by Gerald Boerner
“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
— Herman Melville“A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
— Herman Melville
“Is there some principal of nature which states that we never know the quality of what we have until it is gone?”
— Herman Melville
“I am, as I am; whether hideous, or handsome, depends upon who is made judge.”
— Herman Melville
“A man thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things.”
— Herman Melville
“Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.”
— Herman Melville
“Friendship at first sight, like love at first sight, is said to be the only truth.”
— Herman Melville
“Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”
— Herman Melville
“In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.”
— Herman Melville
“He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
— Herman Melville
Herman Melville & Moby Dick: Great American Novel
Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist and poet who is often classified as part of dark romanticism. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick and novella Billy Budd, the latter which was published posthumously.
His first three books gained much attention, the first becoming a bestseller, but after a fast-blooming literary success in the late 1840s, his popularity declined precipitously in the mid-1850s and never recovered during his lifetime. When he died in 1891, he was almost completely forgotten. It was not until the “Melville Revival” in the early 20th century that his work won recognition, most notably Moby-Dick which was hailed as one of the chief literary masterpieces of both American and world literature.
Early working life
Herman 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. This effort failed, and his brother helped him get a job as a cabin boy on a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage, and returned on the same ship. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) is partly based on his experiences of this journey.
The three years after Albany Academy (1837 to 1840) were mostly occupied with school-teaching, except for the voyage to Liverpool in 1839. Near the end of 1840 he once again decided to sign ship’s articles. On January 3, 1841, he sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts on the whaler Acushnet, which was bound for the Pacific Ocean. He was later to comment that his life began that day. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and traveled to the South Pacific. Melville left little direct information about the events of this 18-month cruise, although his whaling romance, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, probably gives many pictures of life onboard the Acushnet. Melville deserted the Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842. For three weeks he lived among the Typee natives, who were called cannibals by the two other tribal groups on the island — though they treated Melville very well. His book Typee was Melville’s first novel. It describes a brief love affair with a beautiful native girl, Fayaway, who generally “wore the garb of Eden” and came to epitomize the guileless noble savage in the popular imagination. We have no independent evidence, however, of Melville’s actual activities among the islanders.
Melville did not seem to be concerned about repercussions from his desertion from the Acushnet. He boarded another whaler bound for Hawaii and left that ship in Honolulu. While in Honolulu, he became a controversial figure for his vehement opposition to the activities of Christian missionaries seeking to convert the native population. After working as a clerk for four months he joined the crew of the frigate USS United States, which reached Boston in October 1844. These experiences were described in Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket, which were published as novels mainly because few believed their veracity.
Melville completed Typee in the summer of 1845 though he had difficulty getting it published. It was eventually published in 1846 in London, where it became an overnight bestseller. The Boston publisher subsequently accepted Omoo sight unseen. Typee and Omoo gave Melville overnight notoriety as a writer and adventurer and he often entertained by telling stories to his admirers. As writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis wrote, “With his cigar and his Spanish eyes, he talks Typee and Omoo, just as you find the flow of his delightful mind on paper”. The novels, however, did not generate enough royalties for him to live on. Omoo was not as colorful as Typee, and readers began to realize Melville was not just producing adventure stories. Redburn and White-Jacket had no problem finding publishers. Mardi was a disappointment for readers who wanted another rollicking and exotic sea yarn.
Publications and contemporary reactions
Most of Melville’s novels were published first in the United Kingdom and then in the U.S. Sometimes the editions contain substantial differences; at other times different printings were either bowdlerized or restored to their pre-bowdlerized state. (For specifics on different publication dates, editions, printings, etc., please see entries for individual novels.)
Moby-Dick has become Melville’s most famous work and is often considered one of the greatest literary works of all time. It was dedicated to Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. It did not, however, make Melville rich. The book never sold its initial printing of 3,000 copies in his lifetime, and total earnings from the American edition amounted to just $556.37 from his publisher, Harper & Brothers. Melville also wrote Billy Budd, White-Jacket, Typee, Omoo, Pierre, The Confidence-Man and many short stories and works of various genres.
Melville is less well known as a poet and did not publish poetry until later in life. After the Civil War, he published Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, which did not sell well; of the Harper & Bros. printing of 1200 copies, only 525 had been sold ten years later. 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 obscure, even in his own time. Among the longest single poems in American literature, Clarel, published in 1876, had an initial printing of only 350 copies. The critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of the poem in the New York Public Library in 1925 “with its pages uncut”. In other words, it had sat there unread for 50 years.
His poetry is not as highly critically esteemed as his fiction, although some critics place him as the first modernist poet in the United States; others would assert that his work more strongly suggest what today would be a postmodern view. Clarel has won the admiration of no less a critic than Helen Vendler, who read it in preparation for the 1976 Pittsfield Centennial Celebration. Another leading champion of Melville’s claims as a great American poet was the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, who issued a selection of Melville’s poetry prefaced by an admiring and acute critical essay.
