Herman Melville 1819—1891
MELVILLE’S CAREER AS a literary artist began on a whaleship, a scene of appalling industrial exploitation and filth. Hunting down and killing whales with handheld weapons posed extreme dangers, and then came the butchering of the huge carcasses and boiling down the blubber. The reek of boiling whale oil and the smoke from the fire permeated clothing, sails, rigging, and beards, as did the odor from rotting remnants of blood and flesh. As the months went by, whaleships developed a powerful stench, discernible miles downwind. Whaling sailors were trapped aboard a floating slaughterhouse, ruled over by a captain empowered to kick them and beat them or to have them jailed at the next port. The captain was also empowered to keep the voyage going for years on end without regard to the desires or needs of the crew.
A man with a knack for telling stories was good to have on board, to help pass the time between spells of slaughter; there were many such men in the whale fishery, literate and illiterate, who sharpened their yarn-spinning skills through months of practice before experienced and critical audiences. Melville possessed the most prodigious gift for literary creation to surface in the official culture of nineteenth-century America, and when he appeared at age twenty-three on board the Lucy Ann bound from the Marquesas Islands to Tahiti, he had just acquired a stock of marvelous new material. He had jumped ship in the Marquesas, to escape harsh treatment on the whaler Acushnet, and his experiences among the Marquesan cannibals were sexy, lurid, and fraught with adventure. He recounted them with hypnotic power.
Years later, while he was writing Moby-Dick, Melville spent an evening with Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne spinning his South Sea yarns. After he had departed it dawned on Sophia that Melville hadn’t taken home his club, so she looked about the house to see where he had left it. Only after a search did she realize that the club had existed only in her imagination, conjured up by Melville’s spellbinding stories of savage combat and disturbing exotic beauty.
Melville lived a long life spanning an era that witnessed profound upheaval and change in American life. During his youth, whaling was one of many powerful new industries and a harbinger of the industrial development that resulted in the bureaucratic monopolies that were ascendant at the time of his death. Like the competitive new economy at large, whaling took place in a “man’s world.” Under market capitalism, the factory system destroyed household manufactures, and men were compelled to leave home in order to make a living. The home then became a “woman’s sphere” of domestic pursuits—principally childrearing—where loving solicitude offset the harshness of male competition. This new system of family life ushered in conventions of gender and sexuality that remain current today, including new relations of men with men.
The cutthroat competition of the whaling industry was an arena of individualist striving among owners and captains, and it produced...