gets better, he changes and helps Eliza, Harry, and George to escape across Lake Erie to Canada.
      Tom lives on the St. Clare plantation for two years, but Eva becomes ill and has a spiritual vision before she dies. This influences Ophelia to give up her racial prejudice and Topsy to be a better person; St. Clare promises to free Tom and gives Topsy to Ophelia. However, St. Clare is stabbed at a tavern and dies, and his wife sells Tom at an auction to Simon Legree who takes him, Emmeline as a sex slave, and other slaves to his plantation.
      Legree is a heavy drinker and has dogs to catch slaves. Tom is put in the slave quarters and is given a sack of grain each week to grind and cook. He helps women at the mill, and they bake cakes for him. When Tom refuses to whip a female slave that he helped, Legree beats Tom cruelly. Tom refuses to stop reading his Bible and helping the other slaves. The slave Cassy tells Tom that her son and daughter were sold and that Legree made her pregnant; but she killed the baby. Tom is discouraged, but he has visions of Jesus and Eva which strengthen his faith. Tom refuses to tell Legree where Cassy and Emmeline are hiding, and Legree has the overseers beat Tom until he can no longer speak nor stand up. George Shelby arrives to buy Tom back and finds him dying. George accuses Legree of murder and knocks him down. Before his death Tom forgives the overseers who beat him, and they become Christians.
      When Legree gets drunk again, George helps Cassy and Emmeline escape on a riverboat going north. They meet the sister of George Harris who tells Cassy that Eliza is her daughter and is safe in Canada with her husband George. All these relatives are then reunited in Canada, and George Shelby frees all his slaves after his father’s death in the name of Uncle Tom. Ironically, “Uncle Tom” has become a term of derision among blacks even though the Uncle Tom of the novel was portrayed as a Christian saint. Yet the novel revealed the cruelty and many injustices of slavery in the South at that time.

Hawthorne’s Novels

      Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on 4 July 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts and was raised as a Puritan. In 1825 he graduated from Bowdoin College. He published Twice-Told Tales in 1837. In 1841 he visited the Transcendentalist community of Brook Farm during its first year, and in 1842 he married the painter and author Sophia Peabody. His novel The Scarlet Letter was published in March 1850 and was very successful. This was soon followed by The House of Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852).
      The Scarlet Letter takes place in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts in its early phase. Hester Prynne lives in Boston and has had a daughter Pearl out of wedlock. She is convicted of adultery, and the Puritan judges require her to wear on her gown over her breasts a scarlet letter “A” for her entire life. With the baby in her arms she is shamed before the meetinghouse. She refuses to tell the minister Arthur Dimmesdale or anyone who the father is. Her husband Roger Chillingworth is a physician and had sent her from Antwerp to America. He is thought to have been lost at sea, but he is living with Indians. He comes to treat her in prison and warns her not to tell anyone that he is her husband. Gradually Roger comes to realize that Dimmesdale is probably the father. Hester asks Roger to help Dimmesdale get over his evil influence.
      Time passes, and Dimmesdale becomes ill and is treated by Roger. Hester eventually warns Dimmesdale that her husband may seek revenge. She and Dimmesdale plan to return to Europe after his Election Day sermon during which he confesses his guilt and then dies. Roger dies a year later, but Hester wears her “A” until her death. Hawthorne wrote,

The scarlet letter was her passport into regions
where other women dared not tread.
Shame, Despair, Solitude!
These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—
and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.9

Hawthorne described the harsh shaming of Puritan morality against adultery.

      In his Preface to The House of Seven Gables Hawthorne explained that he preferred to call his novels “romances”  because that gave him “a certain latitude” to use his imagination and bring in the marvelous. His moral in this story is to show “that the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones.” The story is set in his own time but draws on a past fraud whereby Col. Pyncheon got land from Matthew Maule who was put to death for being a wizard. The Colonel died in his oak chair and was found with his chest soaked with blood, fulfilling Maule’s curse that Pyncheons would drink blood. Pyncheon had claimed that he had made a treaty with Indians for the land. In 1850 his portrait hangs on the wall near his chair. The elderly spinster Hepzibah Pyncheon lives there and has let a wing to the daguerreotypist Holgrave.
      After thirty years in prison her brother Clifford gets out and starts a shop in the house that fails until Phoebe Pyncheon arrives to make it successful. Clifford had been convicted of murdering old Jaffrey Pyncheon whose nephew, Judge Pyncheon, had helped send Clifford to prison. The old Judge sits in the chair and resembles the portrait. Clifford and Hepzibah then find the Judge dead of apoplexy with blood on his shirt. Clifford and Hepzibah creep away and take a train. Holgrave finds the dead body. When Phoebe returns, Holgrave tells her that he loves her. The police determine that the Judge died of natural causes and that Jaffrey probably did also; but the Judge had found a way to convict him. Holgrave and Clifford discover behind the portrait the old Indian deed for the land. Holgrave explains to Phoebe that his name was Maule and that his relatives were Matthew and Thomas Maule who had built the House of Seven Gables. The story reveals how the curse was expiated.

