Between 1849 and 1860, Herman Melville undertook three extended sea voyages. These trips occasioned three journals, the only ones Melville is known to have kept. The journals from the first and last voyages are both disappointing. The first, a chronicle of Melville’s trip to London in 1849, consists mainly of notes on the pubs he visited, the people he met, and his dealings with pub lishers; the last, from an 1860 “health-excur sion” from Boston to San Francisco, is made up largely ofnotes on the weather. The osten sible purpose of the London trip was to negotiate the British sale of his most recent novel, White-Jacket. In truth, Melville, un happy with his new responsibilities as a father and husband, wanted escape. He resented the role of breadwinner, and was keenly em barrassed not only by the hastily written White-Jacket, but also by its predecessor, Redburn, both of which he considered strictly commercial ventures. He would never recap ture the sales or critical acclaim that had greeted his first two books, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).
The second, most important, journal covers Melville’s 1856-57 voyage—also with out his family——to Europe and the Middle East. Once again, the motive was escape. This time, however, Melville had good reason: he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Both Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre (1852) had been savaged by the critics. The books sold poorly, and Melville was deep in debt. An 1853 fire at Harper & Brothers, which destroyed nearly all the copies of his books, must have seemed the final indignity. (Actually, the final indignity —a twenty year stint as a customs inspector in New York City—was to come.)
No wonder, then, that Melville in these journals is as gloomy as the prospect of death. The hapless souls who cross his path are usually some combination of idleness, du plicity, and spiritual vulgarity. The towns he visits, meanwhile, are hothouses of filth, decay, and squalor. And the dunes, which Melville thought might help purge his soul, are barrenness itself. On seeing Judea, he writes:
Whitish mildew pervading whole tracts of landscape—bleached—leprosy—encrustation of curses—old cheese—bones of rocks,— crunched, knawed, & mumbled—mere refuse & rubbish of creation—like that laying outside of Jaffa Gate—all Judea seems to have been ac cumulations of this rubbish [. . .] You see the anatomy—compares with ordinary regions as skeleton with living & rosy man.—No moss as in other ruins—no grace of decay—no ivy— The unleavened nakedness of desolation—
Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre, meanwhile, with its eager pilgrims milling about, Mel ville brands a “sickening cheat.” Of the island of Patmos, the author says that he “Could no more realize that St. fohn had ever had revela tions here, than when off Juan Fernandez, could believe [sic] in Robinson Crusoe ac cording to DeFoe.” In Cairo, Melville com plains that there is “Too much light & no defence against it.”
The pyramids of Gaza offer some respite from the gloom. “As long as earth endures,” writes Melville, “some vestige will remain of the pyramids.” He continues:
I doubt whether any time spent upon it, would tend to a more precise impression of it. As with the ocean, you learn as much of its vastness by the first five minutes glance as you would in a month.... Its simplicity confounds you. Find ing it vain to take in its vastness man has taken to sounding it & weighing its density ... he measures the base, & computes the size of in dividual stones. It refuses to be studied or ade quately comprehended.
Howard C. Horsford, co-editor of the Journals, states in his “Historical Note” that Melville’s bellyaching is simply a symptom of depression. However, something besides an isolated, despondent mind manifests itself in these pages. What seems to have been ex posed and crushed, finally, by all the heat and dust was a version of the romantic sensibility. Melville, like other writers of his time—Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp, for exam ple, made a similar journey in 1849, and Mark Twain toured the region in the late 1860s—believed oriental travel to be a restorative for the soul. But for Melville the Orient, in stead of providing an antidote to his ills, only confirmed his worst suspicions. “No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expecta tions than Palestine,” writes Melville. “To some the disappointment is heart sickening.” Not very long after his return to the United States, Melville chose—in one of the great self-inflicted disasters in the history of Ameri can literature—to abandon novels for good.
Robert Richmans book of poems, Voice on the Wind, was recently published by Copper Beech Press
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