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Herman Melville and Moby Dick

Non-Fiction > Ten Novels and Their Authors >


Hitherto I have been dealing with novels which, with all their differences, descend in a fairly direct line from the novels of a remote past. ‘The novel,’ I learn from The Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘has been made a vehicle for satire, for instruction, for political or religious exhortation, for technical information; but these are side issues. The plain and direct purpose of the novel is to amuse by a succession of scenes painted from nature, and by a thread of emotional narrative.’ This puts the matter in a nutshell. The novel, I learn further, came into favour in Alexandrian times, when life was sufficiently easy for people to take pleasure in accounts, realistic or fanciful, of the adventures and emotions of imaginary characters; but the first work of fiction that has come down to us which can strictly be called a novel is one that was written by a Greek called Longus and entitled Daphnis and Chloe. From this, through unnumbered generations, with many ups and downs, with many diversions, are derived the novels I have been briefly considering, whose direct purpose is, as the Encyclopaedia puts it, to amuse by a succession of scenes painted from nature, and by a thread of emotional narrative.

But now I come to a small group of novels which are so different in their effect on the reader, which seem to be written with an intention so extraneous, that they must be put in a class by themselves. Such novels are Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights and The Brothers Karamazov; and such are the novels of James Joyce and Kafka. Novelists are, of course, mutations from the common stock of bishops and bar-tenders, policemen and politicians, and so forth; and mutations occur repeatedly. But biologists tell us that most are harmful, and many lethal. Now, since the sort of book an author writes depends on the sort of man he is, and this depends partly on the association in the chromosome of genes from different parents and partly on the environment, it is surely significant that novelists are inclined to sterility; there are only two in history, Tolstoy and Dickens, who were greatly fertile. The mutation is evidently lethal. But perhaps that is just as well, since, whereas oysters when they proliferate produce oysters, novelists generally produce nitwits. The particular mutation I am now concerned with has left, so far as I know, no literary descendants.

I am going to take first the author of that strange and powerful book, Moby Dick. I have read Raymond Weaver’s Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic, Lewis Mumford’s Herman Melville, Charles Roberts Anderson’s Melville in the South Seas, William Ellery Sedgwick’s Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind, and Newton Arvin’s Melville. I have read them with interest, profited by most of them, and learnt from them a number of facts useful to my modest purpose; but I cannot persuade myself that I know more about Melville, the man, than I knew before.

According to Raymond Weaver, an ‘uncircumspect critic at the time of Melville’s centenary in 1919’ wrote: ‘Owing to some odd psychological experience, that has never been definitely explained, his style of writing, his view of life underwent a complete change.’ I don’t quite know why this unnamed critic should be described as uncircumspect. He hit upon the problem which must puzzle everyone who is interested in Melville. It is on this account that one scrutinises every known detail of his life and reads his letters and books, books some of which can only be read by a determined effort of will, to discover some hint that may help to elucidate the mystery.

But first let us take the facts, so far as they are made known to us by the biographers. On the face of it, but only on the face of it, they are simple enough.

Herman Melville was born in 1819. His father, Allan Melville, and his mother, Maria Gansevoort, were gentlefolk. Allan was a cultivated, travelled man, and Maria an elegant, well-bred and pious woman. For the first five years of their marriage they lived at Albany, and after that settled in New York, where Allan’s business – he was an importer of French dry goods – for a time prospered, and where Herman was born. He was the third of their eight children. But by 1830 Allan Melville had fallen on evil days and moved back to Albany, where two years later he died bankrupt and, it is said, insane. He left his family penniless. Herman went to the Albany Classical Institute for boys and, on leaving school at the age of fifteen, was employed as a clerk in the New York State Bank; in 1835 he worked in his brother Gansevoort’s fur store, and the following year on his uncle’s farm at Pittsfield. For a term he was a teacher at the common school in the Sykes district. At seventeen he went to sea. Much has been written to account for this, but I cannot see why any further reason need be sought than the one he gives himself: ‘Sad disappointments in several plans which I had sketched out for my future life; the necessity of doing something for myself, united to a naturally roving disposition, had now conspired within me, to send me to sea as a sailor.’ He had tried his hand without success at various occupations, and from what we know of his mother we may surmise that she did not hesitate to express her displeasure. He went to sea, as many a boy before and after has done, because he was unhappy at home. Melville was a very strange man, but it is unnecessary to look for strangeness in a perfectly natural proceeding.

He arrived in New York wet through, in patched trousers and a hunting jacket, without a penny in his pocket, but with a fowling-piece his brother Gansevoort had given him to sell; he walked across town to the house of a friend of his brother’s, where he spent the night, and next day with this friend went down to the waterfront. After some search, they came across a ship that was sailing for Liverpool, and Melville was signed on as a ‘boy’ at three dollars a month. Twelve years later he wrote in Redburn an account of the voyage there and back, and of his stay in Liverpool. He looked upon it as hack-work; but it is vivid and interesting, and it is written in English that is simple, straightforward, easy and unaffected. It is one of the most readable of his works.

Nothing much is known about how he spent the next three years. According to the accepted accounts, he ‘taught school’ in various places: at one, Greenbush, N.Y., he received six dollars a quarter and board; and he wrote a number of articles for provincial papers. One or two of them have been discovered. They are without interest, but give signs that he had done a lot of desultory reading; and they have a mannerism of which to the end of his life he could never rid himself, namely that of bringing in without rhyme or reason allusions to mythological gods, to historical and romantic characters, and to all kinds of authors. As Raymond Weaver neatly puts it: ‘He called up Burton, Shakespeare, Byron, Milton, Coleridge and Chesterfield, as well as Prometheus and Cinderella, Mahomet and Cleopatra, Madonna and Houris, Medici and Mussulman, to strew carelessly across his pages.’

