Good Reading : July 2007
classics 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 called 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 twenty 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 had four children. In the spring of 1850, Melville read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and was mesmerised by the portentous darkness of Hawthorne’s haunted imagina- tion.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 forty-six, Melville thirty-one. 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 eighteen frenzied months, Moby-Dick was published when Melville was just thirty-two. 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 thirty-three. 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 ten years. Melville’s last novel, Billy Budd, was completed five months before his death of a heart attack in 1891. Billy Budd was not published until 1924, following the publication in 1921 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’. Moby-Dick has since exerted a monumental influence over American literature, from Hemingway’s The 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 twentieth and twenty- first centuries, such as the painter Jackson Pollock and the 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, African-American 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 with the beautiful, resonant line: ‘I leave eternity to thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?’ Classics: Books for Life by Jane Gleeson-White is published by Knopf Australia, rrp $34.95 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!’ ... Even the boat Ahab captains is infected by his madness as it sails the troubled seas.