Herman Melville

November 6, 2012 2:02 pm
Herman Melville (1819-1891), American writer whose novel Moby Dick is one of the towering literary achievements in the history of fiction. Based on a detailed knowledge of the sea, ships, and whaling, Moby Dick reveals Melville’s profound insight into human nature and his preoccupation with human fate in the universe. It also contains one of the most fascinating characters in fiction, the obsessed, tormented Captain Ahab. Melville is also known for the short novel Billy Budd, in which he explores the tragic conflict between good and evil and the limitations of human justice.

Melville was born in New York City. Both his mother and father were descended from prominent colonial families. One grandfather had participated in the Boston Tea Party, and the other had been a general in the colonial army during the American Revolution (1775-1783). However, the family’s fortunes had declined by Melville’s time. His father’s importing business failed in 1830, and the family moved to Albany, New York.
After his father’s death in 1832, when Melville was 12, he worked for a time as a bank clerk, a helper on his uncle’s farm, and an assistant in his older brother’s fur factory. That business collapsed during the depression of 1837. Melville, having studied briefly at the Albany Classical School, then tried school teaching for a few weeks near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He returned to his family’s home after some difficulties about salary and studied surveying in anticipation of gaining a position on the Erie Canal project.
When the Erie Canal position did not materialize, Melville in June 1839 joined the crew of the St. Lawrence,a boat that sailed between New York and Liverpool, England. After his return to the United States in October, he taught school and then traveled west as far as the Mississippi River, visiting an uncle in Galena, Illinois.
In January 1841 Melville sailed for the South Pacific on the whaling ship Acushnet. However, 18 months in the whaling trade under a strict captain proved so disillusioning that Melville and another young sailor deserted the ship in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842. He and his companion lived for a month among the natives, who were reputed to be cannibals. Melville escaped aboard an Australian trader ship looking for workers and left it at Papeete, Tahiti, where he was briefly jailed for deserting his ship. He worked for a time as a field laborer in Tahiti and then shipped to Honolulu, Hawaii, where in 1843 he enlisted as a seaman on the U.S. Navy frigate United States. He left the ship in Boston in October, 1844.
Not long after his return to the United States, Melville began to write the story of his adventures in the South Seas. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) is a suspenseful tale based upon his experiences in the Taipi Valley in Tahiti. Published in London and New York in 1846, it proved immediately popular. The sequel, Omoo, a Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), also attracted many readers, and Melville decided upon writing as his career.
In August 1847 Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Massachusetts Supreme Court chief justice Lemuel Shaw. While trying unsuccessfully to get a government job, Melville wrote Mardi (1849), a complex allegorical fantasy, and Redburn, His First Voyage (1849), based on Melville’s first trip to sea. White-Jacket, or the World in a Man-of-War (1850), a fictional version of his experiences in the navy, exposed the abuse of sailors that was prevalent in the U.S. Navy at that time. Melville traveled to England to arrange for its publication there and enjoyed a short holiday in Europe. On his return, he moved with his wife to a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He hoped to live comfortably as a writer and gentleman farmer.
In Pittsfield Melville became acquainted with American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Under Hawthorne’s influence he wrote Moby Dick; or, The Whale (1851), his masterpiece, which he published with a dedication to Hawthorne. Although Moby Dick had some critical success, it failed to achieve the popularity of his earlier books. With Pierre (1852) Melville turned from the sea to a setting in the Berkshire Hills and New York City. After the publication of Israel Potter (1855), he collected some of the tales and sketches that had appeared in Putnam’s and Harper’smagazines and published them as The Piazza Tales (1856). In 1857 came The Confidence Man, a bitter, semi-allegorical satire.
By the mid-1850s Melville’s family was worried about his emotional stability and health as a result of his overwork and lack of success. They made it possible for him to travel to Europe and the Holy Land in 1856 and 1857. He later used the notes from his travels for a series of lectures. Melville made his final sea voyage in 1860, when he traveled to San Francisco on a clipper ship commanded by his brother, Thomas. In 1863, defeated by financial problems and by critical rejection, Melville sold his farm to his brother Allan and returned permanently to New York City. In 1866 he became a district inspector of customs, a post he held for 19 years.
Melville’s first volume of poetry, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, about the American Civil War (1861-1865), was published in 1866. He published Clarel, a long narrative poem about the Holy Land, in 1876. After Melville retired from the customs service in 1886, he relied on an income from family bequests and devoted his last years to study and writing. In his final years he produced two small books of poetry, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891). At his death, he left the short novel Billy Budd in manuscript form. Melville’s death in New York City on September 28, 1891, went virtually unnoticed. None of his books was still in print.