But he had an adventurous spirit, and it may be supposed that in the end he could no longer endure the tameness of life to which it seemed circumstances had condemned him. Though he had disliked life before the mast, he made up his mind to go to sea again; and in 1841 he sailed from New Bedford in the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific. With one exception, the men in the forecastle were coarse, brutal and uneducated; the exception was a boy of seventeen called Richard Tobias Greene. This is how Melville describes him: ‘Toby was endowed with a remarkably prepossessing exterior. Arrayed in his blue frock and duck trousers, he was as smart a looking sailor as ever stepped upon a deck; he was singularly small and slightly made, with great flexibility of limb. His naturally dark complexion had been deepened by exposure to the tropical sun, and a mass of jetty locks clustered about his temples, and threw a darker shade into his large black eyes.’

After fifteen months of cruising, the Acushnet put in at Nuku-Hiva, an island of the Marquesas. The two lads, disgusted with the hardship of life aboard the whaler and the brutality of the captain, decided to desert. They stowed away as much tobacco, ship’s biscuit and calico (to give the natives) as they could get into the front of their frocks, and made off for the interior of the island. After several days, during which they had sundry mishaps, they reached the valley inhabited by the Typees, and were by them hospitably received. Shortly after their arrival, Toby was sent away on the pretext of getting medical help, for Melville on the way had hurt his leg so badly that he could only walk with pain, but in fact to arrange their escape. The Typees were reputed to be cannibals, and prudence suggested that it would be unwise to reckon too long on the continuance of their good will. Toby never returned, and it was discovered much later that, on reaching the coast, he had been kidnapped on to a whaler. Melville, by his own account, spent four months in the valley. He was well treated. He made friends with a girl called Fayaway, swam and boated with her, and except for his fear of being eaten was happy enough. Then it chanced that the captain of a whaler, coming to anchor at Nuka-Hiva, heard that there was a sailor in the hands of the Typees. Many of his own crew having deserted, he sent a boatload of taboo natives to secure the man’s release. Melville, again by his own account, persuaded the natives to let him go down to the beach and, after a skirmish in which he killed a man with a boat-hook, effected his escape.

Life in the ship he now boarded, the Julia, was even worse than in the Acushnet, and after some weeks of fruitless cruising on the look-out for whales, the skipper hove his craft to off the island of Tahiti. The crew mutinied and presently, after trial at Papeete, were consigned to the local jail. The Julia, having signed on a new crew, sailed, and the prisoners were in a short time released. With another member of the old crew, a medical man who had come down in the world and whom he calls Doctor Long Ghost, Melville sailed to the neighbouring island of Moorea, and there the pair hired themselves out to two planters to hoe potatoes. Melville had not liked farming when he worked for his uncle in Massachusetts, and he liked it less still under the tropical sun of Polynesia. With Doctor Long Ghost he wandered off, living on the natives, and eventually, leaving the doctor behind, persuaded the captain of a whaler which he calls the Leviathan to sign him on. In this ship he reached Honolulu. What he did there is uncertain. It is supposed that he found employment as a clerk. Then he shipped as an ordinary seaman in an American frigate, the United States, and after a year, upon the ship’s arrival home, was discharged from the service.

We have now reached the year of 1844. Melville was twenty-five. No portrait of him in youth exists, but, from those taken in middle age, we can picture him in his twenties as a tall, well-set-up man, strong and active, with rather small eyes, but with a straight nose, a fresh colour and a fine head of waving hair.

He came home to find his mother and sisters settled at Lansingburg, a suburb of Albany. His elder brother, Gansevoort, had given up his fur shop and was become a lawyer and a politician; his second brother, Allan, a lawyer too, had settled in New York; and his youngest, Tom, soon to go to sea like Herman, was still in his teens. Herman found himself the centre of interest as ‘the man who had lived among cannibals’, and he told the story of his adventures to eager listeners; they urged him to write a book, and this forthwith he set out to do.

He had tried his hand at writing before, though with little success; but he had to earn money, and to write seemed to him, as to many another misguided author, before and since, an easy way to do so. When Typee, the book in which he described his sojourn on the island of Nuka-Hiva, was finished, Gansevoort Melville, who had gone to London as secretary to the American Minister, submitted it to John Murray, who accepted it, and some time later Wiley and Putnam published it in America. It was well received and Melville, encouraged, wrote the continuation of his adventures in the South Pacific in a book which he called Omoo.

It appeared in 1847, and in this year he married Elizabeth, the only daughter of Chief Justice Shaw, whose family had long been known to the Melvilles. The young couple moved to New York, where they lived in Allan Melville’s house at 103 Fourth Avenue, together with Herman’s and Allan’s sisters, Augusta, Fanny and Helen. We are not told why the three young women left their mother and Lansingburg. Herman settled down to write. In 1849, two years after his marriage and a few months after the birth of his first child, a boy named Malcolm, he crossed the Atlantic again, this time as a passenger, to see publishers and arrange for the publication of White Jacket, the book in which he describes his experiences in the frigate United States, From London he went to Paris, Brussels and up the Rhine. His wife wrote as follows in her arid memoir: ‘Summer of 1849 we remained in New York. He wrote Redburn and White Jacket. Same fall went to England and published the above. Took little satisfaction in it from mere home-sickness, and hurried home, leaving attractive invitations to distinguished people – one from the Duke of Rutland to pass a week at Belvoir Castle – see his journal. We went to Pittsfield and boarded in the summer of 1850. Moved to Arrowhead in fall – October 1850.’

