Hi all! I am back with Part 2 of a biographical series about Herman Melville in anticipation of reading Moby Dick. All of the following information
is taken from Hershel Parker's biography "Herman Melville: A Biography. Vol 1".
I am very grateful for all of your interest. Can't wait to get to the novel! My goal is to begin the study toward the end of the week. I hope you
can join me.
For more on Melville's early years, please check out this thread:
One main purpose of this study (besides learning more about an interesting life) is to better understand some of the external circumstances that made
writing the epic novel Moby Dick possible. Much of the information I focused on is that which contributed directly to Melville's writing. With that
said, let's continue the study!
After trying his hand at several professions and failing to establish a marketable skill, Melville decided to follow in the footsteps of several of
his relatives (uncle, cousins) and set his face towards the sea.
In 1839, at the age of 19, Herman signed aboard the St. Lawrence destined to Liverpool as a green hand. This was his first experience as a member of
a crew, and his first time away from his family and out of the country. It was here that he became accustomed to daily life on a ship and the
nautical lingo. Herman spent several months in England, which experience was later expanded upon in his novel Redburn. However, it wasn’t until
two years later that his wildest adventures began.
In 1841, when Herman was 22 years old, he signed up as a whaleman aboard the Acushnet. Although there was little money to be made as an ordinary
whaleman, in the very least he could relieve his family of the burden of feeding his voracious appetite and providing clothing and shelter to a still
growing young man (yes, there is evidence that he had yet to reach full size). A few days prior to departure, Herman and his brother Gansevoort
attended a sermon at the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford which according to Parker was “already renowned for the white marble centographs on the
walls eloquently memorializing local men who had died at sea”-- the same chapel where Moby Dick’s narrator Ishmael attended a fiery sermon before
boarding the Pequod.
Aboard the Acushnet, Melville and his fellow crewmates killed and processed whales-- a highly dangerous and grueling task detailed in Moby Dick. They
sailed past the Bahamas, harbored in Rio de Janeiro, sailed between Tierra del Fuego and Staten Land, up the coast of Chile, Peru, and Northward
toward the Galapagos. It was around this time that Melville met Owen Chase’s son (whaling vessels often met up at sea and exchanged yarns) and
heard the horrifying tale of the Essex, struck down by a ferocious whale that fated the crew to the dire events recently depicted in the film In the
Heart of the Sea. Chase’s son gave him a copy of his father’s narrative. In Melville’s own words, “the reading of this wondrous story upon
the landless sea, & very close to the latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me.” This may well have been the moment of conception
for Melville’s greatest work.
Several months passed before the Acushnet approached an island which had been greatly anticipated by the crew- The Marquesas. Melville had already
been privy to stories surrounding the barbarous inhabitants and the lush landscape of these islands from his cousin and uncle. He was well aware that
the natives had a fierce reputation, and some of the tribes were even known to consume the remains of their enemies killed in battle. Yes, the island
was inhabited (in part) by cannibals!
When the Acushnet pulled into the Marquesan harbor, it encountered the newly arrived French man-of-war flagship La Reine Blanche which had recently
taken possession of the island in the name of France for the purpose of establishing a penal colony. The looming presence of this ship, and all that
it represented, detracted from the striking beauty of the island for Melville and formed in him an aversion to colonialism that later became apparent
in some of his writing. However, the effect was likely soon diminished by the approaching presence of young island girls swimming out to meet the
ship and greet the sailors in the most intimate fashion. Debauchery ensued, recorded by Melville (who claimed to be an observer only) in his first
“What a sight for us bachelor sailors! How avoid so dire a temptation? For who could think of tumbling these artless creatures overboard, when
they had swam miles to welcome us?
In the evening after we had come to an anchor the deck was illuminated with lanterns, and this picturesque band of sylphs, tricked out with flowers,
and dressed in robes of variegated tappa, got up a ball in great style. These females were passionately fond of dancing, and in the wild grace and
spirit of their style excel everything that I have ever seen.”
Next up: Melville deserts the whaler and spends 3 weeks in the company of cannibals, plus a mutiny and more!
As always, comments/questions are welcome. Thank you so much for taking the time to read!
edit on 29-11-2016 by zosimov because: (no reason