Herman Melville
Herman Melville; drawing by David Levine


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:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.

Affection and exasperation fuse in this well-known account of two friends going their separate ways. Predictably, Melville found nothing in the Holy Land to put his doubts to rest, though he did find suggestively barren landscapes that would eventually make their way into his poetry, and into Clarel in particular.


Melville’s first big subject for poetry, after his return to Pittsfield in 1860, was the Civil War. The short poems eventually collected in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, published in 1866, commemorate battles and celebrate individual soldiers. They are remarkable for the variety of poetic forms on display and for Melville’s evenhanded treatment of North and South. Politically, Melville was a Northern Democrat, opposed both to slavery and to war as a means to end it. In recording primarily the grievous injuries suffered by the boys sent to fight for adult quarrels, his best poems anticipate the antiheroic posture of British poets of World War I such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. “All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys,” he wrote in “The March into Virginia.”

In “The College Colonel,” Melville described in simple, moving words, with a simile drawn from his own shipboard experience, the return of a wounded officer with his troops:

He rides at their head;

A crutch by his saddle just slants in view,

One slung arm is in splints, you see,

Yet he guides his strong steed—how coldly too.

He brings his regiment home—

Not as they filed two years before,

But a remnant half-tattered, and battered, and worn,

Like castaway sailors, who—stunned

By the surf’s loud roar

Their mates dragged back and seen no more—

Again and again breast the surge,

And at last crawl, spent, to shore.

Like many other critics before him, Milder finds Battle-Pieces “uneven,” and shifts our attention from individual poems to the general argument of the book. “Its achievement,” he writes, “lies in the artfulness of design” that “patterns his readers’ shared experience of the war into national myth” and “his own special vision of democracy.” Milder writes well about Melville’s downbeat assessment of the United States at the dawn of the Gilded Age; the dome of the unfinished Capitol represented for him the dangers of overweening national confidence and ambition:

Power unanointed may come—

Dominion (unsought by the free)

And the Iron Dome,

Stronger for stress and strain,

Fling her huge shadow athwart the main;

But the Founders’ dream shall flee.

I wish that Milder had specified where he found the poems uneven. Andrew Delbanco, noting outworn poetic diction (“his strong steed”) and reached-for rhymes, wrote that all the poems in Battle-Pieces have “a certain hampered carefulness.” It is true that if one’s standard is Tennyson or even Whitman, Melville’s poetry can seem hampered, clotted, tongue-tied. But a certain hampered unevenness of expression was deliberate in Battle-Pieces. Like Wilfred Owen, Melville wanted to banish sweetness from the aspect of war, preferring a harsh music of clashing consonants and jarring rhymes. His spokesman for national reconciliation was Robert E. Lee, tongue-tied before the “looming Dome” of the Capitol: “How shall I speak?/Thoughts knot with thoughts, and utterance check.”

The practice of modern war itself had progressed, in Melville’s view, from the movements of wooden ships and cavalry charges to the mechanical “clinch” of the ironclads. In Battle-Pieces he paired a lyrical elegy for the ghostly Temeraire (“Towering afar in parting light/The fleets like Albion’s forelands shine”) with his superb “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight”:

War shall yet be, and to the end;

But war-paint shows the streaks of weather;

War yet shall be, but warriors

Are now but operatives; War’s made

Less grand than Peace,

And a singe runs through lace and feather.


Midway through the war, Melville traded his Pittsfield farm for his brother Allan’s townhouse on East 26th Street in New York City, and late in 1866, the same year that Battle-Pieces was published, he was appointed a deputy inspector of customs at the port of New York. His Bartleby-like employment, which he held for twenty monotonous years, was to check the cargo of ships docked in the harbor against their written manifests. His mood darkened during these years. In 1867, there was some sort of crisis in the household. Melville’s wife’s family, convinced that Melville was insane, explored the possibility of a legal separation. On September 11, their troubled son Malcolm, perhaps partly in response to domestic tensions, killed himself in an upstairs room with a pistol.

In what time remained after his long hours at the Custom House, Melville toiled over Clarel, which he described as “a metrical affair, a pilgrimage or what not, of several thousand lines, eminently adapted for unpopularity.” He spent a decade on the poem, and had it published, at his uncle’s expense, in an edition of three hundred copies in time for the American centennial of 1876. Its appearance went unnoticed; two thirds of the first printing was eventually pulped. And yet, Clarel is a vivid verse-novel of epic proportions, with lively, sharply delineated characters and some of the darkest poetry ever written by an American. That poetry, mainly in flexible four-beat lines, is not to everyone’s taste. “The poem is formidable and has a reputation for dryness,” Milder observes, “based as much on its stony, elliptical style as on its philosophical density.”