Arrowhead was the name Melville gave to a farm at Pittsfield which he bought on money advanced by the Chief Justice, and here he settled with his wife, child and sisters. Mrs. Melville, in her matter-of-fact way, says in her journal: ‘Wrote White Whale or Moby Dick under unfavourable circumstances – would sit at his desk all day not writing anything till four or five o’clock – then ride to the village after dark – would be up early and out walking before breakfast – sometimes splitting wood for exercise. We all felt anxious about the strain on his health in the Spring of 1853.’

When Melville established himself at Arrowhead, he found Hawthorne living in the neighbourhood. He took something that very much resembles a schoolgirl crush for the older writer, a crush which may have somewhat disconcerted that reserved, self-centred and undemonstrative man. The letters he wrote to him were impassioned: ‘I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you,’ he said in one of them. ‘Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.’ Of an evening he would ride over to the Red House at Lenox to talk – a little, it appears, to Hawthorne’s weariness – of ‘Providence and futurity and of every thing else that lies beyond human ken.’ While the two authors discoursed, Mrs. Hawthorne sewed at her stand, and in a letter to her mother she thus described Melville: ‘I am not quite sure that I do not think him a very great man … A man with a true, warm heart, and a soul and an intellect – with life to his finger-tips; earnest, sincere and reverent; very tender and modest … He has very keen perceptive power; but what astonishes me is, that his eyes are not large and deep. He seems to see everything very accurately; and how he can do so with his small eyes, I cannot tell. They are not keen eyes, either, but quite undistinguished in any way. His nose is straight and rather handsome, his mouth expressive of sensibility and emotion. He is tall, and erect, with an air free, brave and manly. When conversing, he is full of gesture and force, and loses himself in his subject. There is no grace, nor polish. Once in a while, his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of these eyes to which I have objected; an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that moment taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into itself.’

The Hawthornes left Lenox; and the friendship, eager and deep-felt on Melville’s side and on Hawthorne’s sedate, and perhaps embarrassed, came to an end. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to him. The letter he wrote after reading the book no longer exists, but from Melville’s reply it looks as though he guessed that Hawthorne did not like it. Nor did the public, nor did the critics; and Pierre, with which he followed it, fared even worse. It was received with contemptuous abuse. He made very little money from his writings, and he had to provide not only for his wife, his two sons and two daughters, but also, presumably, for his three sisters. Melville, to judge from his letters, found farming his own land as little to his taste as he had found cutting his uncle’s hay at Pittsfield or digging potatoes in Moorea. The fact is that he had never cared for manual labour: ‘See my hand – four blisters on this palm, made by hoes and hammers within the last few days. It is a rainy morning, so I am indoors, and all work suspended. I feel cheerfully disposed …’ A farmer with hands as soft as that is unlikely to have farmed with profit.

His father-in-law, the Chief Justice, seems periodically to have come to the financial assistance of the family; and as he was a sensible man, besides being a very kind one, it may be supposed that it was he who suggested to Melville that he should look for some other way of earning his living. Various strings were pulled to obtain a consulship for him, but without success, and he was obliged to go on writing. He ailed, and the Chief Justice once more came to the rescue; in 1856 he went abroad again, this time to Constantinople, Palestine, Greece and Italy, and on his return managed to earn a little money by lecturing. In 1860 he made his last journey. Tom, his youngest brother, commanded a clipper in the China trade, the Meteor, and in this Melville sailed, round the Horn, to San Francisco; one would have expected him to have still enough of the spirit of adventure to seize the opportunity to go to the Far East, but for some unknown reason, either because he was bored with his brother or his brother had grown impatient of him, he left the ship at San Francisco and went home. For some years the Melvilles had lived in great poverty, but in 1861 the Chief Justice died and left his daughter a handsome legacy; they decided to leave Arrowhead and bought a house in New York from Allan, Herman’s prosperous brother, and in part payment turned Arrowhead over to him. In this house, 104 East Twenty Sixth Street, Melville lived for the rest of his life.

At this time, according to Raymond Weaver, it was a good year if he earned a hundred dollars in royalties on his books; in 1866 he managed to secure an appointment as Inspector of Customs; for this he was paid four dollars a day. In the following year Malcolm, his eldest son, shot himself in his room, but whether by design or accident is not clear; his second son, Stanwix, ran away from home and of him nothing more is heard. Melville held his modest post in the Customs for twenty years; and then his wife inherited money from her brother, Samuel, and he resigned. In 1878 he published, at the expense of his Uncle Gansevoort, a poem of twenty thousand lines called Clarel. Shortly before his death he wrote, or rewrote, a novelette called Billy Budd. He died, forgotten, in 1891. He was seventy-two.


