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Herman Melville died almost forgotten, although he had once been a popular author and had left behind ten notable books of prose fiction and four of verse. His reputation languished for nearly thirty years after his death, but since the revival of interest in him that began with his centennial in 1919, he has gathered increasing fame, especially for his metaphysical whaling novel, Moby-Dick. Much of his writing originates in his experiences as a common sailor and in the complex reactions of his lively mind to ageless spiritual questions.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born on August 1,1819, in New York City, Herman Melville had a relatively comfortable childhood until his father’s business failure and early death. Melville ended his formal education at age twelve to help support his family. He worked in the family fur business and as a bank clerk and also taught at various schools until, in 1839, he sailed as a cabin boy aboard a merchant ship bound for Liverpool, England. This experience, shocking in its revelation of squalor and human cruelty, inspired his fourth novel, Redburn: His First Voyage (1849). Melville’s later journey to the South Seas, begun aboard the whaling ship Acushnet, provided the background for his greatest works. Finding conditions unbearable aboard the Acushnet, Melville deserted the ship in the Marquesas Islands and spent several months in captivity with a tribe of cannibalistic Polynesians. He finally escaped to a passing whaling vessel. Again appalled by the conditions at sea, Melville joined in a mutiny and was briefly imprisoned in Tahiti. He then moved on to Hawaii and later returned to New York aboard a U.S. Navy vessel.
The Writer Emerges
Up to this point in his life, Melville had never contemplated a literary career; however, with no prospects on his return to the United States, he was encouraged by family and friends to write about his remarkable journeys. His first novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and its sequel, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), are fictionalized versions of his experiences in the Pacific. These novels were immediately successful and made Melville famous as the ”man who lived among the cannibals”—a reputation he was never able to overcome and that interfered with the appreciation of his later works. Although they were generally praised for their excitement, romance, and splendid descriptions of the South Seas, Typee and Omoo infuriated members of the Christian missionary community, who resented Melville’s negative portrayal of their motives and labors.
Melville married Elizabeth Shaw in 1847, and the couple settled in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where they raised four children. It was there Melville made the acquaintance of author Nathaniel Hawthorne (who lived nearby in Lenox), and the two became friends. Melville drew much support from Hawthorne as he struggled with the creation of his most famous work, Moby-Dick, a complicated, ambitious novel about a mentally unbalanced whaling captain and his quest for revenge against a mythic white whale. Like his early novels of the sea, Moby-Dick was based on Melville’s own experiences as a sailor. Unlike his earlier novels, Moby-Dick was a commercial flop—as was Melville’s 1852 novel Pierre, which was pointedly attacked by critics. Though publishers became wary of his novels following these failures, Melville published many short stories in periodicals and collected six of his best in The Piazza Tales (1856). The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) an allegorical satire of mid-nineteenth-century American life, was the last of Melville’s novels to appear during his lifetime. To make money, Melville went on lecture tours from 1857 to 1860, mostly telling audiences about his experiences in the South Seas.
Career as a Poet
Whereas Melville’s career as a fiction-writer consumed a mere eleven years, his career as a poet unfolded over the final thirty-four years of his life. In 1860 he tried and failed to publish his first volume of poems. Melville’s most topical and politically timely work did not reach a large reading public, though it was reviewed or noticed in many American and British publications. Having ceased to court a readership, Melville continued to shape his vision within the rigors of metrical verse. Written in the evenings while Melville was employed as a customs inspector in New York City, the eighteen-thousand-line Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876) grew out of Melville’s own travels twenty years before. After retiring from government service in 1885, Melville turned his attention to an assortment of verse projects, publishing John Marr and Other Sailors, with Some Sea-Pieces (1888) and Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse (1891). At his death in September 1891 of heart failure, Melville left numerous manuscripts of poetry as well as the unpublished Billy Budd.
Works in Literary Context
A master of both realistic and allegorical narrative, Melville was also an incisive social critic and philosopher who strove to understand the ambiguities of life and to define the individual’s relation to society and the universe.
Allegory and Symbolism
The story of Moby-Dick is usually considered allegorical. An allegory is a kind of literary work in which people, objects, places, and actions in a narrative are symbolic of something outside the narrative of the story itself. Some famous allegories in English include John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ”Young Goodman Brown” (1835). While the meaning of many allegories is readily apparent, the symbols in Moby-Dick are not so easily interpreted. The meaning of the white whale, and the importance of Captain Ahab’s quest to kill him, have been, and continue to be, debated.
