Memoir of Herman Melville

Memoir of Herman Melville

Herman Melville, seaman, author, and metaphysician, was born at New York on August 1, 1819, of an old Scottish family, his great-grandfather having emigrated from Scotland to found a mercantile business at Boston in 1748. On either side his ancestry was honourably distinguished, for both his paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melville (familiar to a later generation as the last wearer of the old-fashioned cocked hat), and his mother’s father, General Peter Gansevoort, had taken an active part in the American War of Independence. His father, Allan Melville, was a well-to-do New York merchant, who had read much and travelled widely, and it was from him that the boy derived in early years his romantic attachment to the sea. “Of winter evenings,” he says, “by the well-remembered sea-coal fires in old Greenwich Street, New York, he used to tell my brother and me of the monstrous waves at sea, mountain-high, and of the masts bending like twigs.” Stimulated by those anecdotes, he indulged in a train of youthful reveries about distant voyages and adventures, and used to spend hour after hour in poring over old books of sea pictures, a miniature glass ship—one of the ornaments in his father’s house—having a special attraction for him. A love of the sea appears to have been hereditary in the Melvilles, and it is likely enough that this tendency was still further strengthened by the admixture of the Dutch element derived from the family of the Gansevoorts.

It was not long before an opportunity arose for putting this seaward inclination to the test. While he was still quite young, his father became impoverished and died, and his mother was compelled to remove with her family of eight children to Lansingburg, a village situated on the Hudson River—a change of fortune which left a deep impression on the mind of the future writer. “It is a hard and cruel thing,” he says, “thus in early youth to taste beforehand the pangs which should be reserved for the stout time of manhood.” In 1837, at the age of eighteen, he shipped as a common sailor on board a merchantman bound from New York to Liverpool, and, after a brief visit to London, served his way back to America on the same vessel. Of this, his first voyage, he has given us what is in the main an authentic description in one of his early volumes.[1] It is a record of bitter experience and temporary disillusionment—the confessions of a poor, proud youth, who goes to sea “with a devil in his heart,” and is painfully initiated into the unforeseen hardships of a seafaring life.

Returned from this expedition, he essayed for some three years to gain a quiet livelihood as a teacher. But destiny and his own natural genius had willed it otherwise; it was no academic lecture-room, but the deck of a whale-ship, that was to be “his Yale College and his Harvard.” “Oh, give me again the rover’s life,” he exclaims, “the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! Let me leap into thy saddle once more! I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares, sick of the dust and reek of towns! Let me snuff thee up, sea-breeze, and whinny in thy spray!” On January 1, 1841, he embarked at New Bedford for his second and most notable voyage, this time on board a whaling vessel, the Acushnet, bound for the fisheries of the Pacific; and it was the series of adventures that befell him during this absence of nearly four years that subsequently furnished the material for three of his narrative volumes, and doubtless suggested at least the external framework of his more imaginative productions. In “Typee” he relates the story of his romantic captivity among a tribe of noble savages in the Marquesas; in “Omoo” we have his further wanderings in the Society and Sandwich Islands; in “White Jacket, his return voyage as a common sailor on a man-of-war. “Mardi” and “The Whale,” on the other hand, are in great part phantasies, in which the imaginative element, having slipped from the control of the narrative, runs riot in the wildest and most extravagant luxuriance.

It was in 1846 that Melville fairly took the world by storm with his “Typee: the Narrative of a four months’ residence in the Marquesas Islands,”[2] the first of that brilliant series of volumes of adventure, in which reality was so deftly encircled with a halo of romance that readers were at once captivated by the force and freshness of the style and puzzled as to the personality of the author. Who and what was this mysterious sojourner in the far islands of the Pacific—this “Marquesan Melville,” as a writer in Blackwood denominated him? Speculation was rife, and not unaccompanied by suspicion; for there were some critics who not only questioned the veracity of Herman Melville’s “Narratives,” but declared his very name to be fictitious. “Separately,” remarked one sagacious reviewer, “the names are not uncommon; we can urge no valid reason against their juncture; yet in this instance they fall suspiciously on our ear.”