Such, in brief, is the story of Melville’s life as it is told by his biographers, but it is evident that there is much that they have not told. They pass over Malcolm’s death, and the flight of Stanwix from home, as though they were matters of no consequence. Surely the untoward death of their elder son distressed his parents; surely the disappearance of their second perturbed them; letters must have passed between Mrs. Melville and her brothers when the boy, eighteen years of age, shot himself; one can only suppose that they have been suppressed; it is true that by 1867 Melville’s fame had dwindled, but one would expect that such an event would have reminded the press of his existence, and that some mention would have been made of it in the newspapers. It was news, and American papers have never hesitated to make the most of it. Was there no enquiry into the circumstances of the boy’s death? If he committed suicide, what made him do so? And why did Stanwix run away? What were the conditions of his life at home that drove him to such a step, and how does it happen that nothing more is heard of him? Mrs. Melville, so far as we know, was a good and affectionate mother: it is strange that, again so far as we know, she seems to have taken no steps to get in touch with him. From the fact that only she and her two daughters attended Melville’s funeral, the only members, we are told, of his immediate family still alive, we must suppose that Stanwix was dead. The records show that in his old age Melville was fond of his grandchildren, but his feeling for his own children is ambiguous. Lewis Mumford, whose biography of Melville is sensible, and to all appearance trustworthy, gives a grim picture of his relations with them. He seems to have been a harsh, impatient parent. ‘One of his daughters could not recur to the image of her father without a certain painful revulsion … When he purchased a work of art, a print or a statue for ten dollars, when there was scarcely bread to go round who can wonder at their black memories?’ Revulsion is a strong word: one would have thought impatience or irritation better suited to express what his daughters may have felt when their father showed himself thus thoughtless. There must have been something more to cause their bitterness. Melville, it appears, had a jocularity which was little to their taste, and if you read between the lines, you can hardly escape the suspicion that he sometimes came home the worse for liquor. I hasten to add that this is mere surmise. Professor Stoll, in an article published in The Journal of the History of Ideas, suggests that Melville was ‘an emphatic teetotaller’. I cannot believe it. He was a convivial creature and surely it is very probable that as a sailor before the mast he drank with the rest. We know that on his first journey to Europe as a passenger he sat up until all hours, drinking whisky punches and talking metaphysics with a young scholar named Adler, and later at Arrowhead, when friends came up from the city to visit him, ‘one hears a good deal about champagne, gin and cigars’ on the excursions taken to neighbouring places of interest. Part of Melville’s duty was to inspect incoming ships, and unless American skippers have changed very much from that day to this, it is pretty well certain that he would not have been long on board before being taken below to have a drink. It would be very natural if in his disappointment with life he sought solace in liquor. I should add that, unlike many of his fellows in the Customs, he performed his duties with the greatest integrity.

Melville was a very singular fellow, and there is little definite evidence for any view you may take of his character; but from his first two books you can get a pretty good idea of what he was like as a young man. For my part, I find Omoo more readable than Typee. It is a straightforward narrative of his experience on the island of Moorea, and on the whole may be accepted as true: Typee, on the other hand, seems to be a hotch-potch of fact and fancy. According to Charles Roberts Anderson, Melville spent only a month on the island of Nuku-Hiva and not four, as he pretended, and his adventures on his way to the valley of the Typees were not so startling as he makes out, nor the dangers he ran from their supposed predilection for human flesh so great; and the story of his escape, as he gives it, is highly improbable: ‘the whole scene of the rescue itself is romantic and unconvincing, apparently written in haste and more with a view to making himself a hero than with a proper regard to logic and dramatic finesse.’ Melville should not be found fault with for this; we are told that he repeatedly gave an account of his adventures to willing listeners, and everyone knows how hard it is to resist the temptation to make a story a little better, and a little more exciting, each time you tell it. It would have been embarrassing for him when he came to write it to state the sober and not peculiarly thrilling facts when in numberless talks he had freely embroidered upon them. Typee, in fact, appears to be a compilation of matter which Melville found in contemporary travel books, combined with a highly coloured version of his own experiences. The industrious Mr. Anderson has shown that on occasion he not only repeated the errors these travel books contained, but in various instances used the very words of their authors. I think this accounts for a certain heaviness the reader may find in it. But both Typee and Omoo are well enough written in the idiom of the period. Melville was already inclined to use the literary word rather than the plain one: so, for example, he prefers to call a building an edifice; one hut is not near another, nor even in its neighbourhood, but in the vicinity; he is more apt to be fatigued than, like most people, tired; and he prefers to evince, rather than to show, feeling.

But the portrait of the author of both these books emerges clearly, and you need make no imaginative effort to see that he was a hardy, brave and determined youth, high-spirited and fond of fun, work-shy but not lazy; gay, amiable, friendly and carefree. He was charmed with the prettiness of the Polynesian girls, as any young fellow of his age would be, and it would be strange if he did not accept the favours they were certainly willing to grant him. If there was anything unusual in him, it was that he took a keen delight in beauty, something to which youth is apt to be indifferent; and there is some intensity in his admiring descriptions of the sea and the sky and the green mountains. Perhaps the only indication there is that there was more in him than in any other sailorman of three-and-twenty is that he was of ‘a pondering turn’, and conscious of it. ‘I am of a meditative humour’, he wrote much later, ‘and at sea used often to mount aloft at night, and, seating myself in one of the upper yards, tuck my jacket about me and give loose to reflection.’

How is one to account for the transformation of this apparently normal young man into the savage pessimist who wrote Pierre? What turned the undistinguished writer of Typee into the darkly imaginative, powerful, inspired and eloquent author of Moby Dick? Some have thought, an attack of insanity. This has been hotly denied by his admirers, as though it were something disgraceful: it is, of course, no more disgraceful than to have an attack of jaundice. I have not in this essay to deal with Pierre. It is a preposterous book. There are in it pregnant sayings: Melville wrote in pain and bitterness, and his passion from time to time gave rise to passages that are powerful and eloquent; but the incidents are improbable, the motives unconvincing and the conversations stilted. Pierre gives one the impression that it was written in a condition of advanced neurasthenia. But that is not insanity. If there is any evidence that Melville was ever out of his mind, it has not, so far as I know, been produced. It has been suggested, also, that Melville was so profoundly affected as to become a different man by the intensive reading he undertook when he moved from Lansingburg to New York; the notion that he was crazed by Sir Thomas Browne, as Don Quixote was crazed by romances of chivalry, is really too naïve to carry conviction. In some unknown way the commonplace writer became a writer of something very like genius. In these days of sex-consciousness, it is natural to look for a sexual cause to explain so strange a circumstance.

