Is Mardi a catastrophe? I don’t think I would go that far. It’s a mess, and not a success. It has me very excited to get to Moby-Dick again, but not any less excited about Melville’s other work. And (standard caveats about predicting the future here) I will certainly read it again at some point.
Between writing Omoo and Mardi Melville read. A ton. You can figure out a bunch of what he read just by reading Mardi—either because of allusions or because he flat-out tells you. He also realized that he could write. And then he lost all self-control and wrote everything imaginable into a single book. Hence the mess of Mardi. He knows he’s doing it:
My cheek blanches white while I write; I start at the scratch of my pen; my own mad brood of eagles devours me; fain would I unsay this audacity; but an iron-mailed hand clenches mine in a vice, and prints down every letter in my spite. Fain would I hurl off this Dionysius that rides me; my thoughts crush me down till I groan; in far fields I hear the song of the reaper, while I slave and faint in this cell. The fever runs through me like lava; my hot brain burns like a coal; and like many a monarch, I am less to be envied, than the veriest hind in the land.
Not very modest either, is it? This is after, by the way, declaring that “in me, many worthies recline, and converse,” including Montaigne, Augustine, Plato, Democritus, and Thomas-a-Kempis.
Readers should not expect an easy or friendly text, based just on his preface, which makes reference to the fact that his earlier two autobiographical tales were deemed impossible to be true. Here, “the thought occurred to me, of indeed writing a romance of Polynesian adventure, and publishing it as such; to see whether, the fiction might not, possibly, be received for a verity: in some degree the reverse of my previous experience.” Not bloody likely.
The first part of the book, the story of the narrator and his best friend, the Skyeman Jarl, who run away from their whaling ship as it heads north, is amazing. On its own it puts Mardi way up the charts for me and is a clear precursor to Moby-Dick. The chapters in the whaleboat are especially beautiful. I would quote them, but like Melville I wouldn’t really be able to shut myself up. And the latter part of my reading has so overshadowed the “voyage thither” that the much less beautiful trip around Mardi is more on my mind.