Herman Melville, however, as we have seen, was by no means a mythical personage; though in his early life, as in his later, he seems to have instinctively shrunk from any other publicity than that which was brought him by his books. He was a genuine child of nature, a sort of nautical George Borrow, on whom the irresistible sea-passion bad descended in his boyhood, and won him away from the ordinary routine of respectable civilised life, until, to quote his own words, to travel had become a necessity of his existence, “a way of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.” His chief books, with certain unmistakable exceptions, are faithful, though of course idealised, records of his personal experiences.

“Typee,” with its sequel, “Omoo,” must be regarded as on the whole the most charming of Melville’s writings, and the one which may most surely count on lasting popularity; it is the undoubted masterpiece of his earlier period, during which the artistic sense was still predominant over those transcendental tendencies which characterised his later volumes. Coming at a time when men’s minds were filled with a vague, undefined interest in the wonders of the Pacific, and when the French annexation of Tahiti, of which Melville was an eye-witness, had drawn universal attention to that quarter of the globe, these books gained an instantaneous and widespread success both in America and England, and were quickly translated into several European tongues. Alike in the calm beauty of its descriptive passages, and in the intense vividness of its character-sketches, “Typee” is a most powerful and fascinating work. Indeed, I think I speak within the mark in saying that nothing better of its kind is to be found in English literature, so firm and clear is it in outline, yet so dreamily suggestive in the dim mystic atmosphere which pervades it.

And the island itself, the scene of Melville’s detention, when he and a companion sailor[3] had deserted from the whale-ship—what a fairy-land of tropical valleys, and crystal streams, and groves of cocoa-palms and bread-fruit trees is here magically depicted for us! How life-like the portraiture of the innocent, placid, happy islanders, who, albeit cannibals at times, were yet far superior to civilised nations in many of the best qualities by which civilisation is supposed to be distinguished! And Fayaway—surely never was Indian maiden so glorified by poet or romancer as is the gentle, beautiful, faithful Fayaway in Melville’s marvellous tale! The strongest and tenderest pictures that George Borrow has drawn for us of his friendly relations with the wandering gipsy-folk by roadside or dingle are not more strong and tender than Melville’s reminiscences of this “peep at Polynesian life.” As Borrow possessed the secret of winning the confidence of the gipsies, so Melville, by the same talisman of utter simplicity and naturalness, was able to fraternise in perfect good fellowship with the so-called savages of the Pacific.

But here it may be asked by later, as by earlier readers, Was Melville’s narrative a true one? Is his testimony on these subjects a testimony of any scientific value? The answer to this question, despite the suspicion of the critics, is a decided affirmative. Not only is Melville’s account of Typee in close agreement with that of earlier voyagers, as, for example, Captain Porter’s “Journal of a Cruise to the Pacific Ocean,” published in 1822, but it has been expressly corroborated by later adventurers. “I cannot resist,” wrote an American naval officer, “paying the faint tribute of my own individual admiration to Mr. Melville. Apart from the innate beauty and charming tone of his narratives, the delineations of island life and scenery, from my own personal observation, are most correctly and faithfully drawn.”[4] Another witness, who has recently been cited, was the Rev. Titus Coan, of the Hawaiian Islands, who personally visited the Marquesas group, and verified in every detail the descriptions given by Melville.

In the year following the publication of “Typee,” Melville married the daughter of Chief Justice Shaw, to whom the book was dedicated, and made his home, from 1850 to 1863, in an old spacious farmhouse at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, commanding picturesque views of Greylock and the other Berkshire mountains. He was here a neighbour of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was then living at Lenox, and there are records of many friendly intimacies between the two authors, whose intellects were in many ways akin. We read in the Hawthorne diaries of “Mr. Omoo’s visits,” and how he came accompanied by “his great dog,” and how he held transcendental conversations with Hawthorne “about time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters.” It is during this residence at Pittsfield, the adventurous struggles of his early life being now concluded, that we note the commencement of the second, the transcendental period of Melville’s literary career. It has been truly said of him that “he had all the metaphysical tendencies which belong so eminently to the American mind;” and it is interesting to observe in this, as in other cases, the conjunction of the practical with the metaphysical temperament. “The chief characteristic of Herman Melville’s writings”—so I have elsewhere remarked[5]—“is this attempted union of the practical with the ideal. Commencing with a basis of solid fact, he loves to build up a fantastic structure which is finally lost in the cloudland of metaphysical speculation.”

