Herman Melville


In 1850 while writing The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne\'s
publisher introduced him to another writer who was in the midst of a novel. This
was Herman Melville, the book Moby Dick. Hawthorne and Melville became good
friends at once, for despite their dissimilar backgrounds, they had a great deal
in common. Melville was a New Yorker, born in 1819, one of eight children of a
merchant of distinguished lineage. His father, however, lost all his money and
died when the boy was 12. Herman left school at 15, worked briefly as a bank
clerk, and in 1837 went to sea. For 18 months, in 1841 and 1842, he was crewman
on the whaler Acushnet. Then he jumped ship in the South Seas. For a time he
lived among a tribe of cannibals in the Marquesas. Later he made his way to
Tahiti where he idled away nearly a year. After another year at sea he returned
to America in the fall of 1844.

Although he had never before attempted serious writing, in 1846 he
published Typee an account of his life in the Marquesas. The book was a great
success, for Melville had visited a part of the world almost unknown to
Americans, and his descriptions of his bizarre experiences suited the taste of a
romantic age.

As he wrote Melville became conscious of deeper powers. In 1849 he began
a systematic study of Shakespeare, pondering the bard\'s intuitive grasp of human
nature. Like Hawthorne, Melville could not accept the prevailing optimism of
his generation. Unlike his friend, he admired Emerson, seconding the Emersonian
demand that Americans reject European ties and develop their own literature.
"Believe me," he wrote, "men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day
being born on the banks of the Ohio." Yet he considered Emerson\'s vague talk
about striving and the inherent goodness of mankind complacent nonsense.

Experience made Melville too aware of the evil in the world to be a
transcendentalist. His novel Redburn based on his adventures on a Liverpool
packet, was, as the critic F. O. Matthiessen put it, "a study in disillusion, of
innocence confronted with the world, of ideals shattered by facts." Yet
Melville was no cynic; he expressed deep sympathy for the Indians and for
immigrants, crowded like animals into the holds of transatlantic vessels. He
denounced the brutality of discipline in the United States Navy in White-Jacket.
His essay The Tartarus of Maids, a moving if somewhat overdrawn description of
young women working in a paper factory, protested the subordination of human
beings to machines.

Hawthorne, whose dark view of human nature coincided with Melville\'s,
encouraged him to press ahead with Moby Dick. This book, Melville said, was
"broiled in hellfire." Against the background of a whaling voyage, he dealt
subtly and symbolically with the problems of good and evil, of courage and
cowardice, of faith, stubbornness, pride. In Captain Ahab, driven relentlessly
to hunt down the huge white whaleMoby Dick, which had destroyed his leg,
Melville created one of the great figures of literature; in the book as a whole,
he produced one of the finest novels written by an American, comparable to the
best in any language.

As Melville\'s work became more profound, it lost its appeal to the
average reader, and its originality and symbolic meaning escaped most of the
critics. Moby Dick, his masterpiece, received little attention and most of that
unfavorable. He kept on writing until his death in 1891 but was virtually
ignored. Only in the 1920s did the critics rediscover him and give him his
merited place in the history of American literature. His "Billy Budd,
Foretopman," now considered one of his best stories, was not published until
1924.

Category: History