August 19, 1819-September 28, 1891
Birth Date: August 19, 1819
Place of Birth: New York City
Death Date: September 28, 1891
Place of Death: New York City
Genre(s): FICTION; SHORT STORIES; NOVELS; POETRY; ADVENTURE FICTION
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Herman Melville, who 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, has gathered increasing fame, especially for his metaphysical whaling novel, Moby-Dick. Like much of his writing, Moby-Dick originates in his experiences as a common sailor and in the complex reactions of his lively mind to ageless spiritual questions and to the ebullient society of his time. One of the few American books recognized as a world classic, it has overshadowed the considerable achievement of his other work, which is diverse and experimental and, though sometimes flawed, often shows remarkable control. His narratives of adventure in the South Seas are small masterworks of the genre. His short tales, "Bartleby" and "Benito Cereno," are carefully crafted and profoundly sensitive critiques of his own age that emerge as fables applicable to a later day. His paired sketch, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," combines cunning social criticism and psychological insight. He wrote perhaps a dozen poems of distinction, most of them brief and the outgrowth of his travels or his musings on the events of the Civil War. It can be argued that his last published prose work, The Confidence-Man, is the first modern American novel. Without doubt, it is an uncanny tour de force.
Because so much of it appears in his writing, the study of Melville's life has more than ordinary interest. Early and conspicuously autobiographical novels like Omoo he prefaces with an assertion that "he has merely described what he has seen." White-Jacket, he states, is an account of his "man-of-war experiences and observations." But more and more, as he became landlocked, his books grew to be inside narratives, the voyages of a mental traveler. So, in addition to the obvious biographical facts, a more difficult study, that of Melville's mind and spirit, should be pursued, and it should embrace not only his psychological and intellectual history but his responses, frequently deviant and always ambivalent, to nineteenth-century American culture.
Melville's father, Allan, an "importer of French Goods and Commission Merchant" who traveled abroad, was a member of a substantial if colorful Boston family. His grandfather, Major Thomas Melvill, was a venerable survivor of the Boston Tea Party whose refusal to change the style of his clothing or his manners to fit the times made him an emblematic figure in Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem "The Last Leaf." Herman would visit him in Boston and his father would turn to him in times of financial need, which were all too frequent. The other side of the family was Hudson Valley Dutch. His maternal grandfather, General Peter Gansevoort, a hero of the Saratoga campaign, was an imposing subject in his goldlaced uniform for the painter Gilbert Stuart. The portrait would appear in Melville's later novel, Pierre, for Melville wrote out of his familial as well as his nautical background. Like the titular character in Pierre , Melville found satisfaction in his "double revolutionary descent."
Allan Melvill's family lived comfortably in New York. He had his children baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church and sent his sons to the New York Male School where they could get something more than a common education. But he overextended himself and was emotionally unstable. His attempt to recoup in 1830 by moving his family to Albany, New York, and going into the fur business ended in disastrous failure. He died in 1832 of a sudden illness that included mental collapse, and left his widow in genteel poverty, largely dependent upon her well-off kin.
For young Melville his father's death brought an end to what seems, outwardly at least, to have been a stable and unremarkable childhood. At twelve he was forced to leave Albany Academy, where he had been a satisfactory student, to take a job as a bank clerk. Henceforth he would educate himself, and for some time to come he would drift from one thing to another. He clerked in the family fur and cap business now run by his older brother Gansevoort, worked on his Uncle Thomas Melvill's farm at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, taught irregularly in various district schools, and in 1839 he made "his first voyage"--to quote the subtitle of Redburn , an initiation story based on this experience--as a member of the crew of the merchant ship St. Lawrence, bound for Liverpool with a cargo of cotton. A decade later, when he wrote about this first voyage, he had his sailor-boy narrator think of himself as "a sort of Ishmael," a drifter and fatherless.
He returned to try his fortune in the West. His Uncle Thomas Melvill had moved to Galena, Illinois. With a friend, Eli Fly, Melville left Albany, following the Erie Canal to Buffalo, where he took a steamer. In the end he saw the prairies and the western wilderness and visited the headwaters of the Mississippi, the spectacular Falls of St. Anthony, but he found that his uncle could not secure his future, for there was a business recession. So he set out for home by Mississippi riverboat, with stops at St. Louis and Cairo. Melville's life on the Mississippi would be put to literary use in The Confidence-Man, but for the moment it appeared to serve no purpose.
By the fall of 1840 he was back in New York but still unsettled. If going west had proved bootless, there was another possibility open to venturesome young men: he could go to sea. Other members of his family had sought nautical careers, and besides, he was fresh from reading Richard Henry Dana , Jr.'s, Two Years Before the Mast. The words he put into Ishmael's mouth at the beginning of Moby-Dick fit his own case: "having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world." In December 1840 he signed articles to serve as an ordinary seaman on a new whaling ship, the Acushnet, Valentine Pease, master, of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. On the crew list he is described as "Age 21 Height 5 feet 9-1/2 inches Complexion dark Hair brown." The Acushnet cleared the port of New Bedford on 3 January to cruise for whales in the Pacific. Such voyages usually lasted three or four years.
On 3 October 1844, the frigate United States anchored at the Boston Navy Yard and its captain wrote for permission to discharge the crew. Among them was Herman Melville, age twenty-five. Word of his arrival soon reached the family, probably by way of his cousin, Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort, then stationed on a naval receiving ship in Boston harbor following his difficult duties in connection with the alleged mutiny aboard the brig Somers. Melville was paid off with the rest of the crew on 14 October. He saw his brother, Gansevoort, by now a New York lawyer and flashy political orator, who instructed him to shave and clean himself up before proceeding to Albany and the nearby village of Lansingburgh to receive the family welcome. He found there an admiring audience for his sailor yarns and was encouraged to write them down. That winter he began a series of personal narratives of his wanderings in Polynesia and his life on whaling ships, in the merchant marine, and in the United States Navy. In the summer of 1851, at work on Moby-Dick, he would reminisce to Hawthorne: "Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then + now, that I have not unfolded within myself."
The process of unfolding began with Typee (1846). On the surface, the book is true adventure in an exotic setting, one which not even the missionaries and sea captains, who alone had written about this remote region, could entirely rob of its appeal in their uninspired accounts. But factual appeal was important, too. Genuine narratives and histories attracted readers who disdained fiction as frivolous, and when the factual was brightened with colorful scenes, and a flesh tone or two, so much the better. Furthermore, interest in maritime affairs ran high. The American whaling fleet and Yankee clippers ruled the waves, and that ideas of Manifest Destiny extended into the Pacific was underscored as early as the War of 1812 when Captain David Porter raided the Typee Valley and seized Nukuheva in the name of the United States. By hindsight, the unfolding process is seen not simply in narrative skill, the management of suspense, and a growing consciousness of the potential of language. Typee also shows tendencies which Melville would continue to develop: the suspicion that things are not quite what they appear to be, that values and behavior differ from place to place--though in any place people have a capacity for evil, even when their life seems idyllic or their avowed aim is to do good--and that objects and events are meaningful though one can never be quite sure what they mean. These things lay beneath the surface, and this, too, was characteristic.
The restless young man showed signs of settled purpose, but the lower layer of his first book hinted of a restless spirit, and the writing indicates a degree of sophistication that failed to inspire the confidence of publishers. His tale was too good to be true. When Melville submitted the manuscript to Harper and Brothers, the editors compared it favorably with Robinson Crusoe but rejected it because "it was impossible that it could be true and therefore was without real value." Gansevoort Melville's labors on the hustings during the presidential campaign of James K. Polk, "Young Hickory," were rewarded with an appointment as Secretary of the American Legation in London. He carried the manuscript of Typee abroad with him.
Typee proved suitable for John Murray's new series of inexpensive and wholesomely factual books, the Colonial and Home Library, though Murray at first thought he detected "a practiced writer" and had to be reassured. Optimistic that he was protected against piracy by a recent copyright law, he offered 100 pounds for the English rights. Gansevoort Melville showed the proof sheets to Washington Irving, who predicted success, and to the New York publisher, G.P. Putnam, a London visitor who read it with delight and arranged for his house, Wiley and Putnam, to publish an American edition. The subsurface qualities of a darker sort were overlooked, but there was still work to be done. Murray required revisions, mainly to enhance the appearance of authenticity, and Wiley and Putnam was nervous about spicy passages and negative comments about missionaries. Typee was published in London on 27 February 1846 and in New York on 17 March following. It was a success.
