Herman Melville Analysis

Discussion Topics

In what ways did Herman Melville’s first two commercially successful novels become misfortunes for him?

What traits of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick make him such a memorable character? Can this character be comprehended or is he ultimately mysterious?

What does the white whale in Moby Dick symbolize?

In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” why does Bartleby “prefer not to”?

What characteristics of modern Manhattan are already present or adumbrated in “Bartleby the Scrivener”?

Discuss lack of imagination as a weakness in the lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Captain Delano in Benito Cereno.

Does Captain Vere make the right decision in Billy Budd, Foretopman? Do Billy’s final words cast any light on the matter?

Did Melville make his mature works too ambiguous?

Other Literary Forms

Herman Melville’s sixteen published books include novels, short stories, poetry, and sketches. He is best known for his novels, particularly Moby Dick (1851), The Confidence Man (1857), and Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924).


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.

Other literary forms

Herman Melville, as if turning a new corner in his literary career, began a series of short stories after the financial failures of the novels Moby Dick and Pierre. The tales, which present an enigmatic addition to Melville’s artistry, were published between 1853 and 1856, either in a collection (The Piazza Tales, 1856) or individually in journals such as Putnam’s Monthly Magazine and Harper’s Monthly magazine. Melville had difficulty with the short forms, and he seemed unable to work out the plot and characters in the space required. His best stories are novella length: “Benito Cereno,” “The Encantadas,” and “Bartleby the Scrivener.” With the publication of The Apple-Tree Table, and Other Sketches (1922), all of Melville’s stories became available in collection.

Melville also wrote poetry, which suffers from the same unevenness that plagues his short fiction. A handful of poems, gathered selectively from Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), and Timoleon (1891), are worthy of being anthologized with the best poetry of the nineteenth century. His worst poem, Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), a long, flawed reflection on Melville’s travels in the Holy Land, continues to be of interest only for its revealing autobiographical and philosophical content. “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville’s only serious attempt at criticism and analysis, is important as an assessment of Hawthorne’s first important sketches.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Herman Melville’s achievements, before the discovery of Billy Budd, Foretopman and the subsequent revival of Melville studies, were viewed simply as writings from “a man who lived among the cannibals.” He was remembered only for Typee and Omoo, his slight but extremely popular South Seas adventures. While important as the beginnings of the popular tradition of exotic romances, Typee and Omoo are not classics. Only with the publication of Billy Budd, Foretopman, and the critical scrutiny that its publication encouraged, were Moby Dick, Pierre, and the rest reassessed, and Melville’s reputation as a leader among giants affirmed.

Apart from introducing the South Seas tale to the American public, Pierre is arguably the first important work of psychological realism, and Moby Dick is a masterpiece of metaphysics, allegory, philosophy, and literature. The assessment of Melville’s work was not realized until years after his death and almost seventy years after Melville had given up the novel form for the quick money of short stories, the personal introspection of poetry, and the security of a government post in the New York customs office. Melville was never psychologically or ideologically attuned to the demands of his reading public and, thus, popularity eluded him in his lifetime.

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Herman Melville is best known for his novels, which include Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857), and Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924). During his lifetime, he also published a collection of short stories and sketches titled The Piazza Tales (1856), as well as ten other short stories in various popular magazines. In addition to his novels and short stories, Melville contributed numerous essays, poems, and reviews to literary journals; the most famous of these is surely his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), published as “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” In this review Melville indicates that his reading of Hawthorne altered the course of his literary growth. Since his death, several of Melville’s journals, kept during such journeys as those to England and Israel, have appeared in print, as has The Letters of Herman Melville (1960, Merrill R. Davis and William H. Gilman, editors).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

During his lifetime, Herman Melville’s public literary achievements were lamentably few. It is only in the last several decades of the twentieth century that his work received just recognition as the product, in the words of Howard P. Vincent (the principal editor of Melville’s poems), of the “most powerful literary genius” in the United States. Few readers of Melville’s novels are aware that he is also a poet of no little talent. In modern times, critics generally acknowledge Melville and Walt Whitman as the two best poets of the Civil War. Besides his 1866 Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, however, Melville, like Whitman, wrote many other poems. In his edition of Melville’s poems, Robert Penn Warren states that he agrees with Randall Jarrell’s judgment that Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Whitman are the best poets of nineteenth century America. Increased interest in Melville’s poetry seems to confirm this judgment.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Argersinger, Jana L., and Leland S. Person, eds. Hawthorne and Melville: Writing a Relationship. Athens: Georgia University, 2008. Fourteen essays that focus on the relationship that the two authors shared during the time that Melville was writing Moby Dick. The essays also discuss how each writer affected the other’s work. Essential for anyone interested in either writer.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Herman Melville: Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Bloom discusses the importance of the thirteen articles presented. Major critics interpret Melville’s themes, forms, symbolism, and comedy in Moby...

(The entire section is 973 words.)