With the exception of Mardi, all of Melville’s early books are narratives of maritime adventure based upon his own experiences and on his wide reading. Although London publisher John Murray accepted Typeefor his Home and Colonial Library as a strictly factual account of South Seas travel, he was largely mistaken in this impression. Melville embellished the story with exaggerations and rearrangements of detail that enhanced its dramatic effect. Typee was the most popular of Melville’s books during his lifetime, although the sequel, Omoo, also had a wide circle of readers and appeared in a large number of editions and reprintings.
Typee is an early example of the South Seas novel, a genre that during the next 100 years became extremely common. In it Melville described his desertion with his companion Toby (R. T. Greene) from a whaling ship at Nukuhiva in the Marquesas; their flight in the wrong direction, which brought them to the valley of a tribe of cannibals; and their separate escapes. The book abounds in discussions of the nearly idyllic life of the unspoiled people of the Taipi Valley and their customs, although the narrator eventually becomes disenchanted with this life of purely physical pleasures.
In Omoo the story of South Seas adventures continues with such incidents as a comic mutiny, a stint in an island jail, and explorations along the shores of Tahiti. In the book’s introduction Melville explains that Omoo is a word used in the Marquesas for someone who roams from island to island. He records much anthropological information in Omoo, but various religious groups condemned both books for their unfavorable comments on the work and insensitivity of missionaries in the South Seas.
Mardi is a philosophical allegory framed by another adventure at sea. The book’s hero, accompanied by characters representing the intellect, poetry, history, and philosophy, searches the world for universal truth. The book is filled with descriptions—intended as allegories—of human customs, religions, governments, and historical events, as well as with literary and philosophical discussions.
To win back readers who had tired of his philosophical musings in Mardi, Melville wrote Redburn and White-Jacket. Redburn tells of the initiation of a sheltered, naive young man into the evil and suffering of the real world through life aboard ship, among the poor of Liverpool’s slums, and amid the immigrants restricted to the ship’s hold on the return voyage. White-Jacket provided evidence of the need for naval reform, as had Richard Henry Dana ten years earlier in his memoir Two Years Before the Mast (1840). White-Jacket also suggested the hypocrisy involved in trying to reconcile Christian ideals with naval discipline, which was based upon flogging.
With Moby Dick Melville reached his highest achievement as a writer. During Melville’s lifetime, however, only a handful of readers recognized its greatness. Ostensibly an adventure story of the whaling industry, the novel has an action-filled plot, chapters on whales and the business of whaling, powerful descriptions of the wild sea and its inhabitants, character sketches of the seamen aboard a whaling vessel, and a considerable amount of philosophical musing.
The central story of Moby Dick is the conflict between Captain Ahab, the master of the whaler Pequod, and Moby Dick, a vicious white whale that once tore off one of Ahab’s legs at the knee. The narrator of the story is Ishmael, a seaman aboard the Pequod, who finds Ahab mysterious and frightening. During the voyage Ahab reveals to his crew that he seeks revenge upon Moby Dick. From this point the voyage becomes a pursuit: Ahab drives himself and his crew over the seas in a desperate search for his enemy. When the whale is at last sighted and attacked, it rams the ship, killing Ahab and all of the crew except Ishmael.
The body of the book is written in a wholly original, narrative style, which, in certain sections of the work, Melville varied with great success. The most impressive of these sections include a magnificent sermon before the ship sails and soliloquies of the ship’s mates; lengthy passages conveying non-narrative material, usually of a technical nature, such as the chapter about whales; and more purely ornamental passages, such as the tale of the ship Tally-Ho. These sections can stand by themselves as short stories of merit. The work is invested with Ishmael’s sense of profound wonder at his story, but it nonetheless conveys full awareness that Ahab’s quest can have but one end: destruction.
As Ahab makes very clear to Starbuck, his first mate, he envisions in the whale the visible form of a malicious Fate that governs humanity thoughtlessly and is oblivious to human suffering. Ahab sees in himself a superior soul protesting against universal injustice. “In each event,” he explains to Starbuck, “some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask….That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent or be the white whale principle, I will wreak that hate upon him.”
