- Category : Writer
- Type : MS
- Profile : 2/4 - Hermit / Opportunist
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX The Four Ways 2
Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American writer best known for the novel Moby-Dick. His first three books gained much contemporary attention (the first, Typee, became a bestseller), but after a fast-blooming literary success in the late 1840s, his popularity declined precipitously in the mid-1850s and never recovered during his lifetime.
When he died in 1891, he was almost completely forgotten. It was not until the "Melville Revival" in the early 20th century that his work won recognition, especially Moby-Dick, which was hailed as one of the literary masterpieces of both American and world literature. In 1919, the unfinished manuscript for his novella Billy Budd was discovered by his first biographer, who published a version in 1924 which was acclaimed by notable British critics as another masterpiece of Melville's. He was the first writer to have his works collected and published by the Library of America.
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, the third of eight children of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melville. Herman's younger brother, Thomas Melville, eventually became a governor of Sailors Snug Harbor. Part of a well-established and colorful Boston family, Melville's father, Allan, spent a good deal of time abroad as a commission merchant and an importer of French dry goods. After her husband Allan died, between 1832 and 1834, Maria added an "e" to the family surname—seemingly at the behest of her son Gansevoort.
The author's paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melville, was honored as a participant in the Boston Tea Party. Thomas Melville, who refused to change the style of his clothing or manners to fit the times, was depicted in Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem "The Last Leaf." Herman Melville visited his grandfather in Boston, and Allan Melville also turned to him in his frequent times of financial need. He was also distantly related to US Senator James_De_Wolf
The maternal side of Melville's family had been among Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley in present-day New York state. His maternal grandfather was General Peter Gansevoort, a hero of the Siege of Fort Schuyler; in his gold-laced uniform, the general sat for a portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart, which is described in Melville's 1852 novel, Pierre. Melville drew upon his familial as well as his nautical background. Like the titular character in Pierre, Melville found satisfaction in his "double revolutionary descent."
In 1826 Melville contracted scarlet fever, permanently weakening his eyesight. Allan Melvill sent his sons to the New York Male School (Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School). Overextended financially and emotionally unstable, the senior Melville tried to recover from his setbacks by moving his family to Albany in 1830 and going into the fur business. The new venture was unsuccessful; the embargo of the War of 1812 had ruined businesses that traded with Great Britain and Canada. He was forced to declare bankruptcy. He died soon afterward, when Herman was 12, and left his family penniless.
Although Maria had well-off kin and expected some inheritance from her mother's estate, the process was slow. Her kin were apparently concerned with protecting their own interests rather than settling their mother's estate so that Maria's young family would be more secure.
Melville attended the Albany Academy from October 1830 to October 1831, and again from October 1836 to March 1837, where he studied the classics.
Early works and travel
Melville's roving disposition and a desire to support himself led him to seek work as a surveyor on the Erie Canal. This effort failed, and his older brother helped him get a job as a "boy" (a green hand) on a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage and returned on the same ship. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) is partly based on his experiences of this journey.
For three years after Albany Academy (1837 to 1840), Melville mostly taught school. From 1838 to 1847, he resided at what is now known as the Herman Melville House in Lansingburgh, New York. In late 1840, he decided to sign up for more work at sea.
On January 3, 1841, he sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on the whaler Acushnet, which was bound for the Pacific Ocean. He was later to comment that his life began that day. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and traveled to the South Pacific. Melville left little direct accounts of the events of this 18-month voyage, although his whaling romance, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, probably describes many aspects of life on board the Acushnet. Melville deserted the Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842.
For three weeks he lived among the Typee natives, who were called cannibals by the two other tribal groups on the island—though they treated Melville very well. Typee, Melville's first novel, describes a brief love affair with a beautiful native girl, Fayaway, who generally "wore the garb of Eden" and came to epitomize the guileless noble savage in the popular imagination.
Melville did not seem to be concerned about consequences of leaving the Acushnet. He boarded an Australian whale ship, the Lucy Ann, bound for Tahiti; took part in a mutiny and was briefly jailed in the native Calabooza Beretanee. After release, he spent several months as beachcomber and island rover (Omoo in Tahitian), eventually crossing over to Moorea. He signed articles on yet another whaler for a six-month cruise (November 1842 − April 1843), which terminated in Honolulu.
