Life History of American Novelist – Herman Melville

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MelvilleAn anti- transcendentalist or not Melville, Herman (1819-91), American novelist,a major literary figure whose exploration of psychological and metaphysicalthemes foreshadowed 20th-century literary concerns but whose works remained inobscurity until the 1920s, when his genius was finally recognized.

Melville wasborn August 1, 1819, in New York City, into a family that had declined in theworld. “The Gansevoorts were solid, stable, eminent, prosperous people; the(Hermans Fathers side) Melvilles were somewhat less successful materially,possessing an unpredictable. erratic, mercurial strain.” (Edinger 6). Thisdifference between the Melvilles and Gansevoorts was the beginning of thetrouble 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.

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“It is myconclusion that Maria Melville never committed herself emotionally to herhusband, but remained primarily attached to the well off Gansevoort family.” (Humford23) Allan Melville was also attached financially to the Gansevoorts for support. 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 alienationthe Herman Melville felt from his mother. This was one of the first symboliststo the 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,usually of a technical nature, such as the chapter about whales; and the morepurely ornamental 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. ThePiazza Tales (1856) contain some of Melville’s finest shorter works;particularly notable are the powerful short stories “Benito Cereno” and”Bartleby the Scrivener” and the ten descriptive sketches of the GalpagosIslands, Ecuador, “The Encantadas.” Bartleby’s story is an allegory ofwithdrawal suggesting more than one level of interpretation. Among them,Bartleby may be seen as a writer (like Melville), who chooses no longer towrite; or as a human walled off from society by his employment on wall Street,by the walls of his building, by the barriers of his office nook within thebuilding, by the brick surface he faces out his window, and by the walls of theprison where he dies.

Bartleby’s employer, the narrator of the story, hasseveral walls of his own to break out of. In his final grasp at communication,the narrator invites the reading that Bartleby’s life, and the story thatpresents it, are like dead letters that will never reach those that would profitfrom them. He leaves us with the words, “Ah Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”In “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, Melville tries to relate to the readerand explain his declining situation. This story, on an allegorical levelrepresents Melville, his life, and what he wished his reading audience wouldunderstand about him. This is probably what he wanted, but readers, initially,see a melancholy story about the condition of humanity. Whether or not Melvilleis an anti-transcendentalist is a question to be pondered over.

As such he is asfocused on leaving an impression on his readers as any other writer on thewriting block. Therefore, I believe that Melville was transcendental in manyways. He was a writer who portrayed his own persona through his writings andthus he was a writer who had the power to be able to express his own emotionsand experiences through his characters. This he has accomplished by writingstories, which had a depth, an essence of their own. Melville was not o muchconcerned with the commercial success of his works, but that was still a veryhigh contributing factor to the motivation behind his writings.

Although hemainly drew on his personal experiences while formulating the stories that hewrote, he greatly embellished them through his imagination and creativity tocreate literary masterpieces out of them, which are appreciated greatly today. Being a success meant a great deal to Melville and he was always aware of thefact that his books were not very popular during his lifetime. In fact Bartlebythe Scrivener relates to this very fact through its portrayal of a writer, andit is greatly reflective of Melvilles own private situation. He probablywished that his writing would be more popular among the readers, although heprofessed his own demise with Bartleby’s atrophy.

The expression of acceptedfailure was prevalent in Scrivener. Yet this did not make Melville any lessdesirous of fame and popularity. He still strove to deliver excellence in hisworks in any way possible. Every writer in history has had to find a place forhimself in the mind of his readers before reaching a level of maturity andrespect in this profession.

The quality of work is judged solely on the readersperception of the work and nothing else. Melville was desirous of hitting theright cord with the readers and his audience. He wanted to be able to capturethe attention of his audience and leave an impact on their minds, so that thetale would be remembered long after it had been read. With Moby Dick, he usedthe 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 andMelville has received much more fame in the present time frame. In Scrivener, hedrew a picture 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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