Ishmael is instructed by characters who represent polar opposites. Ahab is the destructive, defiant tragic hero who refuses to bow to his fate, ignores the charts he has been given, and sets off on his own course to strike back at the forces of the universe that have damaged him. While Ahab is all ego, Queequeg, a South Seas harpooner with whom Ishmael makes a pact of brotherhood, is the humanist, giving to others simply because, as Ishmael supposes, he senses that humans have to stick together. Unlike Ahab the destroyer, Queequeg is the savior, as at the end Ishmael stays afloat by clinging to the coffin Queequeg has carved for himself.
Melville’s writings after 1847 seem to reflect the influence of American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and New England transcendentalism, but Melville took pains to show his growing contempt for transcendental optimism. He also disagreed with transcendental attitudes toward nature. Instead of blandly praising nature for its beauty and benevolence to human beings in the fashion of the romantic writers, Melville repeatedly pointed out the signs of nature’s vulturism. In such sketches as “The Encantadas,” about the Galápagos Islands, there is more than a hint of the theories of British scientist Charles Darwin, especially the theory of the survival of the fittest. (Encantadas is another name for the Galápagos, which Darwin explored.) Melville’s readers admired him when he romanticized the life of the South Sea Islander into a dreamy experience, but they refused to remain loyal when he sighted the eternal predatory shark that lurks beneath nature’s enchanting surface.
Melville’s next novel, Pierre: or the Ambiguities(1852), was a darkly allegorical exploration of the nature of evil. It reveals a mood of deepening bitterness, possibly brought on in part by the lack of popular understanding and appreciation of his literary output after Omoo. The hero of Pierre is a young man who tries to lead a life of perfect virtue only to discover that society’s moral standards are too frequently ambiguous. In the end his idealism brings disaster upon himself and those he loves. Pierre in its construction faintly resembles a tragedy by William Shakespeare: It opens with a balcony scene and closes with the dead bodies of its main characters lying in a heap upon the floor.
Pierre seemingly began as a romance intended to capture the audience for romantic novels. But it became instead a dark and shocking parody, a nose-thumbing insult to the very audience Melville had originally set out to woo. Its overtly drawn brother-sister incest and bohemianism alienated even those who had been most supportive of Melville’s work. In one respect it foreshadowed the literary future, for it may be called one of the first American psychological novels.
The volume of tales and sketches that Melville entitled The Piazza Tales contains most of his best shorter works of prose, including such moving and thought-provoking pieces as “Benito Cereno,” “The Encantadas,” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” “Benito Cereno” concerns the rescue of a Spanish nobleman from a slave ship that has been captured by the rebellious slaves. “The Encantadas” relates a series of incidents occurring on the barren Galápagos Islands. “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” with its subtitle, “A Story of Wall Street,” dramatizes 19th-century society’s destruction of humanity—especially the creative spirit—in a religiously sanctioned, frantic pursuit of wealth.
The Confidence-Man (1857), the last of the novels published during Melville’s lifetime, comes closer than any of his other works to pure allegory. Set on a steamboat on the Mississippi River, it presents many characters and events that illustrate Melville’s view that human statements and human actions are often diametrically opposed. The principal character in the story is a mysterious confidence man who preaches mutual trust while shamelessly cheating the other passengers.
The poetry that Melville began to produce relatively late in his career has never been as widely admired as his prose. However, it has gained increasing respect over time. Some of his poems, particularly those about the Civil War found in Battle-Pieces, are frequently reprinted in anthologies. The book-length poem Clarel relates the experiences and conversations of a group of pilgrims touring the Holy Land.
The novella Billy Budd, Foretopman, found among Melville’s papers after his death, was not published until 1924. Critics now rank it second only to Moby Dick among Melville’s major works. Billy Budd is the story of a young sailor, personifying innocence, who is doomed by the malevolent hatred of a ship’s officer, personifying evil. He is hanged for the accidental murder of the evil officer. The sacrifice of the lamblike youth to the cruel demands of civilized warfare is made to resemble the crucifixion of Christ. The work was adapted as an opera in 1951 by English composer Benjamin Britten in collaboration with the English novelist E. M. Forster.
During his lifetime Melville was appreciated primarily as a spinner of adventure yarns. By his death his works were almost forgotten and remained so until the 1920s. At that time his genius was finally recognized and he became valued for his great moral and psychological insight. Over the next decades, more critical research was done on Melville than on any other American author. Interest in Melville continued undiminished throughout the 20th century. His fame today rests mainly on his great narrative power, his ability to create absorbing characters, and his penetrating, tragic vision of life.
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