In 1850 while writing The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne’s publisher introduced him to another writer who was in the midst of a novel. This was Herman Melville, the book Moby Dick. Hawthorne and Melville became good friends at once, for despite their dissimilar backgrounds, they had a great deal in common. Melville was a New Yorker, born in 1819, one of eight children of a merchant of distinguished lineage. His father, however, lost all his money and died when the boy was 12. Herman left school at 15, worked briefly as a bank clerk, and in 1837 went to sea. For 18 months, in 1841 and 1842, he was crewman n the whaler Acushnet.
Then he jumped ship in the South Seas. For a time he lived among a tribe of cannibals in the Marquesas. Later he made his way to Tahiti where he idled away nearly a year. After another year at sea he returned to America in the fall of 1844. Although he had never before attempted serious writing, in 1846 he published Typee an account of his life in the Marquesas. The book was a great success, for Melville had visited a part of the world almost unknown to Americans, and his descriptions of his bizarre experiences suited the taste of a romantic age. As he wrote Melville became conscious of deeper powers.
In 1849 he began a systematic study of Shakespeare, pondering the bard’s intuitive grasp of human nature. Like Hawthorne, Melville could not accept the prevailing optimism of his generation. Unlike his friend, he admired Emerson, seconding the Emersonian demand that Americans reject European ties and develop their own literature. “Believe me,” he wrote, “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio. ” Yet he considered Emerson’s vague talk about striving and the inherent goodness of mankind complacent nonsense. Experience made Melville too aware of the evil in the world to be a transcendentalist.
His novel Redburn based on his adventures on a Liverpool packet, was, as the critic F. O. Matthiessen put it, “a study in disillusion, of innocence confronted with the world, of ideals shattered by facts. ” Yet Melville was no cynic; he expressed deep sympathy for the Indians and for immigrants, crowded like animals into the holds of transatlantic vessels. He denounced the brutality of discipline in the United States Navy in White-Jacket. His essay The Tartarus of Maids, a moving if somewhat overdrawn description of oung women working in a paper factory, protested the subordination of human beings to machines.
Hawthorne, whose dark view of human nature coincided with Melville’s, encouraged him to press ahead with Moby Dick. This book, Melville said, was “broiled in hellfire. ” Against the background of a whaling voyage, he dealt subtly and symbolically with the problems of good and evil, of courage and cowardice, of faith, stubbornness, pride. In Captain Ahab, driven relentlessly to hunt down the huge white whaleMoby Dick, which had destroyed his leg, Melville created one of the great figures of literature; in the book as a whole, e produced one of the finest novels written by an American, comparable to the best in any language.
As Melville’s work became more profound, it lost its appeal to the average reader, and its originality and symbolic meaning escaped most of the critics. Moby Dick, his masterpiece, received little attention and most of that unfavorable. He kept on writing until his death in 1891 but was virtually ignored. Only in the 1920s did the critics rediscover him and give him his merited place in the history of American literature. His “Billy Budd, Foretopman,” now considered one of his best stories, was not published until 1924.