Skip to main content

The Craft of Herman Melville

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

This essay proposes to approach Herman Melville altogether gingerly and from behind the safe bulwark of his assured position—whatever that is—in American literature—whatever that may be. The tacit assumption all along will be that Melville is a sufficiently great writer in a sufficiently interesting literature to make the sidelong look, the biased comment, and even a little boring-from-within, each valuable in itself, if perhaps only as characterizing an inadequate response on the part of one reader. We need, of course, a preliminary assertion to get us under way; and the last thing we want is anything in the direction of reducing Melville’s greatness to sub-human terms. What we want is an assertion that, pursued, will elucidate one aspect of the work actually performed, irrespective of its greatness.

If we assert that Melville was an imaginative artist in the realm of fiction, then it is legitimate to think of him as he was concerned with the craft of fiction in his two most interesting works, “Moby Dick” and “Pierre.” As a further limitation, let us think of the craft principally under two heads: dramatic form with its inspiriting conventions, and the treatment of language itself as a medium. Other matters may come in by the way, and further matters may suggest themselves in conclusion; but the mode of discovery will be in the consideration of the tools by which Melville himself secured his effects: the tools of craft.

It is of preliminary interest that Melville never influenced the direction of the art of fiction, though in “Pierre“ ‘he evidenced the direction; and it is astonishing, when you consider the magnitude of his sensibility, that he never affected the modes of apprehension, the sensibilities, of even the ablest of his admirers. He added nothing to the novel as a form, and his work nowhere showed conspicuous mastery of the formal devices of fiction which he used. Unlike most great writers of fiction, he left nothing to those who followed him except the general stimulus of high and devoted purpose and the occasional particular spur of an image or a rhythm. It is not that he is inimitable but that there was nothing formally organized enough in his work to imitate or modify or perfect. It is easy enough to say on this score that Melville was a sport, and unique, and perhaps that is the right thing to say; but it would be more useful if we were able to say that Melville’s lack of influence arose, at least partly, from a series of technical defects in persuasive craft—from an inefficient relation between the writer and the formal elements of his medium. None of us would want to recommend his wares along the lines of Melville’s strategy. To adumbrate such a statement is a part of this essay’s purpose.

Of secondary but deeply contributory interest is the fact that though still a young man as writers go, Melville wrote nothing of major significance in the forty years he lived after writing “Pierre.” (I mean that only a lesser case could be made out for “The Confidence Man” and “Billy Budd” than for “Pierre,” not that the later books were uninteresting; they could not fail of interest as forced through Melville’s sensibility.) It was not that his mind rotted or that insight faltered. It was not, I think, that the poor reception of “Pierre,” or the long aggravation of his private life, dried his desire as a novelist. It was partly bad luck—the luck of the age, if you like—though it was no worse than Dante’s luck and not so bad as Villon’s, as Melville himself knew; and it was partly that his work discovered for itself, if we may say so, and in the very process of writing, that it was not meant to be fiction. Melville was only a story teller betimes, for illustrative or apologetic or evangelical purposes, and when the writing of “Pierre” proved that the material of illustration had been exhausted in “Moby Dick”—which is one way of noting the breakdown of “Pierre” as a story-— there was no longer any need to tell a story. His means determined, as they always do, not the ends in view but the ends achieved; and Melville had never predominantly relied upon the means of the novelist, had never attempted to use more than the overt form of the novel, until he attempted to compose “Pierre.”

What is really interesting, and what this essay intends to make most use of, is the light that “Pierre,” technically considered as a novel, casts upon the means, quite different from the means of fiction, which Melville actually employed both in “Moby Dick” and “Pierre” itself. For these books with their great effects, if they were not written out of the means of the novelist, were written out of great means of some other mode or modes of the imagination. It will most likely appear that there is an operative connection between Melville’s lack of influence upon following writers and his forty years of comparative silence; and it is, again, a connection, moral though it may be, that can best be seen as a technical consideration.

Let us examine, then, particular instances of Melville’s practice — of what was tantamount to his malpractice—as a novelist under the two heads first mentioned; dramatic form with its inspiriting conventions, and the treatment of language itself as the very medium of imagination. In the facts that may be persuaded to elicit themselves—in the facts that fall short of the staring possibility—will lie the only and tragic argument that makes it seem natural and just and necessary to find so much fault in a genius so great.


