It's this damned compulsion I have, not unrelated to a certain pedantic quality apparently innate, to read the products of important writers in the order in which they were written — partly in order to trace the apparent development of the minds that made these unique books; partly to assure myself, perhaps, that there is an orderliness in the workings of the human creative mind.
Well. My first reaction was, of the five books of Melville's I've read — Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), and this White-Jacket (1850) — the last-named and most recently read is by far the least consequential. Typee and Omoo are realistic invocations of Melville's experiences in the Society islands, apparently quite fictional though based on his own experience as well as his enterprising reading of other accounts. I read Omoo in 1995, and therefore Typee some while before that, and recall them only vaguely now, but remember the sharp visual details Melville depicts (having visited those islands myself a decade earlier); and the persuasive description of the native Polynesians, and the collisions of their culture and that of the European and American visitors, and, more to the point, the individuals who expressed those cultures. (And it doesn't hurt, or didn't, that I read these books with a special fondness for Pierre Loti's Le mariage de Loti, I can't think when I must have read this, long ago).
Those books are fraught with nostalgia, having been written not that long after the publication of Rousseau's theory of the Noble Savage, and not that long before the awakening, in the 1960s, of the idea that Rousseau's theory might not have been that far off the mark. But beyond their celebration of the innocence, the guilelessness (at least in European eyes) of the Polynesian temperament, they were also both fresh and delightful for their descriptions of these fragrant, green, sea-bound, open-to-the-skies islands, and the similarly open (if, as Gauguin would soon show them, sometimes petulant and bored) strangers.
In his first two novels Melville does all this very well indeed. In his third, Mardi, he goes much further. He begins in a similar mood, apparently fictionalizing his own (or someone else's) experience in the South Sea; but before long turns philosophical. There's something of science-fiction to this novel: speculative, idealism-directed meditations, always grounded on the local-color of the locale — which, however, seems to tilt from the Society Islands toward some sort of fantasy-Japan: or, rather, an updated Laputa. I'm sure Melville had Swift in mind: Mardi is a sort of confluence of the third and fourth books of Gulliver's Travels.
In Redburn Melville tried something new, and, I think, succeeded. His public had lost its fascination for the South Seas, and its patience for philosophical speculation. He turned to a simple story of a hayseed New York country boy shipping out, desperate for funds, on a merchant vessel bound for Liverpool. The result was detailed and continually interesting, if not up to the mark Richard Henry Dana had set with his Two Years Before the Mast (1840). Wellingborough Redburn is a pleasant enough fellow, green and naive but with a speculative bent:
It is really wonderful how many names there are in the world. There is no counting the names, that surgeons and anatomists give to the various parts of the human body; which, indeed, is something like a ship; its bones being the stiff standing-rigging, and the sinews the small running ropes, that manage all the motions.And so on: there are a good many such passages. Nine years after reading Redburn, I turn finally to White-Jacket; and whether the fault is Melville nodding, or my aging, the trick's lost its interest. The observant,, thoughtful young man who signs on to an American navy frigate in Peru, and puts on his distinctive white jacket, however slight the irony with which Melville reports his moods and discoveries, grows tedious in his lectures on the curiosities (and injustices) of life on board the USS Neversink, whose very name gives the game away: there's little poetry in Melville's treatment of his subject, and much haste.
I wonder whether mankind could not get along without all these names, which keep increasing every day, and hour and moment; till at last the very air will be full of them; and even in a great plain, men will be breathing each other's breath, owing to the vast multitude of words they use, that consume al the air, just as lamp-burners do gas. But people seem to have a great love for names; for to know a great many names, seems to look like knowing a good many things; though I should not be surprised, if there were a great many more names, than things in the world. But I must quit this rambling, and return to my story.
There are marvelous passages, lime this description of a calm off Cape Horn:
Here we lay forty-eight hours, during which the cold was intense. I wondered at the liquid sea, which refused to freeze in such a temperature. The clear, cold sky overhead looked like a steel-blue cymbal, that might ring, could you smite it. Our breath came and went like puffs of smoke from pipe-bowls.
But most of the time Melville, through White-Jacket, seems content with either describing the daily comings and goings on board the frigate, which are not all that interesting 150 years later, or with complaining about the harsh interpretations of the even harsher Articles of War which underlie the law of the ship — and which should interest us, as they apparently haven't changed that much before running our present administration during this "war on terror."
It doesn't help, of course, to read the notes in the Library of America edition, which divulge the extent to which Melville cribbed pages from previously published books for his own purposes. On the other hand, to do him credit, White-Jacket brought the injustices of the naval interpretation of military justice to public attention, and helped to soften it: Melville was an early member of the fine line of American fiction-writers with a sense of social responsibility (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck).
And I suspect that if and when I finally turn to my next Melville novel I'll find that White-Jacket's philosophizings and mullings-over and fascination with the Shakespeare-, Bible-, and Shelley-quoting fulminations of his crew-mates will have led to Moby-Dick itself.
I can hardly wait.