While in Hawaii, he became a controversial figure for his vehement opposition to the activities of Christian missionaries seeking to convert the indigenous Hawaiian population. After working as a clerk for four months, he joined the crew of the frigate USS United States, which reached Boston in October 1844. He drew from these experiences in his books Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket. These were published as novels because the publisher thought few readers without similar experience would have believed their veracity.
Melville completed Typee in the summer of 1845, while living in Troy, New York. After some difficulty in arranging publication, he saw it first published in 1846 in London, where it became an overnight bestseller. The Boston publisher subsequently accepted Omoo sight unseen. Typee and Omoo gave Melville overnight renown as a writer and adventurer, and he often entertained by telling stories to his admirers. As the writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis wrote, "With his cigar and his Spanish eyes, he talks Typee and Omoo, just as you find the flow of his delightful mind on paper". The novels did not generate enough royalties to support him financially. Omoo was not as colorful as Typee; readers began to realize Melville was not producing simple adventure stories.
On August 4, 1847 Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Lemuel Shaw, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The couple honeymooned in Canada and then moved into a house on Fourth avenue in New York City. In 1850, the couple moved to Massachusetts. They eventually had four children: two sons and two daughters.
Moby-Dick and later works
During these city years, Melville wrote most of Mardi, completed Redburn and White-Jacket, and began the first chapters of Moby-Dick. He had no problems in finding publishers for Redburn and White-Jacket. Mardi was a disappointment for readers who wanted another rollicking and exotic sea yarn.
At first his progress on Moby-Dick moved swiftly. In early May 1850 he wrote to Richard Henry Dana, also an author, saying he was already "half way" done. In June he described the book to his English publisher as "a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries," and promised it would be done by the fall. Since the manuscript for the book has not survived, it is impossible to know for sure its state at this critical juncture. A common consensus among critics is that at this point, the book was a familiar sea yarn along the lines of his earlier work. Over the next several months, Melville's plan for the book underwent a radical transformation: into what has been described as "the most ambitious book ever conceived by an American writer."
In September 1850, the Melvilles purchased Arrowhead, a farm house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (It is now preserved as a house museum and has been designated a National Historic Landmark in his honor.) Here Melville and Elizabeth lived for 13 years, he occupied with his writing and managing his farm. While living at Arrowhead, Melville befriended the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in nearby Lenox. Melville was inspired and encouraged by his new relationship with Hawthorne during the period that he was writing Moby-Dick. (He dedicated his new novel to Hawthorne), though their friendship was on the wane only a short time later, when he wrote Pierre.
These later works did not achieve the popular and critical success of his earlier books. The New York Day Book on September 8, 1852, published a venomous attack on Melville and his writings, headlined "HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY." The item, offered as a news story, reported,
A critical friend, who read Melville's last book, Ambiguities, between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman. We were somewhat startled at the remark, but still more at learning, a few days after, that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink."
Following this and other scathing reviews of Pierre, publishers became wary of Melville's work. His publisher, Harper & Brothers, rejected his next manuscript, Isle of the Cross, which has been lost. The strain of these reversals weighed heavily on Melville. In late 1856 he made a six-month Grand Tour of the British Isles and the Mediterranean. While in England, he spent three days with Hawthorne, who had taken an embassy position there. At the seaside village of Southport, amid the sand dunes where they had stopped to smoke cigars, they had a conversation which Hawthorne later described in his journal:
Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he 'pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated'; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. 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. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.
Melville's subsequent visit to the Holy Land inspired his epic poem Clarel.
On April 1, 1857, Melville published his last full-length novel, The Confidence-Man. This novel, subtitled His Masquerade, has won general acclaim in modern times as a complex and mysterious exploration of issues of fraud and honesty, identity and masquerade. But, when it was published, it received reviews ranging from the bewildered to the denunciatory.
To repair his faltering finances, Melville was advised by friends to enter what was, for others, the lucrative field of lecturing. From 1857 to 1860, he spoke at lyceums, chiefly on Roman statuary and sightseeing in Rome. Turning to poetry, he gathered a collection of verse, but it failed to interest a publisher.
