Although his early adventure novels—Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Redburn (1849), and White Jacket (1850)—brought Herman Melville a notable amount of popularity and financial success during his lifetime, it was not until the 1920’s and 1930’s, nearly fifty years after his death, that he received universal critical recognition as one of the greatest nineteenth century American authors. Melville took part in the first great period of American literature—the period that included Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. For complexity, originality, psychological penetration, breadth, and symbolic richness, Melville achieved his greatest artistic expression with the book he wrote when he was thirty years old, Moby Dick.
Between the time of his birth in New York City and his return there to research and write his masterpiece, Melville had circled the globe of experience—working as a bank messenger, salesman, farmhand, schoolteacher (like his narrator, Ishmael), engineer and surveyor, bowling alley attendant, cabin boy, and whaleman in the Pacific on the Acushnet. His involvement in the mutinous Pacific voyage, combined with accounts of a notorious whale called Mocha Dick that wrought havoc in the 1840’s and 1850’s, certainly influenced the creation of Moby Dick.
The tangled themes of this mighty novel express the artistic genius of a mind that, according to Hawthorne, “could neither believe nor be comfortable in unbelief.” Many of those themes are characteristic of American Romanticism: the “isolated self” and the pain of self-discovery, the insufficiency of conventional practical knowledge in the face of the “power of blackness,” the demoniac center to the world, the confrontation of evil and innocence, the fundamental imperfection of humans, Faustian heroism, the search for the ultimate truth, the inadequacy of human perception. Moby Dick is, moreover, a unique literary form, combining elements of the psychological and picaresque novel, sea story and allegory, the epic of “literal and metaphorical quest,” the satire of social and religious events, the emotional intensity of the lyric genre (in diction and in metaphor), Cervantian romance, Dantesque mysticism, Rabelaisian humor, Shakespearean drama (both tragedy and comedy), journalistic travel...
(The entire section is 988 words.)
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