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Melville’s Second Act


On August 1, 1860, Herman Melville’s forty-first birthday, he was aboard the clipper ship Meteor, captained by his younger brother Thomas, as it made the hazardous passage around Cape Horn bound for San Francisco. A gale arose that day and lasted, as Melville noted in his diary, for three brutal days of “snow, rain, hail, sleet, mist, fog, squalls, head-winds, refractory stove, smoky cabin, drunken ship &c &c &c.” A week later, as strong winds continued unabated, a young sailor from Nantucket was blown from the rigging to the deck and was killed instantly. After the funeral service, presided over by Tom, the body was tipped into the ocean and the blood washed from the deck. “All goes on as usual,” Melville reported, “as if nothing had happened—as if I did not know that death is indeed the King of Terrors.”

If the Meteor had suffered the fate of the Pequod, with no Ishmael left to tell the tale, Melville’s strange, bifurcated career would look quite different to us. Shorn of its three concluding decades, with their autumnal outpouring of poetry and verse-related prose, we might now divide Melville’s precocious pre-1860 writings into three satisfying phases. First would come the exotic, lightly fictionalized adventure yarns Typee (1846), published when he was twenty-six, and its sequel, Omoo (1847), vivid accounts of life among native Pacific islanders, closely based on Melville’s own experiences after abandoning a whaling ship in the Marquesas in 1842.

These books, Melville’s only popular successes, are remarkable both for their sympathetic openness to local customs, including sexual practices, and for their cold-eyed disdain for the work of Christian missionaries. “How often is the term ‘savages’ incorrectly applied!” he wrote in Typee.

None really deserving of it were ever yet discovered by voyagers or by travellers. They have discovered heathens and barbarians, whom by horrible cruelties they have exasperated into savages.

Melville’s middle, more philosophical phase would encompass the meditative and rambling Mardi (1849), with its imaginary South Sea islands; the hurriedly yet sturdily written White-Jacket (1850), based on his return journey from the Pacific aboard an American naval frigate; and the magnificent Moby-Dick (1851), in many readers’ judgment the greatest of all American novels. Ahab’s obsessive quest for vengeance on the white whale is known even to whose who have never read the novel, as is the name of poor Starbuck, the first mate who naively imagines that the Pequod is in the oil business. Melville made room in the novel for many things besides his epic plot—brilliant baroque essays reminiscent of Sir Thomas Browne on such topics as “the whiteness of the whale,” with its bracing conclusion that “though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.”1

Late Melville” would consist of the bizarre urban romance Pierre (1852), with its uneasy theme of incest, and the equally bizarre picaresque tale of Mississippi riverboat life, The Confidence-Man (1857), both commercial disasters, along with the stunning magazine stories published as The Piazza Tales (1856). Two of these, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” are as fine as anything Melville ever wrote. Both stories are filled with premonitions of the King of Terrors, with the reluctant copyist Bartleby—his repeated “I prefer not to” as haunting as Poe’s refrain of “Nevermore”—passing his final days in the Tombs, and Benito Cereno, spectral in the wake of a murderous slave rebellion aboard his ship, following his leader to an early grave.

In mid-October 1860, the Meteor sailed safely into San Francisco Bay for a scheduled stop before resuming its projected journey around the world. It was at this point, however, that something happened—nothing quite as dramatic as a shipwreck, but decisive nonetheless—to interrupt the voyage, and to give a different direction to Melville’s life. Two new books, by Hershel Parker and Robert Milder, seek to make sense of the second part of Melville’s career. Each in its own way tries to dispel the notion, widespread in American culture, that Melville exemplifies F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that “there are no second acts in American lives.”2 While Parker and Milder divide Melville’s “two lives” at slightly different points, each is convinced that Melville’s fifty-year career has an overarching consistency —“an arch between two lives,” in Milder’s phrase—that can be understood only by close attention to the writings and the life.


For Hershel Parker, the voyage of the Meteor is the decisive moment. Parker, a respected editor of Melville’s work and author of a two-volume biography, notes that Melville had taken a “small (or perhaps a middling large) library of great poetry” aboard the Meteor, “with an emphasis on the epic or very long poem.” He has found evidence that Melville expected to see in San Francisco a freshly printed copy of a book of his poems, the manuscript of which he had entrusted to friends and family before his departure. Whatever plans Melville had in mind for himself —a published book of short poems to be followed, in Parker’s view, by a work of epic dimension—were apparently dashed in San Francisco. For, according to Parker,

at the Harbormaster’s there was no book-sized package for him… and the letters awaiting him confirmed that his poems had not been published. Tom also received startling news at the Harbormaster’s—that he was to return around the Horn after an indefinite wait in San Francisco. His self-image as a published poet shattered, Melville immediately decided to go home—by ship to the isthmus, then across on the Panama Railroad to another ship.

