Herman Melville: Great American Novelist

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MelvilleMelville, Herman (1819-91), an American Novelist, is widely regarded as one ofAmerica’s greatest and most influential novelists; known primarily as the authorof Moby Dick. He belonged to a group of eminent pre-Civil War writers-AmericanRomantics or members of the American Renaissance-who created a new and vigorousnational literature. He is one of the notable examples of an American authorwhose work went largely unrecognized in his own time and died in obscurity.

American novelist, a major literary figure whose exploration of psychologicaland metaphysical themes foreshadowed 20th-century literary concerns but whoseworks remained in obscurity until the 1920s, when his genius was finallyrecognized. Melville was born August 1, 1819, in New York City, into a familythat had declined in the world. The Gansevoorts were solid, stable, eminent,prosperous people; the (Hermans Fathers side) Melvilles were somewhat lesssuccessful materially, possessing an unpredictable. erratic, mercurial strain. (Edinger6). This difference between the Melvilles and Gansevoorts was the beginning ofthe trouble for the Melville family. Hermans mother tried to work her way up thesocial ladder by moving into bigger and better homes. While borrowing money fromthe bank, her husband was spending more than he was earning. It is my conclusionthat Maria Melville never committed herself emotionally to her husband, butremained primarily attached to the well off Gansevoort family. (Humford 23)Allan Melville was also attached financially to the Gansevoorts for support.

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There is a lot of evidence concerning Melvilles relation to his mother MariaMelville. Apparently the older son Gansevoort who carried the mother’s maidenname was distinctly her favorite. (Edinger 7) This was a sense of alienation theHerman Melville felt from his mother. This was one of the first symbolists tothe Biblical Ishamel. In 1837 he shipped to Liverpool as a cabin boy. Uponreturning to the U.S. he taught school and then sailed for the South Seas in1841 on the whaler Acushnet. After an 18 month voyage he deserted the ship inthe Marquesas Islands and with a companion lived for a month among the natives,who were cannibals. He escaped aboard an Australian trader, leaving it atPapeete, Tahiti, where he was imprisoned temporarily. He worked as a fieldlaborer and then shipped to Honolulu, Hawaii, where in 1843 he enlisted as aseaman on the U.S. Navy frigate United States. After his discharge in 1844 hebegan to create novels out of his experiences and to take part in the literarylife of Boston and New York City. Melville’s first five novels all achievedquick popularity. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Omoo, a Narrative ofAdventures in the South Seas (1847), and Mardi (1849) were romances of the SouthSea islands. Redburn, His First Voyage (1849) was based on his own first trip tosea, and White-Jacket, or the World in a Man-of-War (1850) fictionalized hisexperiences in the navy. In 1850 Melville moved to a farm near Pittsfield,Massachusetts, where he became an intimate friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, towhom he dedicated his masterpiece Moby-Dick; or The White Whale (1851). Thecentral theme of the novel is the conflict between Captain Ahab, master of thewhaler Pequod, and Moby-Dick, a great white whale that once tore off one ofAhab’s legs at the knee. Ahab is dedicated to revenge; he drives himself and hiscrew, which includes Ishmael, narrator of the story, over the seas in adesperate search for his enemy. The body of the book is written in a whollyoriginal, powerful narrative style, which, in certain sections of the work,Melville varied with great success. The most impressive of these sections arethe rhetorically magnificent sermon delivered before sailing and the soliloquiesof the mates; lengthy flats, passages conveying nonnarrative material, usuallyof a technical nature, such as the chapter about whales; and the more purelyornamental passages, such as the tale of the Tally-Ho, which can stand bythemselves as short stories of merit. The work is invested with Ishmael’s senseof profound wonder at his story, but nonetheless conveys full awareness thatAhab’s quest can have but one end. And so it proves to be: Moby-Dick destroysthe Pequod and all its crew save Ishmael. There is a certain streak of thesupernatural being projected in the writings of Melville, as is amply obvious inMoby Dick. The story revolves around the idea of an awesome sea mammal, whichdrives the passions of revenge in one man and forces him to pursue a course ofaction which leads ultimately to his death as well as the deaths of hiscompanions. There is a great deal of imagination involved in these stories andthe creativity is highly apparent. There is an expression of belief in thesupernatural, as the author strives to create the image of a humongous beast inthe mind of the reader. There are no indications that Melville was in any wayaverse to fame or to the pursuit of excellence in his work. Every author, whenwriting a book, is hopeful of its success and Melville was no less. The PiazzaTales (1856) contain some of Melville’s finest shorter works; particularlynotable are the powerful short stories Benito Cereno and Bartleby the Scrivenerand the ten descriptive sketches of the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, TheEncantadas. Bartleby’s story is an allegory of withdrawal suggesting more thanone level of interpretation. Among them, Bartleby may be seen as a writer (likeMelville), who chooses no longer to write; or as a human walled off from societyby his employment on wall Street, by the walls of his building, by the barriersof his office nook within the building, by the brick surface he faces out hiswindow, and by the walls of the prison where he dies. Bartleby’s employer, thenarrator of the story, has several walls of his own to break out of. In hisfinal grasp at communication, the narrator invites the reading that Bartleby’slife, and the story that presents it, are like dead letters that will neverreach those that would profit from them. He leaves us with the words, “AhBartleby! Ah, humanity!” In “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, Melvilletries to relate to the reader and explain his declining situation. This story,on an allegorical level represents Melville, his life, and what he wished hisreading audience would understand about him. This is probably what he wanted,but readers, initially, see a melancholy story about the condition of humanity.

