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Archibald MacMechan and the Melville Revival FREDERICK JAMES KENNEDY DalhousieUniversity JOYCE DEVEAU KENNEDY Mount SaintVincent University It is sometimes the privilege of a man to seewhat heforesaw -“TheDean” Introduction ne hundred years ago, in the autumn of 1899,Archibald MacMechan, George Munro Professor of English Language and Literature in 0Dalhousie College,Halifax,Nova Scotia,published “TheBest Sea Story EverWritten,”his stirring callfor the recognitionof Moby-Dick as one of the great works of American literature. MacMechan (pronounced MacMECKan) had no illusionsabouthow difficultitwould be to arousehis readers.He realized thepublic ’sneglectof thebook and the author’smarginalreputation, of themselves,would be regarded as ajudgment. And, aswith allsuchjudgments, “thegood public has returned its verdict upon the case,and is slow to review the evidencein favour of the accused, or, having done so, to confess itself in the wrong.”Anyone advocating such a reversal “preachesto a sleepingcongregation,”he said.’ MacMechan’sreligious metaphor of the revivalist’stask was aptly chosen. For in earlier days a revival was a “greatawakening,” the eventual stirring of an indifferent, unheeding people brought about by the repetitive reaffirmation through time and space of the preacher’smessage. The Melvillerevival followed this pattern, although once Moby-Dick had at last been admitted to the canon and Melville elevated to the pantheon of American letters, critics tended to speak of the revival simply as an event whose time had come. Thus, Frank Jewett Mather declared that the “MelvilleCentenary woke up literary America,” saying nothing of visionary Melvilleadherents like MacMechanwhose constant dedication to the task of enlightening others about the best sea story ever written was, in fact, an early substantial source of this awakening2 ’ArchibaldMacMechan, “The Best Sea Story Ever Written,” Queen’s Quarterly 7 (October 1899): 120-130. The remarks quoted here are from page 120. Two years after its publication, the essay was reprinted in England with trivial changes as “Herman Melville,” Humane Review 1 (October 1901): 242-252. It appeared a third time in a collection of MacMechan’s essays, The Lge ofa Little College, and Other Papers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914): 181-197. Hereafter citations to “TheBest Sea Story”will be from the Queen’s Quarterly essay 2FrankJewett Mather, “Reminiscencesof a Melvillian,”Moby-Dick as Doubloon, ed. Hershel Parker L E VI A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E STUDIES 5 F . J . K E N N E D Y 6r J . D . K E N N E D Y MacMechanlived to have the personal satisfaction “toseewhat he foresaw .”3However,save for a single publication, there was no public recognition in his lifetime that his work may have helped turn his vision into reality. Indeed, from the time of his death in 1933,his place in the history of the Melvillerevival has been in dispute. In 1931,O.W. Riegel described a number of separate and divergentprecursor revivals,and stated that MacMechan’sessaywas responsible for the one beginning in 1914“whichresulted in acknowledgment of Moby-Dick as Melville’smasterpiece and one of the greatest sea books in all literature.”4In 1934 William Braswell dismissed Riegel’s “exaggerations,” and thought it “doubtfulwhether this essay,which first appeared in 1899,was so significant.”S Later, in 1949, European critic Montgomery Belgion claimed that MacMechan had, in fact, “turnedthe tide of appreciation”and brought Melvilleback to public consciousness. As a result of MacMechan’sessay,“Moby-Dickgrew steadily in fame,and Melvillehimself,his other books, his essaysandjournals, havebasked in its reflectedglory.”6In1955,V. L. 0.Chittick, in an article devoted entirely to “TheBest Sea Story Ever Written,” acknowledged that an essay published three times must have “had its due share of readers. What influence, if any, however, it has had in promoting the return to Melville is pretty much an unanswerable question.”Still,the question of influence aside, Chittick felt MacMechan’sessay should be recognized “notbecause it was first in the rediscovery of Moby-Dick, but because, though first, its findings have since been confirmed over and over.”7Afewyears later Hugh W. Hetherington stated he had “nochurlish desire and Harrison Hayford (New York W. W. Norton and Co., 1970), 182. The article originally appeared in Princeton...


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