In 1863, he and his wife resettled in New York City with their four children. After the end of the American Civil War, he published Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), a collection of over 70 poems that was generally ignored by the critics. A few gave him patronizingly favorable reviews. In 1866, Melville's wife and her relatives used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York (a humble but adequately paying appointment). He held the post for 19 years. In a notoriously corrupt institution, Melville soon won the reputation of being the only honest employee of the customs house. But from 1866, his professional writing career can be said to have come to an end.
Melville spent years writing a 16,000-line epic poem, Clarel, inspired by his 1856 trip to the Holy Land. His uncle, Peter Gansevoort, by a bequest, paid for the publication of the massive epic in 1876. But the run failed miserably in sales, and the unsold copies were burned when Melville was unable to afford to buy them at cost.
As his professional fortunes waned, Melville had difficulties at home. Elizabeth's relatives repeatedly urged her to leave him, and offered to have him committed as insane, but she refused. In 1867, his oldest son, Malcolm, shot himself, perhaps accidentally.
While Melville had his steady customs job, his wife managed to wean him off alcohol. He no longer showed signs of agitation or insanity. But depression recurred after the death of his second son, Stanwix, in San Francisco early in 1886. Melville retired in 1886, after several of his wife's relatives died and left the couple legacies which Mrs. Melville administered with skill and good fortune.
As English readers, pursuing the vogue for sea stories represented by such writers as G. A. Henty, rediscovered Melville's novels in the late nineteenth century, the author had a modest revival of popularity in England, though not in the United States. He wrote a series of poems, with prose head notes, inspired by his early experiences at sea. He published them in two collections, each issued in a tiny edition of 25 copies for his relatives and friends: John Marr (1888) and Timoleon (1891).
Intrigued by one of these poems, he began to rework the headnote, expanding it first as a short story and eventually as a novella. He worked on it on and off for several years, but when he died in September 1891, the piece was unfinished. His widow Elizabeth added notes and edited it, but the manuscript was not discovered until 1919, by Raymond Weaver, his first biographer. He worked at transcribing and editing a full text, which he published in 1924 as Billy Budd, Sailor. It was an immediate critical success in England and soon one in the United States. The authoritative version was published in 1962, after two scholars studied the papers for several years.
Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891, at age 72. The doctor listed "cardiac dilation" on the death certificate. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. A common story recounts that his New York Times obituary called him "Henry Melville", implying that he was unknown and unappreciated at his time of death, but the story is not true. A later article was published on October 6 in the same paper, referring to him as "the late Hiram Melville", but this appears to have been a typesetting error.
From about age 35, Melville ceased to be popular with a broad audience as his novels had increasingly philosophical, political and experimental tendencies. His novella Billy Budd, Sailor, unpublished until 33 years after the author's death, was rapidly identified as a classic of the western canon, however. It was also adapted as an award-winning play, produced in 1951 on Broadway; as a notable opera by Benjamin Britten, premiered that same year in London and which became part of the repertory of the New York Metropolitan Opera; and as a 1962 film by Peter Ustinov, based on the play.
In Herman Melville's Religious Journey (1998), Walter Donald Kring detailed his discovery of letters indicating that Melville had been a member of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. Until this revelation, little had been known of his religious affiliation. Hershel Parker, in the second volume (2002) of his biography of the writer, says that Melville became a nominal member only to placate his wife. Parker wrote that Melville despised Unitarianism and its associated "ism", Utilitarianism. (The great English Unitarians were Utilitarians.) See the 2006 Norton Critical Edition of The Confidence-Man for more detail on Melville and religion than in Parker's 2002 volume.
Publications and contemporary reactions
Most of Melville's novels were published first in the United Kingdom and then in the U.S. Sometimes the editions contain substantial differences, with Melville acceding to his different publishers' requirements for different audiences.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale was dedicated to Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was not a financial success; the book never sold its initial printing of 3,000 copies in his lifetime, and total earnings from the American edition amounted to just $556.37 from his publisher, Harper & Brothers. Melville also wrote Billy Budd, White-Jacket, Israel Potter, Redburn, Typee, Omoo, Pierre, The Confidence-Man and many short stories, including "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" and "Benito Cereno," and works of various genres.
