Melville’s books are much underrated; in fact, I feel he is one of the most underrated authors of all time. Moby-Dick, which is probably one of the top five novels ever written, even today has as many fans as it has enemies. Melville was excoriated in his lifetime, drawn and quartered by critics on both sides of the pond but mostly by his own countrymen. They only liked his first two books, Typee and Omoo, which were more the straightforward adventure stories that the public wanted. He was boring, incomprehensible, didactic and insane. Readers were more baffled than anything else by his books.
But Nathaniel Hawthorne, the other great American (and underrated) author of the 19th Century, saw his promise, granting him a rave review of Typee. And Moby-Dick itself is dedicated to none other than Hawthorne. The two men even formed a friendship when they lived close to each other in Massachusetts. Melville was a depressive and he lived most of his life in poverty. When he wrote what he called hackwork for money, the critics cheered him on. When he tried to write great literature, he was met with a tsunami of condemnation.
The abuse was so powerful that in 1856, he ceased writing novels altogether, writing only poetry. His poetry was also met with indifference and incomprehension, and he was thought to be a poor poet. In the modern era, he is now seen as one of the first poetic modernists. The Melville revival around 1924 coincided with the publication of the long lost novella Billy Budd, found by chance 30 years after his death. This brought about a resuscitation and reevaluation of the great author, and he is now seen as a great prose stylist and a fine poet to boot.
Melville’s novels are often weak in plot development, that is when they have any plot at all. What plots do exist are often quite mundane and even boring. The plots are typically used as vehicles for the prose style and the philosophical pontificating and meandering. Character development is often weak, and the characters are often unlikeable. The tone is often gloomy and depressing when it does not appear to be openly amoral, as in Pierre. The prose can be overblown at times, and Melville can surely be didactic at his worst.
It is in his philosophical sailing though that he shines. He discusses the great truths of human existence, as he sees them. He revels in allegory, literary, historical and political allusion, and especially in symbolism. Comparisons to Thomas Carlyle are apt. It is in this regard that Melville is seen as a difficult, baffling, incomprehensible and even boring writer. The endless discussions about whiteness and what it might mean in Moby-Dick, what exactly are they all about, anyway?
The final selling point of a Melville book is his prose rhetoric. That man could surely write, and how could he write!
See below for a sample from White-jacket or, the World on a Man-of-War, which is not even one of his more famous books. Here is a metaphorical fragment suggestive of what we find in Moby-Dick, published the same year:
As a man-of-war that sails through the sea, so this earth that sails through the air. We mortals are all on board a fast-sailing, never-sinking world-frigate, of which God was the shipwright; and she is but one craft in a Milky-Way fleet, of which God is the Lord High Admiral. The port we sail from is forever astern. And though far out of sight of land, for ages and ages we continue to sail with sealed orders, and our last destination remains a secret to ourselves and our officers; yet our final haven was predestinated ere we slipped from the stocks at Creation.
The book ends with more stunning prose:
Oh, shipmates and world-mates, all round! we the people suffer many abuses. Our gun-deck is full of complaints. In vain from Lieutenants do we appeal to the Captain; in vain—while on board our world-frigate—to the indefinite Navy Commisioners, so far out of sight aloft. Yet the worst of our evils we blindly inflict upon ourselves; our officers cannot remove them, even if they would. From the last ills no being can save another; therein each man must be his own savior.
For the rest, whatever befall us, let us never train our murderous guns inboard; let us not mutiny with bloody pikes in our hands. Our Lord High Admiral will yet interpose; and though long ages should elapse, and leave our wrongs undressed, yet, shipmates and world-mates! let us never forget, that
‘Whoever afflict us, whatever surround,
Life is a voyage that’s homeward bound!’
Herman Melville! Now there was a writer…
An overview of his writings:
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life – His first book was wildly popular. More or less autobiographical account of Melville’s jumping ship in the South Seas and capture and imprisonment for 3 weeks by the cannibal Typees. Nevertheless, he was treated well. A rollicking adventure story that was nevertheless attacked in the US by its noble savage romanticizing of the Polynesians and his attacks on Christian missionaries who he saw as ruining the Polynesians’ lives. One half of this book is a wild and entertaining adventure, the other half reads like an anthropological and sociological investigation of the Polynesians. Some modern readers find the ethnological aspect to the book boring.
