The number of truly masterful American writers can probably be numbered on a single hand—James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and of course Herman Melville. Each of these authors achieved great success during their lifetimes and were mourned at their deaths—all except Melville. He died in his New York City home a century ago at the age of seventy-two in utter obscurity—his brilliant career and voluminous writings by then, long-forgotten.
A short obituary appearing the day afterward in the New York Press recalled, “Melville had once been one of the most popular writers in the United States,” but added, “The later years of his life had been so quiet that probably even his own generation has long thought him dead.”
Another paper in the city, the Daily Tribune, noted, “The deceased had won considerable fame as an author by the publication of a book entitled Typee, which was the account of his experience while a captive in the hands of the savages of the Marquesas Islands. This was his first and best work although he later wrote a number of other stories, which were published more for private than public circulation.”
The obituaries demonstrate one of the most remarkable ironies in the history of American letters—aside from some early renown as an adventure writer, Melville was a publishing failure. During the eleven short years of his literary activity, he was either misunderstood and miscast or castigated and ignored. Even so, some of the best fiction ever produced in the English language flowed from his pen—Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Redburn, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence Man, White-Jacket, and Omoo. By the time he had reached forty though, he had abandoned his writing in order to provide for his family.
It was not until some thirty years after his demise that academics rediscovered his genius. They marveled at the richness of his prose, the depth of his characterizations, the complexity of his symbiology, and the passion of his theology. Moby Dick in particular, was widely heralded as a genuine masterpiece, while several of his other works were made the subjects of serious critical acclaim. Soon Melville was deservedly enshrined in the pantheon of literary greatness.
The story Melville conceived as his magnum opus was published after he had attained his minor popularity as a writer of pulp thrillers. But he aspired to something far greater than merely an intrepid tale of sea adventure. He wanted to write great and enduring literature. Alas, that was hardly the kind of pap that publishers in the middle of the nineteenth century were looking for. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Undeterred, the big, brash, and boisterous book he wrote, Moby Dick, proved to be a multi-layered novel of expansive scope, subtle intrigue, and stunning exploits. Like much of his writing, the story was constructed as a kind of literary and theological puzzle. But this surprising and scintillating double-coded labyrinth—which apparently was intended to follow the thematic structure of a great Puritan sermon—never obstructed the pace or the sense of the story. Powerful scenic images and a rip-roaring series of illusions, cons, ploys, and deceptions gave the book an immediacy and a page-turning quality generally unknown in serious literary works. It was, in short, brilliantly conceived and passionately executed.
Born in 1819, the son of a struggling merchant, Melville had an adventurous youth—serving on whaling vessels and trading ships throughout the Pacific and across the Atlantic. His literary career, such as it was, grew out of a desire to tell of those experiences. His maturity as a writer blossomed quickly and he was drawn into the high-brow literary circle that included Longfellow and Hawthorne. But his unwillingness to compromise either his style or his content to suit popular tastes doomed his commercial appeal. When he quit writing altogether in 1857, he asserted that he’d rather lay down his pen than lower his standards: “What I feel most moved to write will not pay. Yet write the other way, I cannot.”
Sadly, what was true then is even more so today—as any serious writer will quickly attest. Thus, with the force of an unerring moral capunction, he put away his parchments and went to work as a customs inspector at the busy New York harbor. That kind of uncompromising ethical conviction is readily apparent in Moby Dick. The book is an unrestrained expression of originality and verve. But it is also a forceful exertion of will against all odds erupting upon the intellectual stage with a lusty obsession for truth and resolution: “Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill. Give me Vesuvius’s crater for an inkstand.”
He wrote of leviathans. Indeed, he was himself a leviathan.
Ostensibly a story of obsession and isolation set against the vast canvas of the great whaling trade of the nineteenth century, Moby Dick ranges far and wide in both literary and philosophical speculation. On one level, it is simply a great sea yarn. It accurately portrays life at sea—all the joys and all the woes of men tossed upon the uncertain waves of nature and providence. Filled with the minute details of life aboard ship and in the grasp of the peculiar seafaring world, the book is fabulous glimpse of a long forgotten pioneer culture.
At another level, the book is a rich exploration of the yearnings of the soul of man, of the workings of human society, and of the significance of the eternal decrees. Literary critics have argued for most of this century about the specific meaning of the redolent symbolism throughout the book—in the names, in the descriptions, in the plot structure, and even in the narrative stylings. And while such tortured expositions can offer some helpful insights from time to time, they are hardly necessary for the informed reader to get the most from the book.
It is clear that Melville was influenced by the style of his literary hero and mentor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. The rich symbolism of The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter evidently impressed Melville and shaped his own story crafting. But style was about all that Melville acquired from Hawthrone. The bizarre anti-Christian worldview that informed Hawthorne’s works—the bitter, humorless, and judgmental neo-Enlightenment Transcendentalism of the New England literati—never made much of an impression on the unswervingly devout Melville. Instead, he was much more indebted intellectually and culturally to the zealous theological conservatism and reforming social zeal of the Scottish theologian and academician Thomas Chalmers.
In Moby Dick, the Calvinistic concerns of Chalmers—the integrity of the covenant community, care for the poor, discipling the street urchins of the cities, and orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy—define virtually everything from plot and characters to setting and conflict. According to John Buchan, the lens through which to best view the issues raised by Moby Dick, is the great Disruption and the role Chalmers had to play in it. Indeed, he asserts, “The novel is in a sense a morality play in which questions of Chalmerian charity are experimentally expounded.”
Thus, the key to understanding Melville—like so much else in this poor fallen world—is less a matter of literary speculation or symbiotic conjecture and more a matter of historical perspicacity and classical sagacity.