The novelty and verve of Typee , with its titilating escapades among the fleshpots of a cannibal paradise, gave Melville an entrance into New York's literary society. The influential editors Evert and George Duyckinck became his sponsors. They were launching a review, the Literary World, to which he would contribute, and were at the center of the "Young America" movement that promoted literary nationalism and Democratic party politics. Both attracted Melville. The reviews were generally favorable, except in the religious press, and sales looked promising. There was also some feeling that he had stretched the facts. He was encouraged to consider a sequel that would closely follow his voyage on a hapless Australian whaling barque and some light-hearted beachcombing in Tahiti. At this point his shipmate Richard Tobias Greene, who appeared as Toby in Typee and who had shared the earlier part of Melville's adventures, read the book, revealed himself, and wrote a newspaper in Buffalo that he could "testify to the entire accuracy of the work, so long as I was with Melville." Greene and Melville promptly met, and Greene related "The Story of Toby" which Melville added to the next edition. All in all, Melville's prospects seemed bright. He was soon to be married and he hoped to support himself and his wife with his writing.
By the end of 1846 Melville had signed a contract providing a generous advance of $400 with Harper and Brothers "to publish a certain manuscript, entitled 'Omoo: a Narrative of Adventure in the South Seas,'" and he was soon negotiating with John Murray about an English edition. Murray offered 150 pounds, an encouraging increase over his first book. "I think you will find it a fitting successor to 'Typee,'" he wrote Murray, "inasmuch as the latter book delineates Polynesian Life in its primitive state--while the new work, represents it, as affected by intercourse with the whites." In the preface to Omoo he emphasized his concern with "the present condition of the converted Polynesians, as affected by promiscuous intercourse with foreigners, and the teachings of the missionaries, combined." The intercourse that Melville particularly objected to was with white missionaries who self-righteously imposed their moral standards on a people they did not deign to understand, with gunboats like the Reine Blanche at Tahiti that sustained white civilization, and with profligate sailors who left corruption in their wake. The missionary journals struck back zealously but otherwise the publication of Omoo met with favor. Walt Whitman, for instance, commented in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 5 May 1847: "One can revel in such a richly good-natured style.... We therefore recommend this 'narrative of adventure in the south seas,' as thorough entertainment--not so light as to be tossed aside for its flippancy, nor so profound as to be tiresome."
Melville wrote John Murray in March 1847 while Omoo was still in press that if the book proved successful he would "follow it up with something else, immediately." In June he replied "in confidence" to "friendly overtures" from another British publisher, Richard Bentley, that he had "a new work on South Sea adventure" under way. The new work was Mardi, the last of his Polynesian triad. It was unlikely, however, that it held his full attention. He was engaged to Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of Massachusetts, his father's friend and a family benefactor, to whom Melville had dedicated Typee. In addition, he was attempting to obtain a post in the Treasury Department, he was reviewing nautical books for the Literary World, and he was contributing a series of satiric sketches to a comic weekly, Yankee Doodle, on the Whig presidential candidate, General Zachary Taylor.
Lizzie Shaw and Herman Melville were married on 4 August in Boston, went on a wedding trip to Canada, and in September set up housekeeping in New York. They shared a residence with Melville's younger brother, Allan, a Wall Street lawyer, and his new wife, their mother, and four sisters. This was hardly a situation conducive to the easy production of "another book of South Sea Adventure (continued from tho' wholly independent of, 'Omoo')" that he mentioned to Murray in October.
It was not simply that courtship, a crowded domestic life, and writing for magazines diverted him, but rather the process of growth that he thought of as unfolding within himself. To round out the firsthand knowledge upon which he had based Typee and Omoo Melville had turned to books like the Reverend Charles S. Stewart's A Visit to the South Seas ... (1831), Captain David Porter's Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean ... (1815), Reverend William Ellis's Polynesian Researches (1829), Georg H. von Langsdorff's Voyages and Travels ... (1813), and Lieutenant Charles Wilkes's Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition ... (1845). He continued to read factual accounts of exploration--for example, Charles Darwin's Journal of ... the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1846) and J.N. Reynolds's Voyage of the ... Frigate Potomac (1835); but was now reading with excitement books of another kind. He bought Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, Burton's Anatomy of the Melancholy, Dante's Divine Comedy , and editions of Shakespeare and Montaigne, and he borrowed from Evert Duyckinck's ample library volumes of Sir Thomas Browne and Rabelais. His library borrowings also included novels of a decidedly romantic turn such as La Motte-Fouque's Undine, probably shared with Lizzie. The shift of interest in Melville's reading signals a shift of direction in the book he was writing. Mardi begins as a realistic narrative of sailor adventure in the Pacific. It ends in a voyage through the world of the imagination. In a letter to Murray in March 1848 he mentions "a change in my determination." His original plan was to write another "bona fide narrative of my adventures in the Pacific." Instead he is at work on a "Romance of Polynesian Adventure."
The first three novels in sequence show movement, from Typee, a realistic narrative reasonably close to the facts of Melville's sailor experience, to romance, in Mardi, of a rather farfetched kind. In June 1842, accompanied by his friend Toby Greene, Melville deserted the Acushnet tempted by a desire to try life on a lush tropical island among a gentle, unspoiled people. Service on the whaler had been tedious and whales few. The deserters traveled inland, crossing difficult terrain. Eventually they reached a valley which they thought was inhabited by a friendly tribe, the Happars. On descending they were made captive by the Typees, said to be ferocious man-eaters, who had suffered at the hands of Captain Porter some twenty years before and had no reason to welcome American seamen. Yet they were treated kindly. In descending the valley, Melville injured his leg. It grew worse and the Typees allowed Toby to leave so that he could seek medical assistance. Meanwhile, though lame and not entirely at his ease, Melville found life interesting and on the whole pleasant. He was a prisoner but something of a pet. But his vegetative paradise began to pall. After a month among the Typees, he was rescued by an Australian whaler.
This adventure forms the narrative structure of Typee. Melville had a good story to tell. His setting was seductive and the customs of the people were novel. At the same time there was opportunity to comment on matters of current interest, such as the efforts of the missionaries to bring Christianity to the heathens and the imperialistic maneuverings of the French and British. All of this interested readers, and Melville's Tommo, a youthful and irresponsible narrator, is engaging as he grows with his story. His is a forced growth. He descends into the paradisal setting of Typee Valley, with its clear, cool streams and enticing fruit trees, but he finds that the water induces chills and the fruit is blighted. And if he is entering an Eden, he does so literally by means of a fall, and he injures his leg in the process. He is surrounded by people who seek to satisfy his every physical desire, but he is their captive and they cannot cure his lameness. Their customs are curious and interesting, radically different from anything he has ever known. They live for the immediate moment. They have no sense of private property. They sometimes dress in "the garb of Eden." The simplicity of their life may be charming, and Tommo, before anthropologists made the concept fashionable, becomes something of a cultural relativist. The focus of his ethnographic eye sharpens. It appears to him that the taboos are applied and removed whimsically by the tribe for they seem to defy the rational explanation he seeks. Their tattoo, a mark of beauty and rank, strikes him as a hideous disfigurement. Arva, their festive and ceremonial drink, does not stimulate either vision or action. It is the drug of a lotus-land. One day Tommo finds a pile of bones that may or may not be the remains of a barbecued pig. His uneasiness increases. If the Typees are not actually cannibals readying him for the cook pot, then he is in danger of being consumed by, absorbed into, their indolent, mindless culture.
Contemporary reviewers often compared Typee to the Happy Valley of Johnson's History of Rasselas. But there is a crucial difference. Unlike the Abyssinian prince, who escapes from but then returns to live forever in his Happy Valley, Tommo heads for the open sea and what will be endless alternations between the primitive and the civilized, and their respective discontents. Melville's occasional choice of a word suggests a parallel, not in literature but in a distinctly American experience, the Indian captivity. In the end Tommo rushes into the surf, toward the boat that has come to his rescue. He is pursued by "savages" and their "enraged chief" who has "his tomahawk between his teeth." Tommo escapes by striking him in the throat with a boathook. Baptized in the blood of an ambivalent Eden, Tommo is now a civilized man.
That the conclusion of Typee seems dark and melodramatic follows from the logical progression of the story line and probably the expectation brought to it by readers with a prior knowledge of the profundities of Moby-Dick. Melville's future writing is foreshadowed in Typee, but taken as a whole Whitman was right when he observed that the book is not "so profound as to be tiresome." Nor does the ending follow Melville's biography as we know it. He was picked up in August 1842 by the Lucy Ann, an Australian whaling barque seeking additional hands. He was signed on as an able seaman despite his game leg, and his pay was rated at one-hundred-and-twentieth part of the profits of the cruise. Melville appears to have deserted the Acushnet because this ship seemed destined for an unusually long voyage. The Lucy Ann was also luckless. Her captain was a sickly incompetent, the first mate was a drunk, the crew was unruly and diseased, the food and quarters were bad, and she took no whales. Melville made friends with the lanky, roguish steward, John B. Troy, and was impressed by the seamanship of James German, the hard-drinking mate, and the perversity and reckless courage of the Maori harpooner, Benbow Byrne. They were models for characters in Omoo and prototypes for others in subsequent novels. The illness of the captain forced the ship to sail for Tahiti, and when it docked at Papeete, the crew refused duty. Melville's role in this mild mutiny was a modest one. Examined and browbeaten by the British consul, the crew was then confined to the "Calabooza Beretanee," the British jail. Supervision was so casual, however, that in the end he and Troy walked away. In October they sailed ten miles to the island of Eimeo.
