Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American novelist and essayist who will ever be known for his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. With contemporaries Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and the New England Transcendentalists, Melville is numbered among the most important and widely read American writers of the nineteenth century.
In search of adventure, the young Melville left his native Massachusetts and joined a whaling expedition to the South Pacific where he fell under the spell of the exotic and promiscuous Polynesian culture. Melville's early novels presented a romanticized picture of the South Pacific, contrasted with what he viewed as the repressive, guilt-ridden ethos of Victorian New England. These travel narratives won an enthusiastic readership.
As Melville matured he began to use the fictional form to probe metaphysical and psychological questions, culminating in his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. This long, thematically innovative novel had no precedent and can fairly be said to stand alone in its trenchant use of symbols and archetypes. The novel follows the monomaniacal quest of the sea captain Ahab for the white whale Moby-Dick, and is a figurative exploration of the author's tortured quest to come to terms with God. According to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville "can neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief."
Moby-Dick was greeted with critical incomprehension, while Melville's next novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities, was denounced so violently for its grandiose aims and artistic flaws that Melville's reputation was ruined for the remainder of his life and he fell into obscurity. Melville was rediscovered in the 1920s and is now recognized as a starkly original American voice. His major novel Moby-Dick, short stories, and late novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, published posthumously, made daring use of the absurd and grotesque and prefigured later modernist literature.
In the intensity of his philosophical struggle and cadences of his language, Melville discloses the two major influences on his fiction: the soliloquies of William Shakespeare and the Bible of King James. Through the allegory of the sea, his subtle and searching mind probed the great and most enduring questions of life.
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, as the third child to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill (Maria would later add an 'e' to the surname), receiving his early education at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Manhattan. One of his grandfathers, Major Thomas Melvill, participated in the Boston Tea Party. Another was General Peter Gansevoort who was acquainted with James Fenimore Cooper and defended Fort Stanwix in 1777. His father had described the young Melville as being somewhat slow as a child. He was also weakened by scarlet fever, permanently affecting his eyesight.
The family importing business went bankrupt in 1830, so the family went to Albany, New York, with Herman entering Albany Academy. After the death of his father in 1832, the family (with eight children) moved again to the village of Lansingburgh on the Hudson River. Herman and his brother Gansevoort were forced to work to help support the family. Young Herman remained there until 1835, when he attended the Albany Classical School for some months.
Melville's roving disposition, and a desire to support himself independently of family assistance, led him to seek work as a surveyor on the Erie Canal. After this effort failed, his brother helped him get a job as a cabin boy on a New York vessel bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage, visited London, and returned in the same ship. Redburn: His First Voyage, published in 1849, is partly founded on the experiences on this trip. A good part of the succeeding three years, from 1837 to 1840, was occupied with school-teaching, after which he once more signed a ship's articles. On January 1, 1841, he sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts harbor in the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific Ocean and the sperm whale fishery. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and traveled to the South Pacific. He has left very little direct information about the events of this eighteen months' cruise, although Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, probably gives many pictures of life on board the Acushnet. Melville decided to abandon the vessel on reaching the Marquesas Islands, where he lived among the natives of the island for several weeks.
After a sojourn at the Society Islands, Melville shipped out for Honolulu. There he remained for four months, employed as a clerk. He joined the crew of the American frigate United States, which reached Boston, stopping on the way at one of the Peruvian ports, in October of 1844. Upon his return, he recorded his experiences in the books Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, and White-Jacket, published in the following six years. All of these early "adventure story" novels of Melville's were relatively well received, and for a time Melville was a minor literary celebrity in nineteenth-century America.
Melville married Elizabeth Shaw (daughter of noted jurist Lemuel Shaw) on August 4, 1847. The Melvilles resided in New York City until 1850, when they purchased Arrowhead, a farmhouse in Pittsfield, Massachusetts that has since been turned into a museum. Here Melville remained for 13 years, occupied with his writing, and managing his farm. While there he befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived nearby. At Arrowhead he wrote Moby-Dick and Pierre, works that did not achieve the same popular and critical success of his earlier books, but which were later considered among his most profound.