As “Typee” is the best production of the earlier and simpler phase of Melville’s authorship, so undoubtedly is “The Whale” (or “Moby Dick,” as it is sometimes styled) the crown and glory of the later phase; less shapely and artistic than “Typee,” it surpasses it in immensity of scope and triumphant energy of execution. It is in “The Whale” that we see Melville casting to the winds all conventional restrictions, and rioting in the prodigality of his imaginative vigour; there, too, we find the fullest recognition of that magical influence of the sea—the “image of the ungraspable phantom of life”—which from first to last was the most vital inspiration of his restless and indomitable genius. Ostensibly nothing more than a wild story of a strange voyage of vengeance, a “quenchless feud” between a fierce old sea-captain and a particular white sperm-whale of renowned strength and audacity, the book, which abounds with real facts concerning the details of the whale-fishery, has a mystic esoteric significance which lifts it into a wholly different category. In the character of Captain Ahab, who “looked like a man cut away from the stake when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them,” we see a lurid personification of the self-destructive spirit of Hatred and Revenge, while Moby Dick, the white whale, “swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them.” “The Whale” was dedicated to Hawthorne, and is thus referred to in his “Wonder Book”: “On the hither side of Pittsfield sits Herman Melville, shaping out the gigantic conception of his ‘White Whale,’ while the gigantic shadow of Greylock looms upon him from his study window.”

The increasing transcendentalism of Melville’s later thought was accompanied and reflected by a corresponding complexity of language, the limpid simplicity so remarkable in “Typee,” and “Omoo,” and “White Jacket” being now succeeded by a habit of gorgeous and fantastic word-painting, which, though brilliantly effective at its best, degenerated, at its worst, into mere bombast and rhetoric, a process which had already been discernible in the concluding portions of “Mardi,” while in “Pierre” (or “The Ambiguities,” as it was appropriately designated) it reached the natal climax of its development. This unfortunate book, published in 1852, was to a great extent the ruin of its author’s reputation; for the critics not unfairly protested against the perversity of “a man born to create, who resolves to anatomise; a man born to see, who insists upon speculating.” Of “The Confidence Man” (1857), and Melville’s later books in general, it is not necessary to speak; though it is noticeable that in his narrative of “Israel Potter” (1855), and one or two of the short stories in “The Piazza Tales” (1856), he partly recovered his old firmness of touch and delicacy of workmanship.

For, in spite of all the obscurities and mannerisms which confessedly deform his later writings, it remains true that naturalness is one of Melville’s finest characteristics, both in the tone and in the style of his productions. His narratives are as racy and vigorous as those of Defoe or Smollett or Marryat; his character-sketches are such as only a man of keen observation, and as keen a sense of humour, could have realised and depicted. His seamen and his sea-captains all, his savages ashore or aboard, from the noble unsophisticated Mehevi in “Typee” to the semi-civilised comical Queequeg in “The Whale,” are admirably vivid and impressive; and the reader who shall once have made their acquaintance will thenceforward in no wise be persuaded that they are not real and living personages.

Moreover, there is a large-souled humanity in Melville—the direct outcome of his generous, emotional, yet uniformly sane temperament—which differentiates him entirely from the mere artist or littérateur. “I stand for the heart,” he writes, in one of his letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, a statement fully substantiated by the many humane sentiments that find expression in his pages, whether on the subject of modern warfare, or negro slavery, or the barbarities of naval discipline, or the cruel treatment of the harmless "savages” of the Pacific by the more savage apostles of “civilisation.” For the rest of it, Melville appears as a frank, simple believer in common human nature, and so little a respecter of persons that his democracy was described by Hawthorne as “ruthless.” “With no son of man,” says Melville, “do I stand upon any etiquette or ceremony, except the Christian ones of charity and honesty. . . A thief in jail is as honourable a personage as General George Washington.”

It may be surmised that this uncompromising attitude was scarcely calculated to win the favour of society. ‘A friend who visited Melville at Pittsfield described him as an Ishmael who was “apparently considered by the good people of Pittsfield as little better than a cannibal or a beach-comber.” “In vain,” he says,[6] “I sought to hear of Typee and those Paradise islands; he preferred to pour forth his philosophy and his theories of life. The shade of Aristotle arose like a cold mist between myself and Fayaway. But what a talk it was! Melville is transformed from a Marquesan to a gipsy student, the gipsy element still remaining strong in him. And this contradiction gives him the air of one who has suffered from opposition, both literary and social.”