The boat was supplied by two planters, a Maine Yankee and a Cockney, who raised potatoes and other vegetables to supply passing vessels. Melville stayed briefly on the potato farm, wandered about the island with Troy, and in early November he signed as a boat-steerer or "harpooner" on another whaler, the Charles and Henry of Nantucket. He was at Eimeo for about two weeks. This was hardly time enough for him to consider himself a beachcomber, but a more general word, borrowed from the Marquesan dialect, might well apply, "omoo," which Melville translates in the preface of the novel thus titled, "a rover, or rather, a person wandering from one island to another."
The Charles and Henry sailed the southern Pacific, which would serve as a setting for Mardi, for almost three months, reaching the South American coast without filling a single barrel of whale oil. Then she turned north toward the Sandwich Islands in quest of "greasy luck." By late April 1843 she anchored at Lahaina, Maui Island, having taken 150 barrels of oil while Melville was aboard. The voyage had been pleasant but no great success. It had not offered much in the way of experience for a new boat-steerer and would be only slightly reflected in the writing to come. Melville was paid off in early May and sailed for Honolulu. In June, after odd jobs, he signed an indenture for one year to become a clerk and bookkeeper for a general merchandise store to be opened by a young Englishman. Coincidentally, the Acushnet, still without much oil, stopped at Lahaina, where Captain Pease posted Melville with the American consul as a deserter, and then put in briefly at Honolulu on the way to the Japanese whaling grounds. The appearance of the Acushnet was surely perturbing, for Melville seems to have expected to live quietly for a while in this busy and civilized community. However, the civilizing pressures of the missionaries and foreign powers, backed by their navies, made Honolulu a volatile place. There was antagonism between the British and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which was extremely influential at the court of King Kamehameha III. When Melville arrived, the islands had been temporarily ceded to the British with the noted American missionary, Gerritt P. Judd, representing the Hawaiian king. Judd soon resigned, in part because the British relaxed the blue laws. In an appendix to Typee describing these turbulent events Melville makes clear his bias: "High in the favor of the imbecile king at this time was one Dr. Judd, a sanctimonious apothecary-adventurer, who ... [was] animated by an inveterate dislike to England." The American frigate Constellation put in at Honolulu, weakening the hand of the British, and shortly a higher British naval authority returned the rule to the Hawaiian king in July. Melville called the celebration that followed "a sort of Polynesian saturnalia" marked by "broad-day debauchery." At this point the frigate United States arrived in Honolulu, scheduled to return to Boston. It was possible to enlist for the homeward-bound cruise, and Melville was aboard as ordinary seaman when the frigate weighed anchor in mid-August 1843.
Omoo, loosely organized and lighthearted, follows Melville's adventures at sea and his aimless rovings in Tahiti. It is more comic than Typee, aside from the swipes at the missionaries and other despoilers. There is less inclination to romanticize Polynesian life or to suggest symbolic significance and make cross-cultural comparisons, and there is less subjective reaction. The tendency is to recount an episode and move on. Plot and structure are reduced to a repetition of the basic pattern of Typee--discontent with the sterility and restraint of civilization which the whaler as factory ship and microcosm represents, escape to an existence which is primitive and irresponsible, and rejection of the primitive indicated by taking service on the next whaler. The narrative follows Melville's experience more closely than Typee, with a narrator rescued by a Sydney whaler, the Julia, and a captain, mate, and crew like that of the hapless Lucy Ann; the refusal of duty and casual imprisonment in a British calaboose; then wanderings with a grotesque wag, Long Ghost, before returning to the sea. Like most of Melville's books, Omoo is open-ended. The narrator is still in motion, "crowding sail," and "the wide Pacific" lies before him.
In the first narrative of the South Seas triad, Typee, Melville used society at its pristine stage as a base line. He played against Rousseauistic ideas and Edenic metaphors. For all its power to threaten, Tommo survives the inscrutable taboo, he is not tattooed, and he does not become the victim of a cannibal rite. In Omoo Melville is concerned with the stage between the primitive and the civilized. Seen from afar by the narrator, the Tahitian port town of Papeete is an attractive combination of the primitive and the civilized. The "tasteful mansions of the chiefs and the foreign residents impart an air of tropical elegance" and the palm groves sway gently in the background. But the narrator is disillusioned when he has a chance to look more closely: "To me, so recently from a primitive valley of the Marquesas, the aspect of most of the dwellings of the poorer Tahitians and their general habits" compared "immeasurably" to the disadvantage of these partially civilized islanders." The third of the South Sea narratives, Mardi, is a critique of societies at the civilized stage, and it reveals Melville himself further along in the process of his unfolding.
Mardi (1849) begins disarmingly as if it were another picaresque tale about a sailor disaffected by his shipboard lot. With a congenial companion, the "Viking" Jarl, he steals a whaleboat and sails west before the trade winds in quest of an easier life and lively adventure. But Melville had something else in mind. In a progress report to John Murray in March 1848, he had written that Mardi "opens like a true narrative--like Omoo for example, on ship board--the romance and poetry of the thing thence grows continuously until it becomes a story wild enough I assure you, and with a meaning too." Murray was not interested in wild romance however meaningful, and he had plagued Melville to document the authenticity of the earlier books. Melville's response was a prefatory statement to Mardi with the sour observation that "having published two narratives of voyages in the Pacific, which, in many quarters were received with incredulity, the thought occurred to me, of indeed writing a romance of Polynesian adventure, and publishing it as such; to see whether, the fiction might not, possibly, be received for a verity...."
It is doubtful that anyone did, for well before the sailor narrator enters the allegorical Archipelago of Mardi "wild romance" pushes realism aside and the romance becomes all too meaningful. He encounters a native craft bearing a malevolent priest and a mysterious white girl, Yillah, destined to be a sacrificial offering. He kills the priest, frees the girl, falls in love with her, and is pursued by the priest's vengeful sons. Entering the uncharted lagoon that contains the archipelago, he lands on the island of King Media where he is hailed as Taji, a demigod and scion of the sun, and Yillah disappears. King Media--the name suggests the mediating role of the ideal ruler--and three of his advisors, a philosopher, poet, and historian, all of them garrulous, join Taji in searching the islands for her. The islands, like the characters, are emblematic and often have meaningful names. Late in his quest Taji recognizes that he has "voyaged chartless" and that the new world he is exploring is "the world of the mind." The girl is never found, and in fact sometimes she seems to be forgotten while Taji relentlessly pursues a quest that becomes an end in itself. Taji's explorations among allegorical isles and the character types he meets during his travels make for a good bit of philosophical discussion and occasion for reverie, rhapsodic effusion, and topical satire. The world of Mardi includes the nations of Vivenza (the United States), Dominora (England), and Franko (France), among others. A visit to Vivenza evokes biting comment on slavery, sectionalism, and the generally parlous state of the Union and references to statesmen such as Nulli (John C. Calhoun) and Saturnina (Daniel Webster). Visits to Dominora and King Bello produce explications of the domineering role of the British in European affairs; and to Franko, allusions to the Revolution of 1848 and revolutions generally, always a tender subject for Melville. Other isles symbolize traditional institutions, social structures, and realms of thought. For instance, priestcraft and arid theology are satirized in descriptions of the island of Mararma. Ultimately Taji reaches Serenia and the possibility of retreat from the search for the evasive Yillah, whom it is now evident, he will never find. In his monomaniacal intensity Taji rejects this haven and heads his boat into "an endless sea."
Mardi is an undisciplined, uneven book, heavy with ill-digested matter, yet containing sections of poetic insight and cultural sensitivity. Melville overreached himself, but the effort was merited, at least artistically and intellectually. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a letter to Evert Duyckinck, comments: "'Mardi' is a rich book, with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life. It is so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded over it, so as to make it a great deal better."
It was said of Lombardo, the epic poet of Mardi, that when he "set about his work, he knew not what it would become. He did not build with plans; he wrote right on; and so doing, he got deeper and deeper into himself...." The same applies to Melville, especially when, as in Mardi, he cut himself loose from the anchor of factual experience. Such works, as Hawthorne knew, should be brooded over, and Melville allowed himself to be swept along in the enthusiasm of his unfolding. Yet Mardi contains the promise and the processes of his greatest writing. Its comment on American society during a period of expansiveness has chilling prescience: the limitation of American space and abundance which will inevitably be "overrun at last ... and then the recoil must come"; or, "evil is a chronic malady of the universe; and checked one place, breaks forth in another."
