Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Herman Melville, the whale, a sailor, and more


First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:


Herman Melville was born on this day in 1819 in New York City (books by this author). The Melvilles were a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants but, by young Herman's time, the family was in decline and the boy was raised in an atmosphere of financial instability and refined pretense. 

In 1834, Melville left school to became a bank clerk, then tried farming and teaching, and in 1837 took to the sea for the first time as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with a hold full of cotton. Upon returning to New York, Melville held a series of unsatisfying jobs and decided to try his fortune in the West where for several months he saw the prairies, the western wilderness, the Mississippi headwaters and the Falls of St. Anthony but did not find a career. Melville returned to the east and in 1841 again signed up for the seafaring life, this time on the whaling shape the Acushnet, to cruise for whales in the Pacific for several years. Melville got more than he'd likely expected: The cruelties he experienced on the Acushnet, jumping ship in the Marquesas, being held in friendly if determined captivity by a band of Polynesians, escaping aboard an Australian whaler, which he also eventually jumped, and finally making his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

When he returned in 1844, the 25-year-old Melville found an eager audience for his sailor's yarns, and he began writing a series of personal narratives on his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner. From these stories, Melville completed his first novel, Typee, which was partly based on his experiences as a captive. Although Melville's first attempt to publish his book was met with rejection on the grounds that the story couldn't possibly be true and was therefore of no value, once in print it was an instant best-seller and Melville quickly followed it with the equally popular Omoo. 

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw and the couple set up housekeeping in New York with Melville's younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters. Melville began work on his next novel, Mardi, although his living situation was not necessarily conducive to the easy production of a book, and his taste in reading shifted to include romantic novels - which he probably shared with his wife - a change of interest that can be seen in the fantastical, romantic conclusion of Mardi.  

The Melvilles then settled into a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was here, in 1850, that Melville would meet Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville would come to think of as a dear friend and confidant. The following year, after an intoxicating period of exploring the ideas of transcendentalism and allegorical writing, Melville penned his enduring masterpiece, Moby Dick, the lyrical, epic story of Ahab and the infamous white whale, dedicating it to Hawthorne in "admiration for his genius." Moby Dick was met with mixed reviews. The London News declared Melville's power of language "unparalleled," while the novel was criticized elsewhere for its unconventional storytelling, and Melville's fans were disappointed not to find the same kind of adventure story they had loved in Typee and Omoo. It was the beginning of the end of Melville's career as a novelist and, following a series of literary failures, he turned to farming and writing articles to support his family.

When the family returned to New York City in 1863, Melville became a customs inspector and began a second literary life as a poet, drawing on the emotional impact of the Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which was praised in numerous American newspapers and magazines, but Melville was never again to rise to the prominence he'd experienced at the beginning of his career, and his ensuing stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd.

It took readers until the 1920s to catch up to the prose, style, and power of Moby Dick. But once they did, appreciation never again lagged, and Melville's masterpiece is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written.



And there is this personal postscript: 

It's too bad that readers, if they are familiar with Melville, know him only because of their encounters with "Bartleby the Scrivener" and Moby-Dick, the two titles so often included on school reading lists. If I were teaching (again), I would not assign either of those titles but would instead assign Billy Budd, a short novel I first encountered most memorably in, of all places, a military justice and leadership seminar when I served as an administrative officer with the U.S. Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps. Perhaps I should revisit Billy Budd and even more by Melville here at Informal Inquiries. Yes, that is a tempting possibility. 

Well, tell me about your most memorable encounters with Herman Melville. If you were teaching Melville, which of his works would you assign to students in high school? What about college? What about in a leadership seminar for business or government? 




22 comments:

  1. I've often thought, Tim, that our view of an author often depends on which work we read. I think that's why it's important to really think about which particular novel/story/poem, etc.. we're reading as we decide what we think of the writer.

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    1. Margot, that difference among Melville's contemporary readers was profound and problematic for him.

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    2. And, Margot, my questions go to that point: how do different readers shape texts, and how do different texts shapes readers? In other words, contexts matter and texts, seemingly fixed, change.

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    3. MOBY DICK is one of my favorite novels. I've read it three times and think it is in the running for the title of great American novel.

      But I see you did not mention the novel that ruined Melville's career. PIERRE came out after MOBY DICK and was a financial and critical disaster. I read it a long time ago and enjoyed it but it is a strange novel.

