Born to a genteel, but broke family, Melville went to sea at the age of 18, but seven years later we find him settling in New York to become a writer. Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) are about his adventures in the South Pacific; Mardi (1849) is an imaginary allegorical quest; Redburn (1849) and Whitejacket (1850) are novels about seafaring. He was a moderately popular novelist, regarded as a writer of "yarns." In 1850 he began The Whale, which was evidently going to be a whaling story, but two things intervened: he reread Shakespeare, and he struck up an intense friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne who lived nearby (Melville had moved to the Berkshires). The two men had long discussions, plumbing the depths of each others' minds on the kind of subjects natural to the author of The Scarlet Letter and to the author of the future Moby Dick: the truth of Christian revelation, the Manichean nature of the struggle between good and evil, the relation of esthetic truth to philosophic truth, the validity of Transcendentalism, and so on. The result was that Melville changed and deepened the book, now called Moby Dick. It remained a terrific sea story, but now it was also a profound meditation on the subjects he and Hawthorne discussed. It is deeply humorous and movingly lyrical, America's greatest and most characteristic novel.
When he changed his mind about the book, he did not discard it and begin again, but incorporated the old material in the new structure. The first fifteen chapters, tracing Ishmael and Queequeg to Nantucket, must be from the original version, while the chapters in Nantucket are mixed, and chapter twenty-three to the end is the new version, with some additions from the original woven in. There are a few trivial anomalies, but the unity of the book is not affected, the principal difference being that the early chapters are lighter in style, marked by the brash tone of the 19th century American humor, that mixture of tall stories, jokes, and folk wisdom we know from Mark Twain. Here's the opening:
Call me Ishmael. 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. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Although Melville never entirely drops this style, the writing becomes more lyrical and rhetorical as the book progresses, as in this description of Moby Dick:
A gentle joyousness -- a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! Did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.
For a subtler passage, wonderfully evocative and suggestive, on the disposal of a whale's carcass:
The vast tackles have now done their duty. The peeled white body of the beheaded whale flashes like a marble sepulchre; though changed in hue, it has not perceptibly lost anything in bulk. It is still colossal. Slowly it floats more and more away, the water round it torn and splashed by the insatiate sharks, and the air above vexed with rapacious flights of screaming fowls, whose beaks are like so many insulting poniards in the whale. The vast white headless phantom floats further and further from the ship, and every rod that it so floats, what seem square roods of sharks and cubic roods of fowls, augment the murderous din. For hours and hours from the almost stationary ship that hideous sight is seen. Beneath the unclouded and mild azure sky, upon the fair face of the pleasant sea, wafted by the joyous breezes, that great mass of death floats on and on, till lost in infinite perspectives.
As an epic, the novel celebrates the customs, occupations, and types of heroic humanity characteristic of the culture, hence in 19th century America, men who struggle with Nature. So we are treated to the lore of whales and whaling, including detailed descriptions of its tools and methods. And over all, there is the tragic quest of Captain Ahab to wreak revenge on Moby Dick, his solipsistic mania that finally dooms the ship and crew (except Ishmael). This theme, preoccupation with self, is predominant in Emerson's Transcendentalism, and is still with us. That's why I call Melville our keenist critic.
It is possible, I suppose, to be bored by such a capacious narrative, but I have taught it twice and read it five times, and as soon as I picked it up to write this essay, I was caught once again in the net of Melville's words. All I can say is that I hope you'll read it.
Although the novel got as many good as bad reviews, and some were perceptive, no one saw the magnitude of the achievement, and it didn't sell well. A year later he published Pierre, a semi-Gothic novel so strange and obscure that it defies description. A fire at his publisher's destroyed the plates of his books, and most of the unsold copies. He published an undistinguished novel, Israel Potter, in 1855, a year later a book of stories. The Confidence Man (1857) is the last prose work published in his lifetime. A curious book, it describes the adventures of a con man on a Mississippi steamboat, and while the first half of the book is entertaining, as the con man changes roles and works his clever wiles on the varied passengers, the rest drags as the con man engages in convoluted monologues. None of the issues raised -- Nature, Charity, Christian Providence -- is explored more than superficially, and the tone is very light. Billy Budd, a novella written shortly before his death, was published in 1924, after the Melville revival that followed his centennial. It is highly regarded, but it does not show any thematic development since Moby Dick, and the style is stiff and creaky, the work of an old man. From 1866 to 1886 he supported his family as a customs inspector on the New York docks. What is so marked about his career is not its arc of rise and decline, but the suddenness and completeness of its collapse. From the heights of Moby Dick his work plunges to a nadir and never recovers. The subjects that had inspired and energized him when he was writing his great novel now bedeviled him. He saw Hawthorne in Liverpool in 1856 and talked endlessly of the dilemmas of truth and belief but could neither believe "nor be comfortable in his disbelief." He could not find any philosophical or religious synthesis to believe in. We may say that when he was writing his first five books he was a conventional writer (but with hints of other tendencies), but in the midst of writing Moby Dick he was transformed: the conventions fell away, his deepest thoughts and feelings found expression in a long book that combined folk humor, lyric poetry, scientific reporting, drama, philosophic speculation, and novelistic narrative. So where could he go from there? Moby Dick, in the exuberance of its artistry, is probably as close as he could get to an answer to the insoluble questions of life, but it wasn't close enough for Melville. With the publication of Moby Dick, Melville's career was essentially over. He could not go back to being a conventional novelist, and he could not go forward: Moby Dick was as far as he could go, and it was much too far for his contemporaries.
I used to feel sad about Melville's later obscurity, about his humdrum employment, but when you consider the fates of other writers who ran out of steam in mid-career, there is a steadiness and solidity about him that is impressive. So Faulkner and Hemingway, both steeped in alcohol, spending their last decades writing parodies of themselves; Sinclair Lewis, after the promise of Babbit and Main Street, churning out self-infatuated lifeless novels year after year; Fitzgerald, writing insipid stories and a second-rate novel after The Great Gatsby, finally winding up pathetically as a reformed soul in Hollywood.
And we must not forget Melville's poetry, which he wrote all his life. Although his best poetic effects were achieved in prose (as in the whale's carcass passage, quoted earlier), some of his poems are very powerful.
"The Portent" (1859)
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war. *
"There never was a bad man that had ability for good service." --Edmund Burke