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.”

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 …

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