Herman Melville: A Biography.

Volume I:
p. 231: The Charles and Henry also offered stimulus for his mind from books. On the real Lucy Ann the real John Troy, Melville says in the partly fictional Omoo, possessed books, but “a damp, musty volume, entitled ‘A History of the most atrocious and Bloody Piracies’ ” may be an imaginary composite of real titles such as The History of the Lives and Bloody Exploits of the Most Noted Pirates (Hartford, 1835). After being taken off the Lucy Ann Melville had spent weeks in Tahiti and Eimeo outdoors all the time, “an utter savage” (in the phrasing he used of himself in 1852, after spending weeks out of doors), reading nothing so far as we know. Once he got aboard the Charles and Henry and settled into the routine of sailing without sighting whales or at least without capturing whales, he had time to catch up on his reading. The wealthy Nantucket owners of the ship had supplied their craft remarkably well in every regard, not omitting the ship’s library. Thanks to the surviving bill for $16.24 that the Nantucket Coffins paid on 5 April 1841, we have a good idea of what Melville could have laid his hands on—the first books we have much reason to think he read since, by his own account, he read Owen Chase’s Narrative in his early months in the Pacific. The surviving list of the books purchased (all new, apparently) often gives only short titles and no authors; from the list Wilson Heflin identified likely editions of the books named. Following Heflin’s identifications, here I sort the ship’s library into rough categories. Like Heflin, I assume that most of the books shipped at the end of 1840 were still aboard after less than two years; vandalism or even careless handling would not likely be tolerated in a well-run ship, despite the perhaps fictional bibliographical mutilation Melville describes (Omoo, ch. 20) as taking place on a poorly captained Australian whaler. In addition, individual sailors brought some books aboard, which in due course might have found their way into the community book-chest.

On the Charles and Henry when it sailed from Nantucket were several books of adventure or travel, on sea or land, among them Jack Halyard, by W.S. Cardell; Visit to Constantinople and Athens, by Walter Colton; Shipwreck on a Desert Island; A Narrative of the Shipwreck, Captivity, and Sufferings of Horace Holdin and Benj. H. Nute: Who Were Cast Away in the American Ship Mentor; on the Pelew Islands, in the Year 1832: And for Two Years Afterwards Were Subjected to Unheard of Sufferings among the Barbarous Inhabitants of Lord North’s Island, by Horace Holdin; John H. Amory, The Young Rover; Poor Jack, by Frederick Marryat; and the Child’s Robinson Crusoe. Heflin shows that the edition of Defoe’s classic on the ship, “Carefully Adapted to Youth,” was likely the one that advertised itself as “Purified from every though and expression that might sully the mind…of youth.” There was also a history of the American Revolution, a biography of Washington, and two books from the recent election, a campaign life of Harrison and a book called (on the cover) Harrison versus Van Buren.

Once a sailor like Melville got past the adventure and history, he could sample the selections in several collections and anthologies aboard the Charles and Henry: four volumes of the Harper’s “Family Library”; Cabinet of Literature; “Fire Side Book” (possibly The Fireside Book, A Miscellany, with a plate of Abbotsford, the revered home of the revered Sir Walter Scott); and single volumes of Abbott’s Magazine and of Family Magazine. There were religious works for the literate sailor desperate enough to read anything once: The Young Christian, by Jacob Abbott. In Are You a Christian or a Calvinist? By John Lowell (uncle of a contemporary of Melville’s, the poet James Russell Lowell), Melville could have encountered this eye-catching assertion: “Jesus Christ himself was a Unitarian”— not, Lowell irrefutably proved, a Calvinist. The ship’s library included several fictions, mainly didactic, among them Strive and Thrive, by Mary Botham Howitt; Home, by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, the sister-in-law of Helen’s teacher at Lenox; Merchant’s Widow, and Her Family, by Barbara Wreaks Hoole Hofland; the baldly titled Moral Tales, by Samuel Griswold Goodrich; and the popular Rousseauistic romance, Paul and Virginia, by Jacques-Henri Saint-Pierre, at the climax of which Virginia drowns because she is encumbered by clothing, when, naked, she might have survived—a remarkable European contrast to the Marquesan damsels. There were moral dissertations (not sugar-coated with fiction): Victims of Gaming; Being Extracts from the Diary of an American Physician and, most practical of all, A Lecture to Young Men on Chastity, by Sylvester Graham, the deviser of the popular antiaphrodisiac cracker.

Of these books, the condensed (many removes from the book first published in1719) is probably the most curiously significant for Melville’s life, since it was an obvious model for a white traveler who might want to write about his adventures on a remote island peopled by “savages.” (Only three years later Melville became known as the “Modern Crusoe.”) In view of his portrayal of the American Amasa Delano in “Benito Cereno” (1855), it would be good to know how much of Defoe’s complex portrayal of Crusoe’s concept of Providence Melville ever encountered in copies that came his way; he may never have known Robinson Crusoe except in a form both shortened and expurgated for children. All in all, Melville found some genuine literary stimulus on the Charles and Henry. (He probably already knew another classic from early in the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift’s 1726 Gulliver’s Travels, most likely in a condensed and even more rigorously expurgated form than Robinson Crusoe, there being so much more to expurgate….