Moby-Dick, the Great American Novel
Moby-Dick is a classic novel published in 1851 by American author Herman Melville. Originally misunderstood by contemporary audiences and critics, Moby-Dick is now often referred to as The Great American Novel and is considered one of the treasures of world literature. The story tells the adventures of the wandering sailor Ishmael and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab seeks one specific whale, Moby Dick, a white sperm whale of tremendous size and ferocity. Comparatively few whaleships know of Moby Dick, and fewer yet have encountered him. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab’s boat and bit off his leg. Ahab intends to take revenge.
In Moby-Dick, Melville employs stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous complex themes. Through the main character’s journey, the concepts of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of gods are all examined as Ishmael speculates upon his personal beliefs and his place in the universe. The narrator’s reflections, along with his descriptions of a sailor’s life aboard a whaling ship, are woven into the narrative along with Shakespearean literary devices such as stage directions, extended soliloquies and asides.
Often considered the embodiment of American Romanticism, Moby-Dick was first published by Richard Bentley in London on October 18, 1851 in an expurgated three-volume edition titled The Whale, and weeks later as one massive volume, by New York City publisher Harper and Brothers as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale on November 14, 1851. The first line of Chapter One—”Call me Ishmael.”—is one of the most famous opening lines in American literature. Although the book initially received mixed reviews, Moby-Dick is now considered one of the greatest novels in the English language and has secured Melville’s place among America’s greatest writers.
Moby-Dick is a symbolic work, but also includes chapters on natural history. Major themes include obsession, religion, idealism versus pragmatism, revenge, racism, sanity, hierarchical relationships, and politics. All of the members of the crew have biblical-sounding, improbable, or descriptive names, and the narrator deliberately avoids specifying the exact time of the events (such as the giant fish disappearing into the dark abyss of the ocean) and some other similar details. These together suggest that the narrator — and not just Melville — is deliberately casting his tale in an epic and allegorical mode.
The white whale has also been seen as a symbol for many things, including nature and those elements of life that are out of human control. The character Gabriel, “in his gibbering insanity, pronounc[ed] the White Whale to be no less a being than the Shaker God incarnated; the Shakers receiving the Bible.”. Melville mentions the Matsya Avatar of Lord Vishnu, the first among ten incarnations when Vishnu appears as a giant fish on Earth and saves creation from the flood of destruction. Melville mentions this while discussing the spiritual and mystical aspects of the sailing profession and he calls Lord Vishnu as the first among whales and the God of whalers.
The Pequod’s quest to hunt down Moby Dick itself is also widely viewed as allegorical. To Ahab, killing the whale becomes the ultimate goal in his life, and this observation can also be expanded allegorically so that the whale represents everyone’s goals. Furthermore, his vengeance against the whale is analogous to man’s struggle against fate. The only escape from Ahab’s vision is seen through the Pequod’s occasional encounters, called gams, with other ships. Readers could consider what exactly Ahab will do if he, in fact, succeeds in his quest: having accomplished his ultimate goal, what else is there left for him to do? Similarly, Melville may be implying that people in general need something to reach for in life, or that such a goal can destroy one if allowed to overtake all other concerns. Some such things are hinted at early on in the book, when the main character, Ishmael, is sharing a cold bed with his newfound friend, Queequeg:
… truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.
— Moby-Dick, Ch. 11
Ahab’s pipe is widely looked upon as the riddance of happiness in Ahab’s life. By throwing the pipe overboard, Ahab signifies that he no longer can enjoy simple pleasures in life; instead, he dedicates his entire life to the pursuit of his obsession, the killing of the white whale, Moby Dick. A number of biblical themes can also be found in the novel. The book contains multiple implicit and explicit allusions to the story of Jonah, in addition to the use of certain biblical names.
Ishmael’s musings also allude to themes common among the American Transcendentalists and parallel certain themes in European Romanticism and the philosophy of Hegel. In the poetry of Whitman and the prose writings of Emerson and Thoreau, a ship at sea is sometimes a metaphor for the soul.
In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne written within days of Moby-Dick’s American publication, Melville made a number of revealing comments:
… for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory—the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity.
A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your understanding the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable sociabilities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome’s Pantheon. It is a strange feeling—no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content—that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.
You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book—and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul.
Other Events on this Day
- In 1851…
Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick is published.
- In 1910…
Eugene Fly becomes the first pilot to take off from a ship, the USS Birmingham, anchored off Hampton Roads, Virginia.
- In 1935…
President Franklin D. Roosevelt declares the Philippine Islands to be a self-governing commonwealth (which gains full independence in 1946).
- In 1972…
The Dow Jones Industrial Average industrial Average closes the first time, ending the trading session at $1,003.16.
Dates and events based on:
William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Herman Melville that can be found at…
Moby-Dick that can be found at…