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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   



3. Gothic Undercurrents

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Henry Ward
Beecher
- Ambrose
Bierce
- Charles
Brockden Brown
- Emily Dickenson
- Charlotte
Perkins Gilman
- Nathaniel
Hawthorne
- Washington
Irving
- Herman Melville
- Edgar
Allen Poe
- William
Gilmore Simms
- Suggested
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•  Activities

Authors: Herman Melville (1819-1891)

South Sea Whale Fishery
[1540] William Huggins, South Sea Whale Fishery (1834),
courtesy of The New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Herman Melville Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Herman Melville's father was a New York City merchant who, when he died suddenly, left his family heavily in debt. Melville was only twelve at the time, but he was forced to leave school to go to work. After working in a variety of low-paying jobs (clerk, laborer, schoolteacher), in 1841 Melville joined a whaler sailing for the South Seas. Aboard a series of ships, he was away for three years. Ishmael, the narrator of Melville's 1851 Moby-Dick, surely speaks for the author as well when he says that "a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." In addition to learning the dangerous and difficult business of whaling itself, Melville also gained an unusually diverse cultural education. At one point, he and a crewmate jumped ship and lived for several weeks with a native tribe; upon his return to America, Melville transformed that experience into Typee (1846), a popular adventure tale that established him as a literary celebrity. A sequel, Omoo, soon followed, but Melville's appeal was dampened by his more philosophical works such as Mardi (1849), Pierre (1853), and even Moby-Dick. Some critics of these novels declared Melville unbalanced; the New York Dispatch charged him later in his career with having "indulged himself in a trick of metaphysical and morbid meditations until he has perverted his fine mind from its healthy productive tendencies."

Melville had to struggle to regain the economic and critical popularity he had enjoyed with his earlier writing. After Pierre, he primarily wrote short stories for magazines like Harper's. Financial concerns burdened the family for years, but an inheritance late in life allowed Melville to work on his final narrative, Billy Budd, Sailor, the manuscript of which was found upon his death in 1891. Only after his death did Melville rise from the ranks of second-rate adventure novelists to his present status as one of America's most important writers. Many recent readers have praised his piercing social criticism; they point, for example, to his condemnation of racism in "Benito Cereno" (1855) and his critique of dehumanizing labor in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853) and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (1855). Many have also found compelling the self-reflective and multi-layered nature of his narratives--narratives that continue to speak to the complexities of creating meaning in the American literary tradition.



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