- Benjamin Ivry
Herman Melville was born on 1 August 1819 on Pearl Street in downtown New York City. His father, Allan Melvill (as the family spelled its name at the time), was a trader whose own father, Thomas, had participated in the Boston Tea Party in 1773 as part of the American colonists' protest against high British tariffs. Herman Melville's mother, Maria Gansevoort, was from a distinguished family of Dutch origin. Maria's father, Peter Gansevoort, had been a revolutionary war officer known as the Hero of Fort Stanwix for his 1777 defense of an outpost in Rome, New York, against the British general John Burgoyne. Despite these distinguished ancestors, Allan Melvill could not turn a profit at his trade, importing dry goods from France to Boston. He dissipated the family fortune with ill-fated business ventures. In 1819, Allan Melvill wrote to his brother-in-law to announce Herman's birth: “The little stranger has good lungs, sleeps well and feeds kindly, he is in truth a chopping Boy,” and to a business colleague in Paris, the proud father described the newborn as “un beau Garcon” (a handsome boy). He was named after his mother's brother, Herman Gansevoort, and baptized in the South Reformed Dutch Church. As part of the ceremony, the priest reminded his parents that according to the tenets of the church, children are “conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea to condemnation itself.” Before he was two years old, Herman had suffered a bout of measles, which his father described as including “very bad coughs, inflamed eyes, and virulent eruptions which characterize this troublesome disorder.” This early illness may have been the origin of Melville's sensitive eyes, which he later described as “tender as young sparrows.” Such passing ailments apart, the boy's health was generally good, as Allan explained in a family letter in 1821: “Little Herman is in fine spirits and rugged as a Bear.” When the Melvilles had another son in 1823, four-year-old Herman spoke his first recorded words: “Pa now got two ittle Boys.” Three years later his father described him to an uncle as “an honest hearted double rooted Knickerbocker of the true Albany stamp…he is very backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension, but you will find him as far as he understands men and things both solid and profound.” Herman's first ten years were spent in luxury, living in pleasant and spacious Manhattan homes. But in 1830 the family was forced to flee Manhattan for Albany to escape debts incurred by Allan Melvill in unsuccessful business ventures. Soon Allan went mad and died in January 1832 from stresses linked to his indebtedness. Herman witnessed his father's harrowing decline and death and his family's sufferings. These experiences would be echoed in the 1852 novel Pierre, in which a dying father “wander[s] so ambiguously in his mind.”
As a result of his family's misfortune, Herman began work at age twelve as a bank clerk in Albany for $150 per year. Herman devoured books from his father's library, like Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen (1590), which he would later describe in Pierre as a “maze of all-bewildering beauty.” Other books he read included Washington Irving's popular Sketch Book (1819–1820) and John Lloyd Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabian Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837), both of which would influence his later writings. As a teenager he also joined a local debating group, the Philo Logos Society, where he revealed a feisty personality. When he was just under eighteen years old, Herman was ridiculed in an Albany newspaper as a “Ciceronian Baboon” and “moral Ethiopian whose conscience qualms not in view of the most atrocious guilt; whose brazen cheek never tingles with the blush of shame, whose moral principles, and sensibilities, have been destroyed by the corruption of his own black and bloodless heart.” Herman's first recorded publication, in 1838, was a defense of his behavior in the debate group, in which he accused his foes of being “a train of bitter and caustic personalities.” Thus, his first literary exercise was to defend himself from social ostracism. Having his speeches dismissed as “the raving of an unmasked hypocrite” must have hurt, with his father's madness still so vivid in his memory.
A widespread economic crisis began in 1837, and in 1839 the twenty-year-old Herman accepted an offer from his older brother Gansevoort to return to Manhattan in order to sign on as a hand aboard a whaler or merchant ship. His goal was to see the Pacific Ocean and escape the bank at Albany; his mother commented, “I think at heart he is rather agitated.” As a boy on the ship St. Lawrence, he swabbed the decks and cleaned chicken coops and pigpens. Returning a few months later from his first sea voyage to Europe, Herman looked for work. He read Richard Henry Dana's best-seller, Two Years Before the Mast (1840), with what he later called a “Siamese link of affectionate sympathy.” Young Dana wrote of wider adventures than Melville had yet experienced: rounding Cape Horn. With his brother Gansevoort's encouragement, Melville determined to sign up for a lengthy whaling voyage, the kind that sometimes lasted four years.
Further Voyages and Typee
Melville sailed on 3 January 1841 from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on the Acushnet. He lived in close quarters with African Americans and Portuguese, which may have inspired his noteworthy racial tolerance later on. He left the ship for good without permission on 9 July, despite a sore leg. Melville made his way to Tahiti aboard another ship, gradually reaching Hawaii, where he again deserted ship. In 1843 he was working in a bowling alley in Honolulu as a pinsetter. The same year he signed up again with the U.S. Navy for a three-year stint and headed back for the Marquesas. There were other voyages, to Lima, Peru, and Rio de Janeiro, until his ship docked at Charleston in October 1844. Herman was twenty-five, his financial problems had not been solved, and he still lacked a profession. His family suggested that he publish an account of his adventures aboard ship, which he agreed to do, even though trying to earn a living as a writer was as difficult in Melville's time as it is today.
Typee (1846), the story of a young sailor, Toby, who escapes from a whaling boat in the South Seas, has clear parallels to the author's own experiences. Some of his memories were frankly erotic, deleted from the first edition of Typee, where Melville describes being bathed by naked local women “looking like so many mermaids sparkling in the billows that washed the sea weed covered sides of their lurking places.…[N]ever certainly was effeminate ottoman in the innermost shrine of his seraglio attended by lovelier houris with more excess of devotion than happened to me.” Typee jests about sexuality aboard all-male ships, “regularly tacking twice in the twenty-four hours somewhere off Buggerry Island, or the Devil's-Tail Peak.” Arriving at the Marquesas Islands, the protagonist explains, “Our ship was now wholly given up to every species of riot and debauchery. Not the feeblest barrier was interposed between the unholy passions of the crew and their unlimited gratification.”
Washington Irving praised Typee as “exquisite” when Gansevoort Melville brought him the completed manuscript in London, where the book was accepted for publication by Putnam's. It appeared in 1846, and some British reviewers were shocked by its rough humor. Indeed, in the first chapter of Typee there was a racy reference about the queen of Hawaii showing off tattoos on her backside to French visitors who “fled the scene of so shocking a catastrophe.” Worse, the book described missionaries in terms “of downright disrespect, of ridicule,” as the London Critic charged, accusing Melville of not having “the real interests of Christianity very seriously at heart,” an accurate, and damaging, accusation.
