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Herman Melville (1819 - 1891)

Melville, Herman

Herman Melville was born in New York City to an established merchant family. He was the third child of eight. His father, Allan Melville, an importer of French dry goods, became bankrupt and insane, and died when Melville was twelve. His mother, Maria Gansevoort Melville, was left alone to raise her eight children. Occasionally she received help from her wealthy relatives. A bout of scarlet fever in 1826 left Herman with permanently weakened eyesight. He attended Albany (N.Y.) Classical School in 1835. He left the school and was largely autodidact, devouring Shakespeare as well as historical, anthropological, and technical works. From the age of twelve, he worked as a clerk, teacher, and farmhand. In search of adventures, he shipped out in 1839 as a cabin boy on the whaler Achushnet. He joined later the US Navy, and started his years- long voyages on ships, sailing both the Atlantic and the South Seas. During these years he was a clerk and bookkeeper in general store in Honolulu and lived briefly among the Typee cannibals in the Marquesas Islands. Another ship rescued him and took him to Tahiti. In his mid-twenties, Melville returned to his mother's house to write about his adventures.

Typee, an account of his stay with the cannibals, was first published in Britain, like most of his works. The book sold roughly 6,000 copies in its first two years. Its sequel, Omoo (1847), was based on his experiences in Polynesian Islands and was another success. Throughout his career Melville enjoyed a rather higher estimation in Britain than in America. His older brother, Gansevoort, held a government position in London and helped to launch Melville's career. From his third book, Mardi and A Voyage Thither (1849), Melville started to take distance to the expectations of his readers.

In 1847 Melville married Elisabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts. After three years in New York, he bought a farm, "Arrowhead", near Nathaniel Hawthorne's home at Pittsfield, Massachusetts and became friends with him for some time. Melville had almost completed Moby-Dick when Hawthorne encouraged him to change it from a story full of details about whaling, into an allegorical novel.

"In general, it is the non-psychological novel that offers the richest opportunities for psychological elucidation. Here the author, having no intentions of this sort, does not show his characters in a psychological light and thus leaves room for analysis and interpretation, or even invites it by his unprejudiced mode of presentation... I would also include Melville's Moby Dick, which I consider to be the greatest American novel, in this broad class of writings." (Carl Jung in The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, 1967)

Inspired by the achievement of Hawthorne, Melville wrote his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. He worked at his desk all day, not eating anything till four or five in the afternoon. Bursting with energy he shouted: "Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand!"

When the novel was published, it did not bring him the fame he had acquired in the 1840's. Readers of Typhee and Omoo were not expecting this kind of story, and its brilliance was only noted by some critics. Through the story Melville meditated questions about faith and the workings of God's intelligence. He returned to these meditations in his last great work, Billy Budd, a story left unfinished at his death.

"Call me Ishmael," says the narrator in the beginning of Moby-Dick. We don't know: is it his real name? When is his story is taking place? He signs abroad the whaler Pequod with his friend Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Sea Islands. The mood of the story then changes. The reader is confronted by a plurality of linguistic discourses, philosophical speculations, and Shakespearean rhetoric and dramatic staging. Mysterious Captain Ahab, a combination of Macbeth, Job, and Milton's Satan, appears after several days at sea. Melville named the character after the Israelite king who worshiped the pagan sun god Baal. Ahab reveals to the crew that the purpose of the voyage is to hunt and kill the snow-white sperm whale, known as Moby-Dick: a creature that had cost Ahab his leg on a previous voyage. The captain has his own faith and sees the cosmos in contention between two rival deities. "Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance." Ahab has nailed a goldpiece to the mast and offers it as a reward to the first man who sights the creature. Starbuck, the first mate, tries to dissuade Ahab from the quest. The novel culminates when Moby-Dick charges the boat which sinks. Ahab is drowned, tied by the harpoon line his archenemy. In his end Ahab takes his crew with him. The only survivor is the narrator, who is rescued by a passing ship.

