Herman Melville’s sixth novel, Moby-Dick (1851), is one of the most extraordinary novels ever composed. The story it tells is of classic simplicity: Captain Ahab sails on the Pequod in search of the white whale Moby-Dick, intent on avenging himself on the beast who has destroyed his leg and who now swims before him ‘as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel’.
Like Ahab’s own fixed purpose, Moby-Dick is relentless in its focus on Ahab and his quest for the whale; it is also an encyclopaedic agglomeration of notes on whales and whaling, boats and the ocean, geography, science, history, literature, religion, philosophy. As one contemporary reviewer commented: ‘Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber?’ Melville’s novel contains both.
Moby-Dick opens with the famous declaration ‘Call me Ishmael’, which introduces its unusual narrator. Ishmael goes on to tell us that ‘Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet … then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.’
The oceans of the 19th century were home to the Nantucket whaleships that roamed the seas in search of whales, like the Pequod on which Ishmael sails. Nineteenth-century life depended on whales – whale oil lit the streets and houses, it lubricated the machinery of industry, and whalebone was stitched into clothes, shaping the fashions of the age.
Melville’s novel captures the buccaneering spirit of the whale-men who sailed the seas, abandoning dry land, warm homes and family for creaking timbers, damp ships and fellow sailors. As Ishmael remarks: ‘There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy.’ Ishmael’s amused, wry perspective on the world is the basis of much of the novel’s humour, and is essential to its power, as is his loving friendship with the tattooed harpooner Queequeg. Their intimate, off-beat exchanges about whaling, religion and Queequeg’s Pacific island life provide a vital human counterpoint to the wild excesses of Ahab.
Captain Ahab is a creation of King Lear-esque proportions, and his extravagant madness prompts Melville to Shakespearean heights of language and rhythm: ‘They think me mad – Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!’ Ahab’s madness has been caused by Moby-Dick, following the destruction of his leg by the malicious whale: ‘Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock rounding in midwinter that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape; then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad.’
Even the boat Ahab captains is infected by his madness as it churns through the troubled seas: ‘The ivory-tusked Pequod sharply bowed to the blast, and gored the dark waves in her madness.’
Melville, the third child of Allan and Maria Melvill (the ‘e’ was added around 1832), was born in 1821 in New York City into an illustrious family whose Scottish and Dutch forebears were among the early settlers of New York. But following the death of Melville’s father the family’s fortunes waned. Melville, who had already started writing, briefly joined his eldest brother in their father’s felt and fur business until it went bankrupt. He then decided to find work on the Eyrie Canal, being built at the time, but this plan failed and in 1839 Melville went to sea.
In 1841 he sailed aboard the whaler Acushnet on a journey that was to shape his first two novels as well as provide rich material for Moby-Dick. While at sea, the Acushnet drew alongside a passing boat and the two crews mingled, whereupon Melville met a sailor named William Chase. William’s father, Owen Chase, had been the first mate on the whaleship Essex, which in 1820 had been sunk by a sperm whale with apparent malicious intent. William regaled the 21-year-old Melville with his father’s adventures and gave him his father’s book, The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, which had been published 20 years earlier. This true story, with its vengeful whale, was the seed of Moby-Dick.
When Melville returned to Boston in 1844, his family encouraged him to write his tales of seafaring adventure. His first two novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), were so successful that Melville quickly became one of America’s most celebrated writers. In 1847 he married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of the distinguished Chief Justice of Massachusetts, and they together they had four children.
In the spring of 1850, Melville read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and was mesmerised by the portentous darkness of Hawthorne’s haunted imagination. The two writers, who were neighbours in Pittsfield, met on a picnic in the summer of that same year and their rapport was immediate. Hawthorne was 46, Melville 31. Melville, for whom the connection was intense, began to write impassioned letters to Hawthorne, declaring in one that ‘Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.’
Inspired by Hawthorne and his reading of Shakespeare, especially King Lear, Melville transformed the whaling story he was working on – The Whale, based on Owen’s tale – into its final form and renamed it Moby-Dick. Written in 18 frenzied months, Moby-Dick was published when Melville was just 32. Melville immediately sent Hawthorne a copy, who praised it in a letter, to which Melville replied with the full force of his Biblical imagination:
‘A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb.’
Hawthorne found Melville’s intensity overwhelming and by 1852 the two writers had begun to drift apart. They met for the last time in Liverpool, England, in 1856, when Hawthorne was the US consul there and Melville visited him during his tour of Europe and the Levant.
Moby-Dick was published in London in three volumes in 1851 and a month later in America. Although there were some positive reviews, it brought Melville neither fame nor fortune, and following the failure of his next novel, Pierre, in 1852, Melville’s career as a novelist was effectively over. He was 33.
He published only two more novels in his lifetime, and turned instead to writing poetry. In 1866 he published his first volume of poems, on the Civil War. The same year he found a position as a customs inspector on the New York docks, which he held for nearly 10 years. Melville’s last novel, Billy Budd, was completed five months before his death of a heart attack in 1891.
Billy Budd wasn’t published until 1924, following the publication of Raymond Weaver’s book on Melville, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, which reinterpreted Melville for a new era. It seems the literary experimentation of writers such as James Joyce and TS Eliot was conducive to the reappraisal of Melville’s peculiar talent – for as Carl F Hovde notes, Moby-Dick ‘stood up to every scrutiny that modernism could bring’. He continued: ‘As always with the greatest works, the novel is so many-sided that over time it mirrors back the shifting concerns of those who read it, and that is the definition of a classic.’
Moby-Dick has since exerted a monumental influence over American literature, from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea (1952) to the detail of E Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News (1993) to Cormac McCarthy’s desert voyage in Blood Meridian (1985). It has also inspired the work of American visual artists in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as painter Jackson Pollock and multimedia artist Laurie Anderson.
Melville was writing at a time of festering conflict over abolition and slavery, which in 1861 exploded into civil war. When asked why black Americans don’t ‘show up’ in American novels of the 1840s and 50s, writer Toni Morrison replied: ‘Well, they do. They do show up. They’re everywhere.’ In Morrison’s view, the chances of getting ‘a truly complex human black person in an American book in the nineteenth century were minimal’, but Melville came close to dealing with black Americans: ‘Each one of the white men in Moby-Dick has a black brother. They’re paired together.’
In 1956, John Huston’s screen version of Moby-Dick was released, starring Gregory Peck as Ahab. Huston directed and co-wrote the screenplay with writer Ray Bradbury. Orson Welles played Father Mapple, whose famous sermon in the novel concludes: ‘I leave eternity to thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?’