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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents Herman Melville (1819-1891)

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

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.

Teaching Tips

  • Using illustrations of Moby-Dick from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and selected passages from the novel, ask your students to write a character sketch of Ahab.
  • Divide your students into two (or more) groups and pose some current ethical issue of debate. Have one group respond as if it were Ahab, sharing his assumptions about the universe and people; have the other group speak as Ishmael, employing his beliefs and attitudes. What are the cores of their differing perspectives? How would they each respond to one of today’s ethical questions?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Note the description of the Pequod in Chapter 16, “The Ship,” in the archive. How does Ishmael characterize the ship and its crew? What does he mean when he says that the Pequod is “a cannibal of a craft”? How is this related to the idea of the “ship of state”?
  2. Comprehension: How would you describe the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg in Chapter 10, “A Bosom Friend,” in the archive? Why should the two of them be “a cosy, loving pair”? How does Ishmael seem to feel about Queequeg’s religious beliefs?
  3. Comprehension: Why might Melville have chosen to tell the story of Ahab and the white whale from Ishmael’s point of view? How do Ishmael’s judgments and perspectives affect your understanding of Ahab’s quest? And why begin the novel with the line “Call me Ishmael,” as if the reader is not privy to the narrator’s true name?
  4. Context: Read carefully Ahab’s diatribe against Moby-Dick in “The Quarter-Deck.” He says that “all visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks,” that the whale is like “the wall” that hems in a prisoner, and that “that inscrutable thing [in the whale] is chiefly what I hate.” In the midst of a whale-hunt, why bring up pasteboard masks and prison walls? What does Ahab mean by “inscrutable”? What is the relationship between Ahab’s speech and Ishmael’s later assertion that Ahab identifies Moby-Dick with “all [Ahab’s] intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them”?
  5. Context: In “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael continues his assessment of Moby-Dick. He concludes that the whiteness presents “a dumb blankness, full of meaning.” According to Ishmael, what is the significance of the whiteness of the whale?
  6. Context: In what sense does Moby-Dick fit Melville’s discussion of literature in “Hawthorne and His Mosses”?
  7. Exploration: Melville wrote many texts that can be considered social critiques in a more clear-cut way than Moby-Dick. Read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Billy Budd, Sailor, and Benito Cereno; then use the social critique in those texts to develop an interpretation of Moby-Dick as a social critique.

Selected Archive Items

[1540] William Huggins, South Sea Whale Fishery (1834), 
courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. 
Colored aquatint of sperm whale and boats in rough seas. This popular scene was drawn on by American artists, such as author Herman Melville and painters Albert van Beest, R. Swain Gifford, and Benjamin Russell, as they played with the symbolism of America as “ship of state.”

[2232] Rockwell Kent, Whale beneath the Sea (1930), 
courtesy of the Plattsburgh State Art Museum. 
This illustration dramatizes the smallness and vulnerability of the Pequod in relation to the whale and the vast ocean.

[2377] Rodney Dewey, Herman Melville (1861), 
courtesy of the Berkshire Athenauem, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. 
Picture of Melville while he was living at Arrowhead, his home in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. All of his best-known works, including Moby-Dick, were written during the thirteen years that he lived at Arrowhead.

[2378] Anonymous, Herman Melville (c. 1885), 
courtesy of the Gansevoort-Lansing Collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. 
Picture taken around the time of Melville’s retirement from his job as a customs inspector for the New York Customs House, where he worked for over twenty years.

[2386] The International Magazine of Literature, Art and Science, Herman Melville’s Whale (1851), 
courtesy of the Making of America Project, Cornell University Library. 
This review of Moby-Dick appeared in December 1851. Moby-Dick‘s unusual narrative structure and philosophical underpinnings were disliked by readers as well as critics.

[2387Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art, “Our Young Authors”–Melville (1853), 
courtesy of Cornell University, Making of America Digital Collection. 
This review of Melville’s work is typical of the way in which it was received by his contemporaries. The author praises Melville’s early adventure novel Typee, while disparaging the philosophical bent that characterizes many of his later novels.

[2611] Walter Monteith Aikman, The Tontine Coffee House, Wall & Walter Streets, about 1797 (n.d.), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 98020]. 
The Tontine Coffee House was a place where the financial men of New York City met to discuss money matters. Melville depicted the potentially dehumanizing effects of life on Wall Street in works like “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

[9009] Herman Melville, Chapter 16 of Moby-Dick, “The Ship” (1851), 
courtesy of Project Gutenberg. 
In this chapter Ishmael describes how he decided to sign aboard the Pequod, following Queequeg’s superstitious insistence that Ishmael choose the ship to which they would commit themselves. Rife with foreboding, this chapter also includes the first description of Ahab.

[9010] Herman Melville, Chapter 10 of Moby-Dick, “A Bosom Friend” (1851), 
courtesy of Project Gutenberg. 
In this chapter Ishmael cements his friendship with future shipmate Queequeg. “I’ll try a pagan friend,” Ishmael says, “since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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