MELVILLE, HERMAN – read online

MELVILLE, HERMAN (1819–1891). More than any other American
author, Herman Melville used the sea as setting and concept to create great
literature. With broad-ranging and deep philosophical interests, his books
are far more than adventure stories. In his works, Melville struggles with
human interactions in a diverse and complex world, the boundaries of
knowledge, and the search for truth. Melville’s success began with his first
book, Typee* (1846), and continued with Omoo* (1847). While financial
success eluded Melville after these first two books, their reception was a major influence on his continuing to write on maritime subjects. His time
at sea inspired his next four books; Mardi* (1849), Redburn* (1849),
White-Jacket* (1850), and Moby-Dick* (1851). Only Pierre (1852) is a complete departure from the sea: he returns with “The Encantadas”* (1854),
the John Paul Jones* section of Israel Potter (1854–1855), and “Benito
Cereno”* (1855). Moreover, The Confidence-Man (1857) is set on a steamboat, and many of Melville’s Civil War poems in Battle-Pieces (1866) concern naval warfare. Late in his life, however, he published Clarel (1876), an
18,000-line poem of a pilgrimage through the Holy Land with little maritime association, and Timoleon (1891), a small collection of nonmaritime
poems. Nonetheless, his other late collection of poems, John Marr and
Other Sailors* (1888), and Billy Budd, Sailor* (1924), the short novel he was
working on at the time of his death, exhibit a powerful maritime influence.
Although born to an upper-middle-class family, at age twelve Melville was
thrust into poverty when his father, Allan Melvill, went bankrupt and died
in delirium in 1832. His mother, Maria Gansevoort Melvill, was left with
eight children and no way to make a living. In 1839 Melville (the final “e”
was added to the family name in 1832) went to sea in an effort to help
support his family. Now age nineteen, he signed on to the full-rigged merchant vessel St. Lawrence (1833), Oliver P. Brown, master, for his first sea
voyage. Melville sailed from New York to Liverpool and back to New York:
the passage to England took twenty-seven days, and the passage home fortynine days. Melville’s fourth book, Redburn: His First Voyage, subtitled Being
the Sailor-boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in
the Merchant Service, describes in a fictional manner what Melville encountered as he learned the skills of a sailor.
Melville’s next major trip was in 1840, when he traveled to Illinois by
boat with his friend Eli James Murdock Fly. Their three-day journey by
canalboat from Albany to Buffalo may have provided the description of the
Erie Canal found in Chapter 54 of Moby-Dick, “The Town-Ho’s Story.”
Melville and Fly crossed Lake Erie by steamboat and then, from Detroit,
booked passage on a Lake Huron and Lake Michigan steamboat to Chicago.
From there, Melville and Fly crossed the prairie to Galena, Illinois, where
his uncle Thomas Melvill Jr. had a farm. It is unknown whether Melville
actually went up the Mississippi River since the source for his description of
“The River,” meant to be a part of The Confidence-Man, is actually Timothy
Flint’s A Condensed Geography and History of the Western States; or, The
Mississippi Valley (1828). However, Melville’s time on inland waterways decidedly influenced his tenth book, The Confidence-Man, a bleak work of
despair set on board the Fide ´le, a Mississippi River steamboat. The month
and route of Melville’s return to New York are unknown.
With his family still in financial trouble, Melville embarked from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on 3 January 1841, for the most influential voyage of
his life. He joined the crew of the whaleship Acushnet (1840), Valentine276 MELVILLE, HERMAN
Pease Jr., master, on its maiden voyage. His time on the Acushnet is the
basis for his account of a whaling voyage in his sixth book, Moby-Dick. But
the vessel Melville creates in Moby-Dick, the Pequod,* is a fantastical Nantucket* ship, with belaying pins of sperm-whale teeth and a tiller made from
the lower jaw of a sperm whale. Melville, at twenty-one, shipped on the
Acushnet as a green hand—the same rank he had held on the St. Lawrence.
However, before his whaling years were finished, Melville had worked his
way up to bow oarsman, the position held by Ishmael* in Moby-Dick, and
then possibly to boatsteerer (harpooneer).