Modern readers may find trite the noble savage romantic portrayal of the Polynesians while Melville finds Western civilization inferior to the pagan savages. Plot definitely drags in parts. You can see here germs of the philosophical expositions that would explode in his later work, especially Moby-Dick. Nice book, moves very fast.
Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas – The sequel to Typee. There is a bit of a plot at first which then falls apart. The men jump ship and are imprisoned on Tahiti in a makeshift prison from which they quickly escape. They hop on board another ship and then jump ship again. They roam about the islands working at various jobs, only earning enough to survive. Already Melville is moving beyond the pure adventure style of Typee into more rhetorical flourish and weighty topics. This, like Typee, was also popular with the typical reader than his later works. Modern readers may be offended by its lack of political correctness in its honest portrayal of Polynesian life.
Mardi and a Voyage Thither – The next book was considered a disaster by the public and critics alike, and even today it is considered flawed. There is a plot for 200 pages, then it completely falls apart as the story meanders for another 400 pages of philosophizing, highfalutin prose, endless and baffling symbolism and more literary allusion than an Umberto Eco novel. The style is very good though, and Melville is learning to write plots, create good characters, improving his prose and beginning to deal with the philosophical and heavy subjects he would mine so well in Moby-Dick.
Redburn: His First Voyage, Being the Sailor-Boy, Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service – Men board a whaling ship on the East Coast of the US and head off for whaling grounds of the Pacific via the Cape Horn of South America. A mysterious crewman on the ship always wears a white jacket, prefiguring the color symbolism in Moby-Dick. And there’s your plot.
Hawthorne and His Mosses – A superb work of literary criticism based on an assessment of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works, Mosses from an Old Manse. This work is now considered a classic.
White-jacket, or The World on a Man-of-War – This is a story of a boy who hitches aboard a man o’ war, riding it from the US East Coast to Liverpool, where he stays a bit and the rides back to the East Coast. That is it; that is the whole plot. This and Redburn were seen as hack work by Melville, written only for profit.
The public liked them better than the author himself did, and these two books were seen as a return to the Typee–Omoo adventure style. Nevertheless, the astonishing prose and deep subject matter puzzled readers. Yet for a great sea yarn and an encyclopedic rendering of life on board a man o’ war, the novel is superb. Its brutal description of flogging aboard ships led to the US Congress swiftly ending this barbaric practice. A precursor to Moby-Dick.
Moby-Dick, or The Whale – Of course, the legendary whaling story. Nevertheless, this great book was largely attacked by critics when it was written, and it was ignored by baffled readers who could not make sense of it. It would be another 75 years until it was recognized as the great literature that it is. His characterization and prose here approaches, if not meets, a Shakespearean level.
Pierre, or The Ambiguities – A purely philosophical novel, this time with unbelievable characters, an unearthly plot and scenes and persons strewn about seemingly for the purposes of serving as chess pieces and vehicles for the author’s weighty and philosophical discussions.
The plot involves an innocent young man who is forced by circumstances of life and the desire to save his father’s reputation to engage in one immoral act after another. It is a tale of a man motivated by doing the right thing who ends up doing one bad thing after another and along the way hurting a lot of innocent people. As he journeys through this wilderness of transgressions, his ego swells and he becomes more and certain of his essential morality and decency. Seen as an innocent and pure man’s initiation into a cruel and sinful world. Think of early James Joyce.
The first half of the book involves a parody of the Gothic romances so popular in the day. He imitates this style perfectly, and also manages to parody at least a dozen other styles popular during the day. Halfway through the book, the author engages in an outrageous feint – we are told that Pierre is actually, at age 21, a famous novelist. The second half of the book leaves the Gothic style behind and moves into allegory, symbolism, philosophical pondering, etc.
The landscapes and locales of the book do not even exist in the real world, and they are nearly in the realm of fantasy or science fiction. Both the public and the critics regarded this novel with unbridled hostility, and the common refrain was that Melville was “insane.”