The consensus in its own day and ours labels Mardi an interesting failure. A deflated Melville, with a pregnant wife, had to listen to a good bit of advice, and not alone from the reviewers, about returning to subject matter he knew at first hand. With astonishing rapidity he wrote two books, Redburn and White-Jacket, both harking back to his life at sea. By October 1849, the same year that he brought out Mardi, he was able to inform Judge Shaw that the London edition of Redburn had been out a month and the American edition of White-Jacket was in proof. "These are two jobs," he wrote Shaw, "which I have done for money--being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood." The remarks reflect Melville's desire to recover his popularity and to assure Shaw, who was called upon periodically to assist improvident Melvilles, that his novelist son-in-law was capable of doing what he should, but an indicative remark that "teething children play the very deuce with a husband's temper" crept into White-Jacket. Melville was a fretful man, and there were tensions beneath the surface of his respectable family life.
Redburn (1849) is a retrospective book. Its origins are the summer voyage of 1839 to Liverpool, and it purports to be, according to the subtitle, "the Sailor-boy Confessions of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service." Relatively simple in design and realistic, it is told by a narrator of sufficient maturity to recall his own growing pains with compassion and sometimes amusement. Melville called it his "beggarly 'Redburn,'" explaining to Evert Duyckinck that it was written "with duns all round him," but the reviewers thought well of it even if the author, unjustly, did not.
The callow Wellingborough Redburn boards the Highlander wearing a gray shooting jacket and an air of gentility, neither of which is appropriate for a ship's "boy," but he returns from the voyage competent and hardened.He survives harsh treatment on shipboard, though his initial reaction is anger and withdrawal; sees horror and depravity; and learns that he must depend upon himself and that he can do little to help others. The horrors include such gothic episodes as the madness and suicide of a drunken sailor, and an encounter with a derelict schooner and her crew of rotting corpses, but more important is his introduction to the inscrutable force of evil embodied in the dying Jackson, a dissolute, misanthropic sailor. Redburn was a particular object of his attention because he "was young and handsome," and Jackson "seemed to hate" another young sailor "because of his great strength and fine person, and particularly, because of his red cheeks." St. Paul on "mystery of iniquity" was a subject of abiding interest for Melville. He would develop these themes and characters fully at the end of his life in Billy Budd, Sailor.
Young Redburn sees the notorious poverty of the Liverpool slums where his best efforts to help a starving family come to nothing, he explores the attractive countryside but finds signs warning trespassers against "man-traps and spring-guns," and he makes his way to London and spends a night in a house of entertainment that epitomizes decadence and artificiality. His most impressive experience is an attempt to use a guidebook belonging to his father, who had been a gentleman tourist in Liverpool many years before. He finds it useless because the city has since altered, and he concludes on a note of pathos that "Every age makes its own guide-books and the old ones are used for waste paper." (A Liverpool guidebook used by Melville's father survives.)
Despite the hard lessons and the horrors, Redburn on balance is an affirmative book. The sailor boy does grow up. He becomes proficient in his calling, and he learns his limitations. The "guide-book has been stripped of its reputation for infallibility" but Redburn is resilient, a trait he has in common with White-Jacket, Ishmael, Israel Potter, and other Melvillian survivors. In fact, the tone of the guidebook section is often mildly and nostalgically comic, the distance of the mature narrator here, as elsewhere, tempering the immediate.
"My man-of-war experiences and observations are incorporated in the present volume," Melville states in a short preamble to White-Jacket (1850). The second of his "two jobs," and the one he thought better of, it is the outgrowth of his time on the frigate United States, a storied sister ship of "Old Ironsides," from August 1843 to October 1844. Her log book is filed in the National Archives, and the journals of several of Melville's shipmates also exist. Hence it is easy to separate White-Jacket's largely autobiographical sources from certain important borrowings and imaginings.
The United States, though due to return to Boston, first cruised the Marquesas and Tahiti, where Melville had another look at the colonial machinations of the French, and then made a pleasant passage to Valparaiso, Chile, skirting the memorable Juan Fernandez, "Crusoe's isle," to which Melville would often refer. The frigate spent dreary months in port at Callao, the naval station near Lima, Peru, which Melville visited on leave and would recall in his writings, and he sailed to Mazatlan for Mexican dollars to pay off the fleet. The United States departed for Boston in July, rounding Cape Horn in winter gales against which Melville was poorly protected by a white canvas jacket of his own devising. The frigate made Rio de Janeiro in August, lay in harbor for a week, and then left for Boston on an uneventful voyage, except for a race with other naval vessels which would find its way into White-Jacket along with so many other events of the cruise. According to the log the United States on 14 October "Completed breaking out and clearing out ship. Paid off her crew and turned her over to the officers of the yard."
While Melville claimed authenticity for his narrative, and it was important that he should because one of its aims was to expose abuses of American mariners, he did not wish to offend by his satiric treatment of the easily identifiable officers under whom he served nor to detract from his creative achievement. He transformed the United States into the Neversink, a naval usage meaning any hypothetical vessel, a John Doe of the navy, and he gave significant names to the officers and sailors, following a nautical practice that had become a convention of sea fiction. But if White-Jacket, like Redburn, is experiential, it is also much more calculated and ideational.
His memory of events was sharper than in Redburn; he had more to work with, and to an extent exceeded only in Moby-Dick , he read books that could enrich his own. Important among them were Nathaniel Ames's A Mariner's Sketches (1830), Samuel Leech's Thirty Years from Home, or A Voice from the Main Deck (1843), the anonymous Life in a Man-of-War or Scenes in "Old Ironsides" During a Cruise in the Pacific (1841) from which he took shipboard episodes and sailor yarns, John A. Lockwood's unsigned article on "Flogging in the Navy" in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review (August 1849), and William McNally's Evils and Abuses in the Naval and Merchant Service, Exposed (1839).
Additional indication that White-Jacket is more directed and calculated than the earlier novels appears in the way Melville relates the narrative line to the propaganda motive, the exploration of political and social ideas, and the integration of symbol. In Mardi allegory and debate are egregious. In Redburn the concerns are primarily physical--poverty, the suffering of emigrants in steerage, feats of prowess aloft in the rigging--or the emotional discomforts inherent in loss of status or the process of growing up. Wellingborough Redburn's outmoded guidebook and shooting jacket reveal unfolding in a symbolic direction. In White-Jacket the symbolism is central and organic.
White-Jacket has an alternative title, "The World in a Man-of-War." Melville is at pains to detail the facts about the routines and diversity of the ship, "a city afloat,"symbolically a microcosm but one which had decidedly American features. He describes the duties of the officers from the commodore down, and their rigid control of "the people," that is, the crew. The instruments of command are seriously flawed. The veteran commodore is a dry shell presiding over meaningless ceremonies. The captain is an arrogant sot. The surgeon lacks compassion. The chaplain is ineffectual. The master-at-arms is a petty criminal. Though some of the common sailors retain their dignity and manhood, most of them have been broken by a mechanistic, legalistic system.
The factual description of the system and its stultifying effect enunciates the irony that a democratic polity, specifically the United States, requires a despotic system to sustain it. And within the system the controlling device is the lash. Melville's antiflogging polemics had as their obvious purpose the correction of a naval abuse then much discussed, but they were related to the slavery issue because slaves were the only other Americans who served under the lash. They were likewise in keeping with the ideals of Christian charity and the rights of the common man that permeate the narrative. Melville had witnessed, according to the log, the flogging of 163 sailors while he was on the United States, and White-Jacket himself is brought to the gangway for punishment. Fact, plot, reform propaganda, idealistic concerns, and symbol harmonize.
Or again, there is the fact of Melville's assignment to the maintop of the United States, a position similar to White-Jacket's on the Neversink. White-Jacket is literally above the ordinary sailors on deck, and he takes pride in the strength and skill that earned him this hazardous assignment. Yet his position aloft reflects a low spiritual state, brought about by his high regard for himself. The description of his fall into the sea from the top-gallant yardarm is the climactic narrative and symbolic event. It is a fortunate fall. White-Jacket is rescued by the sailors from whom he had been cut off and takes his place among them.
Finally, there is the white jacket. Melville told Richard Henry Dana , Jr., that "it was a veritable garment," not a fiction like the fall, which he took from Ames's A Mariner's Sketches . The garment marks its wearer as a person apart, and this has its ambivalences. In every sense he becomes entangled in it and loses his balance. He must cut himself free from it before he can rise from the depth to receive the assistance of his waiting shipmates. The fabric of the white jacket is tightly knit, indeed.
