Herman Melville was born August 1, 1819 to Allen Melvill and Maria Gansevoort. He was the third eldest of eight children and the second oldest male. His parents were both the children of Revolutionary War heroes, Allen Gansevoort and Thomas Melvill. Both men were born English and through violence, became American, fighting for their adopted country during the war. Maria descended from a prominent Dutch family in Albany and his father, Allen, was an enterprising urban merchant. The final “e” in Melvill[e] was not added until Herman was a teenager. While Herman Melville was born to good circumstances, his parents lacked the funds to remain there and frequently, with much regret and shame, turned to their elders for aide.
Melville’s father won his bride and moved to New York where he began a deluxe accessories business, selling scarves, garters, artificial flowers, silk vestings, watch ribbons and the like. He was led with “groundless optimism of someone proficient at deceiving himself.” Allen frequently wrote to his father of his prospective future success in various business ventures and consistently assured his creditors of the same fact. Allen’s habit of living beyond his means afforded his children the luxury of an opulent lifestyle and he always employed servants, including cook, housekeeper, nurse and waiter. Even as he was sinking into debt, he did not cut back on his expenses. He borrowed and begged for cash, always on the promise of a future payoff. When his business failed in 1830, the family moved from Manhattan to Albany. When Herman was twelve, his father died and left his family destitute.
The cost of Melville’s schooling was a challenge to the family’s finances even before Allen’s death, but after, it was impossible. It was not even considered a priority as Melville was thought to have a lesser mind than his brother. He went to work for his brother in 1834 in his cap and fur business at the age of fifteen. His family fortune began to decline again in 1835 and Melville held temporary jobs as a teacher, clerk, bookkeeper and farm worker while his family remained dependent on his uncle.
Melville was intensely private, his letters and notes void of emotion except for the remarkable ones he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850 and 1851. Melville preferred to keep his feelings to himself and did not verbalize of share them with others. He shrank away from people and confined himself, sometimes unhappily, in the family circle.
Melville’s writing career began in 1838 with fervent letters to the editor of the Albany Microscope, publishing his first story in the Democratic Press in 1939. Persuaded by his uncle, Melville took engineering courses and attempted, without success, to land a job as a surveyor for the Erie Canal project. In order to escape, he took a job as a cabin boy aboard a merchant ship, beginning his life-long fascination with sailing and the sea. After eighteen months on board the St. Lawrence, Melville returned home and was soon sucked into family troubles. He spent a year working before taking an abbreviated tour west and swift return to the sea on a whaling ship. Melville spent three years aboard the Lucy Ann before being thrown off as a mutineer. The period of his life that Melville spent at sea became the inspiration for much of his writing.
Melville’s first five sea tales found critical acclaim and proved popular with the public, with Typee becoming the most successful. However, Melville did not achieve the same acceptance of his major works Moby Dick or its follow up, Pierre. Nineteenth century audiences found these novels oblique and wordy and it was not until the twentieth century, after Melville’s death, that these works were appreciated for their depth and complexity. Moby Dick, in particular, was considered a masterpiece of American literature.
Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne and took a particular liking to him, even dedicating Moby Dick to his fellow American author. Melville hid his inner thoughts and struggles from those closest to him, leading his friends to feel that no matter how much time they spent with him, they never really knew him. But his relationship with Hawthorne was different; Melville expressed his inner most feelings, doubts and fears in his letters to Hawthorne, allowing Hawthorne to be the person that knew Melville best.
One issue with Melville’s potential success as a writer was the fact that there were no international copyright laws so, though his books were relatively successful in Britain and some other European countries, Melville did not make any money from those sales. Throughout his entire career, Melville only earned approximately $10,000, a modest amount considering the plethora of his work.
After the success of Typee and Omoo, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw in 1847 and looked forward to a stylish marriage. He enjoyed a modest celebrity status and believed his life to continue in this manner. After the failure of Moby Dick, Pierre and The Confidence Man, Melville was forced to alter his perspective. Elizabeth and Melville had four children, one of whom preceded him in death. Melville worked anonymously as the District Inspector of Customs, which afforded him time to write. One of his most successful stories, Billy Budd, was not printed until after his death, he was still working on it when he died September 28, 1891 at the age of 72 from a series of multiple viral infections. During his lifetime, he was considered to be a great writer who had never fulfilled his promise.
