HERMAN MELVILLE (1819 - 1891)
American novelist, short story writer, and poet.
Melville, a major American literary figure of the nineteenth century, is best known as the author of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), a complex metaphysical novel that is considered a classic of world literature. Virtually unrecognized at the time of his death, Melville is now praised for his rich, rhythmical prose and complex symbolism. A master of both realistic and allegorical narrative, Melville was also an incisive social critic and philosopher who sought to understand the ambiguities of life and to define the individual's relation to society and the universe. Though Melville is not ordinarily categorized as a Gothic writer, his relationship to this literary tradition has nevertheless been identified by numerous contemporary scholars who point to the frequent adapted use of Gothic conventions in his works. Principally, critics have noted Melville's exploitation of isolated shipboard settings for the purposes of evoking psychological terror, his use of naïve narrators who witness mysterious, unexplainable events and relate the exploits of menacing antiheroes, and his literary depiction of a cosmic struggle of Manichean polarities in an ambiguous world devoid of the sense that good will ultimately triumph and vanquish evil. For modern critics, all of these devices are pivotal to Moby-Dick, while elements therein have also been studied in conjunction with his shorter works of prose fiction.
Born in New York City, Melville enjoyed a relatively comfortable childhood until his father's business failure and early death. Melville ended his formal education at age twelve to help support his family. He worked in the family fur business and as a bank clerk and taught at various schools until, in 1839, he sailed as a cabin boy aboard a merchant ship bound for Liverpool, England. This experience, shocking in its revelation of squalor and human cruelty, subsequently inspired his fourth novel, Redburn: His First Voyage (1849). Melville's later journey to the South Seas, begun aboard the whaling ship Acushnet, provided the background for his most highly regarded works. Finding conditions unbearable aboard the Acushnet, Melville deserted the ship in the Marquesas and spent several months in captivity among a tribe of cannibalistic Polynesians. He finally escaped aboard a passing whaling vessel. Again appalled by the conditions at sea, Melville joined in a mutiny and was briefly imprisoned in Tahiti. He then moved on to Hawaii and later returned to New York aboard a U.S. naval vessel. Melville had never contemplated a literary career, but with no prospects for a career on his return to the U.S., he was encouraged by family and friends to write about his remarkable journeys. His first novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and its sequel, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), are fictionalized versions of his experiences in the Pacific. Generally praised for their excitement, romance, and splendid descriptions of the South Seas region, these novels were immediately successful and made Melville famous as the "man who lived among the cannibals"—a reputation he was never able to overcome and that interfered with the appreciation of his later works. Melville's mature literary voice began to emerge in Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (1849). At the time he wrote this work he was growing restless with the adventure narrative and was increasingly drawn to philosophical and metaphysical questions in his novels. Mardi represents an important step in Melville's artistic development, yet its publication marked the beginning of the decline in his popularity. Discouraged by the novel's poor reception and in need of money, Melville temporarily returned to the travel narrative and produced Redburn and White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850). Melville wrote Moby-Dick between 1850 and 1851. An early chapter of the novel appeared in the October 1, 1851 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine while the complete novel was published in London and New York in the ensuing weeks. Critics and the reading public on both sides of the Atlantic took little notice of the work. Emotionally exhausted following the publication of Moby-Dick and desperate for recognition, Melville immediately began writing Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), a pessimistic novel that is considered the most autobiographical of his works. His popularity, already damaged by the publication of Moby-Dick, was nearly destroyed by Pierre, which was poorly received by a reading public that preferred the entertainment of Typee and Omoo. Melville continued writing prose through the 1850s, despite the critical and popular failure of Pierre and Moby-Dick. He published numerous short stories in periodicals and collected six of his best in The Piazza Tales (1856). Billy Budd, his final novel, was left in manuscript at his death in 1891 and was not published until 1924.