The title character is a young American student of theology who, like Melville himself, travels to the Middle East to try to renew his wavering religious faith. There Clarel meets an array of fellow pilgrims whose various views on religion and civilization are aired, in conversation and monologue, among striking descriptions of desert landscapes—“Sands immense/Impart the oceanic sense”—and mountains. Clarel is strongly drawn to the reticent Vine, often taken to be a portrait of Hawthorne and another of Melville’s tongue-tied characters: “Vine’s manner shy/A clog, a hindrance might imply.” Vine rebuffs Clarel’s “fonder dream of love/In man toward man.”

He gets a warmer welcome from the kindly Rolfe, an American world-traveler with tolerant views expressed with eloquent reassurance:

Yea, long as children feel affright

In darkness, men shall fear a God;

And long as daisies yield delight

Shall see His footprints in the sod.

For Milder, Rolfe is the hero of the poem, and the mouthpiece for a variety of existentialism that recalls Ishmael:

The achievement of Rolfe is not simply to strike a mean between earnestness and geniality. His life is an effort…to preserve an agnosticism that burns with the will to know while resisting temptations to closure that would slight the facts of suffering and evil (liberal meliorism), demean human nature (scientific materialism), or abridge intellectual sovereignty (Roman orthodoxy).

But Melville is writing a poem, not an elaboration of a single religious attitude, however heroically agnostic. What sets the poem apart is how persuasive all the speakers are, and especially, to my ear, the exhilaratingly gloomy views of Ungar.3 Melville’s favorite Shakespeare characters, as Charles Olson pointed out in Call Me Ishmael, were prophets of disappointment and doom like Timon and Lear.4 Ungar, a part-Indian ex-officer of the Confederacy who has come to the Middle East as a mercenary, is given some of the most energetic speeches in the poem. He despises liberal democracy and the ironclad machinery of the state:

Myriads playing pygmy parts—

Debased into equality:

In glut of all material arts

A civic barbarism may be:

Man disennobled—brutalized

By popular science—Atheized

Into a smatterer——


Melville had one more “act,” the unfinished novella Billy Budd, his most explicit working out of the fate of a tongue-tied hero. It is the tale of a wrongly accused “handsome sailor” who kills his accuser with a single blow when his stutter—the “one thing amiss in him”—prevents a verbal self-defense. “Could I have used my tongue,” Billy says of the braggart and bullying Claggart, “I would not have struck him.” Hershel Parker points out that Billy Budd began as the prose headnote for a verse ballad called “Billy in the Darbies,” but the prose, probably inspired in part by Malcolm’s death, eventually overwhelmed the verse. Melville had constructed a similar fusion of verse and prose in the moving “John Marr,” a portrait of a sailor-turned-farmer (as Melville viewed himself) marooned in the American heartland, and “quite cut off, except from such news as might be conveyed over the grassy billows by the last arrived prairie schooner.”

Looking over these remarkable productions of Melville’s last years, one is struck by their variety of form, as the old master experiments with hybrids of various kinds, including new ways to combine word and image. Melville was a passionate visitor of art museums and an avid collector of prints, especially late in life, when his wife’s inheritance finally freed him from his job at the Custom House and he could brood alone, as he preferred, on the things he cared about most deeply. He “had outlived,” as Milder notes, “nearly all of his friends, and his times, but not his longstanding obsessions.” Many of his poems, from Battle-Pieces onward, are acute responses to a range of visual materials, from photographs of war to Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.

The influence has gone in two directions, for if Melville drew sustenance from art, later artists have drawn provocation from Melville. This was particularly true of the Abstract Expressionist generation, whose search for a distinctive American idiom in painting coincided with the rediscovery of Melville circa 1950, when three extraordinary books—Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, Jay Leyda’s documentary trove The Melville Log, and Newton Arvin’s biography5 —launched the modern reassessment of Melville. For painters like Jackson Pollock, who had a dog called Ahab, Moby-Dick seemed to anticipate the heroic scale of their own ambitious art. Robert Motherwell once remarked that for his generation Moby-Dick was “one of the few acceptable legacies of the American past.”6

If the Abstract Expressionist painters found confirmation in Melville for their own heroic visions, one may ask if they missed Melville’s ironic undertone. The bravura chapter on “The Whiteness of the Whale” has an obvious appeal for painters, and so does the passage on the “power of blackness” in Melville’s famous essay on “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” But the Melville we encounter in these new books by Parker and Milder is a writer less confident of American promise, more given to uncertainty and antiheroic ambiguity. Melville’s evocation of shades of gray at the start of “Benito Cereno,” as the Bachelor’s Delight sails warily up the coast of South America, following the hesitant itinerary of the Meteor, is more redolent of Jasper Johns’s cool ironies than of Pollock’s or Rothko’s grandiose sublimity:

The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything gray. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mould. The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.

This Issue

June 26, 2008