Melville is less well known as a poet; he did not publish poetry until later in life. After the Civil War, he published Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, which did not sell well; of the Harper & Bros. printing of 1200 copies, only 525 had been sold ten years later. Tending to outrun the tastes of his readers, Melville's epic-length verse-narrative Clarel, about a student's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was also quite obscure, even in his own time. Among the longest single poems in American literature, Clarel, published in 1876, had an initial printing of 350 copies. The critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of the poem in the New York Public Library in 1925 "with its pages uncut"—in other words, it had sat there unread for 50 years.
Melville was not financially successful as a writer, having earned just over $10,000 for his writing during his lifetime. After his success with travelogues based on voyages to the South Seas and stories based on misadventures in the merchant marine and navy, Melville's popularity declined dramatically. By 1876, all of his books were out of print. In the later years of his life and during the years after his death, he was recognized, if at all, as a minor figure in American literature.
A confluence of publishing events in the 1920s, now commonly called "the Melville Revival", brought about a reassessment of his work. The two books generally considered most important to the Revival were Raymond Weaver's 1921 biography Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic and his 1924 edition of Melville's last manuscript, Billy Budd, which he discovered unfinished among papers given to him by Melville's granddaughter. The other works that helped fan the Revival flames were Carl Van Doren's The American Novel (1921), D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), Carl Van Vechten's essay in The Double Dealer (1922), and Lewis Mumford's biography, Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision (1929).
In 1945, the Melville Society was formed as a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating Melville’s literary legacy. Jay Leyda, better known for his work in film, spent more than a decade gathering documents and records for the day by day Melville Log (1951). In the same year Newton Arvin published the critical biography, Herman Melville, which won the nonfiction National Book Award.
That year, the novella Billy Budd was adapted as an award-winning play on Broadway, and premiered as an opera by Benjamin Britten, with a libretto on which the author E.M. Forster collaborated. In 1962 Peter Ustinov wrote, directed and produced a film based on the stage version, starring the young Terence Stamp and for which he took the role of Captain Vere. All these works brought more attention to Melville.
In the 1960s, Northwestern University Press, in alliance with the Newberry Library and the Modern Language Association, established ongoing publication runs of Melville's various titles. This alliance sought to create a "definitive" edition of Melville's works. Titles republished under the Northwestern-Newberry Library include Typee, Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, Omoo, Israel Potter, Pierre or the Ambiguities, Confidence-Man, White Jacket or the World in a Man-of-War, Moby Dick, Mardi and a Voyage Thither, Redburn, Clarel, as well as several volumes of Melville's poems, journals, and correspondence.
His poetry is not as highly critically esteemed as his fiction, although some critics place him as the first modernist poet in the United States; others assert that his work more strongly suggests what today would be a postmodern view., and yet a contemporary Henry Chapin said of his poetry ' Melville's loveable freshness of personality is everywhere in evidence, in the voice of a true poet'. A leading champion of Melville's claims as a great American poet was the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren. He issued a selection of Melville's poetry prefaced by an admiring and acute critical essay. According to the Melville scholar Elizabeth Renker in 2000, "a sea change in the reception of the poems is incipient." In reference to the poem Clarel, the poetry critic Helen Vendler remarked in 1995: "What it cost Melville to write this poem makes us pause, reading it. Alone, it is enough to win him, as a poet, what he called 'the belated funeral flower of fame'".
Gender studies revisionism
Although not the primary focus of Melville scholarship, there has been an emerging interest in the role of gender and sexuality in some of his writings. Some critics, particularly those interested in gender studies, have explored the male-dominant social structures in Melville's fiction. For example, Alvin Sandberg claimed that the short story "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" offers "an exploration of impotency, a portrayal of a man retreating to an all-male childhood to avoid confrontation with sexual manhood," from which the narrator engages in "congenial" digressions in heterogeneity. In line with this view, Warren Rosenberg argues the homosocial "Paradise of Bachelors" is shown to be "superficial and sterile."