Melville's mature works of fiction are considered complex pieces that illustrate their author's incisive exploration of philosophical themes, use of allegorical symbolism, and mastery of complex narrative technique. Although Mardi begins as an adventure story, it quickly becomes a combination of philosophical allegory and satire; as such, it anticipates both Moby-Dick and Pierre in its levels of meaning, concern with metaphysical problems, and use of a questing hero. Like Mardi, Moby-Dick was initially conceived as a realistic narrative about sea life; but it took on epic proportions as Melville progressed in its composition. In the novel, the narrator, Ishmael, recounts his ill-fated voyage as a hand on board the whaling ship Pequod. Outfitted with an eclectic crew including South Sea islanders, North American Indians, blacks, and New England salts, the whaler leaves Nantucket on Christmas Day, bound on a commercial hunt for whales. As the trip progresses, however, Ahab, the ship's captain, exerts his will over the crew and converts the voyage into a quest to destroy his personal nemesis, a celebrated white whale known as Moby Dick. Ahab had lost a leg to the whale in a previous encounter, and his search is further fueled by his monomaniacal conviction that Moby Dick visibly personifies all earthly malignity and evil. The story concludes with a turbulent three-day struggle between the white whale and the Pequod's crew. The whale has been variously interpreted as God, evil, good, and as a symbol of the ambiguity of nature. Considered by many of Melville's contemporaries as a sentimental romance, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities treats such themes as illegitimacy, incest, and, as its subtitle suggests, ambiguity. Detailing the story of an idealist who consistently undermines his own good intentions and ultimately commits suicide, Pierre is a deeply psychological work that explores the recesses of the human mind, in particular repressed sexual urges, and examines how good can be transformed into evil in unpredictable ways. Melville's six-story compilation The Piazza Tales includes "Benito Cereno," which is generally considered his finest short story, as well as several noted tales, including "Bartleby the Scrivener," concerning an alienated Wall Street law copyist, and "The Bell-Tower," a moral parable on the sin of hubris set in Renaissance Italy. In "Benito Cereno" Melville relates an ironic narrative of slave mutiny at sea. Featuring a naïve narrator who stumbles upon the remnants of a violent rebellion but fails to recognize the horrors that have occurred, "Benito Cereno" offers a fascinating thematic study of human depravity and moral relativism. Other late works by Melville include two novels, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), an allegorical satire on mid nineteenth-century American life, and Billy Budd, a heavily symbolic work featuring an unreliable narrator, which focuses on the execution of a young sailor accused of fomenting a mutiny aboard an English warship.
At the time of his death, Melville was almost unknown as a writer, and his accomplishments were not properly recognized for over a generation. Nineteenth-century critics of Pierre, for instance, often expressed confusion over the novel's metaphysical questioning and found its theme of incest offensive. In the contemporary period, however, Pierre has been noted as a predecessor of the modern psychological novel. Indeed, a tremendous revival of interest in Melville's work began in the 1920s, following the publication of the biography Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, written by Raymond T. Weaver (see Further Reading), and constitutes a dramatic reversal nearly unprecedented in American literary history. By the middle of the twentieth century Moby-Dick was considered one of America's greatest novels and widely acclaimed as a work of genius. Critics generally agree that in this work Melville parlayed the story of a sea captain's vengeful search for a legendary whale into a narrative suffused with profound speculation concerning the nature and interrelationship of the individual, society, God, and the cosmos. The novel is also highly acclaimed as a distinctly American book. By resolutely grounding his speculations in American thought, language, and experience, Melville elevated Moby-Dick to the status of a national epic. Although Melville's contemporaries gave it little notice, Moby-Dick was studied more intensively in the twentieth century than any other American novel and is now considered one of the greatest novels of all time. Additionally, Melville's late work Billy Budd has been widely examined in an effort to determine Melville's final views on such issues as justice, morality, and religion. Viewed as one of his finest novels, Billy Budd has been consistently praised for its philosophical insight, multifaceted narrative technique, and complex use of symbol and allegory.
Melville's fiction, particularly Moby-Dick, has been the subject of innumerable interpretations, and the body of Melville criticism, already immense, continues to grow. Among the multitude of scholarly approaches to these works has been a recent appreciation of Gothic features in Melville's novels and short prose fiction. Newton Arvin has investigated the influence of the Gothic novel and Gothic literary tropes on Melville, highlighting affinities among the imagery, symbolism, and modes of characterization employed by Melville in his stories and similar devices used by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Horace Walpole, and Edgar Allan Poe. Nalini V. Shetty has argued that Melville's "Benito Cereno" reveals the author's substantial adaptation of Gothic fictional techniques, suggesting that Melville transferred some of the standard devices used to a evoke a mood of preternatural terror to the shipboard setting and mysterious, twisting plot of this noted story. Similarly, Steven T. Ryan has identified Gothic formulaic elements in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" by comparing Melville's tale with Poe's Gothic classic "The Fall of the House of Usher." Ryan observes that Melville uses a literal and commonsensical narrator together with a mysterious figure in this work to create a sense of enclosure and impending catastrophe without relying on the outward trappings of medieval gloom and decay ordinarily found in traditional Gothic narrative. Critics have also studied Moby-Dick as it is informed by Gothic themes, conventions, and characterizations. Tony Magistrale has viewed the novel's revenge-obsessed Captain Ahab as an embodiment of the demonic Gothic villain, while Benjamin F. Fisher IV has demonstrated Melville's use of the seagoing Pequod as a surrogate for the archetypal "haunted castle" setting of Gothic fiction. Other commentators have elucidated such Gothic motifs as isolation, insanity, and the pervasive presence of an unseen evil in Melville's Moby-Dick and his other works.