Herman Melville, 1870
Herman Melville, author of the Great American Novel if ever there was one, died forgotten in 1891, some 40 years after the critics had greeted publication of Moby-Dick with a scorn that Queequeg would have termed savage. By his own admission highly sensitive to criticism, Melville had endured little in that line with his first five books—Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1851)—and yet he resented his fame, won more as “the man who lived among cannibals” than as a masterful writer. In Moby-Dick he returned to the sea, pleasing his publisher, but he went his own way, as artists are wont to do, annoying the critics and perplexing the public.
How the writer first met Moby-Dick, ca 1957.
Moby-Dick was based on two stories that would have been well known to his readers: a truly murderous “whale as white as wool” about whom Jeremiah N. Reynolds had written a story in The Knickerbocker Magazine of May 1839; and Owen Chase’s 1821 account of a naval disaster that ended in cannibalism, breathlessly titled, “Narration of the most unusual and shaking sinking of the ‘Essex,’ a whaler from Nantucket, which was attacked in the Pacific Ocean by a sperm whale and finally sunk, including a report of the incomparable suffering of the captain and crew during 93 days in open boats in the years 1819 and 1820.” What readers today might find hard to believe—a willfully murderous whale—was by no means incredible to the literary audience of 1851; it was the author’s prose-poem approach to a massive novel that stretched patience.
Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819, the same year as Walt Whitman, into an illustrious family of English and Dutch descent. His grandfather had taken part in the Boston Tea Party and his father was a cultivated man whose sudden death in 1831 had followed a bankruptcy the year before. Herman, seven siblings, and his mother were left destitute. After his graduation from Albany Academy, he clerked in a bank, tried his hand at farming, and taught at the Sykes District School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 1839 he shipped as a cabin boy to Liverpool, commencing a lifelong love of the sea. Two years later he signed on aboard the Acushnet, a New Bedford three-master headed for the whale-killing fields in the South Seas. This trip became the basis of Typee, the book which through all his life remained his most famous. It was the commercial success of this book that emboldened Melville to marry, to summer in the Berkshires with the companionship of such literary figures as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and in 1852 to repurchase (and rename as Arrow-Head) his family’s old homestead in Pittsfield, which had fallen into other hands in the time of financial woe.
It was the friendship with Hawthorne that may have been the emotional centerpiece of these years. Both men saw a darkness in American life and letters that cast a gloom upon their beings. In June 1851 Melville wrote to his friend:
Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Leutze
In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my ‘Whale’ while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now,--I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose,—that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me,—I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches…. But I was talking about the ‘Whale.’ As the fishermen say, ‘he's in his flurry’ when I left him some three weeks ago. I'm going to take him by his jaw, however, before long, and finish him up in some fashion or other. What's the use of elaborating what, in its very essence, is so short-lived as a modern book? Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.
The Whale is the title under which Melville’s magnum opus was published first, in Great Britain, in three volumes. Infuriatingly, the publisher, J. Bentley, censored certain politically charged passages and somehow forgot to include the essential epilogue, without which the reader is given to believe that Ishmael perished in the sinking of the Pequod and thus was in no position to tell its tale. The scathing London Spectator review read, in part:
The Whale, as the novel was first published in England on October 18, 1851.
It is a canon with some critics that nothing should be introduced into a novel which it is physically impossible for the writer to have known: thus, he must not describe the conversation of miners in a pit if they all perish. Mr. Melville hardly steers clear of this rule, and he continually violates another, by beginning in the autobiographical form and changing ad libitum into the narrative. His catastrophe overrides all rule: not only is Ahab, with his boat’s-crew, destroyed in his last desperate attack upon the white whale, but the Pequod herself sinks with all on board into the depths of the illimitable ocean. Such is the go-ahead method.
The intent of this last comment was to skewer not only Melville’s craft but also his well-known (though secretly waning) support for American exceptionalism, an ascendant nation whose manifest destiny it was to span the continent, shucking its English past along the way. In his previous novel, White-Jacket, he had denounced the British Navy’s practice of flogging while arguing passionately for it to be eradicated from the U.S. Navy: “Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians.” Further, he wrote, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”
Some weeks after the British publication, Harper and Brothers printed fewer than 2,000 copies of the novel in one ungainly volume as Moby-Dick. In the most unkindest cut of all, the reviewer forThe United States Democratic Review, the virtual house organ for “Young America” and Manifest Destiny, wrote in part:
“Typee" was undoubtedly a very proper book for the parlor, and we have seen it in company with "Omoo," lying upon tables from which Byron was strictly prohibited, although we were unable to fathom those niceties of logic by which one was patronized, and the other proscribed. But these were Mr. Melville’s triumphs. "Redburn" was a stupid failure, ‘"Mardi" was hopelessly dull, "White-Jacket" was worse than either; and, in fact, it was such a very bad book, that, until the appearance of "Moby Dick," we had set it down as the very ultimatum of weakness to which its author could attain. It seems, however, that we were mistaken….
In early 1853, as Melville readied “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “The Encatadas” for publication in Harper’s Monthly, the publishers’ headquarters went up in flames. It was simple enough to pass the stories on to Putnam's Monthly, where they appeared on either side of Jervis McEntee’s valedictory for John Vanderlyn, whose life stories echo Melville’s. However, what proved truly ruinous was the incineration of Harper and Brothers book inventory, including 300 copies of Moby-Dick, and worse yet, the stereotype plates of all Melville’s books, from which reprints might have been struck. The result was that no additional copies of Melville’s masterpiece appeared for a dozen years, and no more after that until the year following his death. Even before he decided to silence himself, the fates conspired to silence him.
Arrow-head, the Melville manse.
In 1859 Mrs. Melville was said to have observed to a friend, ““Herman has taken to writing poetry. You need not tell anyone, for you know how such things get about.” In fact, he had been writing poetry all along, though in the guise of prose. Whitman would have been honored to have written this passage from White-Jacket:
Oh, give me again the rover’s life—the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! let me leap into thy saddle once more. I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares; sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me hear the clatter of hailstones on icebergs, and not the dull tramp of these plodders, plodding their dull way from their cradles to their graves. Let me snuff thee up, sea-breeze! and whinny in thy spray. Forbid it, sea-gods! intercede for me with Neptune, O sweet Amphitrite, that no dull clod may fall on my coffin! Be mine the tomb that swallowed up Pharaoh and all his hosts; let me lie down with Drake, where he sleeps in the sea.
As disappointments piled up over the ensuing decade, Melville retreated from public life and made silent peace with the world and himself. Perhaps anticipating that Moby-Dick would prove his professional undoing, he had written in Chapter 96, “The Try-Works,” of the saving light of a fire after a frightful darkness at sea:
Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
Melville could have retained his hold on the public by continuing to write exotic romances, as his publishers encouraged him to do. But instead his response was that of his most enigmatic creation, Bartleby the Scrivener: “I would prefer not to.”