In October 1849, with the Harpers' proofs of White-Jacket in hand, Melville took passage on a liner for Deal in hope that, acting as his own agent, he could get good terms for the English copyright. This scheme would also give him a chance for a short holiday and time to think about his next book. Before he left New York he acquired "a tattered copy, rescued by the merest chance" of the Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter (1824), a soldier during the Revolution who had eked out a subterranean existence in London for four decades before returning to America. To rework Potter's story Melville needed background, and traveling about might produce other material, as it usually did for him. His negotiations were successful. Bentley, who had advanced 200 guineas for Mardi but dropped down to 100 pounds for Redburn after Mardi fared poorly, offered him 200 pounds for the British rights to White-Jacket . This was confirmation that Melville was once more a good risk, and it was reconfirmed by reviewers of White-Jacket on both sides of the Atlantic. Melville enjoyed a visit to Paris (like London and its environs useful for the Potter story) and travel in Belgium and the Rhineland. The art galleries and entertainments of London also provided literary capital. For instance, a pleasant supper among the lawyers and literati at Elm Court, the Temple, he called in his journal a "Paradise of Bachelors." Six years after it would emerge as a sketch in Harper's Monthly Magazine.
By February 1850 Melville was again in New York, reading the Renaissance playwrights whose influence would be felt in his new book, not about Potter's adventures, but once more his own. He had learned from White-Jacket how to please his readers and how to move from fact and symbol. Thus far, though he had shipped on three whalers, whaling was the one phase of his nautical career he had scanted. It had considerable potential appeal. If it were a dirty, bloody, risky business it was also enormously profitable and not unromantic, and as Melville would point out in Moby-Dick, the American whaling fleet was preeminent, and this at a time when America was not credited with being preeminent in much else and when maritime affairs held a much more important place in the society than before or since.
Apparently Melville intended a straightforward story of the whale fishery, told by an engaging young man who has a sharp eye and the capacity to learn a thing or two. It would be about life on a whaler, may-be making something of some particular whale, but also like White-Jacket, with linked analogies. By May 1850 Melville was reading William Scoresby's Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), a classic work on whaling, and ordering from England another, Thomas Beale's Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839). He corresponded with Dana about his "whaling voyage," telling him that he was "half way in the work" and pleased to know that Dana liked his plans for it. His correspondence has a momentum of its own, capturing something of the inchoate power he felt in the subject: "It will be a strange sort of book, tho,' I fear; blubber is blubber you know ... and to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the things, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves." In late June he offered Richard Bentley the English rights to a manuscript he expected to be complete in the autumn. "The book is a romance of adventure founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author's own experience," he informed Bentley. As it happened, the blubber took more cooking.
Melville at age thirty had published five books in five years. Alone they would have sufficed to assure him a modest place in the annals of American literature, but his past was prologue, for he was now at the peak of his creative energy. In July he took his family to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and with the help of Judge Shaw, he bought a farmhouse. He would not return to New York to live until 1863. That summer he agreed to review Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse for Duyckinck's Literary World, and he met Hawthorne himself. There was a shock of recognition.
Melville was almost explosively full of his own book when he read Hawthorne's. Like Shakespeare, Hawthorne "probes the very axis of reality," he wrote in his review, and like Shakespeare, he knew "the great Art of Telling the Truth." Melville's literary patriotism led him to add that the distance between the two was "by no means immeasurable." It was the power of his "mystical blackness," his grasp of the essence of Puritanism, that awed Melville. Hawthorne was pleased that he had a reader who understood and sympathized. A reticent man, he opened himself to the overflow of Melville's demanding recognition. Thus began an important literary friendship.
What Melville recognized in Hawthorne was complex. Hawthorne in his person was an attractive man. He had been quietly accumulating a reputation which now, with the publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850, he had achieved. He was forty-six, older than Melville, and this may have projected him further into a paternal role. But what Melville saw in him mainly was what Melville himself wanted to be as a writer. His anonymous review, "Hawthorne and his Mosses," revealed the mind and art of Hawthorne, but it was self-revealing also. Melville had recoiled from the exuberance of Mardi, to produce, almost as if it were a penance, two safe, firm, realistic, modestly successful books, though he expressed a preference, to Judge Shaw, "to write those sort of books that are said to 'fail'" like Mardi. Hawthorne was the catalytic force that confirmed him in the direction his "strange sort of book" was moving and in his willingness thereby to court failure. Moby-Dick was less than successful when it was published. It began to gather fame a generation after Melville's death, and today it is recognized universally as a work of genius.
The book, which he had told Dana was at the halfway point in May 1850 and Bentley that he expected to finish in the following fall, underwent alteration and expansion in such a rush of creativity that Melville did not pause to tidy up all of the details of the earlier version. His wife remembered the spring of 1851 as a time of intense labor. Melville, she recalled, "Wrote White Whale or Moby Dick under unfavorable circumstances--would sit at his desk all day not eating any thing till four or five o'clock--"; as late as June 1851 Melville informed Hawthorne that "That tail is not yet cooked--though the hellfire in which the whole book is broiled might not unreasonably have cooked it ere now." The American edition came out in November, dedicated to Hawthorne, whose understanding and praise evoked overwhelming gratification in Melville: "A sense of unspeakable security is in me at this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb."
Unlike Mardi, in which the imagination goes out of control, or the realistic Redburn and White-Jacket, in which it is restrained, Moby-Dick is fully developed and balanced. Its stolidity is founded on a coherent narrative and depth of authentic detail. The narrative is the vehicle for the initiation tale of the sailor storyteller, Ishmael--another Tommo, Redburn, or White-Jacket--and for the tragedy of the principal character, the whaling captain Ahab--a Taji--and for the conflict between them, or rather, between what they embody, for in the narrative there is never an exchange between them. The abundance of specific information about the organization and equipment of a whaling ship, the duties of its crew, the technology of whaling, the natural history of the whale, and the whale in folklore, history, legend, and art adds richness and weight. Thus narrative and fact, while compelling in themselves, function as ballast for a lighter imaginative freight of symbol, metaphysical speculation, comment on the culture, reverie, and playful extravagance. Moreover, in almost every case the specifics of plot, character, setting, and object serve multiple purposes--working both to move the narrative and to bear its symbolic weight, which in turn is a device which extends the spread of possible meaning.
In addition, Melville creates spaciousness by a successive layering of literary forms, styles, tones, references, allusions, and particularly the manipulation of language. The "romance of adventure" is formally a combination of personal narrative, drama, and epic including, among other genres, elements of the short story, tall tale, sermons both serious and burlesque, lawyer's briefs, and librarian's catalogue; and its tonalities extend from the grandeur of Elizabethan blank verse soliloquy to the crudities of vaudeville dialect. One result is an enveloping fullness, and this begs the question, why such amplitude?
An answer is suggested by the way the book begins. Prior to the narrative proper, there is an "Etymology" of the word whale, which, for all of its scholarly appearance, turns out to be incomplete, contains conflicting information, and is mildly erroneous. This is followed by an array of "Extracts" or citations about whales and whaling from the accumulation of the ages, though these quotations are preceded by the warning that they should not be mistaken for "veritable gospel cetology." What is being said here is that leviathan is real, so much greasy blubber for the rendering, and at the same time sublime, and for this reason he cannot be hooked. No definitions can define him, no system of knowledge can categorize him. The structure of his story is a hunt for this rogue whale, a symbol of the pursuit of absolute knowledge that will escape the finding, and indeed, this is the knowledge that will be found. The variety of forms and styles, the range of allusion, the elaborate punning, the shifts between high tragedy and low comedy, the application of the disciplines and systems of sciences and pseudo-sciences all prove inadequate to the task of categorically defining the whale and by extension anything else.
Thus one of the more memorable adjectives in Moby-Dick is "inscrutable"; one of the persistent references is to puzzles and riddles; and an exemplary object is a doubloon nailed to the mast. Ahab, followed by other members of the Pequod's crew, scrutinizes the heraldic devices stamped on its gold face in an effort to determine its meaning. What each of them sees is different; it is partial, subjective, wishful. For Ahab the whale hunt ultimately becomes a mad quest for meaning; for Ishmael it is a lesson in survival achieved when he accepts his limitations.
Moby-Dick brought Melville personal satisfactions but the reviewers, while indicating that they had some grasp of what he was trying out, were not altogether enthusiastic. The book was counter to the mood of the times. The letter of November 1851 in which he conveys his heartfelt "content" with Hawthorne's response to his masterpiece reveals continued pressures of the creative impulse and the need to move on: "So, now let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish;--I have heard of Krakens." Here was the impatience with past achievement, the impulse to unfold that led him to risk Mardi after the popular success of Typee and Omoo. By Christmas, according to family reports, he was "engaged in a new work as frequently not to leave his room until quite dark ... under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health."
The new work was Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (1852). It would not be, he wrote Sophia Hawthorne in December, "a bowl of salt water" but a "rural bowl of milk." In fact, the book begins in the countryside where the young writer, Pierre, heir to "Saddle Meadows," lives happily with his mother, and innocent of the burden of inherited guilt that his moral sense will force him to assume. The rural milk curdles, and the setting of the remainder and better part of the book is a hellish cityscape. Harper and Brothers gave Melville an advance of $500 for Pierre but Bentley in London, to whom he sent proofs in April 1852, declined to publish it despite a certain urgency in Melville's argument that it was "calculated for popularity ... being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, and stirring passions."