More enthused were the first reviewers of the American edition, published in March 1846, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote in the Salem Advertiser about Melville's description of hearty cannibals: “Next, we catch a glimpse of a smoked human head, and the half-picked skeleton of what had been (in a culinary sense) a well-dressed man.” Walt Whitman, as the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, also praised Typee: “As a book to hold in one's hand and pore dreamily over of a summer day, it is unsurpassed.” Herman's critical triumph was mixed with sadness over his brother Gansevoort's death in London in May 1846.
As expected, religious publications were outraged by the apparent immorality of Typee. The Christian Parlor Magazine wrote, “An apotheosis of barbarism! A panegyric on cannibal delights! An apostrophe to the spirit of savage felicity!” Apart from making Melville notorious as an author who lived among cannibals, Typee established his reputation as a writer of adventure stories in the tradition of Daniel Defoe and Tobias Smollett. During Melville's lifetime Typee would often be rated as his finest work by those who could not or would not see him as anything but a writer of exotic tales.
The publisher's accounts show that Melville earned only $86.26 from the first two thousand copies of Typee sold. At the time only two American writers, James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, earned a satisfactory living by writing. Shortly after Typee appeared, Melville was hard at work on a sequel, Omoo (1847), an adventure tale set in Tahiti with as many criticisms of missionaries as his first book. In Omoo (the native word for beachcomber), Melville's style developed, juxtaposing images and metaphors: “In an instant, palm-trees and elms—canoes and skiffs—church spires and bamboos—all mingled in one vision of the present and past.”
The literary influence of the Bible reached a new high point in Melville's work, with a tattooed sailor described as bearing a “sort of Urim and Thummim engraven upon his chest,” an Old Testament reference to sacred tablets. Omoo includes details about whaling, a mutiny, beachcombing, and an enchanting maiden named Fayaway. British reviewers of Omoo applauded Melville's criticisms of missionaries and the French colonizers of Tahiti. Blackwood's Magazine admired the book and suspected that because the author's name was so euphonious, it must be a pen name: “Herman Melville sounds to us vastly like the harmonious and carefully selected appellation of an imaginary hero of romance.” Reviewing the American edition of Omoo, Walt Whitman again was enthused, calling the book “thorough entertainment—not so light as to be tossed aside for its flippancy, nor so profound as to be tiresome.”
Once again, Melville set to work rapidly—he tended to spend what little he earned from publishers on books—and by the spring of 1847 had already begun his third book, Mardi (1849). The plot again involves a sailor deserting a whale ship to find adventure ashore in the South Seas. In August 1847, while working on the book, Herman became engaged to and married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of the eminent Massachusetts judge Lemuel Shaw. At this time, a number of American critics began to notice something immoral about Typee. The journalist Horace Greeley complained in the New York Tribune, “The tone is bad, and incidents of the most objectionable character are depicted with a racy lightness which would once have been admired but will now be justly condemned.” Greeley was particularly offended by “a penchant for bad liquors” and a “hankering after loose company not always of the masculine order.” The American Review accused Omoo of trying to “excite unchaste desire.” These charges came just weeks before Herman's wedding, along with a jesting reference in the New York Daily Tribune that “Mr. Herman Typee Omoo Melville” had just married a lady in Boston and could therefore expect a breach-of-promise lawsuit from “the fair forsaken Fayaway.”
The attacks continued, and Melville was accused by the journalist William O. Bourne of being “the shameless herald of his own wantonness, and the pertinacious traducer of loftier and better men.” Undaunted, in October 1847 Melville wrote to his British publisher to whet its appetite for his work in progress, a continuation of Omoo that would “possess more interest” than his previous works, “which treated of subjects comparatively trite.” Yet privately, Melville was hurt by the criticism of his work and wrote to a relative that “hereafter I shall no more stab at a book (in print, I mean) than I would stab at a man.”
The newlywed Melville set up house in Manhattan, where he took up a steady work routine, interrupted by walks through the city. His reading extended to Shakespeare, Montaigne, Rabelais, Dante, Defoe, Coleridge, Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Seneca, and Ossian. Melville's friends were aware of his bookworm tendencies, and one wrote: “By the way Melville reads old Books. He has borrowed Sir Thomas Browne of me and says finely of the speculations of the Religio Medici that Browne is a kind of ‘crack'd Archangel.’ Was ever anything of this sort said before by a sailor?” This intense reading was referred to in chapter 119 of Omoo: “In me, many worthies recline, and converse. I list to St. Paul who argues the doubts of Montaigne; Julian the Apostate cross-questions Augustine.…I am served like Bajazet: Bacchus my butler, Virgil my minstrel, Philip Sidney my page.”
The rich resources of language had become a signal element of Melville's work. A poetic texture in his prose was inspired by a deep assimilation of strong precedents. Mardi begins as a lively narrative, but the story of a young sailor's adventures on a fictional Polynesian archipelago turns into a meditation on human experience on earth. Melville found room for political satire, discussions of morality, and metaphysical notions. Later, critics saw Mardi as a stepping stone to Moby-Dick, but at the time the author was concerned with the growing chorus of blame from critics, who doubted the accuracy of his first two autobiographical books.
In 1848 he wrote to his British publisher, John Murray, stating that since readers claimed that Typee and Omoo were invented rather than true, Mardi would be “a real romance of mine.” By offering an undisguisedly novelistic work with elaborate concentration on language, he was ready to assert his artistic independence from the genre of travel memoir. The larger scope and ambitions of Mardi presented new difficulties, especially when Melville tried to incorporate elements of political satire, inspired by current events. As if in anticipation of how the book might be received, he included in it words about reviewers: “Critics?—Asses! Rather mules!—so emasculated, from vanity, they can not father a true thought. But at best, the greatest reviewers but prey on my leavings.” This transition in Melville's writing clearly caused him stress. His wife Lizzie wrote to a family member about Herman: “His frequent exclamation is—‘Oh Lizzy! The book!—the book!—what will become of the Book!’ ” Melville's first son Malcolm was born on 16 February 1849, just after Melville had completed work on Mardi. Before the baby arrived, Melville spent some time in what he considered to be his first truly intense reading of Shakespeare, during which he realized “the great Montaignism of Hamlet.” His English publisher accepted Mardi, despite a reader's report declaring that the chapter “Dreams” seemed “to have been written by a madman,” and the book's ending was “quite delirious.”
By then, Melville was intimately aware of madness among his family and friends. When a friend went insane in 1849, he wrote to a mutual friend: “He who has never felt, momentarily, what madness is has but a mouthful of brains.” At first, Mardi seemed to garner good reviews. Melville's friend Evert Duyckinck wrote about it in The Literary World, predicting that “the public will discover in him, at least, a capital essayist, in addition to the fascinating novelist and painter of sea life.” Another early reviewer termed it “a regular Mardi-gras of a novel, to judge from the richness of its prose.” But The London Athenaeum criticized the book for its “many madnesses,” and the Boston Post claimed that the book recalled “the talk in Rabelais, divested of all its coarseness, and, it may be added, of all its wit and humor.” The New York Daily Tribune stated, “If we had never heard of Mr. Melville before, we should soon have laid aside his book, as a monstrous compound of Carlyle, Jean-Paul, and Sterne, with now and then a touch of Ossian thrown in.”