The dramatic form of a novel is what holds it together, makes it move, gives it a center and establishes a direction; I and it includes the agency of perception, the consciousness set up in the book upon which, or through which, the story is registered. Dramatic form cannot in practice be wholly isolated from other formal elements; form is the way things go together in their medium—and the medium itself, here language, may properly be considered the major element of form. But we may think of different ways in which things go together in a given work, and strangely, the labor of abstraction and violation will seem to deepen our intimacy with the substance of the work and, more valuable, to heighten our sense of how that substance is controlled. The sense of control is perhaps the highest form of apprehension; it is understanding without immersion.

The question we have here to ask then is how did Melville go about controlling his two novels, “Moby Dick” and “Pierre”? The general, strictly true, and mainly irrelevant answer would be: haphazardly—that is, through an attitude which varied from the arrogance of extreme carelessness to the humility of complete attention. It is not that he attended only to what seriously interested him, for he was as careless of what he thought important as of what he thought trivial, but that apparently he had no sure rule as to what required management and what would take care of itself. His rule was vagary, where consequential necessities did not determine otherwise. And even there, Melville’s eye was not good; he did not always see that if you took one series of steps your choice of further directions was narrowed, and that you could not step in two directions at once without risk of crippling yourself. It is perhaps his intellectual consistency that made him incorrigibly inconsistent in the technical quarter. For example, in “Moby Dick,” after setting up a single consciousness to get inside of, he shifted from consciousness to consciousness at will without sense of inconsistency, and therefore—which is the important thing—without making any effort to warrant the shifts and make them credible. Ignorance could not have excused him, because he had the example of Hawthorne, who was adept at shifting his compositional centers without disturbing his gravity. It was not ignorance, but ineptitude and failure to discriminate. For the contrary example, I can think of only three occasions of importance in “Pierre,” if we except the digressions of the author himself in his own voice, where the consciousness of the hero is not left the presumed sole register of the story. Of these occasions, two are unnecessary to the story, and the third, where in the very end the perceiving center is turned over to the turnkey in the prison, funks its job. Yet in “Pierre” the theme cried out, one would think, for as many and as well-chosen centers of consciousness as possible, all to be focused on Pierre himself, the distraught and ambiguous, otherwise not measurable: the principle being that the abnormal can be seen as viable, as really moving in response to the normal world, only if seen through normal eyes.

Meanwhile we have approached a little nearer the composition of the two novels. Melville was right, granting the theme of “Moby Dick,” in choosing Ishmael the novice to represent a story in which he had only a presumed and minor but omnipresent part; he was wrong only where he breached his choice without covering up. Ishmael, never otherwise named, is as mysterious as Ahab, but he is credible because he tells us not what he is but what he sees and what he hears that other people saw. The mere interposition of a participating consciousness between the story and its readers, once it has been made logical by tying the consciousness to the story, is a prime device of composition: it limits, compacts, and therefore controls what can be told. The only error Melville made is that he failed to distinguish between what Ishmael saw and what the author saw on his own account. If an author is to use digressions, which are confusing but legitimate by tradition, he ought to follow Fielding and put them in inter-chapters, especially where the narrative is technically in the first person. Otherwise, as with Ishmael, the narrator will seem to know too much at a given time for the story’s good; it will tend to tell itself all at once, and the necessary modicum of stupidity in the operative consciousness will be blighted by excess intelligence. As Ahab said to the carpenter who handed him a lantern: “Thrusted light is worse than presented pistols.” Ishmael of course is Melville’s alter ego, which explains why so much is imputed to him, but does not condone the excess.

On the whole, the mode of Ishmael is a success exactly where the mode of “Pierre” (another alter ego of Melville) is wrong. Ishmael is looking on, and able to see; Pierre is in the center of his predicament, and lost in the action. Ishmael represents speech; Pierre represents rhetoric. Ishmael reports the abnormal, driven, and demonic Ahab, either through his own normal sensibility or through the reported sensibilities of the mates and the crew. Pierre is seen principally without the intervening glass and focus of any sensibility whatever—so that he falls apart into a mere voice whenever he speaks, whereas the voice of Ahab, equally eloquent and rhetorical past belief, rings true in ears that have actually heard it.