The book does contain conventional romantic material, such as the faithful blonde sweetheart of whom the mother approves and the mysterious dark lady with whom Pierre elopes, and the melodrama with its sexual tensions, murder, and suicide is not too far from romantic potboilers of the day. Contemporary readers rejected it probably for what they perceived as a lack of direction and good taste, but no doubt they were also distressed by its acerbic treatment of the New York cultural scene, its undercutting of transcendental optimism and genteel conduct, and its subversion of religious doctrine embodied in the ironic outcome of Pierre's attempt to model his behavior on received Christian principles.
Pierre is as much the absolutist as Ahab, and he is equally self-destructive and destructive of those about him. In some respects, however, he anticipates Billy Budd. Unlike Billy he is willful and questing, and he does not bear the gift of grace, but their common fate declares the precarious situation of innocence and virtue in a fallen world. The key to Pierre, once again, is its subtitle. When Pierre and his dark lady, in a pivotal chapter, are escaping to the city, he finds by chance a "philosophical lecture" on "Chronometricals and Horologicals." The author of this discourse on time argues that the perfection of the chronometer makes it an imperfect timepiece for ordinary purposes and people ("Christ was a chronometer"). A horologue, which is adjustable to "local standards," is more practical. The argument is intricate and full of qualifications and reversals, and the final chapter is among the bright spots in this dark book. In its ambiguity, it foreshadows an artistic achievement of a uniformly higher order, The Confidence-Man.
The failure of Pierre did not bring with it the private satisfactions that had accompanied Moby-Dick. Members of Melville's family, attempting to be supportive, worried about the state of his nerves due to his "constant working of the brain and excitement of his imagination," as his mother phrased it, suggested that a trip abroad "might renew and strengthen both his body and his mind," and exerted their considerable political influence to get him a consulship. Nothing came of any of this. Meanwhile, Melville sought to cope with failure in another way. He tried his hand at short fiction. His "Bartleby, the Scrivener" appeared serially in the November and December 1853 issues of Putnam's Monthly Magazine , which, with Harper's Monthly Magazine, during the next four years would print more than a dozen of his tales and sketches. On the whole, they were favorably received and Melville was paid Putnam's highest rate, five dollars per page. Though he was clearly lowering his sights and attempting yet again to be practical, his magazine fiction is in no sense trivial nor did he disparage it as he had Redburn. Some of it, such as "Bartleby," "Benito Cereno," and "The Encantadas," is of great distinction, and some, such as his double sketch, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," is a notably successful experiment in form as well as a clever exercise in duplicity.
"Bartleby" is a tragi-comic fable about a man, hemmed in by the walls of society, responding through the force of his passivity. It is equally about the accommodating lawyer who employed him and recalls his eccentricities. The lawyer attempts without success to persuade Bartleby to conform to the conventions of the profession, and eventually to help and to understand. In a subtle way, this tale of a legal scribe is likewise about the writer Melville and his own sense of circumscription.
In "Benito Cereno" Melville rewrites an episode from Amaso Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels (1817) in which a sea captain describes his attempt to assist a Spanish ship in distress. Melville transforms pedestrian autobiography into a gothic suspense story of the goodnatured captain's gradual discovery that the Spanish vessel is controlled by its cargo of slaves. The story has topical reference to the slavery controversy and to the limitations of American innocence, but its more important themes are timeless and characteristically Melvillian: the deceptiveness of appearances and the dynamics of evil.
"The Encantadas" is a sequence of descriptive sketches of the Galapagos Islands which Melville glimpsed as a sailor and read about in Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. Here again inversions and deceptive appearances figure largely. Pacific isles like the Edenic Marquesas, they are an antiparadise of bleak volcanic ash heaps. They are inadequately charted and surrounded by mist and uncertain currents. Sailors believe them bewitched. Their inhabitants are renegades and castaways, and immense, ageless tortoises, which, while they can scarcely be said to flourish, manage to endure. But Melville observes that their dark, scarred shells have an underside with a "golden tinge."
"The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" is the most successful of Melville's three sets of paired sketches, an innovative form facilitating such comparisons as true and false religion (in "The Two Temples") and wealth and poverty (in "The Poor Man's Pudding and the Rich Man's Crumbs"). For Melville the word "bachelor" connotes congeniality and freedom from domestic responsibility but also sterility and incompletion. His bachelors are lawyers of The Temple in London, where once the legendary Knights Templar gathered. The latter day templars are a lesser breed. They gather to sup, exchange inconsequential anecdotes, and perhaps drink a bit more wine than they should. The maids are operatives in a paper mill, wedded to the machines they serve and slowly wasting away from the chill and the damp of their surroundings. The sketch has some notoriety for its sexual imagery and its anti-industrial bias.
A selection of Melville's short fiction was published in May 1856 as The Piazza Tales. The title comes from an introductory sketch, "The Piazza," in which the narrator describes a view of the distant Berkshire Mountains like that seen from the porch of Melville's Pittsfield farmhouse. The scene is attractive, but when the narrator undertakes a journey to explore it closely he is disenchanted. Yet the journey has enhanced his perception, not only because he has penetrated an illusion but also because he realizes that illusions satisfy needs. A typical reviewer found The Piazza Tales "more uniformly excellent ... and more free from blemishes than any of Mr. Melville's later books." Practically speaking, Melville had found ways of writing on subjects that were of private interest for a public on which he depended for a livelihood.
The "tattered copy" of Israel Potter's narrative that Melville "rescued" in 1849, mental notes, and a map of London bought there "in case I serve up the Revolutionary narrative of the beggar," and fragments of local history from the Pittsfield vicinity were the substance of another magazine contribution, the short novel, Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile. It appeared serially in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in 1854-1855 and in book form in 1855. The novel is low keyed, its subject the struggle to survive of an ordinary man, no kingly Ahab now but a "plebeian."
The historical Israel Potter was something of a hero at a subordinate level. He was a common soldier wounded at Bunker Hill, a sailor in the infant American navy, secret courier for Benjamin Franklin, and gardener for King George III before he disappeared into a life of penury in London climaxed by his ultimate return to America, where his pension claim was denied. Melville exploits Potter's adventures, giving them a picaresque cast, touching up the pathos and irony, and introducing a patriotic strain. Borrowing from the biographies of John Paul Jones, he expands the naval action, painting a sea battle that is at once dramatic and dehumanized in its mechanistic quality, and he introduces a sketch of Ethan Allen as a British prisoner of war to illustrate the "essentially Western" spirit of America. He also slyly satirizes Franklin, whose Poor Richardesque advice on the virtues of hard work and frugality cheats Israel of his small pleasures.
Israel survives by adapting to the circumstances and blending into the background. Episodes in which he changes his clothing recur and are significant. In the end, the fictive Israel Potter is a forgotten man. He seeks the house in which he was born and finds only its hearthstone, an obstacle to the ploughman working nearby, but Potter's life has subsided into the patterned processes of nature which he accepts. The book did not do much, one way or another, for Melville's reputation, but it presages the pattern of subsidence that his own life eventually takes.
With Israel Potter Melville turned from the modest possibilities that magazine fiction offered and looked about for something else--a new form, new matter, scope for unfolding. Once more he was ready to risk a book of the kind "said to 'fail.'" During 1856 he worked on what would be seen a century later as his second masterpiece, The Confidence-Man (1857). In substance it is his most obviously American book and in tone and form the most modern. Fantastic and blackly comic, and basically a fugue on the universal theme of belief and doubt, it is set in the American heartland and is thick with American stereotypes, thinly disguised celebrities, recognizable landmarks, timely allusion, elements of folklore and popular culture, and topics of immediate national interest. Its modernity is manifest in the discipline of its formal progress, a movement that deliberately lacks motion, and in the orchestration of the language and logic.
The sources of Melville's masquerade include his youthful trip on the Western riverboats, a "fancy dress picnic" in September 1855 about which there was much ado in Pittsfield, and the career of a New York swindler known as "The Confidence Man," whose exploitation of the trustful was reported in the New York press in 1849 when he was jailed and in 1855 when he was again at large. The wider sources include Melville's reading in myth, metaphysics, satire, and Shakespeare. Less directly but more profoundly among the sources of The Confidence-Man is Melville's notion, pervasive in the 1850s, that life is some kind of April Fool joke played on man. Thus he wrote his friend and Lizzie's cousin, Henry Savage: "It is--or seems to be--a wise sort of thing, to realise that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of a joke.... And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed around pretty liberally and impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it." The same idea is voiced by Ishmael in Moby-Dick. There are times, he says, "when a man takes his whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own."