The Boston Weekly Chronotype claimed that the book “has greatly disappointed [Melville's] old admirers.… We cannot afford to let so vigorous and fascinating a writer in his own sphere become an imitator of Carlyle or of some fantastic German. Come back, O Herman, from thy cloudy, super-mundane flight, to the vessel's deck and the perfumed iles.” Readers and reviewers longed for his return to the sea adventure tale, without meditations or metaphysics. With a family to support, Melville was ready to comply, for the time being.
Redburn and White-Jacket
The relative failure of Mardi made Melville backtrack to a more straightforward genre of writing, a sea narrative in which the protagonist goes aboard ship, experiences Liverpool's sordid neighborhoods (as Melville himself had at age twenty), and returns home. Melville assured his publisher that Redburn (1849) would sell better than Mardi had, calling it “a plain, straightforward, amusing narrative of personal experience—the son of a gentleman on his first voyage to sea as a sailor—no metaphysics, no conic-sections, nothing but cakes and ale.” He raced through the writing process, completing it in only about two months. He did not much value the result, writing to his father-in-law that the book was merely a job “done for money—being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood.” He would write even more harshly of Redburn to friends, calling it “a thing, which I, the author, know to be trash, and I wrote it to buy some tobacco with.”
Melville soon understood that Redburn, however quickly finished, was not a solution to his financial problems. He decided to write another novel, White-Jacket (1850). Once again the narrative referred to sexual activity aboard ship: “What too many seamen are when ashore is very well known; but what some of them become when completely cut off from shore indulgences can hardly be imagined by landsmen. The sins for which the cities of the plain were overthrown still linger in some of these wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep.”
Carefully based on research about shipboard medicine, the corporal punishment of sailors, and ports like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, White-Jacket was greeted with positive reviews when it was published. Readers of the day were pleased by its good humor, as it presented a cozy amiability less iconoclastic than in his previous novels. Still, White-Jacket included some subtle allusions to homosexual activity aboard ship, describing an old sailor's “goggling glances” at a young sailor, who might be led “down into tarry perdition in his hideous store-rooms.” More significantly, Melville used White-Jacket as a forum for discussing the evils of corporal punishment aboard ship, with chapters entitled “Some of the Evil Effects of Flogging,” “Flogging Not Lawful,” and “Flogging Not Necessary.”
After his heavy schedule of writing, Melville planned a trip to England. His solo voyage was pleasant, once Melville managed to avoid on ship a “lisping youth of genteel capacity…quite disposed to be sociable,” the son of a wealthy businessman whom Melville feared might be assigned as his cabin mate. Melville arrived in England in good spirits, stating in a letter that after ten years' absence, the British would surely describe him as the “author of ‘Peedee’ ‘Hullabaloo’ & ‘Pog-Dog.’ ” The most impressive sight he saw during this 1849 journey was the Hôtel de Cluny in Paris (later the Musée de Cluny) and its ruins of Roman bath works, which he would evoke in his next novel, Moby-Dick (1851).
Ten years earlier, as Melville was shipping out to England, the Knickerbocker Magazine in New York City had published an account of “Mocha Dick: or, The White Whale of the Pacific,” about a white whale that had destroyed many boats. Melville probably meditated over this story for years, while intensely reading the Bible, which would dramatically influence Moby-Dick; or, The Whale in style and metaphor. An outsized book in every sense, breaking all boundaries and limits, Moby-Dick was also inspired by other summits of European literature: Shakespeare's plays, Goethe's Faust (1808–1832), Dante's Divine Comedy (ca. 1308–1321), Thomas Carlyle's essays, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760), and Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), to name only a few. A massive wrestling with styles and subjects that the peaks of Western literature have struggled with, Moby-Dick is a rare book of infinite ambition that is at the height of its author's aims.
Typically jocular while writing it, Melville wrote to Richard Henry Dana in May 1850 that the book was half completed. “It will,” he asserted, “be a strange sort of book, tho', I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho' you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree.”
Melville moved to Massachusetts to be closer to a new friend, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom he was smitten. Indeed, in an essay-review of Hawthorne's book, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), he wrote: “I felt that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.” To a friend, Melville commented that compared with Hawthorne's soul, Washington Irving's was that of “a grasshopper.” In turn, Hawthorne's wife Sophia wrote to her mother about Melville's “singularly quiet expression” that was “a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique—It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into himself.” She added that Melville had described Hawthorne as “the first person whose physical being appeared to him wholly in harmony with the intellectual and spiritual. He said the sunny haze and the pensiveness, the symmetry of his face, the depth of eyes…were in exact response to the high calm intellect, the glowing, deep heart.” With this attachment, it was no wonder that Melville decided suddenly to buy a farm, which he named Arrowhead, within walking distance of the Hawthorne home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The superhuman effort needed to write Moby-Dick in a few months required the extra inspiration brought by proximity to Hawthorne.
Working on his masterpiece, Melville seemed to concentrate more intensely on a reduced group of intimates, chief among whom was Hawthorne. When Moby-Dick was printed in 1851, he celebrated by inviting Hawthorne to a private dinner. According to one biographer, this was “the happiest day of Melville's life.” The contentment would not last long, nor would the intense friendship. Hawthorne and his wife moved away from Pittsfield, but not before Melville modestly—and impractically—asked his friend not to write any review of Moby-Dick. Calling it a “wicked book” in its unconventional approach to moral questions, Melville was greeted by favorable reviews at first. Harper's Magazine observed,
Beneath the whole story, the subtle, imaginative reader may perhaps find a pregnant allegory, intended to illustrate the mystery of human life. Certain it is that the rapid, pointed hints which are often thrown out, with the keenness and velocity of a harpoon, penetrate deep into the heart of things, showing that the genius of the author for moral analysis is scarcely surpassed by his wizard power of description.
However, the Daily Palladium of New Haven objected, “there is a little more irreverence and profane jesting than was needful to publish, however true to life the conversation may be.” The United States Magazine and Democratic Review charged that Melville had “survived his reputation,” and “in sober truth, Mr. Melville's vanity is immeasurable.…From this morbid self-esteem, coupled with a most unbounded love of notoriety, spring all Mr. Melville's efforts, all his rhetorical contortions, all his declamatory abuse of society, all his inflated sentiment, and all his insinuating licentiousness.” The Southern Quarterly Review opined that Captain Ahab's “ravings, and the ravings of some of the tributary characters, and the ravings of Mr. Melville himself, meant for eloquent declamation, are such as would justify a writ de lunatico [of madness] against all the parties.” Moby-Dick sold fewer copies than Melville's previous two books, but he had more mouths than ever to feed after the birth of his son Stanwix in October 1851. Only posthumously would Moby-Dick be widely recognized as a masterpiece of world literature.
