American author Herman Melville (1819-1891) is best known for his novel Moby-Dick. His work was a response, though often in a negative or ambivalent way, to the romantic movement that dominated American literature in the mid-19th century.
Herman Melville's early autobiographical novels of adventure in the South Seas earned him a popularity that diminished as his writing turned to metaphysical themes and allegorical techniques, moving in directions that later generations would recognize as existentialism, Freudian psychologizing, and blackly comic satire. He had some success with his magazine sketches and short stories, but his poetry, a main concern during the latter part of his life, was ignored. Largely forgotten at the time of his death, he was rediscovered with the shift in taste that followed World War I. His reputation continues to grow, and Moby-Dick has become a world classic.
Melville was born in New York City on Aug. 1, 1819. His father, a merchant and importer, belonged to a well-connected Boston family; he died bankrupt in 1832, survived by his wife and eight children. Melville's mother was of New York Dutch ancestry. Melville's family background included Revolutionary War heroes, Dutch patricians, Calvinists, and upper-middle-class New Englanders, but his boyhood was spent in genteel poverty.
Melville's studies at the Albany Academy terminated with his father's death. Thereafter, he was largely self-educated and for a while something of a drifter (like Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who asserted that "a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard"). He tried various occupations—bank clerk, clerk in the family business, country schoolmaster—and he studied surveying before becoming a sailor.
At 18 Melville made his first voyage as a crew member on a New York-Liverpool packet ship. At 22 he shipped on the whaler Acushnet. Returning four years later, he almost immediately began writing novels derived from his adventures. At this time Polynesia was a romantic and little-known region. Furthermore, maritime affairs were a matter of public interest. Also, there was a market for authentic personal narratives as opposed to fictional "romances."
Three Novels of the South Seas
Typee (1846) grew out of Melville's accidental sojourn with the presumably cannibalistic natives of the Marquesas Islands. It found a receptive audience and admitted Melville into the New York literary circles. A successful sequel, Omoo (1847), which paralleled Melville's experiences as a beachcomber in Tahiti, encouraged his belief that he could support himself through his writing. He married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of Massachusetts and a family friend, in 1847.
Melville's final novel of the South Seas, Mardi (1849), marks a transition. It begins realistically aboard a whaler but ends in the realm of fantasy, rhapsody, and allegory. Critics have found in it reflections of his courtship and marriage and of his first reading of Shakespeare, Montaigne, Rabelais, Sir Thomas Browne, and other authors of "old books."
Melville's novels of the South Seas progress from realism toward romance, from simplicity toward complexity, and from relatively modest ambitions toward serious pretensions. Typee follows the outline of actual events closely. In July 1842, with a shipmate, Toby Greene, Melville had deserted the Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands. They planned to seek refuge among the hospitable natives of the Happar Valley but by mistake entered the Valley of the Typees, who were reputed to be cannibals. Here they lived almost idyllically. Melville, however, had injured his leg, and the Typees permitted Greene to leave to obtain medical assistance. Alone, Melville became bored by his vegetative existence and grew increasingly fearful that the friendly Typees might be cannibals after all. Greene did not return, but an Australian whaling bark effected Melville's rescue.
The narrative of Typee is straightforward, though Melville capitalizes on suspenseful elements in the experience. A careful observer and colorful reporter, he fleshed out his account (or jogged his memory) by using other works in the field, and he introduced some fictional material. There are elements of satire and social criticism in Typee, as well as symbolism and a preliminary grappling with philosophical questions that would become primary in his later writings. In addition to being an exotic travel yarn about a tropical Eden, Typee can be read as a study in false appearances and misguided quests.
Omoo, which takes its name from the Marquesan word for vagabond, is a loose, episodic description of Melville's wanderings in Tahiti and further experiences aboard whalers. It is in a lighthearted vein, though it hits hard at missionary despoilers of the Pacific paradise and other civilizing forces that Melville saw as superficial, exploitative, and destructive. Starting where Typee leaves off, it repeats the pattern of dissatisfaction on shipboard, of a desertion that represents a symbolic attempt to escape civilization, of picaresque adventures, and of rejection of Rousseauistic primitivism suggested by shipping on yet another whaler.
At this point Mardi, the transitional novel in the South Seas trilogy, begins. The established progression of disaffection on shipboard, desertion with a congenial companion, and adventure on the high seas recurs. But this time the realistic narrative, which is implicitly a quest, shifts overtly to an extravagant search for an elusive, symbolic maiden on allegorical islands beyond the horizon of Polynesia.
The maiden is never found, though she is pursued with a monomaniacal, self-destructive relentlessness. Sandwiched into this account are undigested philosophical speculations, dreamy poetizing, and keen satiric thrusts aimed at such topical targets as slavery, the revolutions of 1848, and popular theological and scientific theories. Melville, whose veracity was doubted in his realistic narratives, was deliberately, almost defiantly, writing fiction, embarking on adventures of the mind that were the counterparts of his actual exploits. The book did not succeed, and Melville returned to less farfetched subject matter in Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), which had modest financial rewards.