In The Confidence-Man the practical joke is enacted between dawn and midnight of April Fool's Day aboard a Mississippi steamboat named the Fidele. Its main texts are the biblical injunction from Corinthians, "Charity thinketh no evil," displayed by a suspiciously mysterious deaf mute, and a barber's sign stating that he will trust no one with credit. The word "confidence" is the subject of elaborate and repeated conceits. The novel is an allegorical satire aimed on the one hand at the foolish pieties and philanthropic pretensions and on the other at the knavish materialism of an overconfident America. There is little action. The structure is a sequence of ritualistic games between confidence men in grotesque guises and their victims, victimized as often because of their virtues as their vices. The Fidele moves down river from St. Louis and the various confidence men merge into a single figure who is a cosmopolitan and composite Confidence Man, while many of the passengers he confronts seem to become, in some ways, confidence men. Blandly and persuasively the Confidence Man preaches charity and plants distrust.
The satire at times is corrosive but it is also playful, and at bottom the book is skeptical rather than destructive. Like the white whale, the Confidence Man is ultimately beyond knowing, and like Moby-Dick this novel is a manual for survival in a sea where the sharks glide.
Melville completed The Confidence-Man in the summer of 1856. It is the more remarkable as a literary achievement because this was not a good time. He was plagued with sciatica and, unable to work his farm properly, considering a move back to New York. His house full of women and children often depressed him, and writing always strained him and those about him. Matters reached the point that Judge Shaw, "informed by some of the family, how very ill, Herman has been," proposed "a voyage or a journey" and extended a loan.
The prospect lifted Melville's spirits. By early October he was in New York visiting Evert Duyckinck, from whom he had drifted apart, "fresh from his mountain charged to the muzzle with sailor metaphysics and jargon of things unknowable," Duyckinck records in his diary. He placed the manuscript of The Confidence-Man with Dix and Edwards just before sailing for Glasgow on 11 October. It was the last prose fiction that he published in his lifetime, the tenth book within eleven years (besides reviews and other uncollected magazine pieces), and marks the beginning of his withdrawal from a public literary career. Like Moby-Dick, The Confidence-Man was out of joint with the times.
Melville was abroad for almost eight months, first in Scotland, where he sought familial roots, and then in England, where he visited Hawthorne. Then consul at Liverpool, Hawthorne records their meeting sensitively in his journal, noting that Melville seemed "a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder.... and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind." He then describes a walk together among the sand dunes along the coast: "Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had 'pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated'; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation.... He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other." Melville embarked from Liverpool for the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. He visited Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, and undertook an extensive tour of Palestine. Returning, he toured Italy for three months and then went north to Switzerland and Germany and briefly back to England, where he saw Hawthorne again, who was making arrangements for an English edition of The Confidence-Man . He was back in Pittsfield by the end of May 1857.
Melville had filled his travel journal with terse observations as if he were deliberately storing up impressions, especially of art objects and architectural monuments, but he did nothing immediately with them, though he seems to have thought about a sequel to The Confidence-Man and to have begun some experiments with verse. Physically he was well enough, but the pilgrimage to the Holy Land had not brought spiritual recovery. He found compensation, however, in recollecting the symmetry of the past that he discovered in classical architecture, and nearing forty, he was inclined to look backward toward the insular Tahitis he once knew and to esteem the cool endurance and discipline exemplified by Greek temples more than the intensities of the romantic quest. But for the moment, he was uncertain in his aim, and there were practical questions to be faced.
His financial affairs were not in good order, and the continuing attempts to obtain a government appointment were fruitless. Melville's cousin, Henry Gansevoort, remembers a lavish dinner party in early June 1858 given by Judge Shaw: "There were present Dr Holmes, the poet, Herman Melville the author, R H Dana the jurist.... Wit circled the board.... Holmes remarked in the course of the conversation that a lecturer was a literary strumpet subject for a greater than whore's fee to prostitute himself."
For three seasons, between 1857 and 1860, Melville went on the lecture circuit. In his first season he had sixteen engagements, lecturing on "Statues in Rome" to an audience attracted mostly by his reputation as the author of Typee and Omoo. The next season he lectured a dozen times on "The South Seas," with moderate success and for higher fees. In his last season he gave three lectures on "Traveling." His record book shows that he earned a total of $1,273.50. By comparison, in 1856, Emerson earned about $1,700 lecturing as a supplement to his writing.
By this time Melville was more interested in writing poetry. Meanwhile, his brother Thomas, captain of a clipper ship, proposed that he join him on his next voyage. They would go around Cape Horn and perhaps around the world. Melville arranged his business affairs and they sailed for San Francisco in May 1860. He left with his brother Allan a manuscript volume of verse which he hoped would find a publisher. It did not.
His travel journal suggests that the voyage summoned up remembrances of things past--the misery of Cape Horn in winter, burial at sea of a sailor who fell from the mainmast yard, climbing out on the jibboom for a "Glorious view." He read poetry and wrote some, and enjoyed his brother's company, but he decided to return from San Francisco and was at home in November. He was still at loose ends and to pursue yet another effort to obtain a consular post went to Washington in February 1861. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he appears to have investigated the possibilities of a naval appointment.
The one thing that he pursued purposefully was the craft of poetry. Within a brief period he bought editions of Shelley, Spenser, Tennyson, Thomas Hood, Matthew Arnold, and other poets, and read criticism, marking passages that impressed him, such as in Madame de Stael's Germany, that "Nothing is so easy as to compose what are called brilliant verses; there are moulds ready made for the purpose; but what is difficult is to render every detail subordinate to the whole...." And in a copy of James Thomson's Poetical Works bought in 1861 Melville scored this line: "Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall never be disappointed." Melville was living quietly.
In 1863 he sold his Pittsfield farmhouse to his brother Allan and moved to New York, where he would remain until his death. Affected deeply by what he called in retrospect "the terrible historic tragedy" of the Civil War, his role was that of sensitive observer. He followed the active participation of his cousins, Guert Gansevoort, commander of a naval sloop, and Henry Gansevoort, a cavalry colonel whom he visited at the front. Naval events--Commadore Dupont's attack on Port Royal, the sinking of old whaleships loaded with stone to block Charleston Harbor, the attack of the Confederate ironclads on the wooden navy--touched him, and he may have written verses about them, but if so, he kept them to himself.
For almost ten years he had published nothing. Then, according to its preface, "in an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond," he composed the poetic sequence, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. It is chronological and inclusive, beginning with an elegantly controlled epilogue, "The Portent," on the hanging of John Brown, and ending with "A Meditation," an elegy urging compassion toward the vanquished in the name of the valorous dead of both sides. Melville has verses on almost every important event of the war, and he makes a point of including soldiers and sailors, blacks and whites, men and women, North and South. Some of them deserve to be counted among the best American poetry of the nineteenth century, for example, "A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight," which is as much about the nature of war and problems of poetic language as it is a naval engagement, or "The Coming Storm," an occasional poem on Lincoln's death based on a landscape painting and the Shakespearean actor who owned it, but fundamentally about the tragic vision. Quite different from Whitman's Drum-Taps, it is the only comparable body of Civil War poetry.
Harper and Brothers published the cycle in August 1866 in an edition of 1,200 copies, of which only 486 were sold in the first year and a half. The reviews were not good, though Melville was praised in certain quarters for the position he took in a "Supplement" urging generosity toward the defeated South. In Battle-Pieces Melville, writing to please himself, seems to have hoped for a wider audience. This mistake he did not make again.
It was a time of tribulations. As demanding of others as he was of himself, Melville exacerbated tensions in a family with a Calvinist streak and one which placed a high value on propriety. In May 1867 the Shaws in Boston were in favor of a separation, and Samuel, Lizzie's brother, in a carefully considered letter to her pastor, was describing her as "convinced that her husband was insane." That month Melville bought a book of verse by a favorite poet, Camoen's Poems from the Portuguese (1824). Among the passages he marked were, in the introduction, "Woman was to him as a ministering angel, and for the little joy which he tasted in life, he was indebted to her" and in Sonnet VI: "My senses lost, misjuding men declare, / And Reason banish'd from her mental throne, / Because I shun the crowd, and dwell alone."
In September, his son Malcolm, age eighteen, died of a self-inflicted bullet wound. A coroner's jury determined that his death was "Suicide by shooting himself with a pistol ... under temporary insanity of Mind" but several days later attempted to clarify by stating that his death was not "by premeditation or consciously done." Malcolm was a well thought of young man with a steady job who had joined a volunteer company and was proud of his uniform and pistol. He sometimes stayed out very late, as he had on the night of his death, and Melville would reprove him.
The marital crisis and the anguish of Malcolm's death eased, but there were other difficulties. The surviving son, Stanwix, was a wanderer and source of worry. He went to sea in April 1867, disappeared in Central America for almost a year, and tried a number of occupations. He died in San Francisco at age thirty-five.