While at Pittsfield, because of financial reasons, Melville was induced to enter the lecture field. From 1857 to 1860 he spoke at Lycea, chiefly speaking of his adventures in the South Seas. He also became a customs inspector for the City of New York. He loathed his work at the customs house and he desperately wanted more time to write, but financial needs pressed him and he continued on in the post for 19 years. Not having the time to compose sprawling novels like Moby-Dick, during these long years in his late life Melville primarily wrote poetry, including his moderately popular book of war poetry Battle Pieces, and his epic religious poem Clarel. During this time he also wrote his last (and some argue, greatest) prose work, the novella Billy Budd.
In his later life, his works no longer accessible to a broad audience, he was not able to support himself from writing. He depended on his wife's family for money along with his other attempts at employment. After an illness that lasted a number of months, Herman Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.
Moby-Dick has become Melville's most famous work and is justly considered as the great American novel. It was dedicated to Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville also wrote White-Jacket, Typee, Omoo, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, The Confidence-Man and many short stories and works of various genres. His short story Bartleby the Scrivener is among his most important pieces, and has been considered a precursor to Existentialist and Absurdist literature. Melville is less well known as a poet and did not publish poetry until late in life. After the American Civil War, he published Battle-Pieces, which sold well. But again tending to outrun the tastes of his readers, Melville's epic length verse-narrative Clarel, about a student's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was also quite unknown in his own time. His poetry is not as highly critically esteemed as his fiction, although a handful of poets have esteemed his poetry, including Robert Lowell.
"Bartleby the Scrivener" is easily Melville's most famous short story, and one of the most influential American short stories of the nineteenth century. The story first appeared, anonymously, in two parts in Putnam's Magazine. The first part appeared in November 1853, with the conclusion published in December of the same year. It was reprinted in Melville's The Piazza Tales in 1856 with minor textual alterations. The work is said to have been inspired, in part, by Melville's reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Some have pointed to specific parallels with Emerson's essay, The Transcendentalist. The story was adapted into a movie starring Crispin Glover in 2001.
The narrator of the story is an unnamed lawyer with offices on Wall Street in New York City. He describes himself as doing "a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds." He has three employees: "First, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut," each of whom is described. Turkey and Nippers are copyists or scriveners while Ginger Nut does delivery work and other assorted jobs around the office. The lawyer decides his business needs a third scrivener. Bartleby responds to his advertisement and arrives at the office, "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!"
At first Bartleby appears to be a competent worker, but later he refuses to work when requested, repeatedly uttering the phrase "I would prefer not to." He is also found to be living in the lawyer's office. Bartleby refuses to explain his behavior, and also refuses to leave when he is dismissed. The lawyer moves offices to avoid any further confrontation, and Bartleby is taken away to The Tombs—that is, the city's penitentiary. At the end of the story, Bartleby slowly starves in prison, preferring not to eat, and finally expiring just prior to a visit by the lawyer. The lawyer suspects Bartleby's conjectured previous career in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C. drove him to his bizarre behavior.
Another explanation is that since Bartleby was paid per page to copy documents, that, at least in the beginning, he was unwilling to work at tasks such as checking the work for accuracy, and running errands to the post office for his employer, since he would not be paid for these activities. This does not explain his gradual decision to stop working altogether, and his apparent total withdrawal from life, leading to his inevitable death, presumably by starvation.
“Bartleby the Scrivener” is among the most famous of American short stories. It contains elements of the grotesque, in the manner of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol from the same period. “Bartleby” has been considered a precursor to existentialist and absurdist literature even though at the time the story was published, it was not very popular. "Bartleby" touches on many of the themes extant in the work of Franz Kafka, particularly in The Trial and A Hunger Artist. However, there exists nothing to indicate that the Czech writer was at all familiar with Melville, who was largely forgotten until after Kafka's death.
Albert Camus cites Melville (explicitly over Kafka) as one of his key influences in a personal letter to Liselotte Dieckmann printed in the French Review in 1998.
Moby-Dick is unanimously considered to be Melville's masterpiece. It is the story of Captain Ahab, commander of the whaling ship the Pequod, and his mad quest to find and kill the white whale, Moby Dick, who maimed his leg and made him into a cripple. Composed in the latter half of Melville's career, it was unpopular in its own time. By the time of its publication Melville had already undermined his popularity with the publication of the equally symbolic and difficult novel, Pierre. As a result, Melville's gripping story of the Pequod would go largely unread into the early decades of the twentieth century, when literary scholars rediscovered it.
