American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

“THE ENCANTADAS” (1854). This collection of ten short sketches written by Herman Melville* (1819-1991) is set in the Galapagos Islands,* a volcanic archipelago lying along the equator 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and otherwise known in the nineteenth century as the Encantadas or Enchanted Isles. Melville visited the Galapagos in the 1840s; his whale- ship, the Acushnet, cruised among the islands for three weeks in the fall of 1841 and returned in early January 1842. He wrote “The Encantadas” during a period devoted to producing stories for magazines, after receiving a mixed reception for Moby-Dick* (1851) and after the failure of Pierre or the Ambiguities (1852). The ten loosely connected sketches are based on Melville’s visits to the islands and on his reading, especially of William Cowley, David Porter,* James Colnett, and Charles Darwin. These sketches are difficult to categorize, partaking of several genres such as travel writing, journalism, and fiction but conforming neatly to none of them. Stylistically, they are held together, in part, by a consistent point of view, that of a sailor aboard a whaling ship speaking to the reader, telling what he sees and what he thinks, and relating various anecdotes that he has collected. He describes the islands as desolate and cursed, giant heaps of black cinders and clinkers looking as the world might after “a penal conflagration” (Sketch First).

The first four sketches are devoted mostly to description of the islands, the next five to anecdotes telling of human tragedy and depravity in the Encantadas, and the last sketch, “Runaways, Castaways, Solitaries, GraveStones, Etc.,” functions as an epitaph succinctly memorializing the islands as hellish sites of wretchedness. In contrast to the blasted islands are ships and the sea. While the islands initially seem a respite from the monotony of long voyages, they prove an evil from which the sea offers escape. On these lands the various characters find drought, isolation, and enslavement; the sea is their only hope of deliverance. The work first appeared in 1854 in three installments in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine; in 1856 it was collected in Melville’s The Piazza Tales.

Capper Nichols