from: "Fields of Vision" by Denis Delaney
Melville was born in New York in 1819. When he was only twelve years old his
father died, leaving his wife with eight children and large debts.
Experiences at sea
Herman left school and took a variety of jobs until 1839, when he boarded a
merchant ship bound for England as a cabin boy. It was the first of a long
series of sea voyages. In 1841 he found work on a whaler, but the very hard
conditions persuaded him to desert the ship during a stop at a Pacific island.
Captured by the natives, he lived among them for a month. After his rescue,
Melville continued his adventures. His participation in a mutiny caused him to
spend dome time in prison in Tahiti. On his release he joined the US Navy and
finally returned home in 1844.
Melville settled in Boston and began to write fictionalized accounts of life
among the natives of the Pacific Islands, Typee:
A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the
South Seas (1847), which were immediate best sellers and allowed him to marry and
buy a farm. He dedicated his next book Moby
Dick; or The White Whale (1851) to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. The
novel, although hailed as a masterpiece by a handful of critics, was not well
received by the general reading public.
Decline and pessimism
With the decline in his popularity, Melville fell into depression. The lack of
commercial success forced him to sell his farm and caused him to have a serious
nervous breakdown. Unable to make a living from writing, in 1866 Melville took
a job as a customs official in New York, a position which he held for almost
twenty years. During this period he published some poetry at his own expense
before returning to fiction with his last work, Billy Budd, which was published posthumously. Melville died in
poverty and obscurity in 1891.
While during his lifetime the adventure books
Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) brought him success and financial stability, today
Moby Dick (1851) is considered to be Melville’s great masterpiece.
Moby Dick The
central theme of the novel is the obsession of Captain Ahab, master of the whaler
Pequod, with a great white whale that had torn off one of his legs. Ahab’s life
and journey are dedicated to hunting and killing the whale, a vendetta that
drives himself, his ship and crew to destruction. Moby Dick is complex, multi-faceted
novel. The narrative is at times naturalistic, at times fantastic and it is
interrupted by metaphysical debates, soliloquies and long digressions on whales
and the art of whaling. It is written in an extraordinary variety of styles
which range from sailor’s slang to biblical parable to Shakespearean
verse. Several themes can be found in the narrative: madness and monomania, the
conflict between man and nature, the impossibility of escaping fate. Numerous
symbolic associations have been made with the figure of the whale itself. It
has variously been interpreted as the personification of evil in the world, the
mirror image of Captain Ahab’s soul and the representation of the hidden and
powerful forces of nature.
Melville’s other novels, The Confidence
Man (1857) and Billy Budd, bear
testimony to the writer’s considerable talent and to his increasingly
pessimistic state of mind.
External Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Melville