by Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (2000)
MELVILLE, HERMAN (1819-1891). More than any other American author, Herman Melville used the sea as setting and concept to create great literature. With broad-ranging and deep philosophical interests, his books are far more than adventure stories. In his works, Melville struggles with human interactions in a diverse and complex world, the boundaries of knowledge, and the search for truth. Melville’s success began with his first book, Typee (1846), and continued with Omoo (1847). While financial success eluded Melville after these first two books, their reception was a major influence on his continuing to write on maritime subjects. His time at sea inspired his next four books; Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), White-Jacket (1850), and Moby-Dick (1851). Only Pierre (1852) is a complete departure from the sea: he returns with “The Encantadas” (1854), the John Paul Jones section of Israel Potter (1854-1855), and “Benito Cereno” (1855). Moreover, The Confidence-Man (1857) is set on a steamboat, and many of Melville’s Civil War poems in Battle-Pieces (1866) concern naval warfare. Late in his life, however, he published Clarel (1876), an 18,000-line poem of a pilgrimage through the Holy Land with little maritime association, and Timoleon (1891), a small collection of nonmaritime poems. Nonetheless, his other late collection of poems, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), and Billy Budd, Sailor (1924), the short novel he was working on at the time of his death, exhibit a powerful maritime influence.
Although born to an upper-middle-class family, at age twelve Melville was thrust into poverty when his father, Allan Melvill, went bankrupt and died in delirium in 1832. His mother, Maria Gansevoort Melvill, was left with eight children and no way to make a living. In 1839 Melville (the final “e” was added to the family name in 1832) went to sea in an effort to help support his family. Now age nineteen, he signed on to the full-rigged merchant vessel St. Lawrence (1833), Oliver P. Brown, master, for his first sea voyage. Melville sailed from New York to Liverpool and back to New York: the passage to England took twenty-seven days, and the passage home forty-nine days. Melville’s fourth book, Redburn: His First Voyage, subtitled Being the Sailor-boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service, describes in a fictional manner what Melville encountered as he learned the skills of a sailor.
Melville’s next major trip was in 1840, when he traveled to Illinois by boat with his friend Eli James Murdock Fly. Their three-day journey by canalboat from Albany to Buffalo may have provided the description of the Erie Canal found in Chapter 54 of Moby-Dick, “The Town-Ho’s Story.” Melville and Fly crossed Lake Erie by steamboat and then, from Detroit, booked passage on a Lake Huron and Lake Michigan steamboat to Chicago. From there, Melville and Fly crossed the prairie to Galena, Illinois, where his uncle Thomas Melvill Jr. had a farm. It is unknown whether Melville actually went up the Mississippi River since the source for his description of “The River,” meant to be a part of The Confidence-Man, is actually Timothy Flint’s A Condensed Geography and History of the Western States; or, The Mississippi Valley (1828). However, Melville’s time on inland waterways decidedly influenced his tenth book, The Confidence-Man, a bleak work of despair set on board the Fidele, a Mississippi River steamboat. The month and route of Melville’s return to New York are unknown.
With his family still in financial trouble, Melville embarked from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on 3 January 1841, for the most influential voyage of his life. He joined the crew of the whaleship Acushnet (1840), Valentine Pease Jr., master, on its maiden voyage. His time on the Acushnet is the basis for his account of a whaling voyage in his sixth book, Moby-Dick. But the vessel Melville creates in Moby-Dick, the Pequod, is a fantastical Nantucket ship, with belaying pins of sperm-whale teeth and a tiller made from the lower jaw of a sperm whale. Melville, at twenty-one, shipped on the Acushnet as a green hand–the same rank he had held on the St. Lawrence. However, before his whaling years were finished, Melville had worked his way up to bow oarsman, the position held by Ishmael in Moby-Dick, and then possibly to boatsteerer (harpooneer).