       The Blithedale Romance was published in 1852 and reflects Hawthorne’s experience at Brook Farm, an experimental socialist community near Boston. Before visiting the Blithedale Community, Miles Coverdale meets Old Moodie, who is the father of Zenobia by his first wife and Priscilla by his second. The beautiful and successful magazine-writer Zenobia welcomes Coverdale. The reformer Hollingsworth arrives on the same day with Priscilla who falls in love with Hollingsworth and greatly admires Zenobia. Coverdale learns that Hollingsworth hopes to found an institution where he can rehabilitate criminals, and he often talks about it. Zenobia also loves Hollingsworth and is jealous of Priscilla. Westervelt arrives to find out about Zenobia and Priscilla, and Coverdale observes that Zenobia hates Westervelt, probably because he jilted her. Zenobia is concerned about improving women’s rights, but she avoids offending Hollingsworth who believes that women should serve men. Hollingsworth wants to use Zenobia’s money to build his school.
      When Coverdale goes to town, he finds the sisters and Westervelt in a tense situation; but Zenobia warns him not to interfere. Priscilla confides that she is influenced by Zenobia. Coverdale goes to Old Moodie to find out about his two daughters. Moodie had been dishonest and lost his business. He says that Zenobia is proud and that Priscilla is shy. People love Priscilla because she is kind. When Moodie was believed dead, Zenobia inherited her uncle’s wealth. Moodie summoned Zenobia and told her to be good to Priscilla.
      At a magic show Coverdale sees Westervelt on stage and Hollingsworth in the audience. Hollingsworth goes on stage and reveals a veiled lady is Priscilla. He takes her in his arms, making her happy. They return to Blithedale, and Coverdale observes Hollingsworth telling Zenobia he loves Priscilla. Zenobia warns her sister about Hollingsworth, and that night Zenobia drowns herself. Coverdale leaves, and Hollingsworth and Priscilla live happily as he gives up his project. Hawthorne noted, “It is because the spirit is inestimable that the lifeless body is so little valued.”10 Finally Coverdale admits he is in love with Priscilla.

      The character Zenobia has been compared to the Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller who in 1850 drowned in a shipwreck. Critics noted differences between Brook Farm and Blithedale and argued that Hawthorne has expressed his own religious conflicts in this novel in an attempt to separate morality from religion. Yet a depressed Martha Hunt had drowned herself in July 1845, and Hawthorne was among those who helped search for her body. The narrator does seem to represent Hawthorne himself.