In November 1841 the Acushnet spent six days at anchor off Chatham
Island in the Gala ´pagos Islands.* The Gala ´pagos, the location of Melville’s
ten sketches entitled “The Encantadas”* (1854), were called enchanted because the baffling currents in nearby waters were, Melville writes, “so strong
and irregular as to change a vessel’s course against the helm, though sailing
at the rate of four or five miles the hour” (sketch first, “Encantadas”). The
Acushnet returned to the waters of the Gala ´pagos for the month of January
1842, but the six days at Chatham Island in 1841 were the longest continuous period during which Melville may have had the possibility of going
ashore. Surprisingly. Chatham Island is referred to only twice—and then in
passing—in “The Encantadas.”
When the Acushnet reached Nukahiva in the Marquesas Islands in July
1842, Melville and his shipmate Richard Tobias Greene, whom he called
“Toby,” deserted and made their way to the interior. Melville hurt his leg
en route and was forced to remain behind while Toby escaped, hoping to
secure medicines for Melville. However, Toby never returned, and Melville
learned only years later that he had effected his escape on another Fairhaven
whaleship, the London Packet.
The embellished story of his adventures on Nukahiva is told in Melville’s
first book, Typee. In reality he spent only one month on the island (9 July–9
August 1842), but he lengthens the time to four months in his narrative.
As he did with all his books, in writing Typee, Melville interspersed his own
adventures with information he found in written sources. Three major
sources for Typee are David Porter’s* Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific
Ocean (1815), Charles S. Stewart’s A Visit to the South Seas (1831), and
George H. von Langsdorff’s Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the
World (1813).
Melville escaped from Nukahiva on the Australian whaleship Lucy Ann
(1819), Henry Ventom, master. Now signed as an able seaman, he joined
a crew torn by dissent. The Lucy Ann was bark-rigged and quite small, only
eighty-seven feet long, with a sickly captain and a first mate, James German,
who was prone to drink. Additionally, the vessel was inadequately officered.
It carried four whaleboats but had only one mate, two illiterate boatsteerers,
and a newly shipped boatsteerer who soon turned against the captain. A
whaleship carrying four whaleboats would normally carry four mates (or boatheaders) and four boatsteerers (or harpooneers). The captain soon became very ill, and German headed for Tahiti, where the captain was put
ashore. In an effort to prevent desertion while yet staying close to the captain, the Lucy Ann left port and sailed back and forth off the harbor of
Papeete, Tahiti; there, ten men refused duty. These ten men were held on
the French frigate La Reine Blanche; later, they were taken to a Tahitian
“calaboose” (jail). Melville joined the mutineers in their confinement ashore.
During his time as a prisoner, Melville was under a doctor’s care, and his
leg was treated. Roughly three weeks later, in October 1842, Melville escaped to the neighboring island of Eimeo (now Moorea), Society Islands.
Melville’s passage on the Lucy Ann, the mutiny,* and his imprisonment are
treated in his second book, Omoo.
Melville wandered the island of Eimeo until November 1842, when he
joined the Nantucket whaleship Charles and Henry (1832), John B. Coleman Jr., master. Melville evidently signed on as boatsteerer and spent five
months aboard the Charles and Henry, much less than the claim of “the
author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer”
that he made to his English publisher, Richard Bentley (letter of 27 June
1850). From his time on the Charles and Henry, Melville drew the beginning of his third book, Mardi.
Discharged at Lahaina, Maui, Melville traveled to Oahu aboard the Star,
Captain Burroughs, master. During Melville’s stay in Honolulu, the Acushnet came into port, and Valentine Pease Jr., on 2 June 1843, filed an affidavit
taking notice of Melville’s desertion eleven months earlier, a federal offense.
Six weeks later, Melville enlisted as an ordinary seaman on the American
naval frigate United States (1797), James Armstrong, master. The frigate
sailed under the pennant of Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones. Melville
was one of approximately 480 men on board.
