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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
When Herman Melville sat down at the age of 25 to write Typee, his first book, he had no college education or even a high school diploma; he had no money and no intention of becoming a professional writer. What he did have was experience: four years of exciting adventures on whaling ships, in the navy, on exotic South Sea islands, and a short but unforgettable time as the only white man among a tribe of cannibals. If you've ever had the urge to set down on paper some amazing experience of your own, you have a sense of how Melville must have felt when he dashed off Typee- the story of his stay with cannibals in a tropical paradise. Imagine his surprise when the book became an instant bestseller! What a stupendous beginning to a writer's career.
More than 40 years later- in 1888- the 69-year-old Herman Melville began work on his last book, the masterpiece Billy Budd. Between the publication of Typee and the writing of Billy Budd, Melville had experiences of an entirely different sort than those of his youth. He had married and fathered a family. He had seen his early fame and success evaporate when his novels became more serious and difficult. He had come close to suffering a nervous breakdown and finally decided to give up writing fiction. He had been forced, for financial reasons, to take a boring job in the New York Customs House and stayed with it for some 20 years. These experiences deepened Melville and in some ways embittered him. But they also gave him insight about himself and the nature of man. He learned the truths of the heart. From the varied events of his life, he discovered how people hate and forgive, how they act under pressure, how evil can destroy them and good can save them. At the end of his life, he wanted to write fiction again so he could impart his wisdom. The result is Billy Budd, the capstone of Melville's life and career, and one of the gems of American literature.
Billy Budd tells the tale of the tragic demise of the Handsome Sailor brought down by the forces of evil and inhuman law. Typee describes a tribe of Polynesians- cannibals, yes, but "noble savages" just the same- whom Melville came to admire for their beauty, happiness, and utter freedom from the corruptions of Western civilization. Your first reaction might be that these are totally different books demonstrating how much Melville had changed over the course of his lifetime. Right? Right. But that's not all. Even though four decades had separated the writing of Melville's first and last books, they do have certain themes in common. Under the sunny, tropical surface of Typee valley, don't you see the evil lurking, the fear, the violence, and the cannibalism? Both Billy and the Typee inhabitants are good-looking, good-natured, kind, and happy; yet, without warning, brutality can flash out of these innocents with terrifying speed. Good and evil, innocence and violence are the basic traits of human nature that Melville explored from his first book to his last.
What in Melville's life brought him to these enduring themes and turned them into a kind of obsession? They were partly a result of the unhappy circumstances of his early years. Melville was born in New York City in 1819 into a well-to-do, aristocratic family: his father's family were prosperous Boston merchants and his mother was a Gansevoort, one of the first patrician Dutch families to settle in New York State. Both his grandfathers fought as distinguished officers in the American Revolution. With this background, Melville seemed destined for a life of fashionable ease until his father went bankrupt in 1830, and the family was forced to move to Albany. Two years later, Melville's father was dead, and the large family was on the brink of poverty. Can you imagine how such a drastic change and personal tragedy would have affected you at the age of 12? Melville had to leave school and take on a variety of jobs he found dull and degrading. The older he got, the more miserable he became. He had an adventuresome spirit and a lively mind, but he was being cramped and suffocated. So in 1839, at the age of 20, he signed on board the merchant ship St. Lawrence and set sail for Liverpool.
You can already see how the theme of the fall from innocence comes out in Melville's childhood. The big houses and easy lifestyle he was used to as a child must have seemed like Eden compared to the misery of being poor. But then think about the shock he must have received when he first went to sea. Even though his family had become impoverished, he was used to the company of well-mannered, polite, and civilized people. Suddenly he was thrust among a bunch of tough and dangerous sailors and was being bossed around by a tyrannical captain and his officers, who had little patience and much contempt for the "young gentleman." If you put on airs, you'd be a laughing-stock. If you didn't do your job right, you'd be severely punished. If you didn't learn the ropes- and fast- you'd be picked on, beaten up, humiliated, maybe even killed.
