Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Herman Melville's Mardi was written by Herman Melville

Herman Melville's Mardi (1849) is sort of a catastrophe. I'm glad I read it, more or less; I doubt I'll ever return to it. But it has one interesting feature: although it's the third book by Melville, it's the first appearance of Melville, the author of Moby-Dick and "Bartleby the Scrivener" and whatever else we think of when we think of Melville. For the first time, I mean, Melville's book sounds like Melville. He had found his voice.

Typee, Melville's first book, is an excellent South Seas travel narrative, romanticized (a lot, I assume), well worth reading, easily recommended. The sequel, Omoo, is also pretty good, but does not have such a strong central story. This is a disadvantage of writing non-fiction - the one really strange thing that happened to Melville is covered in Typee. The style of these books is charming, humorous, and straightforward, and sounds only barely, in stray moments, like Herman Melville.

I recognized Melville from the first page of Mardi. One thing he had been doing while writing his first two books and perambulating about Manhattan was reading, just reading an enormous quantity of books, including all of those great 17th century prose stylists like Sir Thomas Browne who so strongly influenced his style. Ruined it, perhaps, in Mardi, a book stuffed with undigested fantasies and experiments and ravings. He's still charming, in small doses, and definitely humorous, but he is no longer straightforward. Sentences and thoughts are extended, and then extended again. The second half of the book, a journey from one nominally satirical setpiece to another, was a trial.

All of this reminded me of William Faulkner. Faulkner's first two novels, Soldiers' Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927), sound nothing like him. They're not bad, not at all, they just don't have the distinctive Faulkner voice. Then in his third novel, Sartoris aka Flags in the Dust (1929), there it is, fully developed, just like that. Sartoris is not any better than the earlier novels - it might be worse - but it's instantly recognizable as Faulkner.

Faulkner did not wait for the publication of Sartoris to start his next novel, The Sound and the Fury. Poor Melville took the other path, and waited, so he felt the full brunt of the uncomprehending response to Mardi. He seems to have retreated to more conventional seafaring novels for his next two books. I don't know what they sound like, how Melvillean they are.

After the exhausting Mardi, I'm not exactly excited to find out. Mardi has made me less eager to pursue middlin' Melville, but, oddly, more eager to reread Moby-Dick, where the biblical voice, the seventeenth century cadences, the arcane facts, and the technical realism of the earlier books are finally pulled together into a great work of art.

If you're planning to plagiarize some of this post for an assignment in your Novels of Melville and Faulkner course, you need to work in a lot of specific examples from the various books or you won't do very well. But for my purpose, I think this'll do.


  1. The Melville voice gets me all crazy wanting to read all Melville, all the time once I start in on some, but I've never actually sat down with any of the "bad" stuff. Like Mardi. You've been mentioning what a mess it is and it just makes me wonder, will that actually stop my wanting to read all of it anyway.

    Guess there's only one way to find out...

  2. This is great. I haven't read enough Melville to know for sure what the "before" and "after" is here, but I have an idea. It's not enough to plagiarize, unfortunately.

  3. So no Redburn or White-Jacket? I have to say that Wikipedia does a pretty nice job on Melville, relatively speaking--couldn't remember what the two "interim" books were. My completely uninformed impression is that you're past the worst of it, with Mardi.

    But aren't you, AR, the man to read Clarel? Wouldn't it go well with Clough?

    The thing that intrigues me is this lost manuscript, Isle of the Cross. Didn't know about that. Submitted to Harpers and rejected. Out there somewhere? Written when he was full on crazy. Does anyone know what it was even about?

  4. Seek and ye shall find:

  5. You've inspired me to write about Virginia Woolf and when she became VIRGINIA WOOLF... of course, I'll link to this post.

    The Mark on the Wall vs To The Lighthouse... and her essay Modern Fiction.

    great blog. found it via A Commonplace Blog.

  6. Well, all of these fine comments have inspired me to keep writing about Mardi. Sorry! No, wait, it's your fault!

    I recommend checking out that crazy German Melville site that zhiv found. I clearly do not know how to decorate mine (warning: it's full of semi-nude mermaids).

    Rebecca, thanks - this is a tricky game, because you really have to know a writer's work well. I've only read "mature" Woolf, and don't know how the earlier work sounds.

    And there are plenty of writers who sound like themselves right away (Poe, Dickens). And, of course, another set whose voices aren't that distinctive in the first place.

    I'm going to come back to this tomorrow.