Moby-Dick was first published by Richard Bentley in expurgated form (in three volumes) as The Whale in London on October 18, 1851, and then in full, by Harper and Brothers, as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale in New York on November 14, 1851, in a single volume. Moby-Dick's style was revolutionary for its time: descriptions in intricate, imaginative, and varied prose of the methods of whale-hunting, the adventure, and the narrator's reflections interweave the story's themes with a huge swath of Western literature, history, religion, mythology, philosophy, and science. Although its initial reception was unfavorable, Moby-Dick is now considered to be one of the canonical novels in the English language, and has secured Melville's reputation in the first rank of American writers.
One overwhelming feature of the novel is the large sections—probably comprising over half the length of the text—that on the surface appear to be non-fictional digressions on (among other things) [[whale[[s, whaling, the color white, and the "crotch" (the forked support holding the harpoon in a whale boat). These ‘digressions,’ which can seem largely irrelevant to the story, are all densely steeped in metaphor and symbolism and are integral to the story.
Melville's letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne provide great insight into the composition of how Melville developed his story of the great white whale and its nemesis, Captain Ahab. Unfortunately, Hawthorne's responses did not survive. Similarities in the plots of The House of Seven Gables—published a few months before—and Moby-Dick are remarkably alike. The shared themes of both stories is known and noted in literary circles.
The plot was inspired in part by the November 20, 1820 sinking of the whale ship Essex (a small boat from Nantucket, Massachusetts). The ship went down 2,000 miles (3,700 km) from the western coast of South America after it was attacked by an 80-ton Sperm Whale. The story was recounted by several of the eight survivors, including first mate Owen Chase in his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. Moby-Dick also undoubtedly draws on Melville's experiences as a sailor, and in particular on his voyage on the whaler Acushnet in 1841–1842. Melville left no other account of his career as a whaler, so we can only guess as to the extent to which Moby-Dick is a roman à clef, and how much is wholly invented. There was a real-life albino sperm whale, known as Mocha Dick, that lived near the island of Mocha off Chile's southern coast, several decades before Melville wrote his book. Mocha Dick, like Moby Dick in Melville's story, had escaped countless times from the attacks of whalers, whom he would often attack with premeditated ferocity, and consequently had dozens of harpoons sticking in his back. Mocha Dick was eventually killed in the 1830s. No one knows what prompted Melville to change the name "Mocha" to "Moby," but given that Mocha Dick was an albino sperm whale, it seems highly probable that Melville used him as a basis for his book.
It is impossible to do justice to Moby-Dick through a plot summary because the novel is about so much more than just what takes place in its plot, which is deceptively simple. The novel opens with Ishmael, a restless sailor who is about to join the crew of the Pequod and who will remain the narrator of the story (although his narrative voice will at times merge with an omniscient narrator as there are scenes Ishmael will recount that he could not possibly have seen). Once on board the Pequod, Ishmael befriends members of its crew, including the "savage" harpooner Queequeg, and the first mates (Flask, Stubb, and Starbuck). Soon into the voyage, Captain Ahab gathers the crew together and informs them that the Pequod will not be going on an ordinary whaling expedition; their goal is to find and kill the white whale. The Pequod sails on, encountering a number of ordinary whales and various adventures with passing ships. Finally, after months of searching, the white whale is spotted, and the novel ends with Moby Dick destroying the Pequod and everyone on it, except one; on the last page of the book, Ishmael floats away, carried by a coffin one of his shipmates had made.
This brief summary does not capture an iota of the nuance and complexity of the actual story. The book's themes are no easier to outline. The names of many of the characters in the story (Ahab and Ishmael especially) are explicitly Biblical, and some passages in the book (in particular those dealing with Ahab's thoughts and speeches) are written in a vividly Biblical style. This has led some critics to read the novel as a Biblical allegory, where the all-powerful Moby Dick represents a vengeful God, with Ahab as a sort of Book of Job who interrogates the God that has done him harm. Other readings have focused on the racial subtexts of the novel, with particular attention to the fact that all of the harpooners (who in the non-fiction sections are praised as heroes among whaling crews) are ethnic characters: Queequeg is a Polynesian islander, Daggoo is a "massive" African, Tashtego is a Native American, and Fedellah (the leader of Ahab's secret crew) is Persian. The Pequod itself is named after a Native American tribe that was almost exterminated in the seventeenth century. And of course, a great deal of the novel's descriptions of Moby Dick focus on his "terrifying" whiteness.