Typee and Omoo were written before Melville married Elizabeth Shaw. During the first year of their union he wrote Mardi. It begins as a straightforward continuation of his adventures before the mast, but then it becomes wildly fanciful. It is long-winded and, to my mind, tedious. I cannot put its theme better than has been done by Raymond Weaver: ‘Mardi is a quest after some total and undivided possession of that holy and mysterious joy that touched Melville during the period of his courtship: a joy he had felt in the crucifixion of his love for his mother; a joy that had dazzled him in his love for Elizabeth Shaw … And Mardi is a pilgrimage for a lost glamour … It is a quest after Yillah, a maiden from Oroolia, the Island of Delight. A voyage is made through the civilised world for her; and though they (the persons of the novel) find occasion for much discourse on international politics, and an array of other topics, Yillah is not found.’

If one wants to indulge in conjecture, one may take this strange story as the first sign of his disappointment with the married state. One has to guess what Elizabeth Shaw, Mrs. Melville, was like from the few letters of hers that remain. She was not a good letter-writer, and it may be that there was more in her than they reveal; but they show, at least, that she was in love with her husband and that she was a sensible, kindly, practical, though narrow and conventional, woman. She bore poverty without complaint. She was doubtless puzzled by her husband’s development, and perhaps regretful that he seemed bent on throwing away the reputation and popularity Typee and Omoo had won him, but she continued to believe in him and to admire him to the end. She was not a woman of intellect, but she was a good, tolerant and affectionate wife.

Did Melville love her? No letters that he may have written during his courtship remain, and it is no more than a sentimental assumption that he was then touched by a ‘holy and mysterious joy’. He married her. But men do not only marry for love. It may be that he had had enough of a wandering life, and wanted to settle down: one of the strange things about this strange man is that though, as he says himself, of ‘a naturally roving disposition,’ after his first journey as a boy to Liverpool and his three years in the South Seas, his thirst for adventure was quenched. Such journeys as he took later were mere tourist trips. It may be that Melville married because his family and friends thought it was high time he did, or it may be that he married in order to combat inclinations that dismayed him. Who can tell? Lewis Mumford says that ‘he was never quite happy in Elizabeth’s company, nor was he quite happy away from it’, and suggests that he felt not merely affection for her, but ‘on these long absences, passion would gather within him’, only to be followed by quick satiety. He would not have been the first man to find that he loved his wife more when he was parted from her than when he was with her, and that the expectation of sexual intercourse was more exciting than the realisation. I think it probable that Melville was impatient with the marriage tie; it may be that his wife gave him less than he had hoped, but he continued to have marital relations long enough for her to bear him four children. He remained, so far as anyone knows, faithful to her.

No one who has occupied himself with Melville has failed to notice his delight in male beauty. In a lecture he gave on sculpture after his return from Palestine and Italy, he singled out for special comment the Greco-Roman statue known as the Apollo Belvedere. Its chief merit is that it represents a very handsome young man. I have already described the impression made on Melville by Toby, the boy in whose company he deserted the Acushnet, and in Typee he dwells on the physical perfection of the youths with whom he consorted. They are much more vividly presented than the girls with whom he flirted. But before that, at the age of seventeen, he sailed in a ship bound for Liverpool. There he made friends with a boy called Harry Bolton. This is how he described him in Redburn: ‘He was one of those small, but perfectly formed beings with curling hair, and silken muscles, who seem to have been born in cocoons. His complexion was a mantling brunette, feminine as a girl’s; his feet were small, his hands very white; and his eyes were large, black and womanly; and, poetry aside, his voice was as the sound of a harp.’ Doubt has been thrown on the hurried jaunt the two boys made to London, and even on the existence of such a person as Harry Bolton; but if Melville invented him to add an interesting episode to his narrative, it is queer that such a manly fellow as he should have invented a character who was so obviously homosexual.

In the frigate United States, Melville’s great friend was an English sailor, Jack Chase, ‘tall and well-knit, with a clear open eye, a fine brow, and an abounding nut-brown beard.’ ‘There was such an astounding air of good sense and good feeling about the man,’ he wrote in White Jacket, ‘that he who could not love him, would thereby pronounce himself a knave,’ and further: ‘Wherever you may be now rolling over the blue billows, dear Jack, take my best love with you, and God bless you, wherever you go.’ A touch of tenderness rare in Melville. So deep an impression did this sailor make on him that he dedicated to him the novelette, Billy Budd, which he completed only three months before his death, fifty years later. The story hangs on the hero’s amazing beauty. It is this that causes everyone in the ship to love him, and it is this that indirectly brings about his tragic end.

It seems fairly evident that Melville was a repressed homosexual, a type which, if we may believe what we read, was more common in the United States of his time than it is to-day. The sexual proclivities of an author are no business of his readers, except in so far as they influence his work, as is the case with André Gide and Marcel Proust; when they do, and the facts are put before you, much that was obscure or even incredible may be made plain. If I have dwelt on this idiosyncrasy of Melville’s, it is because it may account for his dissatisfaction with married life; and it may be that a sexual frustration occasioned the change in him which has puzzled all those who have interested themselves in him. The probabilites are great that his moral sense prevailed; but who can tell what instincts, perhaps even unrecognised and, even if recognised, angrily repressed and never, except perhaps in imagination, indulged in – who can tell, I say, what instincts may dwell in a man’s being which, though never yielded to, may yet have an overwhelming effect on his disposition?


Melville’s reading, though desultory, had always been wide. It seems that he was chiefly attracted by the poets and prose writers of the seventeenth century, and one must presume that he found in them something that peculiarly accorded with his own confused propensities. Whether their influence was harmful to him or beneficial is a matter of personal opinion. His early education was slight and, as often happens in such cases, he did not quite assimilate the culture he acquired in later years. Culture is not something you put on like a ready-made suit of clothes, but a nourishment you absorb to build up your personality, just as food builds up the body of a growing boy; it is not an ornament to decorate a phrase, still less to show off your knowledge, but a means, painfully acquired, to enrich the soul.