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that Herman Melville’s life, his childhood and subsequent travels strongly influenced his writing and true life events. It will show how Melville was able to translate his life on the sea into realistic stories of adventure and eloquent allegories on human nature. His abbreviated and troubled childhood was reflected in many of his characters as they sought fulfillment and pondered their reality.
Melville was able to write on topics he knew and had lived first hand. Melville spent years at sea, adventuring from one boat to another, gaining experience on merchant and whaling vessels and hopping from boat to boat as he traveled throughout the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The characters in his book mostly represented areas of his own life and he wrote from his own perspective. His fictional characters went through many of the same ordeals that Melville did in real life, many of them written from Melville’s point of view. A real life island was the inspiration for Typee and his book, The Enchanted Isles, was based on his tour of the Galapagos Islands.
Melville grew up hearing stories about the Civil war from his grandfather, Thomas and the gripping tales he heard were his influence to write the war novel, Israel Potter. In the story, Melville described the battle of Bunker Hill and how the Yankees defended it, how they gripped their muskets by the barrel to beat back the British by “wielding the stock right and left, as seal-hunters on the beach, knock down with their clubs the Shetland seal.”
Melville’s remembrance of his father’s financial condition and the family’s dependence on the charity of their elders was the inspiration for Melville’s protagonist in the fictional Redburn (1849), as he speaks of what he learned from that experience, “I had learned to think much and bitterly before my time.” He goes on to reveal that he fondly remembered the times before his father’s bankruptcy, saying that in thinking of those years, “something rises up in my throat and almost strangles me.”
Whenever Melville returned home after a voyage, he “fought off his feelings of deflation” by retelling stories of his journeys and adventures. This, combined with his ambitions as a writer, foreshadowed his career as a traveling, adventure writer. He repeated the stories to his family and friends in order to occupy the long winter hours while he was in port and forced to deal with the reality of his family’s financial fall. These stories eventually found their way onto his pages in the likes of Redburn, Moby Dick, Billy Budd and other novels, short stories and poems. In fact, his character Redburn even speaks of his fate to tell stories like his father to an eager audience, linking Melville to the character he wrote about.
Melville’s mother taught him a form of rudimentary faith, always criticizing him for his shaky church attendance. These lessons and stories took hold in Melville and he used them as the basis for several of his characters in Moby Dick, including Ishmael, Bildad, Ahab, and Elijah. He infused these characters with allegorical significance before allowing them to live in the fictional world.
His father inspired affectations in White-Jacket, an effete Commodore’s secretary who looks like an “ambassador extraordinary from Versailles,” and whose prize possessions include “enameled pencil-cases” and “fine French boots with soles no thicker than a sheet of scented notepaper.” Melville’s father was fond of fine things and never failed to carry such items with him.
Many of Melville’s characters, including Ishmael in Moby Dick, used the sea as a means of escape, no matter what the risk, just as Melville did when he went on his first voyage. Melville was attempting to escape his family’s financial situation while Ishmael was seeking a means of growing up, becoming a man. Melville was only eighteen when he set sail on the St. Lawrence and he experienced a rapid education into the realities of life at sea.
When Melville was a child, his family suffered a severe change in their fortunes as his father fought to keep his head above water. From then on, Melville’s family struggled to earn a living, particularly after his father passed away. Many of Melville’s characters also appeared destitute and seeking to change their fortunes on the sea, much like he did. They used the sea as a form of fortune hunting, though their fortune was not money, it was luck.
The quest, the endless need to achieve success in business, which Melville’s father experienced and his family suffered for, are also reflected in Moby Dick. Allan Melvill could not admit defeat and never gave up the hope that he would one day succeed in grasping his great fortune as he continued to reach for the brass ring. This is similar to Ahab in Moby Dick who constantly and irrationally searches for the great white whale, his own brass ring, and nothing could deter him from his quest.
Melville’s first experience on the merchant ship St. Lawrence was the basis for his fictional story, Redburn, subtitled, His First Sea Voyage: Being the Sailor-Boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service. This story is the only record of Melville’s first experience at sea. He called his first voyage as his leap from boyhood to manhood, associating going-to-sea as coming-of-age. His time aboard the St. Lawrence was described in Redburn as the first time in his life where he was not burdened by expectations but ordered about like any other hired hand.
