- Frauds and Gods: The Politics of Religion in Melville’s Omoo and Mardi
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[End Page 360]
Shortly after the American publication of Herman Melville’s second book, Omoo (1847), a brief notice appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in which the critic—Eagle editor Walt Whitman—announced that “the new work (Harpers, pub.) by Mr. Melville, author of Typee, affords two well printed volumes of the most readable sort of reading.” This oblique flattery set the tone for the rest of the review, which proceeded to damn the novel with faint praise: while Whitman agreeably described Melville’s work as a “thorough entertainment—not so light as to be tossed aside for its flippancy, nor so profound as to be tiresome,” he concluded by observing that “all books have their office—and this is a very side one.” On a harsher note, in the American Review, George Washington Peck criticized the book’s apparent triviality and contrasted Melville’s artistic ability with his frivolous subject matter: “The author has shown himself so very capable of using a great style, and comes, at times, so near excellence, that we feel disposed to quarrel with him for never exactly reaching it,” wrote Peck. “Why does he not, before abandoning himself to the current of Thought, push out till he comes over the great channel of Truth?”1
These reviews of Omoo appeared while Melville was at work on his next project, Mardi, and they may have persuaded him to see his previous works as rather simple and inconsequential productions by comparison. After taking several months to digest the critical reception of Omoo, Melville promised in an [End Page 361] October 1847 letter to his British publisher John Murray, “[my]new work will enter into scenes altogether new, & will, I think, possess more interest than the former; which treated of subjects comparatively trite.”2 In further correspondence, Melville emphasized the need to distinguish his new work from previous books. While finishing the novel in 1848 he wrote to Murray, “a real romance of mine is no Typee or Omoo, & is made of different stuff altogether”; and upon publication he requested: “Unless you should deem it very desirable do not put me down on the title page as ‘the author of Typee & Omoo.’ I wish to separate ‘Mardi’ as much as possible from those books.”3
Despite Melville’s disavowal of his early work, modern scholars have come to pay particular critical attention to Typee, identifying in that book seeds of the themes that Melville would explore in depth in both Mardi and his later, more accomplished novels.4 Nevertheless, these same critics have largely ignored Omoo, referring to the book only in passing as a sequel to Typee, or setting up its relatively straightforward narrative in order to highlight the contrast between the clear and simple style of Melville’s early writing and the generic fusion that is Mardi. More often, the book is put aside altogether as an uncharacteristically frivolous lacuna in Melville’s artistic development. As John Samson, one of the few contemporary critics to address Omoo, observes, “It is as if, in the canon of works sacred to Melville scholars, Omoo holds a peculiar place as the one novel completely simple and profane: not harboring ‘the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,’ but nevertheless (or therefore) a welcome relief for the scholar toiling over Melville’s usual inordinate complexity and intellectuality.”5 Samson argues for the seriousness of Omoo by reading it as a deliberate satire of missionary narratives and a conscious critique of the concept of a “religious elite,” in which Melville’s adaptation of both missionary narratives and the techniques of comparative mythology draws attention to both the essential artificiality of organized religion and the irreparable and tragic damage caused by the imposition of one belief system on another. To take Samson’s claim a step further, I contend that the connections between these two themes—the criticism of missionary and imperial...