Herman Melville's Moby Dick: A Survival Guide to the Twenty First Century

Who is Hermam Melville?

Herman Melville, who was born in 1819 and died in 1891 was an American writer who produced a series of novels, short stories and poems.

Melville was born into a significant American family: two of his grandfathers were heroes of the American Revolution. The young Herman lived in prosperity until his father's business failed and his father died in 1832, when Herman was thirteen.

In 1839, Melville joined a merchant ship sailing from New York to Liverpool, and in January 1841 set off with a whaling ship headed to the South Pacific, and then had travelled through the South Pacific and South America on whaling boats, including involvement in a mutiny, and in the merchant navy.

After two successful partly auto-biographical novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) based on his adventures in the South Pacific, Melville's work was generally not well received in his own time. Mardi (1849) was a philopshical adventure set in the South Seas. Reburn (1849) fictionalised Melville's trip to Liverpool in 1839. Moby Dick (1852) is generally considered his masterpiece, but was not financially successful. After Moby Dick came the psychologically messy domestic drama Pierre (1852) and the Confidence Man (1857). From here, Melville turned to poetry, writing Battle Pieces (1865), centred on the American Civil War, and Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876).



Everything we say and write is loaded with assumptions

I wrote this brief section on Melville's life yesterday, assemblng it from a mixture of memory and the Wikipedia article on Melville in the references. Short and apparently innocent as it is, what strikes me about it today is how loaded with assumptions and implicit meanings it is. It defines Melville as a writer, and structures his life around his publications. Those publication dates are what places the work in time - the point at which ideas and stories that may have been brewing in the Melville mind for years become part of the public and commercial entity that is the published work. And underlying that succession of dates is a set of ideas that has become part of the Melville mythology: born into a famous American family, producing a great American novel, then creative decline and death in relative anonymity. Now that may be a helpful map to understand Melville, but it is just a map. I have no direct experience of Melville, and I am building my own stories based largely on the indirect experiences of others. My brief Melville story has no real conception of the domestic and private life of the man - what were his thoughts when out walking? how did he sleep? did he fear death? I can only speculate.

And this Melville myth I'm drawing on was always a construction, built partly for example on the Melville revival in the 1920s, which was also in part an element in a political enterprise wider to construct an American literature and culture and secure its figureheads.

To quote Susan Howe:

I am drawn toward the disciplines of history and literary criticism but in the dawning distance a dark wall of rule supports the structure of every letter, record, transcript: every proof of authority and power

And a brief contextual section on a writer is subject to just the same "dark wall of rule". Howe continues:

I know records are compiled by winners, and scholarship is in collusion with Civil Government. I know this and go on searching for love's unfolding through all the paper in all the libraries I come to. (Susan Howe, The Birth Mark)

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