Pierre and “Bartleby the Scrivener”
With financial pressures accumulating, Melville launched into another novel. Pierre (1852) describes erotically charged relationships between a mother and son and between the same young man and a young woman who might be his half sister. This incestuous subject matter was even more offensive to readers of the time than Melville's acceptance of a variety of religions instead of an exclusive Christian belief. Melville intended that Pierre, compared with Moby-Dick, would be “a rural bowl of milk,” as he told Sophia Hawthorne, but it was an uncompromising work, in a style heavily influenced by Shakespeare: “In tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril; nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown.”
Given the poor sales of Moby-Dick, Melville was forced to accept a disadvantageous contract from Harper and Brothers in order to see Pierre into print. In Pierre, Melville may have drawn on recent memories of small-town life in Massachusetts. In addition to the novel's psychological investigations, the title character is a novelist who has conflicts with his publisher. Pierre's publishers write to him: “You are a swindler. Upon the pretense of writing a popular novel for us, you have been receiving cash advances from us, while passing through our press the sheets of a blasphemous rhapsody, filched from the vile Atheists, Lucian and Voltaire.” This type of subversive humor was clearly informed by Melville's own adversarial relationships with his publishers. Harper was indeed unhappy with Pierre, and when Melville proposed to write a further book, they turned him down. His literary career had suffered a near-fatal blow.
When the British edition of Moby-Dick appeared in 1852, reviewers tended to point out literary influences, including Charles Lamb, Washington Irving, Thomas De Quincey, and Sir Thomas Browne. Critics also noted that Melville had arrived at a potentially dangerous new synthesis. Bell's New Weekly Messenger, based in London, stated that the book was ideal for readers who “love curry at its warmest point. Ginger cannot be too hot in the mouth for them. Such people, we should think, constitute the admirers of Herman Melville.” The British reviews were better than those in America, but this did not help Melville's career or finances significantly. For the time being Pierre was not issued by any British publisher. American readers were informed by the Boston Evening Gazette, “Had Mr. Melville retired from the literary field after the production of ‘Typee’ and ‘Omoo’ he would have possessed an enviable reputation, but like many other authors he has spun the golden web so very fine in each succeeding work that it is almost valueless.” At age thirty-two, Melville was a washed-up writer in the eyes of some influential critics.
Some charged him with even worse crimes. The Boston Post called Pierre “the craziest fiction extant,” adding that to “save it from utter worthlessness, it must be called a prose poem, and even then, it might be supposed to emanate from a lunatic hospital rather than from the quiet retreats of Berkshire.” Melville was accused of producing “more and sadder trash” than any writer of “undoubted ability.” The theme of insanity was frequently repeated, as in the Southern Quarterly Review, which asserted, “The annals of Bedlam might be defied to produce such another collection of lunatics as the hero, his mother, his sister, and the heroine. Were there no mad doctors in that part of the country where they lived? Were the asylums all full?”
Some critics even claimed that Melville himself was insane, as a headline in the New York Day Book charged: “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY.” The accompanying article stated that his last book was “composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman” and that “Melville was really supposed to be deranged.” The Southern Quarterly Review similarly asserted that he had “gone ‘clean daft’…[in] a very mad book.” The British New Monthly Magazine joined the chorus with a review of Moby-Dick in 1853 that described the book's style as “maniacal—mad as a March hare—mowing, gibbering, screaming, like an incurable Bedlamite, reckless of keeper or strait-waistcoat.”
Only rare readers and reviewers appreciated the complexities of Melville's psychological investigations in Pierre. The Washington National Intelligencer stated, “Melville has a strange power to reach the sinuousities of a thought, if we may so express ourselves.” Into the genre of family novel Melville had introduced disturbing and unexpected elements (which continue to trouble some readers). Putnam's Monthly placed the blame on bad literary influences and asserted that Melville should have read prose by the lucid Joseph Addison instead of the complex, clotted works of Thomas Browne. By following this prescription, the well-intentioned critic hoped, Melville's writing would improve in “a year or two.”
In understandable despair about his earnings and his literary career, Melville tried to obtain a consular appointment, a sinecure given to the political favorites of elected officials. Hawthorne was named consul to Liverpool, but Melville had no such luck. Meanwhile he worked on a new project for a novel, with the provisory title “The Isle of the Cross,” which was never completed and is now lost.
Melville's family was losing any faith they might have previously had in his literary work. His mother wrote to her brother that Herman's ardent writing did not agree with him: “This constant working of the brain, and excitement of the imagination, is wearing Herman out.” Her dream, to see her son appointed to a consular job and thus be saved from literary obsessions, would never be realized. Instead, after the “Isle of the Cross” project, he produced some short stories, including Bartleby the Scrivener, one of his most permanently astonishing works. The tale of the office employee who would “prefer not to” has been seen as a precursor of modern writers from Franz Kafka to Samuel Beckett in its blend of gloomy comedy and outright despair. Its landscape of Lower Manhattan as a tragedy-laden shrine of commerce was as current 150 years later as when the story was written, making it perhaps one of the most perpetually relevant tales in American literature. Narrated by a perplexed employer, “Bartleby” opens unforgettably:
I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener the strangest I ever saw or heard of. While of other law-copyists I might write the complete life, of Bartleby nothing of that sort can be done. I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature. Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.
“Bartleby” was greeted by an unusually comprehending review from the Boston Daily Evening Traveler. Its critic praised the story for “originality of invention and grotesqueness of humor…equal to anything from the pen of Dickens, whose writings it closely resembles, both as to the character of the sketch and the peculiarity of the style.”
In 1853, when it seemed that Melville's fortunes in novel writing could not be lower, a fire broke out in the storerooms of Harper and Brothers and many of Melville's warehoused books were destroyed, thus removing any hope, already remote, of future royalties. Harper reacted by demanding that Melville pay in advance for any reprints of his books. Small wonder that he preferred to focus on publishing shorter works in magazines at this time, such as the humorous “I and My Chimney,” with its fairly blatant phallic symbolism.
Israel Potter and The Piazza Tales
While working on short stories, Melville also prepared a new full-length work, a project he had contemplated for several years. It was inspired by The Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter, a true account that had first appeared in 1824. An eighteenth-century American farmer and adventurer, Potter fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill and later went to Europe as a courier of secret messages to Benjamin Franklin. Eventually, however, he became a beggar in London; perhaps Potter's troubled later life reminded Melville of his own career difficulties. The book was an occasion for Melville to research and recreate the lives of historical Americans such as Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin, and John Paul Jones. He described Franklin as “Jack of all trades, master of each and mastered by none—the type and genius of his land, Franklin was everything but a poet.”