In 1866 Melville began working at the customhouse in New York. He found relief in the regularity of his work, but the waterfront was not always painless for a man who suffered from neuralgia. The customhouse was notoriously corrupt, and he was subject to political pressures that occasionally threatened his position. It was a grim situation at best, and Melville himself left no comment on it. These later years have been called his "silent period," a phrase also applied to that similar time of reclusiveness in the early life of Hawthorne, which bears another inverted similarity: Hawthorne emerged from the customhouse to take his place in the literary community; Melville withdrew into it.
Melville began Clarel A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876) during the late 1860s. It is a philosophical poem of a type not unusual in the Victorian period, running to 18,000 lines and divided into 150 cantos. As it neared completion in 1876, Lizzie, who bore her share of the pangs of creation, called it a "dreadful incubus." Melville later described it to an English admirer as "a metrical affair ... eminently adapted for unpopularity." The source was his tour of the Holy Land and his brooding on the larger problems of his age and country: the effect of the evolutionary theories of Darwin, the research of Lyell and other geologists which called into question the biblical account of the origin of the universe, the textual criticism of the Bible by German scholars, and socialist political thinking, all of which undermined the certitudes men had lived by and still did little to solve the mystery of iniquity or establish a new basis for faith. Essentially and often overtly, the poem is a debate between faith and doubt which, since it cannot be resolved, requires a search for a formula of individual survival.
The protagonist, Clarel, is a young American theological student whose studies are spiritually confusing. He joins a group of travelers on a tour of historic and holy places. Their differences of background and belief and the range of their responses to what they encounter as they go from Jerusalem to a monastery in the desert and return are occasion for a running discourse on the meaning and purpose of human existence. The structure is a quest that moves suggestively in a circle. Clarel is an ambitious, demanding, and not entirely satisfying poem, better in its parts than as a whole but deserving respect. Melville paid the cost of publication with funds provided by a generous uncle. The poem was not widely or favorably reviewed.
Still, as he aged, he was more at peace with himself. Legacies relieved the financial pressure, and he could afford to buy books and prints and pay for nicely designed booklets of verse, privately published in very small editions for a few sympathetic readers. He worked in the customhouse until the end of 1885. He was sixty-six. He still had time to revise and arrange his poems, and he was encouraged by the appreciation he was beginning to receive, especially from writers in England like the popular W. Clark Russell, a one-time sailor and author of sea stories, and the critic, Henry S. Salt, and the promise of renewed interest in his own country evidenced by overtures from editors who wanted to bring out new editions of his novels. Actually, he had never been without readers even when his public reputation declined. In England and America, Melville could count some fifty reprintings and republications of his books.
Poetry continued to be his principal interest. In 1888 he brought out John Marr and Other Sailors , dedicating it to Russell. Slight and self-indulgent, it is in the main versified memories of life as a young seaman. The title poem, "John Marr," sets the tone. Marr is an old sea dog who dreams of his shipmates and bygone days. The form is an unusual combination of prose and verse, an introductory sketch giving background for the relatively short poetic reverie which follows. Not all of the poems are wistful and nostalgic. "The Maldive Shark" is a grim symbolic probing of the intertwined relationship of beauty and ugliness, activity and passivity, innocence and guilt.
Timoleon Etc., which Melville had printed in 1891, is richer and more varied fare. The title poem, a late one, retells from Plutarch the life of the Greek statesman who restored democracy to Corinth. The subversive forces included Timoleon's brilliant brother, whose execution he countenanced with the result that Timoleon was denounced and exiled. Like Pierre, the poem is fertile ground for psychoanalytic biography, and in posing the choice between civic duty and the demands of affection, it shares the theme of Billy Budd, Sailor, which was much on Melville's mind at this time. "After the Pleasure Party" is a sensitive and psychologically interesting consideration of a woman like the astronomer Maria Mitchell, whom he had met at Nantucket years before. He imagines her regretting the sacrifice of her sexuality to attain intellectual distinction, but at basic level the poem treats the opposition of head and heart and is another Melvillian statement of human limitations. "The Marchioness of Brinvilliers" is an exquisite variation on an old theme, the mystery of evil. One section, "Fruits of Travel Long Ago," contains fine short poems from the Mediterranean journey.
The great achievement of Melville's silver age, Billy Budd, was begun soon after his retirement. Initially it was a poem about a sailor awaiting execution for mutiny, preceded with a headnote, and thus in form rather like "John Marr." In this instance the preface grew into a short novel. Its origins include the controversial Somers case which involved Melville's tight-lipped cousin Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort as the principal member of the ad hoc officers' council that advised hanging at sea a midshipman accused of mutiny and a handsome sailor whose memorable parting words were "God bless the flag." An article on the Somers affair was published in the American Magazine of June 1888. It may have been the stimulus for expanding the headnote about the sailor, whose name was Billy, into a proper narrative with crucial roles for the iniquitous Claggart, master-at-arms, and Captain Vere, the sensitive and dutiful commanding officer.
Arranging and revising his poetry was a task of retirement. Writing Billy Budd was the work of a serious artist, unfolding once more. He bought and borrowed books like Robert Southey's Life of Nelson (1855), marking and annotating it, William James's The Naval History of Great Britain (1826), and Douglas Jerrold's play, The Mutiny at the Nore (1830), and he recalled from his reading of sea fiction and his memories of sailor yarns and sea experiences a host of detail which he worked into his story. And interwoven was the stuff of a lifetime spent among great myths and masterpieces.
At its simplest, Billy Budd is about a sailor who is hanged in order to assure discipline aboard a warship, but the story is not simple. Melville was always alert to the complex implications of events, and he employs oppositions that defy resolution and raise questions that evoke ambiguous answers. Is Billy guilty of murder? Are there mitigating circumstances? Is Captain Vere correct in convoking a drumhead court martial and directing its verdict? From these elementary questions larger ones emerge. Is Vere a compassionate man who in full knowledge of the situation does his duty despite his inclinations? Or is he a creature of an authoritarian tyranny which destroys the free, the beautiful, and the loving? In any case, Vere is the central actor in a story with political resonances and with spiritual significance as well, for Billy is an offering in a ritual of restoration. Despite the narrator's remarks to the contrary, a "symmetry of form" artfully controls the density of allusion and thematic subtleties of the tale, and as always with Melville, Billy Budd ends with questions rather than an answer.
Across the bottom of the manuscript, immediately below the poem "Billy in the Darbies" with which the novel concludes, Melville wrote: "End of Book April 19th 1891." That summer he set about arranging another little volume of verse, for Lizzie, with the tentative title "Weeds and Wildings," to contain poems about roses and wildflowers and their Pittsfield days. It was unfinished when he died in September 1891 of heart failure and put aside with his manuscripts, including that of Billy Budd.
There were a few respectful obituaries of the kind written about a man who has outlived his renown. The remarkable waxing of Melville's reputation dates from the 1920s. It was influenced by the growing interest in myth and psychology exemplified by the work of Frazer and Freud, the disillusion and questioning that followed World War I, and at the same time, an awareness of national maturity suggested, for instance, in the title of Van Wyck Brooks's study of the culture, America's Coming-of-Age (1915), that demanded a reexamination of the literary past. The first biography was Raymond M. Weaver's Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic (1921) and his profundities were first sounded, albeit in an idiosyncratic way, in the essays on Typee, Omoo, and Moby-Dick collected in D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). The publication of Billy Budd as part of the Constable edition of the complete works dates from this period. The main lines of its critical response suggest the reaction to Melville's works as a whole. Billy Budd was first seen autobiographically. J. Middleton Murry in 1924 called it Melville's "last will and spiritual testament." E.L. Grant Watson followed this line in a 1934 essay aptly titled "Melville's Testament of Acceptance." Joseph Schiffman in 1950 countered with an article which opened another approach, "Melville's Final State, Irony." The degree to which Billy Budd should be read as spiritual, accepting, tragic, or ironic--and these terms do not necessarily exclude each other--continues to be central discussions of Billy Budd and much else that Melville wrote.
Melville is a writer who tends to become all things to all men. He is no longer the property of a few devoted readers or of the literary academy, though he has been analyzed by the schools of criticism, and usually with justification, in their turn. Nor has he been categorically defined by the significant intellectual discoveries and social movements of the recent past, though there has often been mutual illumination. The sheer weight of the scholarship, the quantity of the printings and translations, and his observable influence on the creative arts in their many forms are measures of the magnitude of his art.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The main repositories of Melville manuscript material are the Houghton Library of Harvard University, which has letters, holograph manuscripts of verse, prose fragments, and the journals of 1849 and 1856; and the New York Public Library, which has letters and family correspondence and additional material in its Duyckinck Collection and Berg Collection. The Newberry Library has the largest collection of published works and association materials.
Written by: Hennig Cohen, University of Pennsylvania
Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 3: Antebellum Writers in New York and the South. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Joel Myerson, University of South Carolina. Gale Research, 1979. pp. 221-245.
Source Database: Dictionary of Literary Biography
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