It should be noted, curiously, that Ishmael is the only character in the book not “characterized” by Melville; he is merely situated in the center, explained a little, and allowed to speak his part of recording angel. The curiosity is that all the other characters except Ahab and Queequeg near the beginning (the night at the inn), although given set characterizations as they appear, are far less viable and are far less present in the book than Ishmael. The reason may be that the other characters are only pulled out at intervals and are usually given stock jobs to do, set speeches to make; whereas Ishmael, sacking his creative memory, is occupied all the time. This suggests two or three things: that character requires the sense of continuous action to show continuously, that the mates and crew were not in the book substantially but that their real use was to divide up the representation of the image of Ahab. There is nothing illegitimate about such characters, but to be successful and maintain interest they must be given enough to do to seem everywhere natural, and never obviously used, as here, only to make the wheels go round. One suspects, therefore, that Ahab comes out a great figure more because of the eloquence of the author’s putative conception of him, and Ishmael’s feeling for him, than from any representational aids on the part of the crew. The result is a great figure, not a great character. Ahab is as solitary in the book as he was in his cabin.

Pierre was in his way as compositionally isolated as Ahab; he was so situated, and so equipped as a consciousness, that he recorded his own isolation to the point of solipsism. If Pierre was real, as he was asserted to be, then nothing else properly in the novel was real except in terms of his perception or through the direct and unwarrantable intervention of the author. That is the risk attached to making the protagonist, to the exclusion of other agents, record the action in which he participates while the action is going on. Melville instinctively tried to get around the difficulty by resorting to a series of dramatic scenes in which Pierre was chief interlocutor. The device was the right one—or one of the right ones—but it failed to work for a number of reasons, of which the chief was that Melville had no talent for making his dramatic scenes objective except by aid of external and unrelated force—as in “Moby Dick” he was able to resort to the ordinary exigencies of life on a whaling ship. In “Pierre” the White Whale was entirely in the protagonist’s own inadequate perception of it; and the real weight of the book—what it was really about: tragedy by unconsidered virtue—was left for the author’s digressions and soliloquies to carry as it could; which is to say that the book had no compositional center at all.

Something of the same sort may also be true of “Moby Dick.” Is it not possible to say that Ishmael, the narrator, provides only a false center? Is it not true that a great part of the story’s theme escapes him, is not recorded through his sensibility, either alone or in connection with others? Then where would the real center lie? It would lie variously, I think, in the suspense attached to the character of Ahab and in the half-imputed, half-demonstrated peril of the White Whale—the cold, live evil that is momently present. If we think of the book in that way, we may say that its compositional form is a long, constantly interrupted but as constantly maintained suspense, using as nexuses or transitions the recurring verbal signs of Melville’s allegory, Ahab’s character, and the business of whaling. The business of whaling, including both the essays on anatomy and those on butchery, takes the most space and provides the most interest. All the reader has to do is to feel whaling as interest and he will recognize it as a compositional device mounting to the force of drama. Indeed we speak of the drama of whaling, or of cotton, or of gold, without substantial injustice to the language ; and I cannot for the life of me see why the drama of whaling should not be as efficient an agent of interest, if well felt, as the drama of who fired the second shot; and with Melville there is the additional advantage that the business of whaling points to the everlasting assassin instead of the casual and no doubt remorseful murderer. Interest is the thing of prime importance, as any artist and any audience will tell you. If it takes up time and prepares for life, it does not matter how it is secured and does not fatally matter if it is overdone or vulgar in its appeal, as it is in “Moby Dick.”

But is the real interest in the whaling or in the firing of the shot? Is it not always partly in the presentation, the feeling of detail and design, and partly in the image towards which the design points? Melville was lucky in “Omoo” and “Typee,” to a less degree in “Mardi” and “White Jacket,” and most of all in “Moby Dick”; he was lucky or it was his genius that he had material in perfect factual control with which to take up time and point towards an image—in “Moby Dick,” a profound and obsessive image of life. As it happened, it was in each case the material of a special and vanishing experience, dramatic enough in its own right to require very little Actionizing—very little actualizing—to exert the invaluable hold of natural interest over the average reader. If, to interest, you add eloquence, you have all the essentials of the great novel below the first order. Many readers will be deceived and think the provision greater than it is. I have discovered a number of readers who, on being asked, reported enjoyment of a great story in a book of which Henry James would have said that it told no story to speak of; which indeed “Moby Dick” does not.

In “Pierre” we are in a different box; a box quite empty of special material of objective interest to do for compositional strength otherwise lacking. There is no sea, or ship, or whale, or unique tradition of behavior, no unusual daily life—most precious of all—to give atmosphere and weight and movement to carry the book towards the image of its chosen end. Melville was required to depend more than ever before upon the actual technique of the craft, and nothing much else, to make the book hang together. What is most illuminating is most pitiful. The glaring weaknesses of “Pierre” show up the hidden weaknesses of “Moby Dick,” and each set of weaknesses shows the other as essential—at least in the critical context in which we here provisionally place both books.