Such readings do not exhaust the themes present in the novel; they barely scratch the surface. It is a novel so densely allusive and symbolic that some scholars have devoted their entire careers to just interpreting Moby-Dick. It is certainly one of the great works of American literature.
Billy Budd, found unfinished among Melville's papers after his death, has had an ignominious editorial history, as poor transcription and misinterpretation of Melville's notes on the manuscript marred the first published editions of the text. For example, early versions gave the book's title as "Billy Budd, Foretopman," while it now seems clear that Melville intended "Billy Budd, Sailor"; some versions wrongly included a chapter that Melville had excised as a preface (the correct text has no preface); some versions fail to correct the name of the ship to Bellipotent from the Indomitable, as Melville called the boat in an earlier draft.
In 1962, Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. established what is now considered the correct text; it was published by the University of Chicago Press, and most editions printed since then follow the Hayford/Sealts text. Since the efforts of these two scholars, the full importance of Billy Budd as one of Melville's most exemplary works has begun to come to light.
The plot follows Billy Budd, a seaman pressed into service aboard the HMS Bellipotent in the year 1797, when the British Navy was reeling from two major mutinies and was threatened by Napoleon's military ambitions. Billy, suffused with innocence, openness, and natural charisma, is adored by the crew, but for unexplained reasons arouses the antagonism of the ship's Master-at-Arms, John Claggart, who falsely accuses Billy of conspiracy to mutiny. When Claggart brings his charges to the Captain, the Hon. Edward Fairfax "Starry" Vere, Vere summons both Claggart and Billy to his cabin for a private confrontation. When, in Billy's and Vere's presence, Claggart makes his false charges, Billy is unable to find the words to respond, due to a speech impediment. Unable to express himself save with a blow, he lashes out seemingly involuntarily at Claggart, killing him with a single blow. Vere, an eminently thoughtful man whose name recalls the Latin words "veritas" (truth) and "vir" (man) as well as the English word "veer," then convenes a drumhead court-martial. He intervenes in the deliberations of the court-martial panel to convince them to convict Billy, despite the panel's and his belief in Billy's innocence before God. Vere claims to be following the letter of the Mutiny Act and the Articles of War, but recent scholarship suggests otherwise (see below). At his insistence, the court-martial convicts Billy and sentences him to immediate death by hanging; Vere argues that any appearance of weakness in the officers and failure to enforce discipline could stir the already-turbulent waters of mutiny throughout the British fleet. Condemned to be hanged from the ship's yardarm at dawn the morning after the killing, Billy's final words are, "God bless Captain Vere!"
The story may have been based on events onboard USS Somers.
The novel has been adapted as a play, movie, and, famously, an opera by twentieth century composer Benjamin Britten.
A story ultimately about good and evil, Billy Budd has often been interpreted allegorically, with Billy interpreted typologically as Christ or the Biblical Adam, with Claggart (compared to a snake several times in the text) figured as Satan. Vere is often associated with God the Father. This theory stems mainly from the characteristics attributed to each man. Billy is innocent, oft referenced to a "barbarian" or a "child," while Claggart is a representation of evil with a "depravity according to nature," a phrase Melville borrows from Plato. Vere, without a doubt the most conflicted character in the novel, is torn between his compassion for the "Handsome Sailor" and his martial adherence to the Articles of War.
In the 1980s, Richard Weisberg of Yeshiva University's Benjamin Cardozo Law School advanced a reading of the novel based on his careful research into the history of the governing law. Based on his mining of statutory law and actual practice in the Royal Navy in the era in which the book takes place, Weisberg rejects the traditional reading of Captain Vere as a good man trapped by bad law and proposes instead that Vere deliberately distorted the applicable substantive and procedural law to bring about Billy's death. The most fully worked-out version of Weisberg's argument can be found in chapters 8 and 9 of his book The Failure of the Word: The Lawyer as Protagonist in Modern Fiction (orig. ed., 1984; expanded ed., 1989).
Herman Melville was one of the most original and daring writers of nineteenth-century American literature. Together with his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, they helped to infuse American literature with its own unique character, looking to American experience and sensibility and breaking with European social realism. Melville's complex allegorical writings were ground-breaking explorations of eternal questions that expanded the scope of the novel as method of artistic and philosophical inquiry.
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