This book is a valuable contribution to the history of medicine and to literary history. It is delightfully written, with scholarly depth, and the author has an excellent sense of humor and genuine interest both in the history of medicine and in literature. The shadow of Sir Thomas Browne, who always wanted to “square science with humanities,” is present, not only in Melville’s writing but also in Smith’s. Browne’s Religio Medici has probably been one of the most influential books in the period since its publication in the middle of the 17th century.
Smith’s book starts with an intelligent preface by Benjamin S. Fisher, of the University of Mississippi, introducing the series of which this book is one of the firs examples. In the book itself, Smith discusses Melville’s literary output in chronologic order, starting with Typee and Omoo, both narratives of adventure in the South Seas with witty observations along the way on Pott’s disease, elephantiasis, brain tumors, and amputations. One third of Melville’s next book, Mardi, is related in one way or another to medicine and science. Melville spent many hours reading Shakespeare, Montaigne, Browne, Coleridge, and Rabelais, and his work his wide reading. In addition to the episode in which Samoa amputates his own arm with a shell, he discusses such medical topics as albinism and cranioplasty. Melville’s statement that “Our souls belong to our bodies, not our bodies to our souls” is supported by discussions about phrenology, metempsychosis, and mesmerism. His fascination with crippling conditions, alcoholism, and strange behavioral patterns foreshadows his interest in the psychopathology of strange characters, as discussed Redburn.
White Jacket, or The Word in a Man-of-War, based on his voyage on the United States—was followed by Moby-Dick, his most celebrated book. Smith’s description of addictive whale hunting and of Captain Ahab, who lost [a leg] in a fight with Moby Dick, is remarkable. Amputations, tic douloureaux, and homeopathy are discussed in historical context, together with rare conditions not widely known in Melville’s time, such as causalgia, narcolepsy, and aphasia.
Pierre, a social novel and the only one not related sailing or to experiences in the South Seas, is Melville’s most clearly autobiographical book. The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, a book of short stories based on a trip Melville made on a steamboat to Galena, Illinois, provides wonderful descriptions of eccentric characters and reveals Melville’s unusual attraction to the grotesque. Head injuries with memory loss, retrograde amnesia, and iron therapy are discussed. The destription of asthma, the use of Peruvian balsam, balneotherapy with references to Priessnitz, Melville’s elaboration on the opium stupor described by De Quincey, cholera, the use of belladonna and mercury, and the concept of the idiot savant are highlighted. Smith’s book ends with a short chapter, entitled “Melville and the Doctors,” provides insight into some of Melville’s family problems.
In summary, this is an elegant, well-written, scholarly contribution to both literature and medical history. In a world of superspecialization, it comes as a welcome relief. It should be on the bookshelf of every physician.
George B. Udvarhelyi, MD, FACS
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
New England Journal of Medicine 325 (1992) 1387.
Causes Richard Smith Supports