That one novel may criticize another is a commonplace when we think of different authors, as when we say that the novels of Henry James form a criticism of the novels of Flaubert and Turgeniev, or that, in a way, the “Comedie Humaine” is a critique of the Waverley Novels. I think it is equally true that a consideration of the failures of a single author will often form the severest criticism of his successes, and a consideration of his successes may relatively improve our estimation of his failures. A great author is of one substance and often of one theme, and the relation between his various creations is bound to be reciprocal, even mutual; each is the other in a different form. So with “Pierre” and “Moby Dick.” If we wish to take up thinking of the two novels together in this way, the alert consciousness will be struck with the repetition of the vices of “Pierre” in “Moby Dick,” or struck the other way round with the fact that the tragedy of “Pierre” fails to come off as well as “Moby Dick” only because it lacks the demonstrable extraneous interest of whaling. The efforts at plot in the two books are as lame; narrative runs as often offside. Dramatic motive on the subordinate level is as weakly put; Starbuck’s tentative rebellion against Ahab and the threatened revenge of Glendinning Stanly and Frederick Tartan upon Pierre are equally unconvincing. The dialogue is by turns as limp and stiff and flowery in one book as in the other. The delineations of character are almost interchangeable examples of wooden caricature. And so on. More important, the force and nobility of conception, the profundity of theme, were as great in either book—not because of the dramatic execution but in spite of it; for they lay in the simple strength of the putative statement, and in the digressions Melville made from the drama in front of him, which he could not manage, into apologues or sermons, which he superbly could.


The strength of the putative statement is simple only when thought of abstractly and as appealing to the intellect—to the putative element in appreciation: as if we read lyric poetry solely for the schematic paraphrase we make of it in popular discussion. What we want now is to see what is the source of putative strength and how deeply its appeal is asserted; and in that pursuit we shall find ourselves instantly, I think, in the realm of language itself. Words, and their intimate arrangements, must be the ultimate as well as the immediate source of every effect in the written or spoken arts. Words bring meaning to birth and themselves contained the meaning as an immanent possibility before the pangs of junction. To the individual artist the use of words is an adventure in discovery; the imagination is heuristic among the words it manipulates. The reality you labor desperately or luckily to put into your words—and you may put it in consciously like Coleridge or by instinct as in the great ballads or from piety and passion like the translators of the Bible—you will actually have found there, deeply ready and innately formed to give objective being and specific idiom to what you knew and what you did not know that you knew. The excitement is past belief, as we know from the many myths of heavenly inspiration. And the routine of discovery is past teaching and past prediction, as we know from the vast reaches of writing, precious and viable to their authors, wholly without the conviction of being. Yet the adventure into the reality of words has a technique after the fact in the sense that we can distinguish its successful versions from those that failed, can measure provisionally the kinds and intensities of reality secured and attempted, and can even roughly guess at the conditions of convention and belief necessary for its emergence.

Melville is an excellent example for sucli an assay. We have only to relate the conception of the reality of language just adumbrated to the notion of the putative statement to see whence the strength of the latter comes; and we have only to relate the conception of language to its modifying context of conventions in order to understand the successes and at least excuse the many shortcomings and overleapings of Melville’s attempts at the paramount and indefeasible reality that great words show. For Melville habitually used words greatly.

Let us take first an example not at all putative and with as little supporting context of convention as possible: an example of words composed entirely of feelings and the statement of sensuous facts, plus of course the usual situating and correlative elements which are the real syntax of imaginative language.

To a landsman, no whale, nor any sign of a herring, would have been visible at that moment; nothing but a troubled bit of greenish white water, and thin scattered puffs of vapor hovering over it, and suffusingly blowing off to leeward, like the confused scud from white rolling billows. The air around suddenly vibrated and tingled, as it were, like the air over intensely heated plates of iron. Beneath this atmospheric waving and curling, and partially beneath a thin layer of water, also, the whales were swimming. Seen in advance of all the other indications, the puffs of vapor they spouted, seemed their forerunning couriers and detached flying outriders.

This is the bottom level of good writing, whether in prose or verse; and a style which was able to maintain, at other levels and for other purposes, the qualities of accurate objective feeling which it exemplifies, could not help being a great style. The words have feelers of their own, and the author contributes nothing to the emotion they call forth except the final phrasing, which adds nothing but finish to the paragraph. It is an example of words doing their own work; and let no one think, because the mode is that of close description, that it is not imaginative work, or does not come to an emotion. Let us compare it, with achieved emotion in mind, with a deliberately “emotional” description taken from the chapter called “Enceladus” in “Pierre.”