Melville’s Sea Novels

      Herman Melville was born in New York City on 1 August 1819 and went to a male school there in 1825. His family moved to Albany in 1830, and he enrolled in the Albany Academy until his father died in debt in 1832. He took odd jobs and attended the Albany Classical School in 1835. He taught school in 1837 and 1839, and he studied surveying at the Lansingburgh Academy in 1838. In January 1841 Herman left on a whaling ship that went to the South Seas. In July 1842 he deserted the ship with Richard Tobias Greene at Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, and one month later they escaped from cannibals in the Taipi valley on an Australian whaler. They were suspected of mutiny and were put ashore at Tahiti. Melville spent three months at Maui and Honolulu. He noticed that the Europeans and Americans exploited and enslaved the natives more than they civilized them. He joined the US Navy in August 1843, and he got out of the Navy at Boston in October 1844.
      Melville wrote about his experiences, and in March 1846 he published his first novel Typee that attracted some readers. In the autobiographical story Tom represents Melville and Toby his friend. The two sailors desert on the Nukuheva island. Tom’s leg gets diseased, and running out of food they appeal to the Typee tribe who are fierce cannibals. Yet they are kind to the sailors, and the medicine man tries but fails to help Tom. Kory-Kory serves Tom, who is also accompanied by the beautiful maiden, Fayaway. Typees let Toby leave to find medical aid for Tom, but he does not come back. Tom’s health improves, and they let him go with Fayaway in a canoe even though that is taboo for a woman. The men spend afternoons in the meetinghouse talking. Men outnumber the women and have only one wife while the women usually have more than one husband. After a battle with another tribe the Typees confine Tom while they prepare a feast and tell him they are not cannibals. When a boat arrives, Tom persuades them to let him go to the shore. He escapes from his guards and is taken aboard the Australian ship. Years later Toby meets Tom and tells him that he was impressed on to a ship.
      In March 1847 Melville had Omoo published in London first and then in May in the United States. That year he married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of the Massachusetts Chief Justice, to whom Melville had inscribed Typee. In the preface to Omoo Melville admitted that the book is autobiographical. The word “Omoo” means a wanderer. Because of his lame leg Melville did not have to work, and he read books and played chess with the shipowner. The old ship was so rotten and rat-infested that they went to nearby Tahiti. The consul was a friend of the captain and had Melville and Dr. Long Ghost put in jail. The sailors traded hard biscuits for fruit which they needed after eating salt pork and biscuits at sea. Melville observed the British missionaries and came to believe that they were doing more harm than good to the natives. Melville and the doctor got a job working on a plantation plagued by insects, and they escaped to a native village at Tamai. They tried to see Tahiti’s queen who chased them away. They finally found a good ship, but the captain would not accept the doctor, and Melville went without him to Japan.
      Melville wrote magazine articles and published Mardi and a Voyage Thither in March 1849 in London and in April in New York. An American sailor Taji narrates the story. He is picked up in the Pacific by a whaling ship; but because it was heading north toward Kamchatka, Taji and Jarl escape in a small boat. They board a drifting ship and discover a native man and woman who hid; but the ship is wrecked in a storm, and the native woman dies. They row a small whaleboat and board a native ship where the blonde Yillah is a priest’s captive. Taji falls in love with her, and they go to her island. King Media and his people believe that the three are demigods. One day Taji discovers that Yillah is gone. A messenger brings him flower symbols from the dark Queen Hautia whose islands are far away. She loves Taji and does not want him to go after Yillah, but Taji does so anyway with King Media, the poet Yoomy, the philosopher Babbalanja, and courtiers. On the journey a black canoe with emissaries of Queen Hautia summon Taji who refuses again. On the island of Juam he meets King Donjalolo who cares for no one but himself and his companions, but he sends out messengers for information about Yillah. They return with no news, and Taji continues his quest and runs into Hautia’s messengers again. Taji and his friends discuss philosophy and at an island learn about the Polynesian prophet Alma who brought peace to the islands. The Mardi archipelago represents the world, and Taji’s group visits different parts, Vivenza representing the United States. Taji challenges how democratic principles have been watered down and that scientific progress is not necessarily spiritually beneficial. Finally Taji lets the Queen’s emissaries guide him to her. He becomes interested in Hautia because she is connected to Yillah, and his companions leave him there.           
      Melville’s novel Mardi had been a financial flop, and he wrote his next two books to be money-makers. Redburn: His First Voyage Being the Sailor-boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service was published at London in September 1849 and at New York in November. This is another autobiographical account, this time about his first voyage to Liverpool, England and back to New York in June and July 1839. Young Redburn is on his first voyage, and he has much to learn to gain the respect of the other sailors. Redburn likes to read good books, but the others are not interested in those. At Liverpool he sees the poverty in the crowded city. He visits London for two days with a prodigal English son. On the trip back to America they have 500 Irish immigrants in steerage who have only one stove and suffer from an epidemic. The sailors make fun of the English boy instead of Redburn who after the return voyage loses his pay because he had left the ship for one day in Liverpool.
      His next book, White Jacket: or, The World in a Man-of-War, came out in January and March 1850 and is a romantic adventure set on an American Navy ship. The novel criticizes and satirizes the flogging of sailors, tyrannical officers, the generous amount of alcohol for sailors but with meager food. White-Jacket is a nickname for a common sailor; but the narrator is called that because he is the only sailor with a white jacket. He nearly loses his life when his jacket blends with the sails, and sailors do not realize he is there. Yet he is not allowed to put tar on his jacket to make it water-proof. He noted, “Many sensible things banished from high life find an asylum among the mob.”11 The ship sails from Peru and goes around Cape Horn where a heavy jacket is needed. A man suffering the effects of excessive drinking falls overboard and drowns. Even at Rio de Janeiro the sailors were not allowed to go ashore. White-Jacket himself almost died when he fell from the rigging. In the chapter “Flogging Not Necessary” Melville wrote,