After Melville’s wedding, he and his wife moved to New York and there was a distinct change in tone and attitude which was reflected in his writing. This is most evident between Typee and Omoo: Typee was very prim while the tone of Omoo reflected more barroom banter, particularly as he wrote about sexually precocious girls.
The character of Ishmael in Moby Dick was strongly influenced by his own time aboard whaling vessels, the first of which was Acushnet, a ship that he deserted before its return to port. Ishmael, like Melville, used the whaling ship as his form of education, calling it “my Yale College and my Harvard.” Both the real Melville and the fictional Ishmael found in their first whaling journey their transformation into manhood.
The character Ishmael in Moby Dick, is a man who had experience on merchant ships but is a novice at whaling and decides that that will be his next great voyage. This is similar to Melville’s own experience, having first traveled on the merchant ship St. Lawrence before joining the crew on board the whaling vessel Acushnet .
Melville’s critical failure, The Confidence Man, was inspired by real news events of the time. In spring of 1855, wide-spread press coverage of a New York con man who swindled people out of their money by representing himself as an honest person in need of an emergency loan, also using other accounts of schemes and deception.
In Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, Melville writes about the common practice of whaling crewmembers to jump from one vessel to another. His experience at sea gave this segment of Melville’s writing its distinctive authenticity: he wrote what he knew. This practice of crewmembers to jump from one ship, thereby forfeiting their wages, spend a few weeks or months beachcombing before jumping on board another ship amounted to hitchhiking throughout the Pacific. Melville describes this practice, which he witnessed first hand, in detail.
Melville’s journey to the Marquesas Islands also inspired Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. He traveled there after deserting the Acushnet. Melville spent three weeks there as a captive of the Nuku Hiva, who he referred to as the Nukuheva. They were a group of aggressive cannibals and prior to Melville’s escape with his companion, treated their captives decently. In Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, Melville extends his period of captivity to four months and adds various other artistic, and fictional, flairs, but it remains a work inspired by real life events.
Melville was accused of attempted mutiny and briefly imprisoned in 1844 on board the Lucy Ann. In addition, his cousin Guert Gansevoort was a junior officer on a boat that arrested three of its crewmembers for conspiring to commit mutiny. Guert sat on the court of inquiry, which found insufficient evidence to convict; however, they were tried again later, found guilty and subsequently hanged. This left a lasting impression on Melville and he based his story, Billy Budd, a sailor accused of mutiny, on these true life events.
Melville not only used his own personal experience on whaling ships to write Moby Dick; the book was based on real-life events that Melville sought and studied, finding them fascinating. The first was the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in 1820, which suffered an unrecoverable blow after a sperm whale hit it more than two-thousand miles off the coast of South America. Melville searched fervently for an out-of-print copy of a survivor’s account of the dismally fated ship. This accounting of the actual events that take place when a whaling ship sinks, and the suction created, found their way onto the pages of Moby Dick’s character, Ishmael.
An equally inspirational event occurred in the late 1830s when it was reported that the legendary whale, Mocha Dick, was allegedly killed. There were historical stories of the whale deliberately ramming into whaling ships and exhibiting all the remnants of the harpoons he bore due to many failed attempts to kill him. Melville gathered all the information he could on this whale and based the actions of the whale Moby Dick on this real life specimen, a whale of unusual size and aggressiveness. Though it was not commonplace for sperm whales to attack their hunter, it did happen with infrequent regularity for centuries, giving Melville the idea to capture an unbeatable, giant whale in prose.
Melville did not believe that any book prior to Moby Dick had accurately portrayed the realities of whaling and the circumstances and suffering that the crew went through in the dangerous and potentially deadly profession. It is for this reason that Melville writes extensive pages of prose detailing the whaling industry that do not have anything to do with the story. He drew on his years aboard the Acushnet to afford this tale a sense of reality.
The reason Melville only accounted for his journeys through his fictional tales and stories rather than keeping a journal is that he believed that fiction was the best means by which to record history. Many of his fictional stories were written several years, even decades, after his travels; recounting his real-life journeys within his character’s voices.
Melville visited the Galapagos Islands while he was on board the Acushnet and though he likely did not visit them again, they made a strong impact on him, influencing not only his tales of Moby Dick and Billy Budd, but they were also the sole inspiration for his book, The Enchanted Isles. Many consider this a travel log rather than a fictional story – indeed many libraries catalog this book under travel – it is an eloquent and elegant prose on the beauty and mystery of the islands.