Other Early Works
Melville disparaged Redburn as a "little nursery tale." Its source was his Liverpool voyage in 1839. It is an initiation story—the tale of a green youth of genteel pretensions transformed by raw experience into a competent sailor and a self-reliant man with a sense of his own (and mankind's) limitations. Redburn has a social dimension: the descriptions of the hideous poverty of Liverpool slums and the crowded conditions of emigrants in steerage that led to epidemics.
Melville regarded White-Jacket, subtitled The World in a Man-of-War, more highly. The fictional frigate Neversink, naval slang for any hypothetical ship, is a microcosm of Melville's native land in particular and the world in general. He methodically described the naval hierarchy from commodore and captain down to the lowest sailor, emphasizing the irony of an authoritarian system as an instrument of American democracy.
The narrative line follows Melville's own homeward-bound cruise on the frigate United States in 1843-1844, but he included events not recorded in the log of this ship. For example, the narrator is issued a white duck jacket unlike the uniform jackets of the other sailors. He is pleased to be distinguished from the rest of the crew until he discovers that such distinction has severe drawbacks. He tries to divest himself of the jacket, but succeeds only when he falls into the sea and has to cut his way out of it to keep from drowning.
White-Jacket is a reform novel, advocating the abolition of flogging in the U.S. Navy and other measures to improve the lot of American seamen. Although it is more simply constructed, is generally optimistic in tone, and contains a considerable amount of direct narrative, description, and reform polemics, it foreshadows Melville's complex masterpiece, Moby-Dick (1851), which it immediately precedes.
In 1851 Melville wrote that he was well along with "a strange sort of book" on whaling, adding "I mean to give the truth of the thing…." The narrator of Moby-Dick, Ishmael, is another drifter. Ishmael ships on the Pequod, commanded by the demon-ridden Captain Ahab, whose overweening purpose is to capture the albino whale Moby-Dick, which had severed his leg. Ahab bends his polyglot crew to this purpose. Ishmael is caught up in "fiery pursuit," until, through his fraternal relationship with a Polynesian harpooner, he achieves a balanced view. He alone escapes when Moby-Dick attacks and destroys the Pequod.
The book's rich texture lends itself to various interpretations. It can be read superficially as a melodramatic adventure or for the precise descriptions of the technology of whaling and the natural history of whales interspersed in the narrative. Yet virtually every detail of the book—plot line, accounts of the capture of whales and the processing of blubber, seamen's legends and lore, natural history, characterization, and descriptions of nautical gear—is a vehicle for a deliberately inconclusive, many-sided debate on the nature of the human condition.
One of Melville's favorite devices is to argue a point effectively in one chapter, undercut it with an equally effective and opposite argument in the next, then to present other arguments at various points between. A related technique is his use of traditional systems for ordering knowledge—ostensibly to clarify, present information, or advance an argument—but actually as a means of demonstrating the limitations of the system and, by extension, the impossibility of mere earthly beings coming up with categorical answers to any question whatsoever. Ishmael's ability to exist within this limitation makes possible his salvation. Ahab's inability to do so destroys him.
The writings that follow Moby-Dick are rich in nautical themes and allusions and also contain autobiographical matter, but Melville moved on to other forms and settings. In Pierre (1852) the American countryside and the American city are placed in opposition. Pierre, scion of rural gentry, is an idealistic young man whose efforts to apply Christian solutions to the problems of an imperfect world result in death and disaster. In this dark, uneven book, the subtle examination of ethical questions and deep probing into the human psyche are compelling.
Moby-Dick was not popular, though Melville had the satisfaction of knowing that it was understood and appreciated by a few discerning readers. Pierre did not yield even this satisfaction. So once more Melville made a special effort to recoup. He turned to the magazines, producing tales, sketches, and short novels, many of great distinction.
The best of the magazine writing includes Israel Potter (1855), which first appeared serially in Putnam's Magazine, and The Piazza Tales (1856). Israel Potter is the story of a young New Englander who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, served under John Paul Jones, was a courier for Benjamin Franklin in Europe, and then, as a result of a series of mishaps, lived in exile in the London slums until he could make his way home 50 years later. Melville's source, he wrote, was "Israel Potter's autobiographical story," published in a crude pamphlet. Melville made it into a book of modest dimensions compared with Moby-Dick or Pierre, and it records human hardihood in the face of high risks and wearing, undramatic misfortunes.
The Piazza Tales is introduced by an essay, "The Piazza," which delicately examines the view from the piazza of Melville's Pittsfield, Mass., farmhouse, his home from 1850 to 1863. The vista across a valley and beyond to the Berkshire Mountains is enchanting, but its charm fades upon close scrutiny. The narrator admits the need to dispel illusion but makes an exception of a lonely country girl who needs illusion in order to survive.
