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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Herman Melville

When Herman Melville was twelve years old, his merchant father died bankrupt. The tragedy plunged young Herman from the comfortable, patrician world of his Melvill and Gansevoort ancestors into the precarious, drudging world of the sailors, clerks, farm laborers, factory workers, paupers, and slaves who would subsequently people his fiction. Melville’s unique perspective on his society derives from his experience of living at the intersection of these opposing worlds.

As the impoverished grandson of two well-connected Revolutionary War heroes—the Brahmin Thomas Melvill, veteran of the Boston Tea Party, and the slaveowning Dutch patroon Peter Gansevoort, defender of Fort Stanwix—Melville acquired a first-hand understanding of what it meant to be excluded from the Revolution’s promised benefits. Forced to drop out of school, temporarily after his father’s death in 1832, permanently after his elder brother Gansevoort likewise fell victim to bankruptcy in the Panic of 1837, Melville launched on a fruitless search for stable employment, sampling the range of low-paid jobs open to young men with few marketable skills. He worked as a clerk in a bank and in his brother’s fur store, as a laborer on his uncle’s farm, as a district schoolteacher in rural Massachusetts and New York, where he boarded with the families of his pupils and found himself defrauded of his salary on his second stint. He studied surveying and engineering, in the vain hope of procuring employment with the Erie Canal’s engineering department. Finally, having exhausted all other options, he went to sea as a common sailor, first on a four-month voyage to Liverpool aboard the merchant ship St. Lawrence in 1839, then on a three-year voyage to the South Seas aboard a series of whaleships beginning with the Acushnet in 1841.

Ten years later Melville would write in Moby-Dick, “if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Indeed Melville’s roving life as a sailor, which provided the material for his first six books, also schooled his imagination. Exposed to brutal working conditions alongside men of all races, Melville learned to identify with slaves and to draw analogies between different forms of oppression. Confronted in the Marquesas, Tahiti, and Hawaii with warships training their guns on naked islanders, and with “rapacious hordes of enlightened individuals” rushing to seize the “depopulated land” from natives reduced to starving “interloper[s]” in their own country, Melville came to view “the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth.” Above all, a sojourn among one of the peoples his society denigrated as “savages” taught Melville to question his deepest cultural assumptions.

In July, 1842, eighteen months of “tyrannical” usage at sea drove Melville and a shipmate named Toby Greene to jump ship at Nukahiva in the Marquesas. Falling into the hands of the Typee tribe, Melville discovered that these reputed cannibals “deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane” than many self-professed Christians. Although Melville chose to escape after four weeks of “indulgent captivity,” he would never again take for granted either the superiority of white Christian civilization or the benefit of imposing it on others. Instead he began reexamining his own society through the eyes of “savages.”

The Australian whaler Lucy Ann, on which Melville left Nukahiva, proved worse than the Acushnet, and he ended up embroiled in a mutiny that landed him in a Tahitian jail. Together with another shipmate, John Troy, Melville once more escaped and spent several weeks roaming around Tahiti and nearby Eimeo before shipping aboard the whaler Charles and Henry. Discharged in Hawaii, he clerked in a store for two and a half months. Finally, in August, 1843, he joined the crew of the homeward bound warship United States as an ordinary seaman, arriving in Boston the following October, 1844.

It was while narrating his adventures to his family that Melville found the métier he had sought for so long. His first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), was an instant success, but Melville’s American publishers insisted on expurgating his attacks on the missionary and imperialist despoilers of Polynesia. “Try to get a living by the Truth,” he would later complain in a famous letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne “—and go to the Soup Societies.” Melville wrestled with this dilemma throughout his literary career. His next book, Omoo (1847), a fictionalized account of the mutiny aboard the Lucy Ann and his ensuing adventures in Tahiti, retracted the concessions he had made to the censors of Typee and exposed white depredations in the South Seas more unsparingly than ever. Thereafter, he started experimenting with increasingly elaborate strategies for subverting his readers’ prejudices and conveying unwelcome truths.

In 1847 Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s influential chief justice, Lemuel Shaw. A family friend and surrogate father, Shaw also emerged in the controversial Roberts and Sims cases of 1849 and 1851 as a staunch defender of racial segregation and of the infamous Fugitive Slave Law. Family obligations thus added to the pressures impelling Melville toward indirection.

His experimental allegory Mardi (1849) combined metaphysical speculation, political satire, and anti-slavery protest. Melville’s public, however, rebelled against his formal innovations, forcing him to return to realistic narrative in Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket: or The World in a Man-of-War (1850). Based respectively on Melville’s voyage to Liverpool and his stint on the frigate United States, these two books foreshadowed Melville’s brilliant critiques of capitalism, slavery, war, and imperialism in such mature works as “Bartleby,” “The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids,” “Benito Cereno,” and Billy Budd.

The new technique Melville developed of fusing fact and symbol reached fruition in his most powerful and original work, Moby-Dick (1851). Conferring epic dignity on a class of men hitherto barred from the purview of literature, and elevating their despised occupation, the whale hunt, to mythic stature, Moby-Dick’s matchless achievement was to transform the implements, raw materials, and processes of a lucrative, gory industry, which subsisted on the plunder of nature, into rich symbols of the struggle to fulfill humanity’s potential under conditions threatening apocalyptic destruction. The book’s Shakespearean grandeur, philosophical depth, and daring mixture of genres and forms reflected Melville’s omnivorous reading since entering literary circles. Its dedication to Hawthorne, whom he had met while writing Moby-Dick, also indicated a debt to the allegorist he had hailed in his review “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (1850) as an American Shakespeare.