The presence of these real-life characters disarmed reviewers of Melville's Israel Potter (1855), such as the critic at the New Bedford Mercury, who called the book “veritable history, which is a mixture of fun, gravity, romance, and reality very taking from beginning to end.” In his quintessential Americanness, Franklin's nonpoetic status must have struck Melville, who by now was surely aware that he himself was a strong poet. One of the most poetic of his prose pieces, later collected in The Piazza Tales (1856), was Benito Cereno, based on a historical incident of shipboard mutiny described in an 1817 book by Captain Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
Melville finished Benito Cereno in 1855, and reviews for The Piazza Tales were generally positive, led by William Ellery Channing's notice in the New Bedford Daily Mercury: “Hawthorne is more dry, prosaic and detailed, Irving more elegant, careful, and popular, but Melville is a kind of wizard; he writes strange and mysterious things that belong to other worlds beyond this tame and everyday place we live in.”
In October 1856, desperately feeling the need of a change of scene, Melville sailed on a solitary trip to England, Italy, and the Near East. In Southport, England, in November he met Hawthorne once again, although the two old friends now felt uneasy in each other's company. Hawthorne later noted in his journal that he regretted his failure to find a consular appointment for Melville, who must have “suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly.” According to Hawthorne, Melville's works “for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind.” The trip at times revealed stresses and tensions, as in Constantinople, where Melville noted in his journal, “Dread of the Arabs. Offering to lead me into a side-hole.…Horrible place for assassination.” He described the ornate Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem as “all is glitter and nothing is gold. A sickening cheat.” He mocked commercialized tourism in the Holy Land of 1857 by recording a tour guide's typical spiel: “Yonder is the arch where Christ was shown to the people, and just by that open window is sold the best coffee in Jerusalem.” He seemed relieved to return home to America.
The Confidence-Man, the Lecture Circuit, and Poetry
Melville's next novel, The Confidence-Man (1857), was based on a news item from 1849 in which a thief abused the trust of his victims in Manhattan. Melville transferred the story to a Mississippi riverboat, where deceivers from P. T. Barnum to Ralph Waldo Emerson are evoked. (Emerson was considered a fraud by Melville because he claimed that evil does not exist.) The satiric Confidence-Man expressed the writer's bitterness at what his life had become despite his accomplishments. Constant cheating and swindling fill the pages of this novel, one of Melville's most devastatingly dark works. Perhaps the bitterest irony for Melville was the American manner of optimistically claiming that everything is fine when manifestly it is not. His mood was doubtless not improved by a series of health problems that he suffered while writing the novel, including rheumatism and sciatica.
The critic Newton Arvin has written of the “homogeneity” of Melville's writings at this time, expressing emotions drawn from life experiences: “ideas of failure, bankruptcy, anticlimax, the miscarriage of hopes, and a willful withdrawal from the life of men;…the closely related motive of exile, desertion, forlornness, or sterility; and…the motive of treachery, fraudulence, and falsity.” Among the early reviews of The Confidence-Man, the one appearing in the New York Journal castigated Melville for the way “dogmatizing, theorizing, philosophising and amplifying upon every known subject are ‘piled up’ for forty-five chapters in the most eccentric and incomprehensible manner.” The Cincinnati Enquirer expressed one of the common misunderstandings of the day about Melville's achievement: “ ‘Typee,’ one of, if not the first of his works, is the best, and ‘The Confidence-Man’ the last, decidedly the worst. So Mr. M's authorship is toward the nadir rather than the climax.” The Critic called The Confidence-Man “the hardest nut to crack” of the author's books and even doubted whether Melville's persona as adventurer-writer was genuine: “There are some parts of the story in which we feel half inclined to doubt whether this apostle of geniality is not, after all, an arch-imposter of the deepest dye.”
As these reviews came in, Melville's finances reached a critical point, and he was obliged to sell his farm in piecemeal fashion. Meanwhile his family tried to persuade him to stop writing, given the disastrous results, both financially and on his mental health. In April 1857 his sister Augusta wrote to a relative that it was “of the utmost importance that something should be done to prevent the necessity of Herman's writing.…[To] return to the sedentary life which that of an author writing for his support necessitates, he would risk the loss of all the benefit to his health which he has gained by his tour, and possibly become a confirmed invalid. Of this his physicians have warned him.”
Melville's brother-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, wrote to another relative that The Confidence-Man belonged to “that horribly uninteresting class of nonsensical books he is given to writing—where there are pages of crude theory and speculation to every line of narrative—and interspersed with strained and ineffectual attempts to be humorous. I wish he could or would do better, when he went away he was dispirited and ill.” So that Melville would neither have to write nor labor at his farm, his family tried to find him a job at the U.S. Customs House in New York City, but without immediate success. In June 1857 Melville attended a dinner at which Oliver Wendell Holmes described a lecturer as “a literary strumpet subject for a greater than whore's fee to prostitute himself.” Short of alternatives, Melville resolved nevertheless to try to make a living giving public lectures.
Melville offered to lecture on subjects like “Statues in Rome,” about which he admitted he was no expert. As he was offered no bookings in Manhattan, his lectures—beginning in 1857—took place in smaller cities such as Albany, Syracuse, and Binghamton. These were a disaster. The Lawrence Courier complained that Melville's voice was so low that “a large part of the audience could not hear,” while the Bunker-Hill Aurora and Boston Mirror stated that during the speech, some of his audience “left the hall; some read books and newspapers, some sought refuge in sleep, and some, to their praise be it spoken, seemed determined to use it as an appropriate occasion for self-discipline in the blessed virtue of patience.”
Melville's habit of muttering was part of the problem, as the Auburn American claimed: “The lecture was completely, absolutely spoiled by his inexcusable blundering, sing song, monotonous delivery. It was the most complete case of infanticide we ever heard of; he literally strangled his own child. The words came through his moustache about as loud and with as much force as the creaking of a field mouse through a thick hedge.” Still he pressed on, giving unsatisfactory speeches in Buffalo, Cincinnati, and other cities until February 1858. Shortly after finishing his tour, he had a physical collapse, after which, his wife later recalled, he “never regained his former vigor and strength.”
As soon as he recovered somewhat, he went back to lecturing, going as far away as Wisconsin and Chicago since no organization ever invited him back for a second visit. This painful time was not entirely wasted. When not on the road, Melville still worked on his farm while deepening his passion for poetry, which would be his main literary outlet for the rest of his life.