In November 1841 the Acushnet spent six days at anchor off Chatham Island in the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos, the location of Melville’s ten sketches entitled “The Encantadas” (1854), were called enchanted because the baffling currents in nearby waters were, Melville writes, “so strong and irregular as to change a vessel’s course against the helm, though sailing at the rate of four or five miles the hour” (sketch first, “Encantadas”). The Acushnet returned to the waters of the Galapagos for the month of January 1842, but the six days at Chatham Island in 1841 were the longest continuous period during which Melville may have had the possibility of going ashore. Surprisingly. Chatham Island is referred to only twice–and then in passing–in “The Encantadas.”
When the Acushnet reached Nukahiva in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842, Melville and his shipmate Richard Tobias Greene, whom he called “Toby,” deserted and made their way to the interior. Melville hurt his leg en route and was forced to remain behind while Toby escaped, hoping to secure medicines for Melville. However, Toby never returned, and Melville learned only years later that he had effected his escape on another Fairhaven whaleship, the London Packet.
The embellished story of his adventures on Nukahiva is told in Melville’s first book, Typee. In reality, he spent only one month on the island (9 July-9 August 1842), but he lengthens the time to four months in his narrative. As he did with all his books, in writing Typee, Melville interspersed his own adventures with information he found in written sources. Three major sources for Typee are David Porter’s Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean (1815), Charles S. Stewart’s A Visit to the South Seas (1831), and George H. von Langsdorff’s Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World (1813).
Melville escaped from Nukahiva on the Australian whaleship Lucy Ann (1819), Henry Ventom, master. Now signed as an able seaman, he joined a crew torn by dissent. The Lucy Ann was bark-rigged and quite small, only eighty-seven feet long, with a sickly captain and a first mate, James German, who was prone to drink. Additionally, the vessel was inadequately officered. It carried four whaleboats but had only one mate, two illiterate boatsteerers, and a newly shipped boatsteerer who soon turned against the captain. A whaleship carrying four whaleboats would normally carry four mates (or boatheaders) and four boatsteerers (or harpooneers). The captain soon became very ill, and German headed for Tahiti, where the captain was put ashore. In an effort to prevent desertion while yet staying close to the captain, the Lucy Ann left port and sailed back and forth off the harbor of Papeete, Tahiti; there, ten men refused duty. These ten men were held on the French frigate La Reine Blanche; later, they were taken to a Tahitian “calaboose” (jail). Melville joined the mutineers in their confinement ashore. During his time as a prisoner, Melville was under a doctor’s care, and his leg was treated. Roughly three weeks later, in October 1842, Melville escaped to the neighboring island of Eimeo (now Moorea), Society Islands. Melville’s passage on the Lucy Ann, the mutiny, and his imprisonment are treated in his second book, Omoo.
Melville wandered the island of Eimeo until November 1842, when he joined the Nantucket whaleship Charles and Henry (1832), John B. Coleman Jr., master. Melville evidently signed on as boatsteerer and spent five months aboard the Charles and Henry, much less than the claim of “the author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer” that he made to his English publisher, Richard Bentley (letter of 27 June 1850). From his time on the Charles and Henry, Melville drew the beginning of his third book, Mardi.
Discharged at Lahaina, Maui, Melville traveled to Oahu aboard the Star, Captain Burroughs, master. During Melville’s stay in Honolulu, the Acushnet came into port, and Valentine Pease Jr., on 2 June 1843, filed an affidavit taking notice of Melville’s desertion eleven months earlier, a federal offense. Six weeks later, Melville enlisted as an ordinary seaman on the American naval frigate United States (1797), James Armstrong, master. The frigate sailed under the pennant of Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones. Melville was one of approximately 480 men on board.
Melville spent fourteen months on the United States, and in that time he witnessed 163 floggings. His absolute hatred of this form of corporal punishment resounds throughout his fifth book, White-Jacket, and in his final work, Billy Budd, Sailor. Melville’s long period at sea ended on 3 October 1844, when the United States arrived at Boston. He traveled on the ocean several more times, but never again as a seaman. In 1860 he sailed around Cape Horn aboard the clipper ship Meteor (1852) with his younger brother, Thomas, as captain. Homesick and depressed, however, Melville took a steamer from San Francisco to Panama, crossed the isthmus, and then returned to New York on the steamer North Star.