Melville spent fourteen months on the United States, and in that time he
witnessed 163 floggings. His absolute hatred of this form of corporal punishment resounds throughout his fifth book, White-Jacket, and in his final
work, Billy Budd, Sailor. Melville’s long period at sea ended on 3 October
1844, when the United States arrived at Boston. He traveled on the ocean
several more times, but never again as a seaman. In 1860 he sailed around
Cape Horn* aboard the clipper ship Meteor (1852) with his younger
brother, Thomas, as captain. Homesick and depressed, however, Melville
took a steamer from San Francisco to Panama, crossed the isthmus, and
then returned to New York on the steamer North Star.
Although unknown to him at the time, an event occurred while Melville
was at sea on the Charles and Henry that would deeply affect his life. His
first cousin Guert Gansevoort was the first lieutenant of the U.S. training
brig Somers* (1842) under the command of Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie.* Three men, including the son of the secretary of war, were hanged
for mutiny on 1 December 1842. Mackenzie was court-martialed after questions arose as to whether a mutiny had actually been planned. Some claimed
that Mackenzie should have waited until the Somers reached St. Thomas in
the Virgin Islands, a mere two days away, to try the men in a formal military
court. Mackenzie was acquitted, but questions remain to this day. The many
similarities between the Somers incident and Billy Budd, Sailor include a
suspected mutiny, a “drumhead court” or officers’ council controlled by the
commanding officer, punishment by hanging, and unresolved questions
about the commander’s decision. Melville refers directly to the Somers in
Billy Budd, Sailor, suggesting that he was still troubled almost fifty years
later by an incident so closely tied to his family.
In his writings, Melville relied not only on his own experience but also
very heavily on his reading. “I have swam through libraries,” he writes in
Moby-Dick (ch. 32). Melville consumed books and was consumed by them.
As he read, he argued with them, laughed and cried over them, and became
fiercely angry with them. The books he owned are filled with notes and
jottings done with slashing pen marks and furious periods. Melville’s reading, both literary and factual, inspired his writing. An alchemist of words,
Melville transformed his often mundane sources. For example, the information in the “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick (ch. 32) is borrowed nearly
verbatim from the “Whales” entry in volume 27 of The Penny Cyclopaedia
of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1843). As Melville infused the dry information with his own humor and philosophical ponderings, he transformed it into literature of the highest order.
Both his time at sea and his reading influenced Melville’s works, but he
might never have achieved greatness had he not met first Evert Duyckinck,
at the center of the New York literary world, and then Nathaniel Hawthorne.* Melville initially met Duyckinck as the editor of Typee, and although the two men were quite different, remarkably, they became friends.
Melville had access to Duyckinck’s library, one of the greatest private libraries in the country. Duyckinck wrote to his brother George: “Melville
. . . has borrowed Sir Thomas Browne of me and says finely of the speculations of the Religio Medici that Browne is a kind of ‘crack’d Archangel.’
Was ever anything of this sort said before by a sailor?” (letter of 18 March
1848). In August 1850, Duyckinck went to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to visit
Melville, and during this visit a party of ten, seven of whom were literary
men, climbed Monument Mountain. Here, for the first time, Melville met
Hawthorne. His new book, which he had previously told Duyckinck was
“mostly done,” took another year to complete. That book was Moby-Dick,
and Melville’s long, philosophical conversations with Hawthorne reshaped
the book, subsequently dedicated to Hawthorne. The letter Hawthorne
wrote on first reading Moby-Dick no longer exists, but Melville’s response
to it does. Melville calls it “your joy-giving and exultation-breeding letter”
and goes on to say: “A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book” (letter of [17?] November
Unfortunately, few others understood, and Moby-Dick was never reprinted
in Melville’s lifetime. Melville spent the next forty years living in obscurity
until his death. He wrote only two more full-length works after Moby-Dick
and worked for nineteen years as a customs inspector. It was a life of aching
sadness, depressed and depressing. When he died, he was yet again revising
the manuscript he had entitled Billy Budd, Sailor. The redemption of his
reputation began with the publication of Raymond Weaver’s biography,
Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, in 1921 and has continued to this
Among the rich and numerous critical, biographical, and/or derivative
works that have appeared over the years, even contemporary authors such
as Larry Duberstein (The Handsome Sailor, 1998) and Frederick Busch (The
Night Inspector, 1999) have turned to the historical Melville as a significant
character in their novels.