Two other tales, "Benito Cereno" and "The Encantadas," are also concerned with appearances and realities. "Benito Cereno," the undisguised retelling of autobiography, is a Gothic suspense story. A cargo of slaves seizes a Spanish ship and forces the captain to serve them in their attempt to return to Africa. The obvious distress of the ship attracts the attention of an American vessel whose commander tries to help, to discover the real nature of the situation, and to seek out and then draw back from the underlying complexities of the events that unfold around him.
"The Encantadas" is a series of sketches about the Galapagos, or "Enchanted," Islands—barren, volcanic inversions of the paradisiacal isles described in Typee and Omoo. They, too, are under a spell that clouds their true nature. A third notable story is "Bartleby," an existentialist parable about a lawyer's scribe who "prefers not to" act in a world where even worthy action seems fruitless and pointless and where suffering in ignorance is the common bond of humanity.
The grimly comic underside of Melville dominates The Confidence-Man (1857), the last work of prose he published in his lifetime. Set on a riverboat going down the Mississippi on April Fool's Day, it consists of a series of encounters between confidence men (or perhaps a single confidence man in various disguises) and their marks. The encounters are almost ritualistic variations on a theme. The Christian watchwords of faith, hope, and charity become part of the spiel of the con men, who victimize fools, rogues, and virtuous weaklings alike.
The Confidence-Man draws heavily on American "types" and is packed with topical allusions that are now often obscure. Its ambience is the expansive, optimistic, materialistic America of the 1850s, to which Melville voiced corrosive dissent. An early, successful essay in black comedy, it was a commercial failure.
At this point Melville withdrew from the literary marketplace. With half of his life still before him, he chose to write for his own satisfaction and that of the few kindred spirits. He had published 10 books in 11 years and additional uncollected tales and reviews, including an important review of Mosses from an Old Manse by his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne (1846), and he had strained himself physically and emotionally. In 1856, fearing a serious breakdown, his family arranged for him to tour Europe and the Holy Land.
Melville's pilgrimage to sacred places did little to settle the religious questions that continued to rack him, but he was exhilarated by the symmetry of Greek architecture and sculpture and by the paintings he saw in Italy and England. He returned renewed in spirit, though his financial affairs were not in good order. Efforts to improve this situation by obtaining a government position came to nothing.
Meanwhile, for two seasons Melville lectured on his travels and art theories, and with more success, on his adventures among the South Sea islands. He also began writing the verse that was his literary focus for the next 30 years. Attempts to publish his poetry failed until, "in an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond," he wrote Battle-Pieces (1866), a verse cycle that depicts many aspects and both sides of the Civil War, beginning with a prologue on the hanging of John Brown and concluding with an essay that pleads for magnanimity and patience. It was not well received.
That same year Melville was appointed an inspector in the New York Customhouse. Thereafter he lived quietly, absorbed in the routine of his employment, poetry, and family life. Clarel (1876), a long narrative poem, is about a group of pilgrims visiting shrines and historical sites in the Holy Land. In general, Melville was more at peace with himself, though he suffered personal tragedies in the suicide of his 18-year-old son and the premature death of his other son. Legacies eased his living situation; he could afford to buy books and prints and to publish his poetry privately.
Melville retired from the customhouse in 1885. Sometime in 1888 he began work on Billy Budd, a short novel about an innocent sailor who is sacrificed for the sake of maintaining order and efficiency aboard his warship. Like most of his writing, it raises more questions than it settles, but it ends on a note of relaxation if not serenity. Melville marked the manuscript "End of Book April 19th 1891," an indication that the story was nearing completion but still unfinished. Yet Melville never felt that any of his work was truly finished. He had written in Moby-Dick: "God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but a draught of a draught."
Melville died in New York City on Sept. 28, 1891. The manuscript of Billy Budd was not published until 1924.
Further Reading on Herman Melville
Melville's fiction is available in numerous editions. He has attracted so much critical attention, it is almost impossible to describe all of the available writings about him. Moreover, his works lend themselves to the application of analytic systems that have appeared since his death; thus there are provocative interpretations deriving from later psychological, historical, and sociological theories.
Stanley T. Williams surveys Melville scholarship with balance and concision in Eight American Authors, edited by Floyd Stovall (1956; rev. 1972). Annual surveys began with the publication of American Literary Scholarship (1965) for 1963, issued each year thereafter under the auspices of the Modern Language Association.
A most useful biography is Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography (1951). Jay Leyda, The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville (2 vols., 1951; repr. with additional material, 1969), provides the raw material arranged in chronological order and constitutes a biographical record. Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (1950), has critical and psychological insights. Charles Roberts Anderson, Melville and the South Seas (1939), first established the facts behind Melville's early fiction and is still basic.
A pioneer monograph that remains important is Howard Vincent, The Trying-out of Moby-Dick (1949). Important commentaries include William Ellery Sedgwick, Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind (1944); Ronald Mason, The Spirit above the Dust (1951); Merlin Bowen, The Long Encounter: Self and Experience in the Writings of Herman Melville (1960); and Warner Berthoff, The Example of Melville (1962). F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), is a matchless examination of the cultural milieu, with four chapters on Melville's art and thought.