Melville was making a dangerous experiment when, in order to write Moby Dick, he devised for himself a style founded on that of the seventeenth-century writers. At its best, it is impressive and has a poetic power; but after all it remains a pastiche. That is not to belittle it. A pastiche may have great beauty. The Venus of Milo, a work of the first century B.C., is a pastiche; and so is the even later Spinario in Rome. Both were formerly supposed to be works of mid-fifth-century sculptors. Duccio, the great Siennese painter, based his style on early twelfth-century Byzantine painting, and not on the Byzantine painting current in his own day, two centuries later. When, however, a writer attempts pastiche, he is faced with the difficulty that consistency is practically unattainable. Just as Dr. Johnson’s old schoolfellow, Mr. Edwards, found it impossible to philosophise because cheerfulness would break in, so in a pastiche the contemporary idiom natural to the author breaks in to jar with the idiom he has affected. ‘To produce a mighty book,’ wrote Melville, ‘you must choose a mighty theme,’ and it is pretty clear that he thought it must be dealt with in the grand style. Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that Melville had no ear; I don’t know what he meant by that. Melville had a true sense of rhythm, and the balance of his sentences, however long, is in general excellent. He liked the high-sounding phrase, and the stately vocabulary he employed in fact enabled him frequently to get effects of great beauty. Sometimes this inclination led him to tautology, as when he speaks of the ‘umbrageous shade’, which only means the shady shade; but you can scarcely deny that the sound is rich. Sometimes one is pulled up by such a tautology as ‘hasty precipitancy’ only to discover with some awe that Milton wrote: ‘Thither they hasted with glad precipitance.’ Sometimes Melville uses common words in an unexpected way, and often obtains by this means a pleasant novelty of effect; and even when it seems to you that he has used them in a sense they cannot bear, it is rash to blame him with ‘hasty precipitancy’, for he may well have authority to go on. When he speaks of ‘redundant hair’, it may occur to you that hair may be redundant on a maiden’s lip, but hardly on a young man’s head; but if you look it out in the dictionary you will find that the second sense of redundant is copious, and Milton wrote of ‘redundant locks’.

The difficulty of the kind of writing Melville set himself to use in Moby Dick is that the rhetorical level must be maintained throughout. The matter must fit the manner. The writer cannot afford to be sentimental or humorous. Melville was too often both, and then you read him with embarrassment.

His taste was unsure and sometimes, attempting the poetic, he only succeeded in being absurd: ‘But few thoughts of Pan stirred Ahab’s brain, as standing like an iron statue at his accustomed place beside the mizzen rigging, with one nostril he unthinkingly sniffed the sugary musk from the Banshee isles (in whose sweet woods mild lovers must be walking), and with the other consciously inhaled the salt breath of the new-found sea …’ To smell one odour with one nostril and, at the same time, another with the other is more than a remarkable feat; it is an impossible one. I have little sympathy with Melville’s partiality for archaic words and words only in poetic usage: o’er for over; nigh for near; ere for before; anon and eftsoons; they give a fusty, meretricious air to prose that at its best is solid and virile. He had an extensive vocabulary, and sometimes it ran away with him. He found it hard to set down a noun without tacking on to it an adjective mystic, and used it as though it meant strange, mysterious, awe-inspiring, frightening, in fact whatever at the moment he wanted it to mean. Professor Stoll in the article to which I have already referred, and which is as eminently, and even as devastatingly, sensible as everything he writes, has justly stigmatised this as pseudo-poetic. In this article Professor Stoll has remarked on a characteristic that must disturb all readers of Melville, and that is his predilection for adverbs formed out of participles. It may be that it is on this account that Stevenson claimed that Melville had no ear, for one has to admit that these constructions seldom have euphony to recommend them. The most ill-sounding that I have noticed is whistlingly, but Professor Stoll has quoted others, burstingly, suckingly, and he might have quoted a hundred more that run it pretty close. Newton Arvin in his painstaking, but to my mind wrong-headed, book in the American Men of Letters Series has given examples of Melville’s coining of words: footmanism, omnitooled, uncatastrophied, domineerings; and appears to think that they add a peculiar excellence to his style. They add certainly to its idiosyncrasy, but surely not to its beauty. If Melville had had an education more catholic, and a taste less uncertain, he could have achieved the effects he was presumably aiming at without the distortions of language he affected.

Melville’s dialogue has little resemblance to ordinary speech. It is highly stylised. Since the principal persons on the Pequod are Quakers, it is natural enough that Melville should have used the second person singular, but I think, moreover, that he found it suited the deliberate purpose he had in view. He may well have felt that it gave an hieratic turn to the conversations he reported and a poetic flavour to the words used. He had no great skill in differentiating the speech of different characters: they all talk very much like one another, Ahab like his mates, the mates like the carpenter and the blacksmith, in a highly figurative manner, with an abundant use of metaphor and simile. Queequeg, thinking he is about to die, is lying in the coffin he has made for himself, and Pip, a little coloured boy who has lost his wits, ‘drew nigh to him where he lay, and with soft sobbings, took him by the hand; in the other, holding his tambourine’; and this is how he addressed Kanaka: ‘Poor rover! will ye never have done with all this weary roving? Where go ye now? But if the currents carry ye to those sweet Antilles where the beaches are only beat with water-lilies, will ye do one little errand for me? Seek out one Pip, who’s now been missing long, for he must be very sad for look! he’s left his tambourine behind; – I found it. Rig-a-dig, dig, dig! Now, Queequeg, die; and I’ll beat ye your dying march.’ Starbuck, the first mate, is ‘gazing down the scuttle’ on this scene, and he murmurs as follows: ‘I have heard that in violent fevers, men, all ignorance, have talked in ancient tongues; and that when the mystery is probed, it turns out always that in their wholly forgotten childhood those ancient tongues have been really spoken in their hearing by some lofty scholars. So, to my fond faith, poor Pip, in this strange sweetness of his lunacy, brings heavenly vouchers of all our heavenly homes. Where learned he that, but there?’

