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Call me Herman

I think this might have also happened last year during Summer of Classics, while I was reading Bartleby the Scrivener, but having just started Billy Budd yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to see this birthday announcement in my inbox today:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote "Call me Ishmael," one of the most famous first lines in literature: Herman Melville, born in New York City, in 1819. Melville's father was a successful import merchant who told his eight children adventure stories of sailing and distant places. But his father died when Melville was young, and from the age of 12, he worked to support himself as a clerk, farmhand, and teacher. When he was 20, he worked as a cabin boy on a ship that went to Liverpool and back, the first of his many voyages. In 1841, he joined the crew of the whaler Acushnet, which sailed around Cape Horn and through the South Pacific. He spent time as a clerk in Honolulu, and for a while he lived with the Typee people of the Marquesas Islands, a tribe of cannibals who treated Melville well. Inspired by his adventures at sea, Melville returned to his mother's house in New York and settled down to write about his travels. The result was his novel Typee (1946). It was rejected by a Boston publisher, so Melville published it in London, where it became an immediate best seller. He wrote a sequel called Omoo (1847), which was also a big success. But then Melville decided to write for himself instead of to please his readers, so his third book, Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), was more psychological, less romantic, and readers were disappointed. He continued to write and publish, but he was never as popular again.

Melville got married and had four children, and the family bought a farm in Massachusetts, where Melville became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville was working on Moby-Dick, his story of Captain Ahab's obsessive hunt for the great white whale, and Hawthorne encouraged him to make the novel an allegory, not just an account of whaling.

Melville became consumed with writing Moby-Dick. He would work all day without eating until evening, and he would bellow across the house, "Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand!" He was elated when he finished his novel (published in 1851) and considered it his greatest work yet. He wrote to Hawthorne, "I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb." But it was a flop. Readers didn't like it. His American publisher only printed 3,000 copies, and most of those never even sold; in 1853, a warehouse fire destroyed the plates and the unsold books, and the publisher refused to reset the book or compensate Melville.

Melville wrote two more novels just to make money, and he said the experience was like "sawing wood," but he still couldn't make enough to live on. His work became darker and more psychological, and it sold even fewer copies, and Melville began to get depressed. His last major work was The Confidence Man (1857), a biting satire of American life. He wrote poetry but couldn't find a publisher, so he had to publish it himself. He moved to New York and got a job as a customs inspector on the New York docks. The manuscript of his final work, Billy Budd, was found in his desk after he died. At the time of his death, Melville had been almost completely forgotten, and The New York Times called him "Henry Melville" in his obituary. Moby-Dick is now considered one of the great American novels.

In Moby-Dick, he wrote, "Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air."

He said, "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation."

And, "Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."

Incidentally, though Melville is anything but a humorous writer, I was amused by this wry aside in Billy Budd, in which the author deftly pre-empts any objection to a forthcoming digression from his narrative:

In this matter of writing, resolve as one may to keep to the main road, some by-paths have an enticement not readily to be withstood. I am going to err into such a by-path. If the reader will keep me company I shall be glad. At the least we can promise ourselves that pleasure which is wickedly said to be in sinning, for a literary sin the divergence will be.


August 1, 2008 in Books | Permalink


I actually think there's a lot of humor in Moby Dick. Seriously.

Posted by: John McNally at Aug 4, 2008 1:25:57 AM

Hawthorne, on the other hand: Not funny.

Posted by: John McNally at Aug 4, 2008 1:27:33 AM

I think I'm just going to have to take your word on that, John, because after slogging through Billy Budd I doubt if I'll ever read Moby-Dick. I have the strong suspicion that Moby-Dick would be just as difficult a read, plus ten times as long.

Posted by: Pete at Aug 6, 2008 11:44:43 AM

That makes me sad, Pete. Moby-Dick is worth it, and I second John. Hawthorne is a boring Puritan and Melville is much under-appreciated for his humor. It also shows how wrong the "market" often is--Hawthorne was the literary star while Melville died the unknown.

Posted by: S. Craig at Aug 7, 2008 4:59:19 PM