The Past is dead, and has no resurrection;
but the Future is endowed with such a life,
that it lives to us even in anticipation.
The Past is, in many things, the foe of mankind;
the Future is, in all things, our friend.
In the Past is no hope; the Future is both hope and fruition.
The Past is the text-book of tyrants;
the Future the Bible of the Free.12

      Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850. He liked to read and borrowed material from scholars, notably from The Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale and used it for a quarter of Moby Dick. Melville was especially influenced by the writings of Shakespeare, Carlyle, and the advice of his friends Richard Henry Dana and Hawthorne to whom he inscribed his masterpiece, Moby Dick,which was initially published as The Whale at London in October 1851 and at New York in November. While Melville was writing this book, he wrote to Hawthorne on April 16,

We incline to think that God cannot explain his own secrets,
and that He would like
a little information upon certain points Himself.
We mortals astonish Him as much as He us.13

A few weeks later he wrote to him,

It seems an inconsistency to assert
unconditional democracy in all things,
and yet confess a dislike to all mankind—in the mass….
The reason the mass of men fear God,
and at bottom dislike Him,
is because they rather distrust his Heart,
and fancy Him all brain like a watch.14

      In Moby Dick the schoolmaster Ishmael, who narrates the story, is going to sea but first has to share a room and a bed with the native Queequeg. They become friends and sign up as harpooners on the Pequod under the strange Captain Ahab who stays in his cabin and lets the mates Starbuck and Stubb run the ship. After observing Queequeg’s “Ramadan, or Fasting and Humiliation,” Ishmael says to the reader,

I have no objection to any person’s religion,
be it what it may, so long as
that person does not kill or insult any other person,
because that other person don’t believe it also.
But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic;
when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine,
makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in;
then I think it high time to take that individual aside
and argue the point with him.15

      Starbuck tells the men that he wants no man in his boat who is not afraid of a whale, and the narrator explains,

The most reliable and useful courage was that which arises
from the fair estimation of the encountered peril,
but that an utterly fearless man
is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.16

After several days Ahab appears with a pegleg made of whale bone and a deep scar on his face. They search the seas for the white whale, and Ahab nails a gold coin to the mast, a reward for the man who first sees Moby Dick. Ahab seeks revenge because the whale took his leg, and he gets the men behind his project by proposing a toast to the destruction of Moby Dick.
      They go around the Cape of Good Hope and see sperm whales, go out in boats to harpoon them, and then dismantle their bodies to make precious oil out of their blubber. In the Indian Ocean they meet another ship, and its captain tells Ahab that the white whale took his arm. He warns Ahab not to pursue that whale, but Ahab orders his ship to head for Moby Dick’s current feeding area. Starbuck tries to convince Ahab not to go after that whale, but the captain threatens him with a rifle. Queequeg is sick, and believing he is going to die, he asks the carpenter to make him a coffin which Queequeg uses as a chest and carves signs on it. The Parsee Fedallah prophesies that Ahab will die after seeing two strange hearses in the ocean but that Ahab would have neither a coffin nor a burial and that he would be killed by hemp (rope).
      At night lightning strikes all three masts and sets them on fire. Ahab challenges God and vows to kill Moby Dick. When Ahab finally sees the white whale, they go after it in boats. Moby Dick dives below a harpoon boat, destroys it, and escapes. The next day they get three harpoons into the white whale. Ahab’s boat is overturned, and Fedallah is lost. On the third day they see Fedallah’s body lashed to the whale by the harpoon ropes. Moby Dick attacks more boats. Starbuck aims the Pequod at the whale who then shatters the ship. Rope from Ahab’s harpoon encircles his neck and pulls him to the whale drowning him. All the sailors perish except Ishmael who clings to Queequeg’s coffin and is rescued by a ship.

      This iconic story is open to many symbolic interpretations. The use of whale oil after the industrial revolution became essential to white civilization, and humans began slaughtering the largest mammals who have large brains, treating them as if they were nothing but stupid beasts. The use of the oil and then fossil fuels will lead to the existential crisis of a warming climate. An obvious moral is that seeking revenge is usually a self-destructive process harmful to oneself and others.

