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"As an author Melville both courted failure and scorned success."(pg.
613, A Companion to Melville Studies). How many famous legends in time have
existed to know no fame. How many remarkable artist have lived and died never
receiving due credit for there work. Herman Melville is clearly an artist of
words. Herman Melville is certainly a prodigy when it comes to writing. Herman
Melville never received hardly any credit for any of his works. Melville wrote
such novels as Moby-Dick, and Billy Budd. Melville wrote about things that he
knew about. He wrote about his own experiences. The one thing that he loved,
and knew the most about was whaling.
Herman Melville was born in 1819, the son of Allan and Maria Melville.
He was one of a Family of eight children - four boys and four girls - who was
raised comfortably in a nice neighborhood in New York City. Herman Melville
came from a famous blood line out of Albany, NY. Melville's grandfather, General
Peter Gansevoort, was a hero. Even though the General died six years before
Melville was born, Melville still put him in his book, Pierre.
On the outer side of the blood line there was Major Melville. The Major
was a wealthy Boston merchant who was one of the famous "Mohawks" who boarded
the ship of the East India Company that night of 1773, and dumped the cargo in
to the Boston Harbor. Later Major Melville became the Naval Officer of The Port
of Boston, a post given to him by Gorge Washington. It is like the two blood
lines fitted together perfectly to create Herman Melville. Herman had the
strength of the General, and the crazy hart of the Major.
Herman Melville was "hardly more than a boy" when he ran out to sea
after his fathers death. A young Melville sighed up as a boy on the St.
Lawrence to Liverpool and back to New York. Many of the events that show up in
Melville's Redburn are actuarial events that happened of his first voyage.
After returning home and finding his mothers family fortune gone, Melville
decided to take a journey over land this time to the Mississippi river to visit
his Uncle Thomas. Through out all of Melville's work the image of inland
landscapes, of farms, prairies, rivers, lakes, and forest recur as a
counterpoint to the barren sea. Also in Moby-Dick Melville tells how he was a
"Vagabond" on the Erie Canal, which was the way Melville returned.
Melville wrote that it was not the lakes or forest that sank in as much
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restlessness,"(pg. Arving), of the prairies. Some even think of the novel,
Pierre, as a "A prairie in print, wanting the flowers and freshness of the
savanah, but all most equally puzzling to find a way through it." (Pg. 1, On
Melville.) About a year latter Melville signed up as foremasthand on the whaler
Acushnet, which set sail on the third of January, 1841, that set sail from New
Bedford. Many events of his voyage directly correspond with those in his
Melville set up residence in the Taipi-Vai valley, which he called Typee.
He and a friend, named Toby Green, struck out on one day's leave to the
interior of the island. Melville got sick and had to live with a tribe of
savages that he found for a month or so. All this time, Toby had gone to try to
get help but was unsuccessful. After a long month of waiting for Toby, Melville
decided to try to escape, and was successful. Melville illustrated all of these
events that happened in his novel Typee. But "Typee is a work of the
imagination, not sober history, and one constantly crosses in it the invisible
line between "fact" and the life of the fancy and memory."(pg. 61, Arvin)
After Melville's escape he sighed up on a ship called Lucy Ann.
Melville still had a bad leg from his experiences with the natives. This
journey was a short one but none the lass eventful. The journey was full of
different changes in command and mutiny. These events on the , Lucy Ann,
Melville put in to a book he named Omoo. This journey ended in Tahiti.
After a while in Tahiti, Melville decided to join the crew of the
Charles and Henry. When the Charles and Henry got to the Hawaiian island of
Maui the Captain Coleman discharged him. The events on the Charles and Henry
were also to be put in to text. Melville put this leg of his journey in a novel
named Mardi, which Hawthorn described as, "With depths here and there that
compel a man to swim for his life."(Hawthorn)
A month after Melville's arrival in Hawaii, Melville signed on as a crew
member in the US Navy, on board the United States. He sailed on her for
fourteen months. On board the United States Melville got to see Lama, "the city
of king's," which Melville called, "the strangest, saddest impression on
Melville than anything Melville would ever see again. It also probably made a
bigger effect in all of his writing than any of the rest of his whaling cruises.
