Herman Melville continues to be the most complex American author of the 19th century, and indeed one of the wonders of literature of the period in English. As such he continues to invite research into the complexity of his mind and his literature.
The most casual reader is truck by Melville’s preoccupation with his body and bodily complaints, with his observations on how people he meets are physically and emotionally crippled—or energized—by their maladies. That Melville knew his literature on medicine and medical cures is also well-known, as is the fact that Sir Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-centuy English author who delighted in medicine, was a puzzling and deeply appreciated hero to Melville. At times it is difficult to distinguish between the two.
This exhaustive and suggestive study takes Melville’s works up one by one and carefully filters out the references to medical complaints, needs and cures. So we get here a catalogue of Melville’s use, and a kind of inventory of the nineteenth-century American and world troubles. Smith also suggests where Melville’s inventory came from and whither it was leading.
In reading this medical history one gets the notion that the listing is complete but somehow the spirit is not quite with us. Melville was, after al, a man who stood ankle deep in cow dung but with a head so high in spiritual affairs that one must at times start at the top and work down.
Smith’s work is nevertheless very valuable and welcome. Although he never once mentions the words popular culture, he works in it constantly, as he would have to to cover society’s ills and cures. So the words are there though not named. The book is complete, suggestive and stimulating. It is necessary for anyone interested in the genius that was Melville and the world that provoked the grist for that genius.
Bowling Green State University
Choice: Journal of Popular Culture 27 (1993) 237-238.
Causes Richard Smith Supports