It was also attacked for moral nihilism if not the advocacy of evil itself. This is because the novel involves such things as incest, threesomes, hints at homosexuality, bigamy and murder along with all sorts of other vices. It is now recognized as a fine work; however, even many modern readers find it baffling if not horrible and unreadable. Pierre is surely one of the strangest novels ever written. The French have always preferred it to Moby-Dick, so that ought to tell you something right there.
Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile – This is now thought to be one of his lesser works, but it does have some fans. More soaring prose and deep insight. This is nevertheless probably his easiest book to read. It is the story of a real person, a Revolutionary War hero. However, in somewhat alternate history mode, Melville plays fast and loose with history, and much of the book is actually fiction involving Potter interacting in various ways with the great men of his day. Think Woody Allen’s Zelig. This novel is actually very funny! The critics and public were once again baffled by this work, but the general reaction was indifference. Poor sales and critical hostility sent Melville into a deep depression.
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade – Met with bored indifference and baffled outright hostility at the time, this book was ignored and sold poorly. Nevertheless, it is now seen as one of Melville’s finest works. A boy take a ride on a Mississippi steamship from St. Louis to New Orleans and has various adventures as he rides down the Mississippi. All action takes place on April 1, April Fools’ Day. A shape-shifting con artist is the main character, and he assumes the forms of six separate characters.
Many people in the book are allegorical stand-in’s for various political figures of the day. A very satirical work, Melville attacks the Mexican War and the Indian Wars. One of his worst characters is “the Indian-fighter,” a reprehensible man who is clearly Andrew Jackson in disguise.
Piazza Tales – A fine collection of novellas and short works, including the strange but superb novella Bartleby, the Scrivenor: A Story of Wall Street, which prefigured Kafka by nearly 100 years. We see Melville here as a very early modernist, a 19th Century author writing 20th Century prose.
Also includes the fine novella Benito Cereno, an adventure set in the slaving era around the end of the 1700’s. A US whaling vessel anchored off the coast of Santa Maria encounters a Spanish slave ship with a skeleton Spanish crew, a strangely debilitated Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, and a horde of Black slaves drifting aimlessly towards it. The whalers, led by captain Amaso Delano (an unreliable narrator), go to investigate and find a ship, the San Dominick, low on food and water and a crew that seems unable to steer a ship. What’s up?
This is actually a retelling of the true story of the slave revolt on board a ship called the Amistad, but Melville changes the story around quite a bit in his retelling. For instance, the actual revolt occurred in 1839, but Melville sets the story in the 1790’s. The first 2/3 of the novella is as Kafkaesque as Bartleby the Scrivener. The novella has an ingenious plot twist to it that I won’t give away. A fine allegory on slavery and race. The novella gets off to a slow start, is often criticized for excessive wordiness, and modern readers complain about what they see as racism in the story. In fact, the novella could as well be seen as anti-racist than as racist.
The Encantadas is a novella in the form of a fine series of nine vignettes about the Galapagos Islands. It was the most critically successful of the works in the Piazza Tales. He parodies The Bible, travelogues, naturalistic writing, Dante and Spenser. This is actually Melville’s Inferno, with the Galapagos serving as his Hell. There is a tremendous amount of referencing, historical and literary, going on here, as in many of Melville’s works. The careful reader will find themselves looking up the references for a good part of the novella.
The Bell-Tower is a Poe-Hawthorne-like tale set in the Middle Ages about a man, Bannadonna, a Promethean figure who builds a self-ringing bell and is killed by his own creation. The tower itself then crashes in an earthquake. Themes include Faust, Frankenstein and the Tower of Babel. A man strives for greatness and is killed by hubris. The hubris here is an allegory for the scientific and materialistic theories beginning to become popular at the time. It also suggests the ultimate futility of human striving and creation. An excellent work. Very macabre stuff.
The Lightning-Rod Man is about a pushy traveling salesman who is eventually thrown out of the house by his prospective customer in an allegory about the exploitation of fear by capitalists. It also takes on fire and brimstone preachers. Very funny story.
