Essay, Research Paper: Herman Melville

Famous People

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Melville, Herman (1819-91), American novelist, a major literary figure whose
exploration of psychological and metaphysical themes foreshadowed 20th-century
literary concerns but whose works remained in obscurity until the 1920s, when
his genius was finally recognized. Melville was born August 1, 1819, in New York
City, into a family that had declined in the world. The Gansevoorts were solid,
stable, eminent, prosperous people; the (Herman's Father's side) Melvilles were
somewhat less successful materially, possessing an unpredictable. erratic,
mercurial strain. (Edinger 6). This difference between the Melville's and
Gansevoorts was the beginning of the trouble for the Melville family. Herman's
mother tried to work her way up the social ladder by moving into bigger and
better homes. While borrowing money from the bank, her husband was spending more
than he was earning. It is my conclusion that Maria Melville never committed
herself emotionally to her husband, but remained primarily attached to the well
off Gansevoort family. (Humford 23) Allan Melville was also attached financially
to the Gansevoorts for support. There is a lot of evidence concerning Melville's
relation to his mother Maria Melville. Apparently the older son Gansevoort who
carried the mother's maiden name was distinctly her favorite. (Edinger 7) This
was a sense of alienation the Herman Melville felt from his mother. This was one
of the first symbolists to the Biblical Ishamel. In 1837 he shipped to Liverpool
as a cabin boy. Upon returning to the U.S. he taught school and then sailed for
the South Seas in 1841 on the whaler Acushnet. After an 18 month voyage he
deserted the ship in the Marquesas Islands and with a companion lived for a
month among the natives, who were cannibals. He escaped aboard an Australian
trader, leaving it at Papeete, Tahiti, where he was imprisoned temporarily. He
worked as a field laborer and then shipped to Honolulu, Hawaii, where in 1843 he
enlisted as a seaman on the U.S. Navy frigate United States. After his discharge
in 1844 he began to create novels out of his experiences and to take part in the
literary life of Boston and New York City. Melville's first five novels all
achieved quick popularity. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Omoo, a
Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), and Mardi (1849) were romances
of the South Sea islands. Redburn, His First Voyage (1849) was based on his own
first trip to sea, and White-Jacket, or the World in a Man-of-War (1850)
fictionalized his experiences in the navy. In 1850 Melville moved to a farm near
Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he became an intimate friend of Nathaniel
Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated his masterpiece Moby-Dick; or The White Whale
(1851). The central theme of the novel is the conflict between Captain Ahab,
master of the whaler Pequod, and Moby-Dick, a great white whale that once tore
off one of Ahab's legs at the knee. Ahab is dedicated to revenge; he drives
himself and his crew, which includes Ishmael, narrator of the story, over the
seas in a desperate search for his enemy. The body of the book is written in a
wholly original, powerful narrative style, which, in certain sections of the
work, Melville varied with great success. The most impressive of these sections
are the rhetorically magnificent sermon delivered before sailing and the
soliloquies of the mates; lengthy flats, passages conveying nonnarrative
material, usually of a technical nature, such as the chapter about whales; and
the more purely ornamental passages, such as the tale of the Tally-Ho, which can
stand by themselves as short stories of merit. The work is invested with
Ishmael's sense of profound wonder at his story, but nonetheless conveys full
awareness that Ahab's quest can have but one end. And so it proves to be: Moby-Dick
destroys the Pequod and all its crew save Ishmael. There is a certain streak of
the supernatural being projected in the writings of Melville, as is amply
obvious in Moby Dick. The story revolves around the idea of an awesome sea
mammal, which drives the passions of revenge in one man and forces him to pursue
a course of action which leads ultimately to his death as well as the deaths of
his companions. There is a great deal of imagination involved in these stories
and the creativity is highly apparent. There is an expression of belief in the
supernatural, as the author strives to create the image of a humongous beast in
the mind of the reader. There are no indications that Melville was in any way
averse to fame or to the pursuit of excellence in his work. Every author, when
writing a book, is hopeful of it's success and Melville was no less. The Piazza
Tales (1856) contain some of Melville's finest shorter works; particularly
notable are the powerful short stories Benito Cereno and Bartleby the Scrivener
and the ten descriptive sketches of the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, The
