American Literature, American Renaissance, Book review., Books, Capitalism, Charles Darwin, Galapagos Tortoise, Herman Melville, History, Literary criticism, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Penguin, The Encantadas, The Galapagos Islands, Travel Writing
The Galapagos archipelago was the cradle of evolutionary theory, but Herman Melville locates its islands altogether beyond modernity and meaning. Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos islands in 1835 and the theory of natural selection would be informed by his observations of their outlandish fauna. Melville arrived on a whaler, The Acushnet, in November 1841 and January 1842, as an ordinary seaman rather than as a professional scientist, and whilst Darwin spent over a month systematically exploring the islands, Melville’s ship drifted listlessly about the archipelago, at most spending six days in anchor off Chatham island.
One should remember that in the antebellum literary marketplace, travel writing was far more of a going concern than it may be today. Whether for entertainment or investment, readers were purchasing information about unknown or scarcely known regions of the planet. The world was yet to be fully conquered, or processed, by its literature, but the perversity of The Encantadas (1854) is that it confounds this imperialistic advance. The collection was initially marketed as a return to form for Melville, or rather, as a return to the sort of travel writing which had made his name (it was widely assumed to be written by him, although it was published pseudonymously). The Encantadas was one of Melville’s few commercial successes following Moby Dick, but there is a ringing irony – almost approaching sarcasm – to publishing a flowery travel narrative about a godforsaken hell-hole:
It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group… in these isles, rain never falls… Another feature in these isles is their emphatic uninhabitableness…
We are presented with what is literally a desert island, and as if the narrator has fundamentally misunderstood the science of marketing, to his mind the glamour and enchantment of his product lies in its desolation. The isles are inevitably mis-sold to us – we are promised that only “reptile life” is to be found on the Encantadas, and that “no voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss.” It will eventually transpire, however, that there are plenty of men and beasts upon the isles, leaving us to wonder at this Aesopian fable against commodity fetishism, in which a talented salesman has been enchanted to promote death and despair as attractive products. With the quick wit and beady eye of a smooth-talking travel agent, the narrator regales us with some of his islands’ enchantments:
What outlandish beings are these?… Their bodies are grotesquely misshapen; their bills short; their feet seemingly legless; while the members at their sides are neither fin, wing, nor arm. And truly neither fish, flesh, nor fowl is the penguin… without exception the most ambiguous and least lovely creature yet discovered by man.
Although the narrator had previously boasted that “the Encantadas refuse to harbor even the outcasts of the beasts,” he now reveals that, “as if ashamed of her failure, Nature keeps this ungainly child hidden away at the ends of the earth.” This is clear evidence of contradictory and unreliable narration, and the pitch for the penguin does not amount to dependable information for the consumer, but it instead conveys the whiff of a medieval bestiary without any of its magical splendours, the wilfully archaic language of Spenser but none of his romance. The narrator has gone to the “ends of the Earth,” unveiled the secrets of Nature, and the result is an unsightly, useless lump: “On land it stumps; afloat it sculls; in the air it flops.”
Rock Rondondo is almost presented as a shop-window display, with the narrator’s eye running over the shelves. The fish teeming below the Rock may strike us as a desirable prospect: “All were strange, many exceedingly beautiful; and would have well graced the costliest glass globes in which gold-fish are kept for a show.” But although amongst these fishes “hues were seen as yet unpainted, and figures which are unengraved,” unlike the “hidden” penguin, they throng around the narrator’s boat, and “a hundred infatuates contended for the honor of capture.” The narrator spies “larger and less unwary wights” swimming within the depths, but he soon surrenders any hope of discrimination, or of describing them in the same detail with which he pitched the unlovely penguin. The fishes provide one of the few examples of Nature’s beauty on the Encantadas – and they are more than willing to be exploited – but under the narrator’s perverse marketing, they remain in obscurity, unpainted and unengraved.
