an author writing about himself, his own life, and his own experiences as a
sailing man. Imagine that author adding a bold dash of his own poetic
license. Then imagine him becoming one of the most popular writers of
all time. That was exactly what happened to Herman Melville when he
first made his appearance upon the earth on August 1, 1819. He turned
out to be one of America's first true novelists.
Along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom Melville enjoyed a
lifelong running competition for the right to the title of best American
author, popular novelist/short-story writer Herman Melville more than anyone
else helped to define and elevate in stature the long form of literature
commonly known today as the novel.
Born in New York City into a
family of successful merchants, Melville was the third child of eight. When
he was twelve, his father went insane and died shortly thereafter. His
mother was left alone to raise all the children. After a long battle
fever, Melville was left with permanently poor eyesight. He
nonetheless taught himself to read and was soon an avaricious book lover.
He read Shakespeare, as well as books of history, anthropology, and science.
attended Albany (N.Y.) Classical School in 1835, but he left at the age of
12 to work as a clerk, teacher, and farmhand. In order to see more of the
wide world that he knew lay just beyond his reach,
he took a job as a cabin boy on the 359-ton whaling ship, Acushnet. He
was twenty-one. Afterwards, he joined the Navy and sailed to the
Atlantic and then on to the South Seas.
leaving the Navy,
Melville worked for a while as a clerk and a bookkeeper at a general store
in Honolulu before leaving to live among the Typee
cannibals in the
Marquesas Islands, where he remained until a passing freighter stopped to
pick him up and take him to Tahiti. He
returned home to live with his mother and to write about his adventures in his
(1846). For the revised edition of the book, he was
forced to edit out some of the "steamier" parts about the sexual habits of
the Marquesan girls whom he and his shipmates had encountered.
was Melville's most popular
book during his lifetime. It sold some 6,000 copies in its first two
years--a remarkable feat in that day. Melville followed it with Omoo
(1847), based upon his
experiences in the Polynesian Islands. It garnered nearly as much
attention as his first book.
In 1847, Melville married Elisabeth Shaw, the daughter of
the chief justice of Massachusetts. After three years in New York,
they bought a farm, which they called "Arrowhead." It was
near the Hawthorne home.
Melville and Hawthorne had met at a picnic with
friends at Monument Mountain near Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Two days
later, Melville visited Hawthorne at his little red farmhouse in Lenox.
Hawthorne gave him two bottles of champagne, and they took a walk to the
lake. That same day, Hawthorne wrote to a friend, "I met Melville, the
other day, and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days
with me before leaving these parts."
For a year and a half, the two
friends lived six miles apart during the most productive time in their
literary careers. Their five greatest books —The Scarlet Letter,
The House of the Seven Gables, Moby-Dick, The
Blithedale Romance, and Pierre, or the Ambiguities— were in
the process either of being written or
published. The Blithedale Romance and Pierre were
written at the same time, and The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick
were published a year apart.
author had an
influence on the other's works. Melville
had nearly completed what is today regarded as his greatest novel, Moby Dick
(1851), when Hawthorne suggested that he change it from a story about whaling to an allegorical novel. Moby Dick,
the tale of a white sperm whale and one man's obsession to kill it, is
filled with allegory, allusions, and sexual innuendo. Melville
dedicated the book to Hawthorne. It begins with the words, "Call me
Ishmael." It continues, "Some years ago—never mind how long
precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to
interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the
watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen
and regulating the circulation."
which was turned into a classic film starring Gregory Peck in 1956, centers around the mysterious Captain Ahab and his
quest to hunt down and destroy the white whale, Moby Dick, which cost him his leg on a
previous voyage. Melville filled the book with symbolism and
philosophy, as well as with Shakespearean rhetoric. The public, expecting
the more exotic fare of the author's South Seas' exploits, failed to
understand and appreciate the tremendous amount of thought and insight that
Melville put into the work, and it sold only 3,000 copies during his lifetime.
"All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the
less of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and
cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to
crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in
Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general
rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if chest
had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." - from Moby Dick
Herman Melville, in failing health and financial chaos, died
on September 29, 1891, with a manuscript of the unfinished
Billy Budd, Foretopman,
on his desk.
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