Moby-Dick was misunderstood by those who read and reviewed it, and it sold only some 3,000 copies during Melville's lifetime. The book can be read as a thrilling sea story, an examination of the conflict between man and nature - the battle between Ahab and the whale is open to many interpretations. It is a pioneer novel but the prairie is now sea, or an allegory on the Gold Rush, but now the gold is a whale. Jorge Luis Borges has seen in the universe of Moby-Dick "a cosmos (a chaos) not only perceptibly malignant as the Gnostics had intuited, but also irrational, like the cosmos in the hexameters of Lucretius." (from The Total Library, 1999) Clare Spark has connected different interpretations with changing political atmosphere in Hunting Captain Ahab (2001) – depending upon the point of view, Ahab has been seen as a Promethean hero or a forefather of the twentieth-century totalitarian dictators. The director John Huston questions in his film version (1956) which one, Ahab or the whale, is the real Monster.

Melville wrote Redburn (1849) and White-Jacked (1850) to get money, comparing his work to "sawing wood". Pierre (1852), a Gothic romance and psychological study based on the author's childhood, was a financial and critical disaster. Melville's stories in Putnam's Monthly Magazine reflected the despair and the contempt for human hypocrisy and materialism. Among the stories were The Scrivener (1853), The Encantadas (1854) and Benito Cereno (1855). Batleby was a story about a man who confronts life with an 'Everlasting Nay' - "I would prefer not to," is his quiet defense against onrushing materialism of the day.

The Confidence of Man (1857), Melville's last novel, was a harsh satire of American life set on a Mississippi River steamboat. After 1857 he wrote poetry. His health was failing, and he did not earn enough money to support his family. He became a dependent of his wealthy father-in-law. To recover from a breakdown, he undertook a long journey to Europe and the Holy Land. Clarel (1876), a long poem about religious crisis, was based on this trip, and reflected his Manichean view of God. The book was ignored. Subsequent works were privately printed and distributed among a very small circle of acquaintances.

After unsuccessful lecture tours in 1857 through 1860, Melville lived in Washington, D.C. (1861-62). He then moved to New York, where he was appointed customs inspector on the New York docks. This work secured him a regular income. Melville's later works include Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1865), privately printed John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), and Timoleon (1891).

Melville's death on September 28, 1891, in New York, was noted with only one obituary notice. His unfinished work, Billy Budd, Foretopman, remained unpublished until 1924. A definitive edition appeared in 1962. The story is set in 1797 during the war between England and France. Billy Budd, 'the Handsome Sailor', is a favorite of the crew of HMS Bellipotent. He becomes the target of John Claggart, the satanic master-at-arms. Claggart accuses falsely Billy of being involved in a supposed mutiny. The innocent Billy, who is unable to answer the charge because of a chronic stammer, accidentally kills Claggart. Captain Vere sees through Claggart's plot, but fears reaction among the crew if Billy is not punished. He calls a court and instructs it to find Billy guilty of a capital crime. The court condemns Billy, who goes willingly to his fate, and is hanged from the yardarm after crying out "God bless Captain Vere." Later, Vere is killed during an engagement with the French, murmuring as his last words Billy's name.

Famous quotations by Herman Melville:

  • A man thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things.

  • Art is the objectification of feeling.

  • Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

  • Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored...

  • He pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married... Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg - a cosy, loving pair.

  • How wondrous familiar is a fool!

  • It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.

  • It is not down in any map; true places never are.

  • The beauty myth moves for men as a mirage; its power lies in its ever-receding nature. When the gap is closed, the lover embraces only his own disillusion.

  • To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.

  • Suggested sites for Herman Melville:

    Encyclopedia article about Herman Melville
    Texts by Melville
    Moby Dick I-LXVII
    Captain Ahab tracks the White Whale against all odds.
    Moby Dick LXVIII-CXXXIV
    Captain Ahab tracks the White Whale against all odds.
    Typee
    Novel account of life in the South Seas as experienced by Melville.

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