Melville’s Satirical Novels

      So far most of Melville’s novels were almost all about men at sea without women. His next novel, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, was published at New York in August 1852 and is about a wealthy man who tries to be good but has all kinds of trouble with women that leads to tragedy. Pierre Glendinning lives in luxury and is engaged to marry beautiful and respectable Lucy Tartan, and his mother approves of her. At a sewing bee a girl gives Pierre a note to meet her on the farm where she works. There Isabel tells him that she is the illegitimate daughter of his father and a younger French woman. He quickly accepts her as his sister; but he is afraid to tell his mother who she is because she does not approve of the farm-girl Delly Ulver who is also illegitimate. His minister has a similar attitude, and he does not want to expose his parents to dishonor.
      Pierre decides to tell people that he has married Isabel, and this falsehood leads to many difficulties. He tells his fiancée Lucy, and she becomes dangerously ill. Pierre’s family disowns him, and he takes Isabel with him to live in New York City. Pierre has not married his sister, but the fiction allows them to live together. They are served by Delly Ulver whom he is also helping. Pierre’s wealthy cousin, Glen Stanly, throws him out of his house, and Pierre tries to make a living by writing. After a while Pierre learns that his mother died and left everything to Glen Stanly who is courting Lucy whom Peter still loves.
      Isabel becomes attached to Pierre and is jealous of Lucy who writes to Pierre that she rejected Glen and loves only Pierre. She comes to live with Pierre, and he tells Isabel that Lucy is his cousin. When Lucy arrives, her brother and Glen try to remove her by force; but Pierre protects her, and they leave without her. The brother and Glen send Pierre an insulting letter, and with two pistols he goes to find them. On the street Glen whips Pierre who shoots his cousin dead. Police put Pierre in prison. When Isabel declares that she is Pierre’s sister, Lucy dies of shock. Isabel has a vial of poison; Pierre drinks half, and she finishes it, leaving all three dead on the floor of his cell.
      This story illustrates the moral proverb of Walter Scott, “O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!”

      Melville satirized the empty life of those who work in office jobs in his 1853 short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” In 1854 he wrote “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” that contained ten stories about the Galápagos Islands. He described a revolt on a Spanish slave ship in 1799 and published it in three installments in 1855 as the novella Benito Cereno.
      In 1849 Melville had picked up a copy of Henry Trumbull’s Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter which had been published at Providence, Rhode Island in 1824. Presented as a biography Melville’s Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile was serialized in Putnam’s Monthly from July 1854 to March 1855 when it was published as a book which is actually a satirical-historical novel. Two months later George Routledge put out a pirated edition in London. Melville made good use of the original biography, and for later chapters he drew from Ethan Allen’s Narrative and Nathaniel Fanning’s biography of John Paul Jones, Narrative of the Adventures of an American Naval Officer. Melville’s Israel Potter can be more greatly appreciated since it was published in 1982 with an extensive textual record by editors, a long “Historical Note” by Walter E. Bezanson, and a photostatic copy of Trumbull’s biography.
      In Melville’s version of Israel Potter’s life he moves quickly from his youthful adventures, which included whale hunting, to the battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775 which was described as chaotic carnage. Potter is wounded, and after his recovery he joins an American ship which is captured by the British who take him to England. Potter escapes in London and finds odd jobs despite those who mock a Yankee rebel. He even works as a gardener in the King’s Kew Gardens and talks with the mad George III. When he is discharged, he works on a farm but again has to leave because he is an American.
      Squire Woodcock supports Americans and sends Potter on a secret mission to Ben Franklin in Paris with a message hidden in the heel of his boot. He kicks a poor man who tries to shine his boots, and Franklin tells him to pay the bootblack for damages. Franklin’s moral advice is drawn from hisPoor Richard's Almanac. Franklin gives him a secret message to take to England and says he can return to America. Potter also meets Captain John Paul Jones in Paris. He returns to Woodcock who hides him in a dungeon for three days. Potter comes out and realizes Woodcock must have been killed, and he escapes disguised as Woodcock’s ghost. He is hired by a British ship going to the East Indies, but in the Channel another ship impresses Potter and other sailors. That night the ship of John Paul Jones captures them, and Jones makes Potter his quartermaster on the Ranger. They go to rob the Earl of Selkirk in Scotland, and Potter assures Selkirk’s wife they will not harm her; but the crew insists on taking the silver and other items. Jones and Potter oppose this and later restore the lost articles to Selkirk. In the sea battle between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis, both ships are destroyed.
      Potter goes with Jones on the Ariel, and they head for America; but the British capture the ship and impress Potter into their Navy. Potter pretends to be mad so that they cannot identify him as American. Back in England he meets the prisoner-of-war Ethan Allen and tries to help him escape, but it fails. For the next forty years Israel Potter lives in London as a beggar and works as a laborer and making bricks. He marries a shop-girl, and they have a son. Eventually in 1826 the American consul helps Potter and his son get on a ship to America. They arrive in Boston on July 4 and celebrate the Bunker Hill battle. People think he is mad and laugh at him, and his father’s farm no longer exists. Old Potter is unable to get even a small pension for having fought for the Revolution before his death in 1826.