Whether or not Melville is an anti-transcendentalist is a question to bepondered over. As such he is as focused on leaving an impression on his readersas any other writer on the writing block. Therefore, I believe that Melville wastranscendental in many ways. He was a writer who portrayed his own personathrough his writings and thus he was a writer who had the power to be able toexpress his own emotions and experiences through his characters. This he hasaccomplished by writing stories, which had a depth, an essence of their own.

Melville was not o much concerned with the commercial success of his works, butthat was still a very high contributing factor to the motivation behind hiswritings. Although he mainly drew on his personal experiences while formulatingthe stories that he wrote, he greatly embellished them through his imaginationand creativity to create literary masterpieces out of them, which areappreciated greatly today. Being a success meant a great deal to Melville and hewas always aware of the fact that his books were not very popular during hislifetime. In fact Bartleby the Scrivener relates to this very fact through itsportrayal of a writer, and it is greatly reflective of Melvilles own privatesituation. He probably wished that his writing would be more popular among thereaders, although he professed his own demise with Bartleby’s atrophy. Theexpression of accepted failure was prevalent in Scrivener. Yet this did not makeMelville any less desirous of fame and popularity. He still strove to deliverexcellence in his works in any way possible. Every writer in history has had tofind a place for himself in the mind of his readers before reaching a level ofmaturity and respect in this profession. The quality of work is judged solely onthe readers perception of the work and nothing else. Melville was desirous ofhitting the right cord with the readers and his audience. He wanted to be ableto capture the attention of his audience and leave an impact on their minds, sothat the tale would be remembered long after it had been read. With Moby Dick,he used the powerful tool of imaginative fantasy to capture the attention of hisreaders. The story incorporated the extraordinary, action, adventure, revenge,suspense…in fact every ingredient necessary for commercial success. But itdidnt prove to be so. The book is appreciated not as a classic work and Melvillehas received much more fame in the present time frame. In Scrivener, he drew apicture of a man very similar to himself. A man sick of working, finallydeclines rapidly to reach his demise. However, in Herman Melville’s ‘BenitoCereno’ reveals the author’s disgust with Emersonian transcendentalism throughthe self-delusions of the protagonist. Cereno personifies nature, seeing it as abenevolent force that acts deliberately for the good of humanity. Melville makesit apparent that such idealism offers no practical use in a world that is asmuch evil as good, and will likely be a burden. Cereno is Melville’s strongestexample of his suspicions for the American idealist. In this one case throughhis expression of disgust towards the idealists and their idealism, he hasportrayed the image of a hard core idealist who is converted to a realistthrough the experiences that he goes through. This also drew on his seafaringdays as experience and he struggled to bring across the death of the idealistand the birth of the realist. But at the end of the day, whatever emotions hepossessed about the nature of idealism and idealistic thought, still form anintegral part of him. Whether or not the reader understands the general aura ofwanting to achieve something from his creations, yet Melville still strove to bea commercial success and his aim for excellence in the field of writingcontinued.

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