The 20-year-old Melville did learn the ropes and he did survive his first shipboard experience, but you can understand how his views on human nature must have changed after getting to know the sailors (many of whom were little better than criminals), the brutal officers, and the terrible conditions of life on a ship in the mid-19th century. This startling contrast between the innocence he had known as a child and the violence he came into contact with during his shipboard coming-of-age went into the vision of good and evil that he expressed so many years later in Billy Budd.
And yet despite some of the horrors of being a sailor, Melville could not resist the lure of the sea and shipped out again in 1841, this time on the whaling ship Acushnet bound for the South Pacific. Though Melville distorts and changes many facts in order to make it an exciting book, Typee does give you a pretty good idea of what happened to Melville after he decided to leave the hardships of whaling behind by escaping to the island of Nukahiva. He actually did live for a month as the sole white man in the valley of Taipi-Vai (his Typee) with a group of people who actually did practice cannibalism (though not on him!). But despite his deep appreciation for many aspects of indigenous life and a new awareness of the corrupting influence of Western civilization, he was not the type to follow the practices of the indigenous people. When you read Typee, you feel all the forces that must have been pulling Melville in different directions: his sensuous delight in the carefree island life, his urge to return home, his hatred for what the missionaries were doing to the islanders, and yet his deep commitment to his own culture.
Typee satisfied the publics interest in exotic places and in the lives of primitive peoples. The book's success catapulted Melville into a literary career, and he quickly produced four more novels, most of which sold well and gave him enough money to support his wife and growing family. The year 1850 was a watershed in his life: he moved to a big country house in the Berkshires, befriended the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived nearby, and, greatly influenced by Hawthorne's writing and conversation, forged ahead on Moby-Dick, his masterpiece. Have you read this epic drama of Captain Ahab's relentless pursuit of the great white whale, Moby-Dick? It brings together everything Melville had learned at sea with his most profound thoughts on human nature and the eternal conflict of good and evil. You can see in its symbolism, its shipboard setting and its brooding on man's darker side that Moby-Dick is clearly a forerunner of Billy Budd.
Yet Billy Budd has a clarity and pure beauty that go beyond the raging passions of Moby-Dick. It's a short book, and yet it seems to hold a world of meaning. Melville's last book reflects the wisdom, and some would say the peace, that the writer attained at the end of his life. It was his last word and he knew it. He spent three years, from 1888 to 1891, writing and rewriting Billy Budd so that his message would achieve its maximum power and simplicity. At Melville's death, Billy Budd was still in manuscript form. Some scholars feel that Melville had not completed his work and would have gone on making changes had he lived. Others believe that Billy Budd was finished to the author's satisfaction. It was not published until 1924.
Don't you find something fitting about Melville's return to a shipboard setting in his final work? His greatest coming-of-age adventures occurred at sea. He used the sea and ships as setting for two early novels, Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), as well as for his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. It is not surprising, then, that the old Melville decided to reexamine the scene of his daring youth in the light of all the wisdom he had gained since he first shipped out. For the past three decades he had devoted himself exclusively to writing poetry, which was mostly unread and unappreciated; but he wanted his final work to be prose. He felt he had something more to say about the drama of good and evil. And he felt he could say it best in a novel about a ship, its officers, and its sailors.
When you read Billy Budd, you see how resoundingly Melville makes his final statement. The story itself is so simple you can sum it up in a sentence: A handsome innocent sailor, who is framed for a mutiny he knew nothing about, impulsively kills the man who framed him because a speech impediment keeps him from defending himself, and the ship's captain decides the sailor must hang. Melville's triumph is that he distills the passion and knowledge of a lifetime into this simple tale.
Melville, perhaps more than any other writer, brought the conflicts of our American way of thinking and feeling to the level of heroic myth. When you look at his own career- the early burst of adventure, fame, and success followed by the bitterness of failure and, ultimately, the artistic triumph of Billy Budd- don't you think he too has the quality of myth about him?
[Billy Budd and Typee Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]