Encantadas. Bartleby's story is an allegory of withdrawal suggesting more than
one level of interpretation. Among them, Bartleby may be seen as a writer (like
Melville), who chooses no longer to write; or as a human walled off from society
by his employment on wall Street, by the walls of his building, by the barriers
of his office nook within the building, by the brick surface he faces out his
window, and by the walls of the prison where he dies. Bartleby's employer, the
narrator of the story, has several walls of his own to break out of. In his
final grasp at communication, the narrator invites the reading that Bartleby's
life, and the story that presents it, are like dead letters that will never
reach those that would profit from them. He leaves us with the words, "Ah
Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" In "Bartleby, the Scrivener", Melville
tries to relate to the reader and explain his declining situation. This story,
on an allegorical level represents Melville, his life, and what he wished his
reading audience would understand about him. This is probably what he wanted,
but readers, initially, see a melancholy story about the condition of humanity.
Whether or not Melville is an anti-transcendentalist is a question to be
pondered over. As such he is as focused on leaving an impression on his readers
as any other writer on the writing block. Therefore, I believe that Melville was
transcendental in many ways. He was a writer who portrayed his own persona
through his writings and thus he was a writer who had the power to be able to
express his own emotions and experiences through his characters. This he has
accomplished by writing stories, which had a depth, an essence of their own.
Melville was not o much concerned with the commercial success of his works, but
that was still a very high contributing factor to the motivation behind his
writings. Although he mainly drew on his personal experiences while formulating
the stories that he wrote, he greatly embellished them through his imagination
and creativity to create literary masterpieces out of them, which are
appreciated greatly today. Being a success meant a great deal to Melville and he
was always aware of the fact that his books were not very popular during his
lifetime. In fact Bartleby the Scrivener relates to this very fact through its
portrayal of a writer, and it is greatly reflective of Melville's own private
situation. He probably wished that his writing would be more popular among the
readers, although he professed his own demise with Bartleby's atrophy. The
expression of accepted failure was prevalent in Scrivener. Yet this did not make
Melville any less desirous of fame and popularity. He still strove to deliver
excellence in his works in any way possible. Every writer in history has had to
find a place for himself in the mind of his readers before reaching a level of
maturity and respect in this profession. The quality of work is judged solely on
the readers perception of the work and nothing else. Melville was desirous of
hitting the right cord with the readers and his audience. He wanted to be able
to capture the attention of his audience and leave an impact on their minds, so
that the tale would be remembered long after it had been read. With Moby Dick,
he used the powerful tool of imaginative fantasy to capture the attention of his
readers. The story incorporated the extraordinary, action, adventure, revenge,
suspense...in fact every ingredient necessary for commercial success. But it
didn't prove to be so. The book is appreciated not as a classic work and
Melville has received much more fame in the present time frame. In Scrivener, he
drew a picture of a man very similar to himself. A man sick of working, finally
declines rapidly to reach his demise. However, in Herman Melville's 'Benito
Cereno' reveals the author's disgust with Emersonian transcendentalism through
the self-delusions of the protagonist. Cereno personifies nature, seeing it as a
benevolent force that acts deliberately for the good of humanity. Melville makes
it apparent that such idealism offers no practical use in a world that is as
much evil as good, and will likely be a burden. Cereno is Melville's strongest
example of his suspicions for the American idealist. In this one case through
his expression of disgust towards the idealists and their idealism, he has
portrayed the image of a hard core idealist who is converted to a realist
through the experiences that he goes through. This also drew on his seafaring
days as experience and he struggled to bring across the death of the idealist
and the birth of the realist. But at the end of the day, whatever emotions he
possessed about the nature of idealism and idealistic thought, still form an
integral part of him. Whether or not the reader understands the general aura of
wanting to achieve something from his creations, yet Melville still strove to be
a commercial success and his aim for excellence in the field of writing
continued.

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