Some conjecture is evident here, since two reasons are given for the cancellation of the journey, when one would have sufficed. One assumes that Melville’s aborted trip could be explained by Tom’s “startling news” alone—that he was to backtrack around the Horn. If the voyage of the Meteor around the world was canceled, where else was Melville supposed to go but home, to his wife and children in western Massachusetts? If Melville was indeed “shattered” and “humiliated” by the rejection of his poems, as Parker believes, it makes his persistence as a poet even more remarkable. His career as a prose writer was in disarray. He had published two disastrously unsuccessful novels, and Parker has found traces of a third, titled “The Isle of the Cross,” which was apparently rejected by publishers. With no clear future as a novelist or poet, he soldiered on. As Parker notes, poetry “was now what he did.”

Parker’s main argument in Melville: The Making of the Poet is that there is no radical break from writing novels to writing poetry in Melville’s career. Melville was, in Parker’s view, a poet from the start even if, to paraphrase the nursery rhyme, he didn’t know it. Parker is convinced that it was partly the critical response to Melville’s novels that made him believe he was a poet. An exuberant reviewer in New Orleans called Mardi

a regular Mardi-gras of a novel, to judge by the richness of its prose. Prose! It is a poem; and you can pencil out of its pages blank verse enough to set up an hundred newspaper poets, for the balls of bowling critics to roll at.

A British reviewer wrote of Moby-Dick, “Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber?” If “critics prepared Melville to think of himself as a poet,” as Parker claims, Melville had the means at hand to write verse instead of prose. Parker painstakingly documents how Melville had grown up as a “hearer and reciter of poetry,” and how poetry was “omnipresent” in American society—in the schools, in the home, and in newspapers and magazines.

Throughout Melville: The Making of the Poet, Parker’s main target is the “still-prevalent misconception that after the failure of his career as a prose writer Melville took up versifying as a harmless private hobby.” The evidence he marshals for the central place of poetry in Melville’s career is primarily biographical: the depth of Melville’s reading of poetry, the amount of poetry he memorized and wrote, and so on. But he deliberately advances no claims about the quality of Melville’s poetry, only that it was “obsessively important” to him. In an odd, brief epilogue, however, he writes that Clarel is the “greatest long poem in American literature” and that he ranks “many of [Melville’s] short poems with great poems by Whitman and Dickinson, his only equals among American poets of the nineteenth century.” But Parker’s rankings remain unsupported by any analysis: “Seeing that the making of Melville the poet was territory almost unexplored, I set myself to chart the terrain, not to hold a pointer to its various beauties.”


Robert Milder, in Exiled Royalties, is more interested in the various beauties. Like Parker, he finds an overall consistency to Melville’s career, early and late, and he shares Parker’s high estimate of Melville’s poetry, and of Clarel in particular. Like Parker, Milder is drawn to biographical explanations for shifts in Melville’s work, though he is anxious to define something he calls “authorial criticism” lest he be confused with mere biographers. Authorial criticism, he writes,

is concerned with how and why particular texts come into being from the pressures of personal and collective experience and how on some level they serve the writer as stylized resolutions of what he or she could not resolve in life.

But the two critics differ sharply in their view of what gives unity to Melville’s work. For Parker, the unifying factor is “poetry.” Randall Jarrell once wrote that “Melville is a great poet only in the prose of Moby Dick“; Parker thinks he was a great poet throughout his career. For Milder, by contrast, what gives coherence and depth to Melville’s work is an overall philosophical attitude, which he characterizes as a passionate and questing agnosticism that anticipates twentieth-century existentialism. Melville’s three and a half years in the Pacific during the early 1840s were decisive for his entire career, according to Milder:

Ontologically, his experience of the wonder and terror of the sea, above all of its sublime indifference, bred in him an existential naturalism that would ripen through impression into idea under the stimulus of his subsequent reading and thinking.

Milder is drawn to characters who express this view, such as Ishmael in Moby-Dick. “Like Camus’s absurdist hero,” he writes, “Ishmael lives with and from a lucid awareness of the ‘divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints.’”

The voyage of the Meteor, so momentous for Parker, barely merits a passing mention from Milder, who is more interested in Melville’s evolution as a thinker than in his career as a poet. Milder places the divide in Melville’s life four or five years earlier, during another voyage, to England and the Holy Land, embarked on to restore Melville’s health. Hawthorne, whom Melville visited in Liverpool on the first leg of the journey, found him “much overshadowed since I saw him last.” The two friends, renewing a relationship broken off during the early 1850s, took a long walk along the Irish Sea, Hawthorne noted in his diary, and stopped to smoke a cigar:

  1. 1

    Contemporary readers may be reminded of the essayistic novels of W.G. Sebald, who shared Melville’s love for Browne’s strange and rambling art. See especially The Rings of Saturn, translated by Michael Hulse (New Directions, 1998).

  2. 2

    See for example Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work (Knopf, 2005), p. 288: “Having scaled the heights with Moby-Dick, he slipped back (or so goes the standard account) and, after several failed attempts to regain his footing, fell into a long silence. This version of his career has become so well known that when John Updike’s fictional author Henry Bech wins the ‘Melville Medal, awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence,’ Updike had no reason to doubt that readers would get the joke.”

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