From his early youth, Melville had learned many great poems by heart, and he now began to write verse of extraordinary quality. Like Walt Whitman, whose fascinating prose has been relatively neglected because of the fame of his poetry, Melville's poems may have been overlooked because of his renown as a novelist. Despite the praise of discerning writers like Robert Penn Warren, Melville's poetry at the turn of the twenty-first century had still not received the full attention it deserves. Turning his attention seriously to poetry, Melville read not only major and minor poets of America and England, but also outstanding critical essayists. He researched the subject as thoroughly as he had the lore and history of whaling, and many other topics, when writing his novels.
Melville's first collection of poems, compiled in 1860, was unpublished, but he continued to write and plan future collections. In March 1861, still in search of a job, Melville went to Washington, D.C. There he attended a party at the White House given by the new president, Abraham Lincoln. Melville wrote to his wife, “Old Abe is much better looking than I expected and younger looking. He shook hands like a good fellow—working hard at it like a man sawing wood at so much per cord. Mrs. Lincoln is rather good-looking I thought.” This somewhat exalted praise—few admired Mrs. Lincoln's looks—was not rewarded by any official appointment.
Melville returned to the Massachusetts countryside, where he felt, as before, permanently uneasy. In a book Melville owned, the British essayist William Hazlitt commented, “All country people hate each other. They have so little comfort that they envy their neighbors the smallest pleasure or advantage, and nearly grudge themselves the necessaries of life.” Next to this, Melville jotted down, “That's a great truth.” In November 1862 the disadvantages of rural life were reinforced by a road accident in which Melville was thrown from a wagon, breaking a shoulder and injuring his ribs. A friend recalled that after the accident, Melville avoided taking carriage rides and although eventually he seemed to recover from the shock, he probably never did so completely. In November 1863, when he finally sold his Pittsfield farm and moved back to Manhattan, it was with little nostalgia for rural life, even though Melville is still celebrated locally as a Berkshires writer.
From the beginning of the Civil War, Melville wrote poems inspired by some of the chief battles. In April 1863 he pulled strings with civil servant friends of his late father-in-law, Judge Shaw, to win permission to tour the Army of the Potomac's front lines. In 1864 he was “much shocked” to hear that Nathaniel Hawthorne had died, although the two friends had grown apart. The war had already inspired poems of anguished pity, as in Melville's most celebrated line, “All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys,” from The March into Virginia, inspired by the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861. His Shiloh: A Requiem, following the Battle of Shiloh of April 1862, painted an uncanny scene of calm after the tragic events of war:
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,The swallows fly lowOver the fields in clouded days,The forest-field of Shiloh—Over the field where April rainSolaced the parched one stretched in painThrough the pause of nightThat followed the Sunday fightAround the church of Shiloh—The church so lone, the log-built one,That echoed to many a parting groanAnd natural prayerOf dying foemen mingled there—Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—Fame or country least their care:(What like a bullet can undeceive!)But now they lie low,While over them the swallows skim,And all is hushed at Shiloh.
His elegy to the recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln, The Martyr, rings truer than the more famous O Captain, My Captain by Walt Whitman, perhaps because genuine rage seeps through the prosody more than in Whitman's work. Melville subtitled his poem “Indicative of the Passion of the People on the 15th of April, 1865” and later added a note to indicate that he was not advocating revenge against the Southern rebels, although this is indeed the emotion behind his poem:
Good Friday was the dayOf the prodigy and crime,When they killed him in his pity,When they killed him in his primeOf clemency and calm—When with yearning he was filledTo redeem the evil-willed,And, though conqueror, be kind;But they killed him in his kindness,In their madness and their blindness,And they killed him from behind.There is sobbing of the strong,And a pall upon the land;But the People in their weepingBare the iron hand:Beware the People weepingWhen they bare the iron hand.He lieth in his blood—The father in his face;They have killed him, the Forgiver—The Avenger takes his place,The Avenger wisely stern,Who in righteousness shall doWhat the heavens call him to,And the parricides remand;For they killed him in his kindness,In their madness and their blindness,And his blood is on their hand.There is sobbing of the strong,And a pall upon the land;But the People in their weepingBare the iron hand:Beware the People weepingWhen they bare the iron hand
Despite this powerful emotional aura, his collection, Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), was dismissed by most critics. The American Literary Gazette and Publishers' Circular called the rhymes “fearful” because one poem rhymed “law” with “Shenandoah.” The Cincinnati Enquirer asserted that some of the poems “would be prose but for the typography,” while the Boston Post somewhat ambiguously called them “pregnant, but not artistic.” Melville was unfavorably compared with more conventional war poets like James Russell Lowell, and even the intelligent reader William Dean Howells complained in the Atlantic Monthly, “Mr. Melville's work possesses the negative virtues of originality in such degree that it not only reminds you of no poetry you have read, but of no life you have known.”
Melville's new job as Deputy Inspector at the Customs House in New York City, from 1866 onward, permitted him much time outdoors, going from ship to ship to verify their cargoes. In 1867 domestic worries, fueled by continuing economic concerns, exploded when Melville's eighteen-year-old son Malcolm killed himself with a pistol at home. At first the coroner's verdict was suicide “under temporary insanity of mind,” but the family appealed this judgment, which was revised to an accident. Whatever the truth was, Melville wrote to a friend about the funeral, “I wish you could have seen him as he lay in his last attitude, the ease of a gentle nature. Mackie never gave me a disrespectful word in his life, nor in any way ever failed in filialness.”
The weight of this loss pursued Melville in his work days at the Customs House. In his off hours, he remained on the periphery of literary life, going to see a Manhattan reading by the touring novelist Charles Dickens in March 1868—a triumphant lecturer, in contrast to Melville—although not meeting him. Melville, who was still indebted to Harper's for advances that had not been earned by book sales, also studied the visual arts and collected engravings while continuing to concentrate on poetry. In 1869 he underlined an observation in Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism (1865): “Genius is mainly an affair of energy, and poetry is mainly an affair of genius.” In the same book, Melville drew a box around a quotation from the French writer Maurice de Guérin: “The literary career seems to me unreal, both in its essence and in the rewards which one seeks from it, and therefore fatally marred by a secret absurdity.” Melville added in the margin: “This is the finest verbal statement of a truth which every one who thinks in these days must have felt.”
Having for a decade been mulling over his trip to the Middle East, Melville in 1870 began work on his book-length narrative poem, Clarel (1876). The title character is a divinity student who makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and meets two young men, Rolfe and Vine. Melville cast himself as the character Rolfe, while Vine is his late friend Hawthorne. Although Clarel remains one of Melville's least-read works, in its time the long narrative form was embraced by the poets Alfred Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Morris, and Robert Browning. There were also vivid older examples by such poets as Lord Byron and Walter Scott.
It took Melville five years to finish Clarel. The poem contains discourses on religious beliefs and politics, expressing Melville's personal philosophy, as when the character Rolfe states that Christianity
made earth inhuman; yes, a denWorse for Christ's coming, since his love(Perverted) did but venom prove.