Of course, in fiction dialogue is necessarily stylised. To reproduce it accurately would be intolerable. It is a question of degree. It should surely have such verisimilitude as not to shock the reader. Ahab, speaking to Stubb, the second mate, about the white whale, cries: ‘I’ll ten times girdle the unmeasured globe; yea and dive straight through it, but I’ll slay him yet!’ You dismiss the high-sounding bombast with a laugh.

But for all that, notwithstanding the reservations one may make, Melville wrote English uncommonly well. Sometimes, as I have pointed out, the manner he had acquired led him to rhetorical extravagance, but at its best it has a copious magnificence, a sonority, a grandeur, an eloquence that no modern writer, so far as I know, has achieved. It does, indeed, at times recall the majestic phrase of Sir Thomas Browne and the stately period of Milton. I should like to call the reader’s attention to the ingenuity with which Melville wove into the elaborate pattern of his prose the ordinary nautical terms used by sailormen in the course of their daily work. The effect is to bring a note of realism, a savour of the fresh salt of the sea, to the sombre symphony which is the strange and powerful novel of Moby Dick. Every author has the right to be judged by his best. How good Melville’s best is the reader can judge for himself by reading the chapter entitled ‘The Great Armada.’ When he has action to describe, he does it magnificently, with force, and then his formal manner of writing grandly enhances the thrilling effect.


No one who has read anything I have written will expect me to speak of Moby Dick, Melville’s only title to rank with the great writers of fiction, as an allegory. Readers must go elsewhere for that. I can only deal with it from my own standpoint of a not inexperienced novelist. The purpose of fiction is to give æsthetic pleasure. It has no practical ends. The business of the novelist is not to advance philosophical theories; that is the business of the philosopher, who can do it better. But since some very intelligent persons have taken Moby Dick for an allegory, it is proper that I should deal with the matter. They have regarded as ironical Melville’s own remark: ‘He feared,’ he wrote, ‘that his work might be looked upon as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.’ Is it rash to assume that when a practised writer says a thing, he is more likely to mean what he says than what his commentators think he means? It is true that in a letter to Mrs. Hawthorne he stated that he had, while writing, ‘some vague idea that the whole book was susceptible of an allegorical construction’; but that is slender evidence that he had the intention of writing an allegory. May it not be possible that if, in fact, it is susceptible to such an interpretation, it is something that came about by accident and, as his words to Mrs. Hawthorne seem to indicate, not a little to his dismay? I don’t know how critics write novels, but I have some notion how novelists write them. They do not take a general proposition, such as Honesty is the Best Policy or All is not Gold that Glitters, and say: ‘Let’s write an allegory about that.’ A group of characters, generally suggested by persons they have known, excites their imagination, and sometimes simultaneously, sometimes after an interval, an incident or a string of incidents, experienced, heard of or invented, appears to them out of the blue to enable them to make suitable use of it in the development of the theme that has arisen in their minds by a sort of collaboration between the characters and the incidents. Melville was not fanciful, or at least, when he attempted to be so, as in Mardi, he came a cropper. To imagine, and his imagination was powerful, he needed a solid basis of fact. Indeed, certain critics have on this account accused him of lacking invention – I think, without reason. It is true that he invented more convincingly when he had a substratum of experience, his own or that of others, to sustain him; but then so do most novelists; and when he had this, his imagination worked freely and with power. When, as in Pierre, he had not, he wrote absurdly. It is true that Melville was of a ‘pondering’ turn and, as he grew older, he became absorbed in metaphysics, which Raymond Weaver, strangely enough, states is ‘but misery dissolved in thought’. That is a narrow view: to which a man can more fitly give his attention, for it deals with the greatest problems that confront his soul. Melville’s approach to them was not intellectual, but emotional; he thought as he did because he felt as he did; but this does not prevent many of his reflections from being memorable. I should have thought that deliberately to write an allegory required an intellectual detachment of which Melville was incapable.

Professor Stoll has shown how ridiculous and contradictory are the symbolic interpretations of Moby Dick that have been hurled at the heads of an inoffensive public. He has done it so conclusively that there is no need for me to enlarge upon the topic. In defence of these critics, however, I would say this: the novelist does not copy life, he arranges it to suit his purpose. He disposes of the data given him according to the peculiarity of his own temperament. He draws a coherent pattern, but the pattern he draws varies according to the attitude, interests and idiosyncrasy of the reader. According to your proclivities, you may take a snow-clad Alpine peak, as it rises to the empyrean in radiant majesty, as a symbol of man’s aspiration to union with the Infinite; or since, if you like to believe that, a mountain range may be thrown up by some violent convulsion in the earth’s depths, you may take it as a symbol of the dark and sinister passions of man that lour to destroy him; or, if you want to be in the fashion, you may take it as a phallic symbol. Newton Arvin regards Ahab’s ivory leg as ‘an equivocal symbol both of his own impotence and of the independent male principle directed cripplingly against him’, and the white whale as ‘the archetypal Parent; the father, yes, but the mother also, so far as she becomes a substitute for the father’. For Ellery Sedgwick, who claims that it is its symbolism that makes the book great, Ahab is ‘Man – Man sentient, speculative, purposive, religious, standing his full stature against the immense mystery of creation. His antagonist, Moby Dick, is that immense mystery. He is not the author of it, but is identical with that galling impartiality in the laws and lawlessness of the universe which Isaiah devoutly fathered on the Creator’. Lewis Mumford takes Moby Dick as a symbol of evil, and Ahab’s conflict with him as the conflict of good and evil in which good is finally vanquished. There is a certain plausibility in this, and it accords well with Melville’s moody pessimism.

But allegories are awkward animals to handle; you can take them by the head or by the tail, and it seems to me that an interpretation quite contrary is equally plausible. Why should it be assumed that Moby Dick is a symbol of evil? It is true that Melville causes Ishmael, the narrator, to adopt Ahab’s crazy passion to revenge himself on the dumb beast that had maimed him; but that is a literary artifice which he had to make use of, first, because there was Starbuck already there to represent common sense, and second, because he needed someone to share, and to an extent sympathise with, Ahab’s tenacious purpose, and so induce the reader to accept it as not quite unreasonable. Now, the ‘empty malice’ of which Professor Mumford speaks consists in Moby Dick defending himself when he is attacked.

‘Cet animal est très méchant,
Quand on l’attaque, il se défend.’

Why should the White Whale not represent goodness rather than evil? Splendid in beauty, vast in size, great in strength, he swims the seas in freedom. Ahab, with his insane pride, is pitiless, harsh, cruel and vindictive; he is evil; and when the final encounter comes and Ahab with his crew of ‘mongrel renegades, castaways and cannibals’ is destroyed, and the White Whale, imperturbable, justice having been done, goes his mysterious way, evil has been vanquished and good at last triumphed. This seems to me as plausible an interpretation as any other; for let us not forget that Typee is a glorification of the noble savage, uncorrupted by the vices of civilisation, and that Melville looked upon the natural man as good.

Fortunately Moby Dick may be read, and read with intense interest, without a thought of what allegorical or symbolic significance it may or may not have. I cannot repeat too often that a novel is not to be read for instruction or edification, but for intelligent enjoyment, and if you find you cannot get this from it you had far better not read it at all. But it must be admitted that Melville seems to have done his best to hinder his readers’ enjoyment. He was writing a strange, original and thrilling story, but a perfectly straightforward one. The romantic beginning is admirable. Your interest is aroused and held. The characters, as they are introduced one by one, are clearly presented, alive and plausible. The tension rises and, with the acceleration of the action, your excitement increases. The climax is intensely dramatic. It is hard to understand why Melville should have deliberately sacrificed the grip he had got on his readers by pausing here and there to write chapters dealing with the natural history of the whale, its size, skeleton, amours and so forth. It is as senseless, on the face of it, as it would be for a man telling a story over the dinner table to stop now and then to tell you the etymological meaning of some word he had used. Montgomery Belgion, in a judicious introduction to an edition of Moby Dick, has supposed that since it is a tale of pursuit, and the end of a pursuit must be perpetually delayed, Melville wrote these chapters merely to do so. I cannot believe that. Had he had any such purpose, during the three years he spent in the Pacific he must surely have witnessed incidents, or been told tales, that he could have woven into his narrative more fitly to effect it. I myself think that Melville wrote these chapters for the simple reason that, like many another self-educated man, he attached an exaggerated importance to the knowledge he had so painfully acquired and could not resist the temptation to parade it, just as in his earlier writings he ‘called up Burton, Shakespeare, Byron, Milton, Coleridge and Chesterfield, as well as Prometheus and Cinderella, Mahomet and Cleopatra, Madonna and Houris, Medici and Mussulman, to strew carelessly across his pages’.

For my part, I can read most of these chapters with interest, but it cannot be denied that they are digressions which sadly impair the tension. Melville lacked what the French call l’esprit de suite, and it would be stupid to assert that the novel is well-constructed. But if he composed it in the way he did, it is because that is how he wanted it. You must take it or leave it. He knew very well that Moby Dick would not please. He was of an obstinate temper, and it may be that the neglect of the public, the savage onslaught of the critics, and the lack of understanding in those nearest to him only confirmed him in his determination to write exactly as he chose. You must put up with his vagaries, his faulty taste, his ponderous playfulness, his errors of construction, for the sake of his excellencies, the frequent splendour of his language, his vivid and thrilling descriptions of action, his delicate sense of beauty and the tragic power of his ‘mystic’ ponderings which, perhaps because he was somewhat muddle-headed, with no striking gift for ratiocination, for just that reason are emotionally impressive. But, of course, it is the sinister and gigantic figure of Captain Ahab that pervades the book and gives it its unique force. You must go to the Greek dramatists for anything like that sense of doom with which everything you are told about him fills you, and to Shakespeare to find beings of such terrible power. It is because Herman Melville created him that, notwithstanding any reservation one may make, Moby Dick is a great book.

I have said, and said again, that in order to get a real insight into a great novel you must know what there is to be known about the man who wrote it. I have an idea that in the case of Melville something like the contrary obtains. When one reads, and re-reads, Moby Dick, it seems to me that one gets a more convincing, a more definite, impression of the man than from anything one may learn of his life and circumstances; an impression of a man endowed by nature with a great gift blighted by an evil genius, so that, like the agave, no sooner had it put forth its splendid blooming than it withered; a moody, unhappy man tormented by instincts he shrank from with horror; a man conscious that the virtue had gone out of him, and embittered by failure and poverty; a man of heart craving for friendship, only to find that friendship too was vanity. Such, as I see him, was Herman Melville, a man whom one can only regard with deep compassion.

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