The Piazza is a sketch featuring that Melville rarity, a female lead character. She cannot figure out on which side of the house to build her porch, and this is the whole of the plot. A lead character imagines that life up on the ridge above is much better than life on lower on the mountain where they reside. They take a trip up the ridge to find out that the opposite is true. The grass is always greener, etc. This story gets mixed reviews, with some finding it delightful and others regarding it as slight.
Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land – a 600 page poem is one of the longest poems ever written in English or for that matter in any language. It involves a man’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He is disappointed when he gets there and returns home disenchanted. There are various allegorical and symbolic characters strewn about, and the effect is nearly Miltonian. The length of the poem and its baffling nature meant that it was regarded with apathy if not puzzled hostility when it was published. It is now seen as a masterwork.
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War: Civil War Poems – Issued a bit later, the critics seemed to like these poems a bit better. Melville’s poems are bitter reflections on the vicious and savage Civil War that had just torn the nation asunder. Melville excoriated the blind patriotism and jingoism on both sides and generally thought the war was a gigantic and horrific bloody wreck that had torn the nation nearly to smithereens. This poems nearly have PTSD themselves but are now recognized as fine works.
John Marr and Other Poems – A later book of poetry. This was barely reviewed, and the reviews were mixed. The consensus now was that Melville was violating all of the rules and regulations of poetry – rhyme, meter, rhythm – he tossed them all aside, and in this sense, this is one of the literature’s first ventures into free verse. Nevertheless, critics noted the occasional stunning imagery that Melville was capable of. The reaction was generally that Melville was a prose writer trying his hand at poetry to which he was ill-suited, and that while he succeeded sometimes as prose writer, he failed as a poet. Critics now respect this work.
Timoleon & Other Poems – This collection was so completely ignored at the time it was published near his death that it shows that by that time, Melville was nearly forgotten by readers and critics alike. This work is now considered to be top-notch poetry.
The Apple Tree Table and Other Sketches – Not published until 1922, this is a series of uncollected works he wrote for money, selling them to magazines such as Harper’s and Putnam’s Monthly. Most of the work is forgettable, but it does some good pieces.
The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids is a fine sociological piece that explores sexual and other civilizational mores, focusing on the exploitation of female labor by males. Swiftian satire and Miltonian allegory are employed here.
The strangely hilarious I and My Chimney, about an old man guarding the huge chimney in the center of his house when his wife demands it be torn down, can be analyzed on many levels. A fine story.
Cock-a-Doodle-Doo, or The Crowing of the Noble Cock Beneventano is a humorous on the Emersonian Transcendentalism that was popular at the time, which Melville thought little of. Gets mixed reviews; some think it is weak while others say it is a masterpiece.
Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) – This novella was not published until 1924. It had been found a few years before, 30 years after his death, in a trunk containing his papers. It was published first by the British, who always liked Melville better than the Americans did, to widespread acclaim. Repeated editions were published over the next 40 years as authors went over Melville’s very confusing rough drafts of this book combined with cross-outs, rewrites and text substitution amid confusing notation along with the text to try to arrive at an authoritative version of the text that would be most faithful to what Melville was trying to do.
The plot? British and French navies are battling in the Napoleonic Era. A very young British sailor named Billy Budd (a Christ figure representing innocence and purity or Adam in the Garden) is hated by another sailor, Master John Claggart, on the ship HMS Bellipotent because he is jealous of Billy’s youthful good looks. Yet this handsome young sailor is beloved by all of the rest of the crew. This sailor and two others spread a vicious rumor about Budd, saying that he is fomenting a mutiny on the ship.
Enraged, Budd hits his enemy, and the man dies. A trial, etc. follows. Captain Vere (read: truth) is forced against his will to render military unto Budd even though he knows he is innocent. Evil wins in the end, the law is anything but impartial, if anything it is outright blind, and the first casualty in war is the truth. This is also seen as a legal treatise, and a number of articles in law journals have been written about this novella. It is also, as many of Melville’s works are, a treatise about good and evil. Claggart typically represents evil, even pure evil, while Budd represents the persecuted innocent.