While laboring on Clarel, Melville had a rare experience of literary recognition when seven of his poems from Battle Pieces were included in an anthology, Poets and Poetry of America (1872), whose editor, Richard Henry Stoddard, would later call Melville “one of our great unrecognized poets.” Later, Melville's uncle Peter Gansevoort paid for the publication of Clarel, perhaps hoping for a picturesque narrative.
Many critics of the day spoke of Melville as if he were already dead. The Springfield Republican wrote in 1876, “Mr. Melville lives in his novels—a sort of posthumous life, it is true, yet they are worth reading.” The Boston Daily Evening Transcript found the massive work “rather apt to create a disgust for poetry if one is obliged to read them conscientiously and crucially.” Although discovering in it echoes of poets from William Blake to Hafez, the critic ultimately found the book confusing. Likewise, the New York Independent found Clarel “destitute of interest or metrical skill.”
London's critics were more receptive. The London Academy stated, “in the subtle blending of old and new thought, in the unexpected turns of argument, and in the hidden connexion between things outward separate, Mr. Melville reminds us of A[rthur] H[ugh] Clough.” However, Clarel's reception made Melville even more obscure in the world of American letters. There were brief respites, as in 1882, when a newly founded Authors Club in New York City invited him to speak at one of their gatherings, but he refused, stating that “he had become too much of a hermit [whose]…nerves could no longer stand large gatherings.” Melville's brother Thomas died in 1884, Herman himself suffered from rheumatic gout, and the rest of the family struggled with ill health as well. Melville kept on at the Customs House, where his wife stated, “the occupation is a great thing for him,” declaring that working outdoors, going from boat to boat, suited him vastly better than a desk job that “required head work.”
John Marr and other Sailors, Timoleon, and Billy Budd
In his late sixties, Melville grew increasingly weary, but kept laboring on at his literary projects and day job. In 1888 he gathered poems into a new collection, John Marr and Other Sailors, portraits of sailors and adventurers he had known. He worked on another text, Timoleon (1891) and his last great prose work, Billy Budd (1924), which was unfinished when he died. The power of Billy Budd testifies to the fact that Melville still harbored a unique creative force despite his career reversals. Although Billy Budd's protagonist is a doomed, conventionally handsome sailor, the first example of physical beauty that Melville cites in the story is a black man in Liverpool, a common sailor,
so intensely black that he must needs have been a native African of the unadulterate blood of Ham. A symmetric figure much above the average height. The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humor. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.
As for Timoleon, the story of a Corinthian general of the fourth century b.c. was Melville's starting point for a poetry collection that explored his own family strife and career struggles. They included a poignant short meditation, Monody, written after hearing of the death of Hawthorne in 1864:
To have known him, to have loved himAfter loneness long;And then to be estranged in life,And neither in the wrong;And now for death to set his seal—Ease me, a little ease, my song!By wintry hills his hermit-moundThe sheeted snow-drifts drape,And houseless there the snow-bird flitsBeneath the fir-trees' crape:Glazed now with ice the cloistral vineThat hid the shyest grape.
Despite the emotions expressed in such poignant late poems, a description of Melville in 1886 telling racy anecdotes in a barbershop suggests that he was still capable of joie de vivre. This joy may have had little to do with literature, however. One friend later recalled asking Melville at this time to borrow some of the books he had written, and Melville admitted he owned no copies of them.
In 1890, New York Publishers' Weekly explained, “There are more people today who believe Herman Melville dead than there are those who know he is living.” He took strenuous walks around Manhattan, being ever restless, until finally he died on 28 September 1891 of an enlarged heart, aggravated by two years of erysipelas, a bacterial skin infection. Newspaper obituaries, like that of the New York Press, stated that Melville had “fallen into a literary decline,” while the New York Times headlined the story: “THE LATE HIRAM MELVILLE,” calling him “an absolutely forgotten man.”
At first, Melville's reputation fared little better after his death than when he was alive. In England, a Melville revival began, fueled by the admiration of writers like W. H. Hudson, who in the 1890s referred to Moby-Dick as a “great American book.” This despite the novelist Joseph Conrad, who in 1907 wrote to a friend that he found Moby-Dick a “rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 vols of it.” In his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), D. H. Lawrence, a more sensitive reader, applauded Omoo as “a fascinating book; picaresque, rascally, roving. Melville, as a bit of a beachcomber.…For once he is really reckless. For once he takes life as it comes.…That is good about Melville: he never repents.” Of Moby-Dick, Lawrence wrote that although Melville was “rather a sententious man,” he created in that novel “a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul.” Growing admiration of Melville was fueled by commemorations of his birthday centennial in 1919, followed by the generally unsatisfactory but significant first full-length biography, Raymond Weaver's Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic (1921). Weaver presented Melville as a literary giant who “sinned blackly against the orthodoxy of his time.” Appreciative books, like Lewis Mumford's Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision (1929), appeared. F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance (1941), seeing Melville as a natural, ingenuous writer, was highly influential. After scolding Melville in schoolmasterish fashion for stylistic faults, Matthiessen states that Melville's “liberation in Moby-Dick through the agency of Shakespeare was almost an unconscious reflex.” He added perceptively that in Moby-Dick, the character of Captain Ahab is “not so much a varied human being as a state of mind.” Matthiessen underlined the tragic element in Melville's writings, calling Pierre “about the most desperate in our literature.”
In the late twentieth century, critics have offered appreciative looks at even unpopular Melville works like The Confidence-Man, seeing it as a precursor of the Theatre of the Absurd, Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov. Others, like Warner Berthoff, have found his shorter writings like The Piazza Tales to be his most “instructive” achievement, that might “serve as a practical model” for today's writers. Melville's true value as a poet has still to be fully measured, worthy of a place alongside Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. As a novelist, he surely stands alone in nineteenth-century America.
See also Short Story in America, The.
- Typee (1846)
- Omoo (1847)
- Mardi (1849)
- Redburn (1849)
- White-Jacket (1850)
- Moby-Dick (1851)
- Pierre (1852)
- Israel Potter (1855)
- Piazza Tales (1856)
- The Confidence-Man (1857)
- Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866)
- Clarel (1876)
- John Marr and Other Sailors (1888)
- Timoleon (1891)
- Billy Budd (1924)
- Allen, Gay Wilson. Melville and His World. New York, 1971.
- Arvin, Newton. Herman Melville. New York, 1950. A combination of perceptiveness and hasty value judgments.
- Auden, W. H. The Enchafed Flood; or, The Romantic Iconography of the Sea. New York, 1950. A major Anglo-American poet analyzes Melville's sea imagery.
- Baird, James. Ishmael. Baltimore, 1956.