Although unknown to him at the time, an event occurred while Melville was at sea on the Charles and Henry that would deeply affect his life. His first cousin Guert Gansevoort was the first lieutenant of the U.S. training brig Somers (1842) under the command of Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie. Three men, including the son of the secretary of war, were hanged for mutiny on 1 December 1842. Mackenzie was court-martialed after questions arose as to whether a mutiny had actually been planned. Some claimed that Mackenzie should have waited until the Somers reached St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, a mere two days away, to try the men in a formal military court. Mackenzie was acquitted, but questions remain to this day. The many similarities between the Somers incident and Billy Budd, Sailor include a suspected mutiny, a “drumhead court” or officers’ council controlled by the commanding officer, punishment by hanging, and unresolved questions about the commander’s decision. Melville refers directly to the Somers in Billy Budd, Sailor, suggesting that he was still troubled almost fifty years later by an incident so closely tied to his family.
In his writings, Melville relied not only on his own experience but also very heavily on his reading. “I have swam through libraries,” he writes in Moby-Dick (ch. 32). Melville consumed books and was consumed by them. As he read, he argued with them, laughed and cried over them, and became fiercely angry with them. The books he owned are filled with notes and jottings done with slashing pen marks and furious periods. Melville’s reading, both literary and factual, inspired his writing. An alchemist of words, Melville transformed his often mundane sources. For example, the information in the “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick (ch. 32) is borrowed nearly verbatim from the “Whales” entry in volume 27 of The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1843). As Melville infused the dry information with his own humor and philosophical ponderings, he transformed it into literature of the highest order.
Both his time at sea and his reading influenced Melville’s works, but he might never have achieved greatness had he not met first Evert Duyckinck, at the center of the New York literary world, and then Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville initially met Duyckinck as the editor of Typee, and although the two men were quite different, remarkably, they became friends. Melville had access to Duyckinck’s library, one of the greatest private libraries in the country. Duyckinck wrote to his brother George: “Melville . . . has borrowed Sir Thomas Browne of me and says finely of the speculations of the Religio Medici that Browne is a kind of ‘crack’d Archangel.’ Was ever anything of this sort said before by a sailor?” (letter of 18 March 1848). In August 1850, Duyckinck went to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to visit Melville, and during this visit a party of ten, seven of whom were literary men, climbed Monument Mountain. Here, for the first time, Melville met Hawthorne. His new book, which he had previously told Duyckinck was “mostly done,” took another year to complete. That book was Moby-Dick, and Melville’s long, philosophical conversations with Hawthorne reshaped the book, subsequently dedicated to Hawthorne. The letter Hawthorne wrote on first reading Moby-Dick no longer exists, but Melville’s response to it does. Melville calls it “your joy-giving and exultation-breeding letter” and goes on to say: “A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book” (letter of [17?] November 1851).
Unfortunately, few others understood, and Moby-Dick was never reprinted in Melville’s lifetime. Melville spent the next forty years living in obscurity until his death. He wrote only two more full-length works after Moby-Dick and worked for nineteen years as a customs inspector. It was a life of aching sadness, depressed and depressing. When he died, he was yet again revising the manuscript he had entitled Billy Budd, Sailor. The redemption of his reputation began with the publication of Raymond Weaver’s biography, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, in 1921 and has continued to this day. Among the rich and numerous critical, biographical, and/or derivative works that have appeared over the years, even contemporary authors such as Larry Duberstein (The Handsome Sailor, 1998) and Frederick Busch (The Night Inspector, 1999) have turned to the historical Melville as a significant character in their novels.
Benito Cereno (1856)
Billy Budd (1889)
Virginia.edu: 1992 edition
The Confidence Man (1857)
“The Encantadas” (1854)
Israel Potter (1855)
John Marr and other Poems (1922)
Mardi: and a Voyage Thither (1849) vol. 1
Mardi: and a Voyage Thither (1849) vol. 2
Moby-Dick or The Whale (1851)
Margaret Guroff. “Power Moby-Dick, the Online Annotation”
NPR piece on humor in Moby-Dick (2009)
The Piazza Tales (1856)
keywords: white, male