Romantic literature boasts a fantastic menagerie of haunting and iconic creatures: Burns’ Mouse, Keats’ Nightingale, Blake’s Tyger, Poe’s Raven, and, of course, Moby Dick. But the tortoise? It provides a powerful image, but not a particularly happy one. The narrator defines their “crowning curse” as “their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world,” and these creatures are possibly the reductio ad absurdum of such heroes of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short fiction as Parson Hooper, Wakefield, and Goodman Brown, who are dementedly set on hopeless courses:
That these tortoises are the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them. I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path.
The literary critic William B. Dillingham has shown that as The Encantadas progresses, we encounter more recognisably human tortoises: Hunilla’s endurance and Oberlus’ “mindless bestiality” suggest, for Dillingham, “the most basic and mechanical form of energy, life without life.” Melville had subjected Hawthorne to offers of literary fellowship, which the grumpy author for his part seems to have politely discouraged, but Melville must have marvelled at how Hawthorne could have made a name for himself as a popular novelist (The Scarlet Letter had been published four years before The Encantadas) when he sold tales of a despair and woe unique within Western literature. Perhaps the picture of a salesman enthusiastically promoting a set of blighted islands – whose cursed citizens, ferocious slaveholders, and “permanent Riotocracy” present a travesty of American society – serves to indict, or at least to question, Hawthorne’s entire literary career.
Dillingham has explored the relationship between Melville’s essay Hawthorne and his Mosses (1850) and The Encantadas (both of which are distinguished within Melville’s writing by their use of pseudonymity) which respectively cite greenery and cinders, and the “ sacred white doe” of truth and the unfathomable tortoise. It is an odd irony that The Encantadas was itself almost a “twice-told” tale: the rights to a manuscript about “tortoise hunting” were sold to Harper’s Magazine but then the completed Encantadas was finally sold to Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, who duly published it, presumably leaving Harper’s grimly aware that their forthcoming travel-narrative would be divested of all its lucrative novelty and authenticity. It is amusing to imagine two commercial publishers vying for an account of Melville’s wretched cinders.
The tortoise is offered to Putnam’s readers as adventuring courtiers had once presented exotic delights to their stay-at-home monarchs, but to the narrator’s astonishment, a tortoise will magically materialise in the traditional venue of storytelling – “scenes of social merriment, and especially at revels held by candle-light in old-fashioned mansions” – and “with “Momento *****” burning in live letters upon his back.” It has fallen to the scholar Mary-Madeleine Gina Riddle to reason that these words are “Momento Vitae” rather than “Mori.” Perhaps the central subject of this travel narrative is telling his readers to forget their books and remember life.
The narrator, however, seems to be increasingly possessed by his intended possession, growing morbidly fixated with the tortoises whilst remaining unable to explain quite what they signify. Riddle notes that the tortoises “are wavering symbols of refuge one moment and even of worldly ethics another,” and the narrator can only deduce from his anatomical observations that the tortoise “is both black and bright.” He dreams of being a Brahmin mounted on a cosmic tortoise, but the next day he has tortoise steak for dinner, leading Dillingham to tut that “he has committed sacrilege and will be eternally cursed.” The literary consumer can learn nothing from the tortoises because they are rightly exiled from the modern American world, being impractical and hopeless, and our budding salesman has no means of pitching them. Or perhaps he triumphs over the tortoises by reducing them to a commonplace commodity: just as Poe’s Raven will end up as an article of furniture, seated evermore upon a bust of Pallas just above the chamber door, the tortoises become “three fanciful soup-tureens,” whilst their calipees furnish “three gorgeous salvers.”
We may be pleased to identify The Encantadas as a satire upon commercial travel writing, but the genre exacted its own revenge. Such was the course of travel writing that its narratives quickly lost their novelty, being supplanted by more up-to-date and informative accounts of our emerging and progressively-narrated planet. The Encantadas would sink into oblivion with the rest of Melville’s writings until the “Melville revival” of the 1920s, when readers would learn to value their literary rather than their journalistic qualities.
[Tychy has previously feted Melville’s Babo as the greatest black leader in Western fiction, explored the allegorical possibilities of Typee, critiqued Israel Potter, and reviewed KCS' Billy Budd at the Edinburgh fringe. Ed.]