Unlike Hawthorne, however, Melville violated his public’s literary tastes and offended its religious and political sensibilities. Thus his ambitious epic did not win him the acclaim he hoped for, let alone the financial rewards he needed to support his growing family. In a desperate attempt to recapture the literary marketplace, Melville set out to produce a psychological romance of the type Hawthorne had popularized. Perversely, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) burlesqued the very form it sought to emulate. Featuring incest, satirizing Christianity, lampooning the literary establishment, and even caricaturing Melville’s own family, it called down a storm of abuse and convinced many that Melville had gone mad.

With his re-emergence as a contributor to two of the period’s leading monthly magazines, Harper’s and Putnam’s, Melville entered on a new phase of his literary career. Serialized in Putnam’s, “The Encantadas” (1854), ten bleak sketches of the Galapagos Islands, and Israel Potter (1854–1855), a novella that paid homage to the common soldiers who had fought in the American Revolution but never tasted its fruits, marked the transition between Melville’s novels and his magazine fiction.

Meanwhile, Melville had begun perfecting a very different literary style, exemplified at its best by “Bartleby” (1853), “Benito Cereno” (1855), and “The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids” (1855). In these stories, Melville depicted the victims of capitalism and slavery no longer through the eyes of a sympathetic sailor narrator, but through the eyes of an obtuse observer representing the class of “gentlemen” whose smug prosperity rested on the extorted labor of the workers they dehumanized—the class constituting Melville’s public and closest associates in the social milieu he had rejoined. Mouthing their racist clichés, mimicking their social snobbery, echoing their pious platitudes, and exposing their sublime obliviousness to the suffering on which they fattened, Melville mercilessly anatomized the readers he had given up hope of converting. Yet he also jarred them out of their complacency through language that insistently provoked discomfort, and through the warning vision he held up again and again of the apocalyptic doom overtaking their society.

That vision culminated in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). An allegorical apocalypse set on April Fools’ Day, it imaged nineteenth-century America as a soot-streaked steamer heading down the Mississippi toward the financial capital of slavery, New Orleans, which the passengers have mistaken for the New Jerusalem.

The Confidence-Man and the volume of his Putnam’s stories that Melville collected in The Piazza Tales (1856) were his last published works of prose fiction. By 1856, he had reached a psychological nadir, which his family attributed to the strain of writing. Stepping into the breach, his father-in-law Judge Shaw financed a trip to Europe and the Middle East. On his return in 1857, Melville tried for three years to support his family by lecturing, but he underwent a drawn-out repeat of the demoralizing search for remunerative employment that had driven him to sea. This time the search led in 1866 to a job as a customs inspector, which he held for nineteen years. The decade of trauma took a heavy toll, reaching a new low point in 1867, when Melville’s wife Elizabeth considered leaving him, fearing that he had gone insane, and their eldest son Malcolm committed suicide at age eighteen.

Melville’s personal crisis converged with the national crisis of the Civil War, which elicited his volume of poetry Battle-Pieces (1866), an attempt to speak for all parties to the conflict. In the interstices of his custom-house work, Melville continued to write poetry. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, articulating the era’s religious and political disillusionment, appeared in 1876. Two privately published volumes followed: John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891).

In 1886, a legacy finally made it possible for Melville to retire from the Custom House. The result was Billy Budd, found in manuscript on Melville’s death in 1891. Dramatizing the sacrifice of humanity to the god of war, it presciently evoked a world dominated by the forces of militarism and imperialism masquerading as the guardians of peace. Melville dedicated it to his heroic mentor aboard the United States, Jack Chase, “a stickler for the Rights of Man, and the liberties of the world.”

Melville’s critical fortunes have fluctuated strikingly over the past century. Forgotten by the end of his life, he was rediscovered in the 1920s but only as the author of a single masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Not until the early 1960s did Melville’s short fiction begin to be widely read, anthologized, taught, and interpreted. The critics who first canonized Melville nevertheless abstracted him from his historical context and overlooked his engagement with the political controversies of his era—an engagement that became apparent to a later generation of critics shaped by the political controversies of their own era. Today, critics familiar with the full range of American writing made available by this anthology are once again re-examining Melville’s relationship with his culture. Regardless of critical fashion, some readers will always value Melville primarily for his artistry, others for his profound insights into the systems of oppression and violence that governed his world and persist in ours.
Carolyn L. Karcher
Temple University

In the Heath Anthology
Hawthorne and His Mosses (1850)
Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853)
Benito Cereno (1855)
Billy Budd, Sailor (1891)  [n.b., 1924]
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War
      A Utilitarian View of the Monitors Fight (1866)
      The Portent (1859) (1866)
The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids
      I. The Paradise of Bachelors (1855)
      II. The Tartarus of Maids (1855)
      Art (1891)
      Monody (1891)

Other Works
Typee (1846)
Omoo (1847)
Moby-Dick (1851)
Pierre (1852)
The Piazza Tales (1856)
The Confidence Man (1857)

Paper Topic: Communities of Men (Lois Leveen, April 26, 2001)


Bartleby the Scrivener, An Interactive Version
Unique hypertext version of the story.

Melville On-line
Index with links to many texts.

Selected Bibliography
Very extensive list of secondary materials on "Bartleby."

The Life and Works of Herman Melville
Biography, current news in the field of Melville studies, links to electronic texts, and other resources.

Secondary Sources

Charles Anderson, Melville in the South Seas, 1939, 1966

William H. Gilman, Melville's Early Life and "Redburn," 1951

Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography, 1951

Lee Bertani Vozar Newman, A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville, 1986

Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography, 1996

Elizabeth Renker, Strike Through the Mask: Herman Melville and the Scene of Writing, 1966

Beatrice Ricks and Joseph D. Adams, Herman Melville: A Reference Biography, 1900-1972, 1973

Merton M. Sealts, Melville as Lecturer, 1957, 1970

Merton M. Sealts, The Early Lives of Melville, 1974