Melville never wrote about what ever happened in Lima, the way that he wrote
about the cruises he took around the Southern Pacific Islands, but it is
apparent in all of his works and letter that Lima made a greater impression.
"Lima was a city in whose whiteness and beauty was a latent horror."(Pg. 71,
Arving) Melville began to think "the world's one Lima."
Melville's homeward voyage on the United States, which Melville started
to call the Never-Sink, became the situation where Melville made a new
friendship with a sailing mate named Jack Chase. This friend for one voyage
didn't no it but was to become the model character, for one of Melville's
greatest works, Billy Budd, fifty years latter. Also this last voyage home was
Melville's last days at sea.
"Young as he was-he was only in his mid-twenties-a long period lay
before him during which his life would be quite peculiarly an inward one."(pg.
121, Arving) Between the ages of eighteen to twenty-one Melville had gone
through enough experiences to supply him for a lifetime of novels and works.
"Melville's tales and sketches are a remarkable achievement. That he could do
so much in those four years seems to me astonishing."(Pg. 271, A Companion to
Melville Studies). From these experiences Melville wrote many works, just to
name a few famous ones; are first Redburn, then Typee, Omoo, Moby-Dick, Mardi,
and White-Jacket. Also from these experiences Melville began to write travel
narrative. "Into the short space of four or five years Melville had crammed
more "experience," more sheer activity, more roughing of it, than all but a few
modern authors."(pg. 121, Arving)
Melville had written seven books in the seven years following is arrival
home. Also, one of those book was one of the "highest order." It is truly
amazing that after all that he had been through in his voyages, Melville still
had enough in him to write seven consecutive excellent novels. Melville's
unexpected sudden success as an author surprised not only the literary society,
but also Melville just as much. This success also threw him into the literary
society. Melville had longed for some literate companionship in his time away
from home. In Melville's New York home he built an excellent library of
contemporary writers and old books.
No book before Melville's time compares in form with Moby-Dick. It is a
work of art that has simply amazes literary scholars sense it first was
published. In Melville's time most had absolutely no idea of what to think.
One of the keys to Melville's structure is that from the beginning to the end of
the voyage of the Pequod we are reminded over and over again that the voyage us
fated to a catastrophe. The meaning of Moby-Dick is so involved and complex
that very few critics would agree upon a single interpretation of any events or
symbolism in the novel. Many critics suggest that the meaning of Moby-Dick is a
way to show the meaning of the universe as opposed to mans desire to see only
one meaning in any one thing. He shows this by showing that man's eyes are
located so that he is always focusing upon one single object. Where as the
whales eyes are on opposite sides of his head. So that the whale can focus on
two different objects at any time. Another example of this idea is the coffin -
Life-buoy motif. This single object is first an coffin for Queequeg, then
becomes a canoe, storage chest, a work of art and religion, then a life-buoy
which save Ishmael's life. Thus one should not put one meaning in to an object,
for that person could find much more use if they stay open minded.
"How long, when Melville settled down to write his "whaling voyage," the
conception of Moby-Dick been present to his mind it is impossible to say."(Pg.
143, Arving). In the way that Melville wrote his first stories, one after
another for seven years, just after he had arrived home should make one wonder.
It would probably make one wonder whether when he arrived home all of what he
had gone through had just exploded on to paper. Or that in his time at sea he
had actually thought up all of these books and when he got home he was finally
able to just put them down on paper.
"The spectacle of Melville composing Moby-Dick is the spectacle of an
artist working at the very height of his creativeness and confidence, like a
great athlete who has reached, and only just reached, his optimum in age, in
physical vigor, in trained agility."(Pg. 217, Arving). This is a good
comparison. Take for example Joe Montana. Montana hit his prime age in the
Super Bowl and was unquestionably the best quarterback ever at that time. But
after a few injuries and a few more years added to his life even the great
Montana started to die in football. Even though he wasn't what he was before a
time he could come out and just for that night prove he really is the best.
