By the middle of the twentieth century, names such as Moby Dick and captain Ahab were well known in the popular culture of the United States. Yet, one must look to the 1920’s and the revival in Melville’s work (notably Moby Dick) to see the beginning of what came to be Melville’s immense stature in American literature. His most significant works received little popular or critical acclaim in his lifetime. One reason for this may have been friction with nineteenth century American tastes. Problems also stemmed, however, from Melville’s fascination with forces that seemed (to him) to lie below the placid optimism of his contemporary American culture. Readers were disturbed by the author’s tendency to view outward appearances as pasteboard masks that concealed a truer, darker reality. It should come as no surprise that modern students sense an invitation to allegorize Melville’s works. Many believe that Melville, himself, perceived life in a symbolic way.
Many of the short pieces that Melville wrote for various magazines represent conscious attempts, through symbol and irony, to express disturbing layers of meaning beneath a calm surface. In 1855-1856, Melville finished a novel, The Confidence Man, rendering a bleak view of the possibility of faith in the world as he knew it. Although Melville openly wrote verse throughout his life, the manuscript that would become his novella, Billy Budd, Foretopman, was packed away by his widow and not discovered until the 1920’s.
Melville completed Moby Dick some forty years before Sigmund Freud began to penetrate the veneer of conventional surfaces in his quest for the causes of hysteria—the salient behavioral aberration of repressive nineteenth century Europe. Yet, Melville (like his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne) had already begun to probe beyond the level of mundane appearances in his fiction. Even though some of Melville’s stories are lengthy by modern standards, the finest of them exhibit exceptional merit in the short-story genre. “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” for example, reveal a rich complexity and density which rival those of modern masterpieces of the form.