Melville’s tragic story of Pierre in which all leading characters find death and disgrace is in part influenced by Melville’s father’s failure in business as well as his own downturn as a writer. In the story, Pierre falls on financial hard times after being thrown out of his mother’s home. He turns to relatives, much as Melville’s father turned to his brother-in-law for survival. The difference is that the real life relative comes through. In addition, Pierre attempts to fashion a career as a writer only to suffer a magnificent failure. Melville himself had found early success, but his subsequent and greatest novel, Moby Dick, was repudiated by the critics and public and his fortunes took a downhill turn.
Melville’s Revolutionary War-era novella, Israel Potter, is based on a real figure of the era who fought in the American Revolution and was pressed into service by the British Royal Navy. Like the fictional character, the real Israel Potter was in exile for more than forty-five years, meeting King George III and Benjamin Franklin. Melville fictionalized the story by adding his own touches; however, it remains an essentially true story. Melville also read an account of this tale in the 1840s, which helped to inspire him to create his own version of the story.
After the critical failure of Moby Dick, Meville, at the age of thirty-three, felt he was finished as a writer and he set to work on the short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The story is about a young man who applies for a job as a scrivener and after he is hired, he slowly pulls further and further away from his work, constantly saying, “I would prefer not to” when asked to complete an assignment until he is doing nothing at all. After much consternation, he ends up in prison and dies of starvation because he “would prefer not to” eat. Melville used this story symbolically as he felt abandoned by his art and audience as what he believed to be his greatest work failed dramatically, leaving his desolate and uncertain.
Melville explored the darker side of his nature, and of human kind, in several of his characters, calling upon his many doubts, fears, and failures in creating these characters. The most notable fictional characters that were the embodiment of these emotions and doubts within himself were Ahab from Moby Dick, Pierre from Pierre or The Ambiguities and Claggart and Captain Vere from Billy Budd. Each of these men were imbued with some of the characteristics Melville saw within himself.
I found studying Herman Melville an educational experience: his many adventures establishing the essential foundation for his writing. His life was exciting as he traveled the world over on various vessels, encountering things that most of his audience did not understand.
It is interesting how Melville’s childhood hardships influenced not only the course of his life, but also the course of his writing. His writing generally took a darker course, with many of his protagonists suffering great tragedy and often death. The failure of Melville’s father to ever achieve success is reflected in the stories he wrote as his many characters searched for their elusive goal, whether it be the killing of a giant sperm whale, great success as a writer or the transformation of a boy into a man. Melville translated his troubled childhood into dark explorations on human nature, weaving in great themes in an elegant language full of elucidation and vision.
Several of Melville’s stories were motivated strictly by monetary needs, the most notable of which is Israel Potter, and Melville detested the book because it did not reflect the complicated stories he typically told due to forcing it into circulation before he had the opportunity to embellish it. This work is also the easiest of Melville’s to understand since that embellishment was left out.
The way Melville conveyed his own mixed fortune and his father’s failure as a businessman is very dark and doubtful, demonstrating his own attitude toward those who become so blind with a specific ambition that is becomes the detriment of others who have no control in the situation.
I found Melville’s tone and writer’s voice to be very poetic and often, not easily understandable. He was extremely descriptive and he interweaved complex themes into most of his texts; an amazing accomplishment for a man that did not finish school before he was forced to work.
Studying Melville has greatly increased my appreciation for his work, but did not inspire me to deeply explore the darker nature of the prose. While I now understand his motivation and the real life that inspired his work, I am left with the distinct impression of negativity as his heroes do not reach their goals and fail to achieve success.
Melville was born into a privileged life but soon faced financial obstacles that he was not able to overcome during his lifetime; he was never able to gain the luxury of writing for a living, always doing it in his spare time while working another job. His constant need to earn enough money to live on was a battle that would chase him his entire career.
I found it sad that Melville only achieved moderate early success as an author, and that his best and most respected work was not recognized as a masterpiece until many years after his death. His total lifetime earnings do not reflect his genius as only a few of his stories were well received by the public. In a way, Melville mimicked his father’s life: both men kept reaching for that fortune around the corner. His father sought business success; Melville longed for success as a writer and the financial boon that came with it.
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