Cunningly masked hitherto, by the green tapestry of the interlacing leaves, a terrific towering palisade of dark mossy massiness confronted you; and, trickling with unevaporable moisture, distilled upon you from its beetling brow slow thunder-showers of water-drops, chill as the last dews of death. . . . All round and round, the grim scarred rocks rallied and re-rallied themselves; shot up, protruded, stretched, swelled, and eagerly reached forth; on every side bristlingly radiated with hideous repellingness. . . . ‘Mid this spectacle of wide and wanton spoil, insular noises of falling rocks would boomingly explode upon the silence and fright all the echoes, which ran shrieking in and out among the caves, as wailing women and children in some assaulted town.

This is, if I may insist on the term, putative description.

It asserts itself to be description and passes for description until it is looked into, when you see that it is primarily the assertion of an emotional relation to landscape, and through effects of which landscape is incapable. Its force depends on the looseness, vagueness, and tumultuousness of the motion of the words. As a matter of fact, the words are so chosen and arranged that they cannot contribute any material of emotion beyond that which may be contained in a stock exclamation. The primary point of our comparison is that the second passage dilutes and wastes an emotion assumed to have existed prior to its expression, whereas the first passage built up and united the elements of an emotion which exists only and actually in the words employed. The first passage discovers its meaning in words, the second never reached the condition of meaning. The first passage reminds you of Gerard Hopkins, the second, of Ann Radcliffe; and this contrast brings up the secondary point of our comparison.

The spirit of the Gothic novel ran frothily through the popular literature of America in the first half of the nineteenth century, ending possibly with its own travesty in “The Black Crook.” Melville, faced with the bad necessity, as it must have seemed to him, of popularizing the material of “Pierre” and “Moby Dick,” adopted outright the Gothic convention of language with all its archaisms and rhetorical inflations. He thought that was how it was done. The effect in the two books was similar in fact though not quite the same in effect. Some of the soliloquies in “Moby Dick” seem more like tantrums than poetry, but they were the tantrums of a great imagination fed with mastered material. In “Pierre,” without any fund of nourishing material, the dialogues, soliloquies, and meditations get lost in the flatulence of words.

Now, the Gothic convention is not insusceptible of reality in itself, as we see in Beckford and Peacock and Emily Bronte—perhaps in Poe and occasionally in Hawthorne— but it requires on the part of the author unconditional assent to it as a convention. This assent Melville could not give; he used it, so far as I can see, as a solemn fraud and hoped for the best. In “Moby Dick” the fraud passed preliminary muster because the lofty “unreal” terror that rode the Pequod made it seem at least plausible, even in its greatest extravagance, as a vehicle of response. And there is the further defense, often made, that the worst excesses of language and sentiment are excusable because of the poetry they are supposed to hold. To this the answer is that the poetry would have been better without the excess; when Melville dropped the mode and wrote in language comparable to the passage first quoted above, as in Ahab’s last soliloquy, better poetry was actually produced. But no one, so far as I know, unless it be Foster Damon, who writes con amore of anything both American and Gothic, has defended the excesses of “Pierre,” of which the passage quoted above is a tame example.

It may be said in passing that what is often called the Elizabethan influence in Melville’s prose might more accurately be called the Gothic influence heightened by the greatness of Melville’s intentions. If I may have the notation for what it is worth, I suspect that in “the three boats swung over the sea like three samphire baskets over high cliffs,” while the samphire baskets undoubtedly came from “King Lear,” still they had got well spattered with Gothic mire on the long journey. Again, the sister-brother crux in “Pierre,” while it may be found in John Ford, has a very different reality of expression from that in Ford’s verse.

“The menacings in thy eyes are dear delights to me; I grow up with thy own glorious stature; and in thee, my

brother, I see God’s indignant ambassador to me, saying— Up, up, Isabel, and take no terms from the common world, but do thou make terms to it, and grind thy fierce rights out of it I Thy catching nobleness unsexes me, my brother; and now I know that in her most exalted moment, then woman no more feels the twin-born softness of her breasts, but feels chain-armour palpitating there 1”