The same thing happened to Melville. Melville was pouring out great
books for a few years, and then he wrote Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick is also
unquestionably one of the great novels of all time. Melville put every thing he
had into Moby-Dick. Then after Moby-Dick Melville started to slowdown a little.
Not that he died completely but he wasn't putting out books like his first few
years as an author. He still would write something just spectacular every once
in a while.
"Melville's text in particular are like another of his most famous
images - the coffin lifebuoy that empress such opposites as life and death."(Pg.
516, A Companion to Melville Studies). Melville had his own way of writing.
Who else but Captain Ahab would have said of the Great White Whale "he tasks me,
he heaps me"? Who but a true artiest such as Melville would have invented his
own verbs? "That is what a great writer is, a person who creates a new
language."(Pg. 562, A Companion to Melville Studies). In the first four or five
years Melville wrote almost out of "dejection." Melville was not as readily
excepted in America as he was in England, or the rest of Europe. Melville drew
only a little criticism in America, but most all of it was extremely positive.
Melville was not one to write of the good in life. Rather he tended to write of
the negatives. Nowhere will one find this more obvious than in Pierre. "Pierre
itself, taken as a whole and considered in strictly literary ground, is one of
the most painfully ill-conditioned books ever to be produced by a first-rate
mind."(Pg. 219, Arving).
After Melville had written Pierre, he had lost all of his "confidence in
both man and nature, he had lost his sense of the tragic."(Pg. 251, Arving)
This way of thought he lost by the time he composed The Confidence Man. what
took it's place was an "obsession with littleness and falsity."(Pg. 252, Arving)
Melville wrote The Confidence Man when he was in his mid-thirties, and was to
lead the other thirty-five years in much the same state. "The image of
brightness and darkness, repeated with habitual frequency in Melville's
writings."(pg. 607, A Companion to Melville Studies).
The novel The Confidence Man was really the last good novel Melville was
to write until his dying days. Melville would continue to write poems, such as
Clarel, Battle-Pieces, John Marr, and Timoleon, but had no real great
accomplishments. Melville was to slowly die out until he finished one last
manuscript, which occupied the final months of life. This manuscript was that
of Billy Budd. That manuscript Melville got published but never new of it
success, because he was to die on September, 28th of 1891, quietly in his bed,
and "would be gratified to know that his death went all but unregarded by the
world."(Pg. 292, Arving).
For the last thirty-five years after Melville's, The Confidence Man.
Melville had led a quiet unremembered life. After his death all that was
written was a small obituary in the New York Times. "In 1938 Herman Melville
had been dead for forty-seven years. He had died in obscurity and for 3 decades
until the publication of Ramon Weavers biography in 1921 he was known until to a
small but growing group of academics and bibliophiles."(Pg. 1, James Brarbour)
Melville's work was not even found until 1920, and Billy Budd wasn't even
published until 1924.
Melville's greatest accomplishment was no doubt his walling excursions
in the Southern Pacific. This is more than apparent enough in all of his
writings. Of most of his works, most were in junction with his experiences in
the Southern Pacific. The saddest thing about it all is that he died not even
knowing of his own accomplishments. Melville' death was some what like a coffin
floating amongst the waves in the sea, to be picked up latter.
Arvin, Newton. Herman Melville. Toronto: William Sloane
Bloom, Harold. Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.
New York, New Haven, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Budd, Louis J.; & Cody, Edwin H. On Melville. Durham,
& London: Duke University Press., 1988.
Deedy, John. "Where Melville Wrote."
The New York Times, (April 25, 1976).
Funke, Luis. "The Theater: 'Billy Budd.' " The New
York Times, (Feb. 28, 1959).
(Unknown). "Herman Melville." The New York
Times, (Oct. 2, 1891).
Lidman, David. "Herman Melville & Moby Dick."
The New York Times, (Jan. 18, 1970).
McSweeney, Kerry. Moby-dick. Boston: Twayne
Miller, James E. Jr. A Readers Guide to Herman Melville.
New York: Octagon Books, 1980.
Murry, John Middleton. "Herman Melville, Who Could
Not Surpass Him Self." The New York Times, (June 13, 1926).