      The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade was the last novel that Melville completed, and it was published on April Fool’s Day in 1857. The story begins on the riverboat Fidèle at St. Louis on April 1. The extremely satirical novel portrays a con-man who uses various disguises to gain the confidence of the other characters so that he can take advantage of them. They have been warned by a poster offering a reward for the capture of a confidence man from the East at the beginning of their journey to New Orleans.
      A deaf mute displays a slate describing various aspects of charity from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians as suffering long, kind, enduring and believing all things, and never failing. The final advice used often by barbers is “No trust.” Next an African from Guinea begs for pennies, and a man with a wooden leg accuses him of pretending to be crippled. The merchant Mr. Roberts contributes a coin and includes his business card. The con man then uses that information and says he is John Ringman who did business with Mr. Roberts and persuades him to pay him. Then he advises Roberts to invest in the Black Rapids Coal Company because the president is on board. The con man also asks for money for the Seminole Widow and Orphan Society, and the Episcopal priest also contributes to this. Next he suggests that they support an effort to unite all charities in the world. He presents himself as President Truman of the coal company, and a student buys some shares as does the merchant Roberts who mentions there is a sick miser on board. The con man fools the miser twice.
      The con artist persuades Pitch, who was from the Missouri frontier, to hire another boy even after 35 boys had disappointed him. Then he pretends to be the cosmopolitan traveler Francis Goodman, but Pitch is now in a bad mood. Charles Noble describes how Col. John Morelock hates Indians. The con man agrees with Noble that this is appalling and gets him to drink port with him. He says Noble is trying to get him drunk and asks to borrow $50. Noble does not like that, and Goodman says he was joking. Noble also rejects another request for a loan. The mystic philosopher Mark Winsome warns Goodman that Noble is the confidence man. Goodman does not believe him, and the mystic’s practical disciple Egbert tries to explain the philosophy and argues against loans between friends. Goodman leaves and goes to the barbershop and fails to talk him into a free shave, but he gets the barber to give his customers credit. Later that night only an old man is awake reading the Bible, and the con man as a child peddler sells the man a money belt and a counterfeit-money detector.
      After writing this bitter satire Melville turned to writing poetry and lecturing for the next three years. During the Civil War he visited his cousin in April 1864 at an army camp at the front in Virginia. In 1866 he published his first book of poetry as Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War.


1. The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell, Cambridge Edition, p. 67-68.
2. The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Cabinet Edition, p. 141.
3. Era of Reform 1830-1860 by Henry Steele Commager, p. 144.
4. Selected Poems 1855-1892 by Walt Whitman, ed. Gary Schimidgall, p. 3.
5. Ibid., p. 18.
6. Walt Whitman by Gay Wilson Allen, p. 81.
7. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism by Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 7-8.
8. Ibid., p. 214.
9. The Scarlet Letter: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Essays in Criticism by Nathaniel Hawthorne, p. 143.
10. The Blithedale Romance: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism by Nathaniel Hawthorne, p. 225.
11. Redburn, White Jacket, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, p. 378.
12. Ibid., p. 505.
12. Moby-Dick: An Authoritative Text Reviews and Letters by Melville Analogues and Sources Criticism by Herman Melville, p. 555.
13. Ibid., p. 557, 559.
14. Ibid., p. 81.
15. Ibid., p. 103.

Copyright © 2020 by Sanderson Beck

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Polk and the US-Mexican War 1845-49
US of Taylor, Clay & Fillmore 1849-52
US of Pierce & Kansas Conflicts 1853-56
US Western Expansion & Indians 1845-65
Black Americans & Abolitionists 1845-65
United States & Buchanan 1857-59
United States Dividing 1860-61
Lincoln’s War for Union in 1861
Lincoln’s War for Union in 1862
Lincoln’s War for Emancipation in 1863
Lincoln’s War for Emancipation in 1864
United States Victory in 1865
Preventing United States Civil War
US Reconstruction & Johnson 1865-66
Republican Reconstruction 1867-68
US Peacemakers & Women Reformers 1845-68
American Literature 1845-66
Summary & Evaluating United States 1845-1868

World Chronology to 1830
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