These lines, spoken by Isabel in response to similar declarations on the part of Pierre on the occasion of their second conversation, could not have been matched in Ford, but they could be matched a hundred times in the popular Gothics. As for the minor effects of Elizabethan influence, although it has been said, by Mumford among others, that Melville’s prose is Websterian—and perhaps it sometimes is—yet it far more often supplies us with Marlovian tropes. For every phrase such as “the cheeks of his soul collapsed in him,” there are a dozen on the tone of the following: “With a frigate’s anchors for my bridle-bitts and fasces of harpoons for spurs, would I could mount that whale and leap the topmost skies. . . !” This is the Marlowe of “Tamburlaine,” and the unregenerate Marlowe letting himself go, not the Marlowe, remodeled and compacted, of “Faustus” and “The Jew of Malta.” Occasionally there is such a triumphant meeting of rhetoric and insight as the passage which contains the famous phrases: “To trail the genealogies of these high mortal miseries, carries us at last among the sourceless primogenitures of the gods,”—a passage more mindful of the “Urn Burial” than of anything in “The Duchess of Malfi,” but most mindful of Melville himself.

If it was the Gothic excess that gave occasional opportunity for magnificent flashes, we should be grateful to it that much: it is at least a delight by the way; but it far more often produced passages like the speech of Isabel, which are perhaps collector’s items, but not delights. Besides, what is most and finally illuminating, when Melville really had something to say, and was not making a novel, he resorted to another mode, which was perhaps the major expressive mode of his day, the mode of the liberal Emersonian sermon, the moral apologue on the broad Christian basis. There Melville’s natural aptitude lay; when he preaches he is released, and only then, of all weak specifications. That the sermon was, to say the best of it, an artificial mode in fiction, mattered nothing, and emphasizes the fact that Melville was only a novelist betimes. He made only the loosest efforts to tie his sermons into his novels; he was quite content if he could see that his novels illustrated his sermons and was reasonably content if they did not; or so the books would show. He preached without scruple, and with full authority, because he felt in full command of the mode he used: he believed with all his heart in its convention of structure and the deeper convention of its relation to society. Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah and Plotinus Phinlimmon’s lecture—it is really a sermon—on Chronometricals and Horologicals are the two sustained examples of self-complete form in his work. The doctrine might not have appealed to Charming or Parker; but the form, the execution, the litheness and vigor and verve, the homely aptnesses, the startling comparisons, the lucidity of presentation of hard insights, the dramatic and pictorial quality of the illustrations, and above all the richness of impact and the weighted speed of the words, would have appealed to them as near perfection.

The curiosity that needs emphasis here is that the vices of Melville’s style either disappeared or revealed themselves as virtues when he shifted his mode to the sermon, and this without any addition of insight or eloquence, but simply, I believe, because he had found a mode which suited the bent of his themes, which allowed the putative statement to reach its full glory without further backing, which made room for rhetoric and demanded digression, and which did not trouble him, so great was his faith in it, with its universal lurking insincerity. Consider the following lines, which form the counter-sermon to Phinlimmon’s lecture in “Pierre.”

All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence. What a silence is that with which the pale bride precedes the responsive I will, to the priest’s solemn question, Wilt thou have this man for thy husband? In silence, too, the wedded hands are clasped. Yea, in silence the child Christ was born into the world. Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on of the Divine Pontiff’s hands upon the world. Silence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature. It speaks of the Reserved Forces of Fate. Silence is the only Voice of our God.

Nor is this so august Silence confined to things simply touching or grand. Like the air, Silence permeates all things, and produces its magical power, as well during that peculiar mood which prevails at a solitary traveller’s first setting forth on a journey, as at the unimaginable time when before the world was, Silence brooded on the face of the waters.

The author of these paragraphs was at home in his words and completely mastered by them; and he had reached in that language, what Pierre never reached, the “sense of un-capitulatable security, which is only the possession of the furthest advanced and profoundest souls.”

In our present context there seems little more to say. The consideration of Melville as a novelist should have shown, at least in the superficial aspects which this brief essay has been able to touch, that it was precisely the practice of that craft that put his books, and himself, at a loss, and left him silent, stultified, and, before the great face of possibility, impotent for forty years of mature life. I trust that it will have been shown as at least plausible that Melville suffered the exorbitant penalty of his great failure, not as a result of the injuries inflicted upon him by his age, but because of his radical inability to master a technique—that of the novel—radically foreign to his sensibility. The accidents of his career, the worse accidents of his needs, brought him to a wrong choice. Yet had he made a right choice, the accident of his state of beliefs might well have silenced him altogether. Judging by the reception of his two most serious books, he would have been anathema as a preacher and unpublishable as an essayist. We should be grateful for his ill luck in only a lesser sense than we are for Dante’s, or we should have lost the only great imagination in the middle period of the American nineteenth century: a putative statement to which all readers must assent.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading