Melville a Poet on Conflict, Too; but Such Sea Stories as 'Moby Dick' His Greatest Achievements

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 16, 2005 | Go to article overview

Melville a Poet on Conflict, Too; but Such Sea Stories as 'Moby Dick' His Greatest Achievements


Byline: Peter Cliffe, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Herman Melville played no part in the war, either as a civilian or a soldier, but shortly after it ended, he wrote a book of poems devoted entirely to Civil War incidents or personalities. They were the work of a highly individual man whose life had followed an erratic course.

Born in New York City on Aug. 1, 1819, of Dutch and Scottish descent, he was the third of eight children. His mother was the former Maria Gansevoort; his father, Allan, a fur and felt importer who went bankrupt in 1830 and died two years later. The family then relocated to Albany, where Herman attended the Classic School.

Melville became incurably restless. Having been a bank clerk and a schoolteacher, he then signed on as cabin boy, sailing in 1839 aboard a vessel bound for Liverpool, England. The sea was to influence both his life and his artistic creativity.

Despite poor eyesight, he became a writer. His voyage to Liverpool inspired his novel "Redburn" (1849), which did well. His books seem either to have been highly successful or total failures.

In January 1841, he left Fairhaven, Mass., on the Acushnet, a whaler going to the South Seas, but he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands, where he spent some weeks with friendly cannibals. One hopes he confined himself to a vegetarian diet.

He was rescued by another whaler, the Lucy Ann out of Australia, but the ungrateful Melville took part in a mutiny and was dumped in Tahiti along with other troublemakers. His exploits and misdeeds inspired his novels "Typee" (1846) and "Omoo" (1847). In 1844, having worked his passage as a seaman aboard the ship United States, he finally came home.

Already earning good money from his books, he became a full-time writer and in 1847 married Elizabeth Shaw. After living initially in New York, they purchased Arrowhead Farm outside Pittsfield, Mass. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a near neighbor. The two men became good friends, and Hawthorne encouraged Melville to write "Moby Dick." This strange but compelling novel appeared in 1851, at first meeting an unenthusiastic reception.

After a trip to Europe in 1856, Melville wrote "The Confidence Man" (1857), the last novel to be published in his lifetime. He toured as a lecturer before spending 35 years working for the New York Customs House. He had not entirely abandoned writing, however. "Clarel" (1876), "John Marr" (1888) and "Timoleon" (1891) were books of verse, but who turns to them now?

"Piazza Tales" (1856) was a collection of well-written short stories, and "Billy Budd" has been described as "a brilliant novelette." Completed in April 1891, it was not published until 1924, when it was recognized as a superb tragedy of the sea. In 1950, the famous English composer Benjamin Britten transformed it into an acclaimed opera.

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