Melville’s Typee and Omoo fall into the broad literary category of sea stories. Sea stories often feature plenty of action and adventure in the way of pirate attacks, shipwrecks, mutinies, and military battles. They also provide an excellent narrative framework for the consideration of philosophical and political questions, as a ship and its inhabitants can be seen as representative of humankind as a whole. Sea stories have been popular for hundreds of years, but enjoyed a particular surge in readership around the time of the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the nineteenth century, since so many exciting naval battles occurred during that time and advances in ship building made worldwide sea travel more feasible. James Fenimore Cooper paved the way for the sea story in American literature with his 1824 novel The Pilot (the first of several sea novels by Cooper), a best-seller, like the sea stories written later by Melville. Popular twentieth-century sea stories include the eleven-book Horatio Hornblower series by C. S. Forester (published between 1937 and 1967) and the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian (published between 1970 and 2004).
Works in Critical Context
When Melville died in 1891, he was almost unknown as a writer, and his accomplishments were not fully recognized for over a generation. A tremendous revival of interest in his work began in the 1920s, following the publication of Raymond Weaver’s biography, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic (1921), and constitutes a dramatic reversal nearly unprecedented in American literary history. Melville’s works, particularly Moby-Dick, have been the subject of innumerable interpretations, and the body of Melville criticism, already immense, continues to grow. Melville is now recognized as one of America’s greatest writers, and Moby-Dick is widely acclaimed as a work of genius.
Moby-Dick was initially conceived as a realistic narrative about sea life, but it took on a unique literary form as Melville progressed in its composition. As one reviewer said, ”It is hardly a novel at all, but a strange combination of prose poem, history and encyclopedia of the whale wisdom of the mid-nineteenth century.” Many contemporary critics appreciated the novel’s ambitious scope and inventive structure, while still feeling somewhat befuddled by it. As a reviewer for London Britannia wrote: ”There is so much eccentricity in its style and in its construction, in the original conception and in the gradual development of its strange and improbable story, that we are at a loss to determine in what category of works of amusement to place it.” Today’s critics agree that the ”eccentricity” of Moby-Dick is what marks it as a masterpiece. As critic Clark Davis notes, ”Despite its difficult passages, complex philosophical content, and unusual and sometimes awkward form, the book has sustained continuous and often extreme attention from readers for the last eighty years.”
Billy Budd, left in manuscript at Melville’s death and considered one of his finest works of fiction, was not published until 1924. It is the story of the execution of a young, popular sailor aboard an English warship. Its ambiguous ending and intriguing symbolism have made it the subject of intense debate among literary scholars interested in Melville’s final views on such issues as justice, morality, and religion. As critic Logan Esdale notes, ”Herman Melville’s Billy Budd has produced an astonishing diversity of equally plausible interpretations. Most critics consider finally whether they approve or condemn Captain Vere’s decision to try and execute the sailor Billy Budd for the murder of the officer John Claggart.” While the rightness or wrongness of Captain Vere’s decision is indeed the focus of most of the criticism on Billy Budd, the novella is also consistently praised for its philosophical insight, multifaceted narrative technique, and complex use of allegory.
In a review of Melville’s body work, Nobel Prize-winning author Albert Camus said
These anguished books in which man is overwhelmed, but in which life is exalted on each page, are inexhaustible sources of strength and pity. We find in them revolt and acceptance, unconquerable and endless love, the passion for beauty, language of the highest order—in short, genius.
- Arvin, Newton. Herman Melville. New York: William Sloan Associates, 1950.
- Anderson, Charles R. Melville in the South Seas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.
- Freeman, John. Herman Melville. New York: Macmillan,1926.
- Garner, Stanton. The Civil War World of Herman Melville. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1993.
- Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1951.
- Leyda, Jay, ed. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951.
- Metcalf, Eleanor Melville. Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.
- Miller, Edwin Haviland. Herman Melville: A Biography. New York: Braziller, 1975.
- Mumford, Lewis. Herman Melville. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929.
- Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume I, 1819-1851. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
- Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville, A Biography. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1996.
- Sealts, Merton M., Jr. The Early Lives of Melville: Nineteenth-Century Biographical Sketches and Their Authors. Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974.
- Weaver, Raymond M. Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic. New York: George H. Doran, 1921.
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