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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

On a January morning in 1841, a twenty-one-year-old man stood on the docks of the New Bedford, Massachusetts, harbor. Poverty had forced him to abandon his schooling to help support his family, but he had not found happiness as a farmer, schoolteacher, or bank clerk. Two years before, he had shipped out as a sailor on a merchant ship, and that job hadn't pleased him any better than the others. Still, something about the sea must have called him back, for here he was about to board another ship, the whaler Acushnet, bound from New Bedford round Cape Horn to the South Pacific.

It was a voyage that would change the young man's life, and change American literature as well. The man standing on the New Bedford docks was Herman Melville, and his four years at sea provided him with the raw material for a career's worth of books, one of them a masterpiece: Moby-Dick.

Melville was an unlikely candidate to become a sailor. He was born on August 1, 1819, into a well-off, religious New York family whose sons by rights should have found careers in business or in law offices rather than aboard ships. But Melville's comfortable childhood ended all too soon. When he was ten his father's import business failed, and that failure drove his father to madness and, two years later, to death. The Melvilles sank into genteel poverty, dependent on money doled out by richer relatives and on the earnings of Herman and his brothers. These were the pressures that helped drive Melville, like Moby-Dick's narrator, Ishmael, to sea.

The history of Melville's time at sea reads very much like an adventure story. In fact, it reads very much like Melville's own early books, and for good reason, since they are largely autobiographical. His first year on the Acushnet seemed happy enough, but by July of 1842 he had grown sick of his captain's bad temper. With a companion he jumped ship at Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, hoping to find refuge with a tribe known to be friendly to sailors. The pair got lost; they wound up not with the friendly tribe but with the Typees, reputed to be cannibals. While the Typees treated their American guests well enough, their reputation made Melville's stay a nervous one, and after four weeks he escaped with the help of the crew of an Australian whaling ship, the Lucy Ann. The Lucy Ann was little improvement over the Acushnet, however-her captain was incompetent, her first mate alcoholic-and when she reached Tahiti, Melville and other crew members plotted a revolt. Found out, they were thrown in jail. Eventually Melville escaped, made his way to Honolulu, and there enlisted in the United States Navy, serving on the frigate United States, which brought him back to Boston in October, 1844.

Melville was now twenty-five and seemed no closer to finding a career than four years before. Except for letters published in a local newspaper, he had shown few signs of a gift for writing. As he recounted his adventures for his family, however, they urged him to write the tales down. In this way, it is said, he discovered his calling. Later he told his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, "From my twenty-fifth year I date my life."



Melville's account of his time in the Marquesas, the novel Typee, was published in the spring of 1846. Advertisements promised readers "personal adventure, cannibal banquets... carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters, savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols, heathenish rites and human sacrifices." And the book was a great popular success. Today, Melville probably would have won a place on best-seller lists and an article in People magazine as "the man who lived with the cannibals." Melville continued to draw on his sea adventures in the novels Omoo (1847), Redburn (1849), and White-Jacket (1850). Another novel, Mardi, published in 1849, was an unsuccessful attempt to add fantasy and philosophy to sea stories.

Melville had become a popular writer, but he wasn't fully satisfied with his popularity. On the one hand, with a wife and children to support, he needed the money that success brought him. But on the other, writing simple adventure stories was, he said, no more creative than sawing wood. He had greater ambitions. At the same time, while most popular writers of the day tended to be optimistic about America and about mankind, Melville was-perhaps because of his riches-to-rags childhood-in many ways a deeply pessimistic and insecure figure, doubtful about his nation, doubtful about man, doubtful about the universe.

Moby-Dick is the result of both Melville's ambitions and his doubts. When he began the book, he intended to call it The Whale and promised his publishers that it would be another popular sea adventure. But midway through his writing something changed. Melville had moved to the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts and met Nathaniel Hawthorne, already famous as the author of The Scarlet Letter. In Hawthorne, Melville seemed to find a kindred spirit, a man who had fulfilled himself writing the kind of dark, complex books that Melville wanted to write. Perhaps the older author's example gave Melville the courage to achieve his ambitions. Whatever the reason, soon after he met Hawthorne, Melville began furiously to rewrite The Whale. The finished product reached his publisher a full year after it had been promised; it bore a new title, Moby-Dick, and it was a far greater book than anything Melville had written before.

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