- Bercaw, Mary K. Melville's Sources. Evanston, Ill., 1987.
- Berthoff, Warner. The Example of Melville. Princeton, N.J., 1962.
- Bloom, Harold. Ahab. New York, 1991.
- Bloom, Harold. Herman Melville: Modern Critical Views. New York, 1986.
- Bloom, Harold. Herman Melville's Moby-Dick: Modern Critical Interpretations. New York, 1986.
- Bowen, James K., and Richard Vanderbeets. A Critical Guide to Herman Melville: Abstracts of Forty Years of Criticism. Glenview, Ill., 1971.
- Branch, Watson G. Melville: The Critical Heritage. The Critical Heritage Series. London and Boston, 1974.
- Braswell, William. Melville's Religious Thought: An Essay in Interpretation. New York, 1959.
- Brodhead, Richard H. Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel. Chicago, 1976.
- Brodhead, Richard H. New Essays on Moby-Dick: The American Novel. Cambridge and New York, 1986.
- Bryant, John. A Companion to Melville Studies. New York, 1986.
- Bryant John. Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American Renaissance. New York, 1993.
- Bryant, John, and Robert Milder, eds. Melville's Evermoving Dawn: Centennial Essays. Kent, Ohio, 1997.
- Chase, Richard Volney. Melville, A Collection of Critical Essays: Twentieth-Century Views. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962.
- Cowen, Walker. Melville's Marginalia. New York, 1987. A study of Melville as engaged reader.
- Davis, Clark. After the Whale: Melville in the Wake of Moby-Dick. Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1995.
- Dillingham, William B. Melville and His Circle: The Last Years. Athens, Ga., 1996.
- Eckardt, Sister Mary Ellen, and Harold Bloom, eds. Herman Melville's Billy Budd, “Benito Cereno,” “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and Other Tales. New York: Chelsea, 1987.
- Eckardt, Sister Mary Ellen, and Robert Milder, eds. Critical Essays on Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor. Critical Essays on American Literature series. Boston, 1989.
- Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. Reprint, New York, 1962. An early look at male bonding in Moby-Dick and other works by Melville.
- Gale, Robert L. A Herman Melville Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn., 1995.
- Garner, Stanton. The Civil War World of Herman Melville. Lawrence, Kans., 1993.
- Gilman, William H. Melville's Early Life and Redburn. New York, 1951.
- Haberstroh, Charles. Melville and Male Identity. Rutherford, N.J., 1980.
- Hayes, Kevin, and Hershel Parker. Checklist of Melville Reviews. Evanston, Ill., 1991.
- Hetherington, Hugh W. Melville's Reviewers, British and American: 1846–1891. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1961.
- Higgins, Brian, and Hershel Parker. Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews. New York, 1995.
- Hillway, Tyrus. Herman Melville. New York, 1963.
- Hillway, Tyrus, ed. Moby-Dick Centennial Essays. Dallas, Tex., 1953.
- Hoffman, Daniel. Form and Fable in American Fiction. New York, 1961.
- Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography. Berkeley, Calif., 1951.
- Jehlen, Myra. Herman Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1994.
- Knapp, Joseph G. Tortured Synthesis: The Meaning of Melville's Clarel. New York, 1972.
- Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923. Reprint, London, 1971. Among the most readable of writings on Melville.
- Levin, Harry. The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville. New York, 1958.
- Levine, Robert S. The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge and New York, 1998.
- Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819–1891. 2 vols. New York, 1969. Massive and useful.
- Lowell, Robert. Benito Cereno in The Old Glory. New York, 1965. An influential dramatization of Melville's story.
- Martin, Robert K. Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1986. A gender studies approach.
- Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London and New York, 1941. A lastingly influential study of Melville as a tragic, original American voice.
- Mayoux, Jean-Jacques. Melville. Translated by John Ashbery. New York, 1960. A succinct appreciation from France, where Melville has long been appreciated.
- Metcalf, Eleanor Melville. Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle. Cambridge, Mass., 1953.
- Miller, Edwin Haviland. Melville. New York, 1975. Intelligent, sensitive overview.
- Miller, James E., Jr. A Reader's Guide to Herman Melville. New York, 1962.
- Miller, Perry. The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene. New York, 1956. A look at the harsh literary controversies of the early nineteenth century in America.
- Mumford, Lewis. Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision. New York and London, 1929.
- Mushabac, Jane. Melville's Humor: A Critical Study. Hamden, Conn., 1981.
- Olsen, Charles. Call Me Ishmael. New York, 1947. A literary descendant of Melville's whale story.
- Parker, Hershel. Reading Billy Budd. Evanston, Ill., 1990.
- Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography. 2 vols. Baltimore, 1996. Full of essential data and fervent interpretations.
- Parker, Hershel, ed. The Recognition of Herman Melville: Selected Criticism since 1846. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1967.
- Pavese, Cesare. Herman Melville. In his American Literature: Essays and Opinions. Translated by Edwin Fussell. Berkeley, Calif., 1970. Pavese, Melville's Italian translator, had his own tragic aura.
- Ricks, Beatrice, and Joseph D. Adams. Herman Melville: A Reference Bibliography: 1900–1972, with Selected Nineteenth-Century Materials. Boston, 1973.
- Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville: A Biography. Amherst, Mass, 1998.
- Robillard, Douglas. Melville and the Visual Arts: Ionian Form, Venetian Tint. Kent, Ohio, 1997.
- Rosenberry, Edward H. Melville and the Comic Spirit. Cambridge, Mass., 1955.
- Sealts, Merton M. The Early Lives of Melville: Nineteenth-Century Biographical Sketches and Their Authors. Madison, Wis., 1974.
- Sealts, Merton M., Jr. Melville as Lecturer. Cambridge, Mass., 1957.
- Sealts, Merton M., Jr. Melville's Reading. Columbia, S.C., 1988.
- Sedgwick, William Ellery. Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind. New York, 1962.
- Sewall, Richard B. Moby-Dick as Tragedy. In his The Vision of Tragedy. New Haven, Conn., 1959.
- Shurr, William H. The Mystery of Iniquity: Melville as Poet, 1857–1891. Lexington, Ky., 1951.
- Spark, Clare. Hunting Captain Ahab. Kent, Ohio, 2001.
- Stein, William Bysshe. The Poetry of Melville's Late Years: Time, History, Myth, and Religion. Albany, N.Y., 1970.
- Thompson, Lawrance Roger. Melville's Quarrel with God. Princeton, N.J., 1952.
- Vincent, Howard P., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Billy Budd. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1971.
- Warren, Robert Penn. Melville's Poems. Southern Review 3 (1967): 799–855. A respected American poet offers his views on Melville's work in verse.
- Yannella, Donald, and Hershel Parker. The Endless, Winding Way in Melville. Glassboro, N.J., 1981.