I saw a boy sitting by a well with a switch in his hand, with which he killed the doves and finches as they came to drink.
Late in Herschel Parker’s essay “Damned by Dollars: Moby Dick and the Price of Genius,” he quotes Melville’s misapplied (although necessary) description of The Encantadas. “Melville wrote to the Harpers late in November 1853 that he had ‘in hand, and pretty well on towards completion,’ a book, ‘partly of nautical adventure’; then he qualified himself: ‘or rather, chiefly, of Tortoise Hunting Adventure.’” At the time of the cycle’s composition, Melville had no assets that were not already tied up in loans, property liens, tabs in bookstores, or books unsold by his publishers; Moby Dick’s savaging by the Christian right, the literati’s excruciating of Pierre, these defeats plagued his confidence and purse; and, in February 1854, a week after submitting the first four sketches of The Encantadas to G. P. Putnam, the author’s health was vastly diminished in kind. Herschel quotes from a letter Allan Melville wrote to his sister, describing a “’Horrid week’ of pain in [Herman’s] eyes.” Not a nautical adventure, and not a Tortoise Hunting Adventure, but the unfortunate adventure of living in the Berkshires—this was a temperate hell. The enervating tides, the material deprivations, they differed from their counterparts in the blasted Galapagos by superficialities: vegetation, weather, population density. Melville sorely felt the latter distinction. He stowed his debts in society. He owed a little something to everyone, and not the least to his wife and children. His genius would not sell.
Not only, but perhaps especially, for these biographic tethers, there is poignancy in the delirium of Melville’s Encantadas. In the early 1840s he stopped three times on the islands; he was unmarried then, gainfully employed, and living among the men of his heart’s fondness. The Melville-like narrator of the sketches says, “I have indeed slept upon evilly enchanted ground.” Still, when he follows the tortoises on their craggy paths, he experiences, in their agedness and agelessness, a profundity. “With them I lost myself in volcanic mazes; brushed away endless boughs of rotting thickets; till finally in a dream I found myself sitting cross-legged upon the foremost, a Brahmin similarly mounted upon either side, forming a tripod of foreheads which upheld the universal cope.” Retreating to this escapade in the fall of 1853 resurfaced Melville’s voyage from 1843: it allowed him to imagine that boy’s yarn in the seventh sketch “Charles Isle and the Dog-King,” where “renegado strangers” mutiny against their sovereign and install a “Riotocracy.” Excepting the canine slaughter (a further iteration of boyish cruelty, with thirteen of the Creole’s “canine janizaries” dead on the beach), the immature excitements of this rock-hewn boys club remain irresistible; and, to an author fettered by penury, a bastion. Melville’s present calamities, seen through the events upon Norfolk Isle—“a spot made sacred by the strongest trials of humanity”—take on the air of nostalgia. Hunilla, the Chola Widow, has all the psychological complexity of allegory (that is to say, very little), and as a fantasy of purity, her travails are baldly emotional. But this bathos—her party’s abandonment; her lover’s death—allows the narrator to speculate upon many more sordid crimes. Some, merely hinted at: did the crew of a passing whaler rape Hunilla? No matter. The insinuation puts paid to a previous aside: “If some books are deemed most baneful and their sale forbid, how then with deadlier facts, not dreams of doting men? Those whom books will hurt will not be proof against events. Events, not books, should be forbid.”
The tensions of The Encantadas respond in many ways to Melville’s contemporaries—Emerson and Darwin—literally, by grafting passages directly after their interest, and ironically, by dissembling their purpose. The sketches incorporate the geology and zoology of The Voyage of the Beagle, turning backwards a few of the facts to harmonize with Melville’s thematic purposes. One particular instance from Darwin’s notes on the Galapagos Archipelago was no doubt germinous to Melville for conconcting an expanded melodrama:
One day we accompanied a party of the Spaniards in their whale-boat to a salina, or lake from which salt is procured. After landing, we had a very rough walk over a rugged field of recent lava, which has almost surrounded a tuff-crater, at the bottom of which the salt-lake lies. The water is only three or four inches deep, and rests on a layer of beautifully crystallized, white salt. The lake is quite circular, and is fringed with a border of bright green succulent plants; the almost precipitous walls of the crater are clothed with wood, so that the scene was altogether both picturesque and curious. A few years since, the sailors belonging to a sealing-vessel murdered their captain in this quiet spot; and we saw his skull lying among the bushes.
Indeed, I find it difficult to believe Darwin’s obscure skull in the bushes would not become, in Melville’s gross tour, a high pile of sunbleached bones. Both men account for the mutilation of tortoises and other animals, with Darwin figuring, at one point, that hunters in a trawl amassed some 700 of the reptiles, and Melville, similarly off-hand, mentioning the goal of taking 100 in a single afternoon. Darwin ends his Galapagos narrative with infamous portraits of men butchering the islands’ docile birds:
Cowley (in the year 1684) says that the “Turtledoves were so tame, that they would often alight on our hats and arms, so as that we could take them alive, they not fearing man, until such time as some of our company did fire at them, whereby they were rendered more shy.” Dampier also, in the same year, says that a man in a morning’s walk might kill six or seven dozen of these doves. At present, although certainly very tame, they do not alight on people’s arms, nor do they suffer themselves to be killed in such large numbers. It is surprising that they have not become wilder; for these islands during the last hundred and fifty years have been frequently visited by bucaniers and whalers; and the sailors, wandering through the wood in search of tortoises, always take cruel delight in knocking down the little birds. These birds, although now still more persecuted, do not readily become wild. In Charles Island, which had then been colonized about six years, I saw a boy sitting by a well with a switch in his hand, with which he killed the doves and finches as they came to drink. He had already procured a little heap of them for his dinner, and he said that he had constantly been in the habit of waiting by this well for the same purpose.
A child with his little mutilated supper: the very picture of Oberlus, the red-haired hermit psychopath of Melville’s ninth sketch. Such is the wildness of our monster that ”[h]e struck strangers much as if he were a volcanic creature thrown up by the same convulsion which exploded into sight the isle.” Tending to pumpkins bores him. He takes on slaves. He steals a boat. At the edges of this squalor one can see Melville’s devilish inquiry into the Abolitionist cause. At the time of his writing, is not all of America something of Oberlus, demonically outpacing crimes of perfidy, murder, slavery?
Not all of The Encantadas is indictment. Yet in a broadly negative sense does the cycle refute “Self-Reliance.” Emerson observes, “Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean, but it goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men.” This first warning does not discount our yearning for far distant climes, a property of educating ourselves about the world. “I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purpose of art, study, and benevolence,” says Emerson, only chagrin at the sport of the Grand Tour, and the general vapidity of world travel, this tendency of man to ricochet from one frontier to the next expecting a change of scenery to improve his spirits. Of course the literal worth of voyages—to Melville and Darwin—constitutes some of their greatest, boldest, most penetrating writing. The foundations of their art rests on leaving, leaving for hellish outposts—and leaving in the company of men. It is difficult to whale by oneself; impossible to do so in the pastures at the base of Mount Monadnock. And for Melville, leaving became its own ecstasy: leaving the present for the past, attenuating moments by saturating them in memory, or physically decamping to securities of other lands, beyond the mean needs of family or debtors or fame. (Four years later he will repeat this consolation by journeying to the Holy Lands, on his father-in-law’s dime.) His visiting the Galapagos again in The Encantadas makes for a strange escape. How insufferably did he rely upon others, that he sought refuge in evoking the spirits of that cinderscaped Tartarus.