There is no doubt that Melville’s characteristic reticence on personal matters, together with his increasing love of retirement, was in large measure the cause of his otherwise unaccountable loss of literary fame; for even the well-merited failure of such books as “Pierre” and “The Confidence Man” would be in itself insufficient to explain the neglect of his genuine masterpieces. It is true that for a few years he was induced to lecture, in various parts of the States, on the subject of his voyages to the South Seas; but, as a rule, he could not, or would not, cultivate the indispensable art of keeping his name before the public. The man who could win the affections of a cannibal community in the Pacific was less at home in the intricacies of self-advertisement and “business.” “Dollars damn me,” he remarks in one of his letters. “When I feel most moved to write, that is banned—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.” That he felt keenly mortified at the ill-success of “Pierre” is beyond question. When, on the occasion of a tour in Europe, in 1856, he visited Hawthorne at the Liverpool consulate, he told his friend that “the spirit of adventure bad gone out of him.” He is described by Hawthorne as looking “a little paler, perhaps, and a little sadder; and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner. . . . He has suffered from too constant literary occupations, pursued without much success latterly; and his writings, for a long time past, have indicated a morbid state of mind.”

In 1863, Melville found it necessary, for the better education of his children, to leave his home at Pittsfield, and to take up his quarters at New York, where for twenty years he held an inspectorship in the custom-house. His life became now altogether one of quietude and retirement; content to let the noisy world go by, he made no attempt to recover the fame which had once been his, and to which he still possessed an inalienable title. During these years, however, be published two volumes of poetry: “Battle Pieces,” which deals mainly with incidents of the civil war, and “Clarel, a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land,” described by Melville himself, in a letter to an English correspondent, as “a metrical affair, a pilgrimage or what not, of several thousand lines, eminently adapted for unpopularity.” More interesting than these is a little story, “John Marr and other Sailors,” issued in 1888, and limited to twenty-five copies—a limitation which affords a pathetic and significant comment on the acumen of a “reading public” which had allowed itself to become in great part oblivious of the author of “Typee” and “The  Whale.” We need not doubt, however, that Melville found ample compensation for such neglect in that assurance of ultimate and lasting recognition which is seldom denied to men of genius. “His tall, stalwart figure,” says Mr. Stedman,[7] “until recently could be seen almost daily, tramping through the Fort George district or Central Park; his roving inclination leading him to obtain as much out-door life as possible. His evenings were spent at home, with his books, his pictures and his family, and usually with them alone.”

After several months of illness, Herman Melville died at New York on September 28, 1891, at the age of seventy-two. The news of his death excited but little interest on this side of the Atlantic, though forty years ago his name was familiar both to English and to American readers; but it is impossible to suppose that this undeserved neglect can be permanent. The opinion of those competent judges who are students of his works is emphatic in his favour; it is not too much to say that to read his books is to appreciate them, and that his place in American literature is a high and an assured one. The re-issue of his best works will now give the public an opportunity—I will not say of repairing a wrong done to a distinguished writer, for, as I have already shown, the decay of Melville’s fame was partly due to circumstances of his own making—but at least of rehabilitating and confirming its earlier and truer judgment.

1 “Redburn, his First Voyage; being the sailor-boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the son of a gentleman in the Merchant Service,” 1849.
2 “Typee” and “Omoo” were published in 1846 and 1847 respectively, in Mr. Murray’s “Home and Colonial Library.”
3 The real name of Toby, as Mr. A. Stedman has recently informed us, was Richard T. Greene.
4 Lieutenant Wise, in “Los Gringos,” a volume of travels, published in 1849. Rome of the lieutenant’s researches, however, are rather detrimental to the romance of Melville’s narrative. At Nukuheva he saw a damsel named Fayaway (let us hope it was not Melville’s Fayaway!) who was acting as maid-of-all-work to a French officer. He also fell in with Dr. Johnstone, the original of Dr. Long Ghost in “Omoo,” and found him very resentful at the fun made of him in the book.
5 Art Review, November 1889
6 Dr. Titus Coan’s letter, quoted in the New York World’s obituary notice of Melville.
7 New York Tribune, Oct. 1, 1891.

Henry S. Salt

Typee, J. Murray, London, 1893