David Harley Serlin observes in the second half of Melville's diptych, "The Tartarus of Maids," the narrator gives voice to the oppressed women he observes:
As other scholars have noted, the "slave" image here has two clear connotations. One describes the exploitation of the women's physical labor, and the other describes the exploitation of the women's reproductive organs. Of course, as models of women's oppression, the two are clearly intertwined."
In the end he says that the narrator is never fully able to come to terms with the contrasting masculine and feminine modalities.
Issues of sexuality have been observed in other works as well. Rosenberg notes Taji, in Mardi, and the protagonist in Pierre "think they are saving young "maidens in distress" (Yillah and Isabel) out of the purest of reasons but both are also conscious of a lurking sexual motive." When Taji kills the old priest holding Yillah captive, he says,
Remorse smote me hard; and like lightning I asked myself whether the death deed I had done was sprung of virtuous motive, the rescuing of a captive from thrall, or whether beneath the pretense I had engaged in this fatal affray for some other selfish purpose, the companionship of a beautiful maid."
In Pierre, the motive of the protagonist's sacrifice for Isabel is admitted: "womanly beauty and not womanly ugliness invited him to champion the right." Rosenberg argues,
This awareness of a double motive haunts both books and ultimately destroys their protagonists who would not fully acknowledge the dark underside of their idealism. The epistemological quest and the transcendental quest for love and belief are consequently sullied by the erotic."
Rosenberg says that Melville fully explores the theme of sexuality in his major epic poem, Clarel. When the narrator is separated from Ruth, with whom he has fallen in love, he is free to explore other sexual (and religious) possibilities before deciding at the end of the poem to participate in the ritualistic order marriage represents. In the course of the poem, "he considers every form of sexual orientation - celibacy, homosexuality, hedonism, and heterosexuality - raising the same kinds of questions as when he considers Islam or Democracy."
Some passages and sections of Melville's works demonstrate his willingness to address all forms of sexuality, including the homoerotic, in his works. Commonly noted examples from Moby Dick are the "marriage bed" episode involving Ishmael and Queequeg, which is interpreted as male bonding; and the "Squeeze of the Hand" chapter, describing the camaraderie of sailors' extracting spermaceti from a dead whale. Rosenberg notes that critics say that "Ahab's pursuit of the whale, which they suggest can be associated with the feminine in its shape, mystery, and in its naturalness, represents the ultimate fusion of the epistemological and sexual quest." In addition, he notes that Billy Budd's physical attractiveness is described in quasi-feminine terms: "As the Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd's position aboard the seventy-four was something analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the highborn dames of the court."
Law and literature
In recent years, Billy Budd has become a central text in the field of legal scholarship known as law and literature. In the novel, Billy, a handsome and popular young sailor is impressed from the merchant vessel Rights of Man to serve aboard H.M.S. Bellipotent in the late 1790s, during the war between Revolutionary France and Great Britain. He excites the enmity and hatred of the ship's master-at-arms, John Claggart. Claggart accuses Billy of phony charges of mutiny and other crimes, and the Captain, the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, brings them together for an informal inquiry. At this encounter, Billy strikes Claggart in frustration, as his stammer prevents him from speaking. The blow catches Claggart squarely on the forehead and, after a gasp or two, the master-at-arms perishes.
Vere immediately convenes a court-martial, at which, after serving as sole witness and as Billy's de facto counsel, Vere urges the court to convict and sentence Billy to death. The trial is recounted in chapter 21, the longest chapter in the book. It has become the focus of scholarly controversy: was Captain Vere a good man trapped by bad law, or did he deliberately distort and misrepresent the applicable law to condemn Billy to death?
In 1985, the New York City Herman Melville Society gathered at 104 East 26th Street to dedicate the intersection of Park Avenue south and 26th Street as Herman Melville Square. This is the street where Melville lived from 1863 to 1891 and where, among other works, he wrote Billy Budd.
In 2010 it was announced that a new species of extinct giant sperm whale, Livyatan melvillei was named in honor of Melville. The paleontologists who discovered the fossil were all fans of Moby-Dick and decided to dedicate their discovery to the author.