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Whitford, Philip; Whitford, Kathryn (ed.) / Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters
volume 74 (1986)

Pribek, Thomas
The man who lived among the cannibals: Melville in Milwaukee,   pp. 19-26 PDF (4.1 MB)


Page 23

1986] Pribek—Melville in Milwaukee 23 
other like so many weather-beaten ghosts. Then to mark Leviathan come wallowing
along, dashing the pale sea into sparkling cascades of fire, showering it
all over till the monster would look like Milton's Satan, riding the flame
billows of the infernal world. We [theater audience] might fill night after
night with that fertile theme. . . and tell of the adventurous sailors. (165-66)'
However, Melville dropped the scene for that night and had nothing marvelous
to develop from such supernatural portent. He made no real effort at suspense
and delivered the description without any spontaneity or sensationalism in
which the audience might participate. The Daily Free Democrat thus complained
that Melville offered few illustrations beyond general comments, cut short
the personal anecdotes, and then gave "word-painting" rather than
anecdotes
with "any inherent or thrilling interest." 
Melville was most emphatically himself in an ironic passage criticizing missionary
work as personal gain, jingoism and colonialism, and Emersonian optimism:
[T]he result of civilization, at the Sandwich Islands and elsewhere, is found
productive to the civilizers, destructive to the civilizees. It is said to
be compensation—a very philosophical word; but it appears to be
very
much on the principle of the old game, "You lose, I win": 
good philosophy for the winner. (179) 
Although he announced no theme to his lecture, Melville had an explicit message:
leave the islands alone. He told his audience that Americans should have
no pretensions of civilizing other people until they civilized themselves.
He meant no particular criticism of his audience here, although such a remark
was ill-placed in Milwaukee, especially before people who subscribed to a
lecture program chosen to represent a highlyrefined, established culture,
and who were also drawn to hear Melville by Cramer's advice that they show
interest in intellectual offerings. As in the reference to the Newall House,
Milwaukeeans wanted to be compli 
mented for their civilization. They may indeed have come principally for
entertainment; however, they were not going to applaud heartily for someone
who would lift the veil only slightly upon the voluptuary life of the South
Seas they imagined, and who then told them that they had no right to gawk
upon the rest from any superior perspective. Bayard Taylor encouraged audiences
to imagine themselves in foreign lands; Melville told them to stay home and
civilize themselves. 
 In the words of Cramer's review in the Daily Wisconsin, adventurers had
"no right" to interfere with existing cultures. The United States
should
leave Hawaii alone and thus keep it from "the demoralizing associations
of
modern civilization." Even Cramer, who was determined to be sympathetic
to
Melville in his paper, did not comment on the sentiments his friend expressed.
He would not criticize him, but Cramer could hardly tell the civilized people
of Milwaukee that they were no better than naked savages and that the tattooed
Polynesian would be as amused by the elegant functions in the Newall House
as its patrons would be by him. Cramer did little more than summarize the
lecture after some opening impressions of Melville as a speaker. He wrote
favorably of Melville and his delivery, endorsing the lecture as a whole,
but avoiding specific support for the themes. 
 The Daily Free Democrat had no restraint; the audience would have preferred,
it said, "personal reminiscences . . . to such bombast." So, "The
lecture
was attentively listened to," noted the reporter, "but the appreciation
of
it, we think, was testified by the limited applause at the close. The Association,
we think, received more profit from the lecture than the audience."
The snide
remark that the audience had not gotten its money's worth was about the worst
judgment a reviewer could pronounce. People were not going to quibble too
much about a speaker's sentiments, so long as the speaker was entertaining.
For this one ob 


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