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    4. Thanks for your visit and comment, Walker Martin. I confess that I have not read Pierre. I'm now intrigued enough to read it, but I guess I should tackle it within a chronological reading of Melville. Have you read The Confidence Man. I have not but have heard it might be Melville's strangest. What do you think?

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    5. I would still vote for PIERRE as his strangest. It's a depressing psychological novel.

      Which reminds me, I like WHITE JACKET a lot. It's not fiction but an account of life on a US navy warship. I remember being amazed that hundreds of sailors lived on these ships.

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  2. Well, we had to read "Billy Budd" along with the other two when I was in college. I've always been fond of Bartleby (the character) and "Moby Dick." "Budd" is a bit grim for my taste. There's also "I and My Chimney."

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    1. Yes, Frank, "grim" is the right word. I'm not familiar with the story you cite. Clearly I am a long way from being knowledgeable about Melville. I wonder if I have energy, commitment, and time to correct that shortcoming. I don't know.

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  3. My first serious encounter with Melville was in grad school. I had already read Moby Dick and was impressed by its breadth and scope, as well as its language. I didn't look too closely at the course description but I assumed it was going to feature Moby Dick.

    I was surprised on the first day of class when the instructor said that we would focus on all of Melville's fiction, but NOT Moby Dick. My first thought was--what else did he write?

    The semester was an eye-opener for I discovered that Melville's output was wide and varied, both novels and short stories.

    If it hadn't been for that course I might never have read--

    Mardi
    The Confidence Man
    Omoo
    Typee
    White-Jacket
    Benito Cereno
    the Encantadas

    and many of his lesser known works.

    I read Pierre once and couldn't get through it a second time. I found it very depressing.

    I tried but I can't get interested in his poetry.

    I just may do another rereading of Melville's works.

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    1. Fred, thank you for such a thought provoking posting; you sent me back through time to memories of my lencounters with Melville and other writers of his era. I have much to say in response to your comment, but I think I will need to do so in a separate posting very soon (today or tomorrow). Now, though, as an abbreviated response, I have three questions: what's your favorite by Melville? when does the rereading begin? may I tag along?

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    2. R.T., I'm looking forward to your next Melville posting.

      My favorite Melville novels?

      Probably Moby Dick, of course, but followed closely by The Confidence Man and Mardi.

      Short stories--too many are favorites to list.

      Don't wait on me for a Melville rereading. I have several book projects on my list ahead of Melville. Right now I'm working on a Lawrence Durrell rereading and a Loren Eiseley rereading.

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  4. Everyone should read Moby-Dick. I keep telling myself I'll read it again soon. That "soon" keeps getting pushed back, darn it. The Confidence Man is a rebuke of Emersonian Americanism. A great book.

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    1. Scott, thanks. I'm adding TCM to my reading list, but see tomorrow's posting for details.

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  5. i finished Redburn a few weeks ago, then started White Jacket which i liked up to the flogging part, when i quit... don't like that stuff in my head...
    i still think the first few chapters of MD some of the funniest stories i've read: Ishmael and QueegQueeg in bed together at the Spouter Inn... otherwise, the balance of the book could have been shortened by about half and would have been better, in my outrageous and unpopular opinion...

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    1. Mudpuddle, flogging is underrated as a discipline tool. So much for humor. Too many critics have made too much of the shared bed issue. Reading between the lines can be a careless adventure.

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    2. meaning that sailors should be flogged more?

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    3. Mudpuddle, my tongue in cheek endorsement of flogging derives from my many years involved with courts martial and nonjudicial punishments in the Navy; my least favorite task was serving as a summary court martial officer and sending sailors to punishments not found in civilian life. So, I was attempting a joke. So, flog me.

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  6. Ah. Always glad to see Melville mentioned somewhere. I love him.
    These days I'm reading nothing but Wodehouse. I mostly watch films.

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    1. Wodehouse rather than Melville? Fascinating!

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    2. Hahahaha I focus on cinema lately so I can't read anything difficult like Melville. Wodehouse's great fun, though, and his prose is wonderful.

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  7. Alas I have only read Moby Dick, which I love by the way.

    I have been seriously thinking of reading Billy Budd soon. I think that this very interesting and insightful post may motivate me to do so.

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    1. Brian, Billy Budd is magnificent. I hope you read it soon.

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