Herman Melville: An Anti-Transcendentalist Or Not Essay, Research Paper
Melville, Herman (1819-91), an American Novelist, is widely regarded as one ofAmerica’s greatest and most influential novelists; known primarily as the author of MobyDick. He belonged to a group of eminent pre-Civil War writers-American Romantics ormembers of the American Renaissance-who created a new and vigorous nationalliterature. He is one of the notable examples of an American author whose work wentlargely unrecognized in his own time and died in obscurity. American novelist, a majorliterary figure whose exploration of psychological and metaphysical themes foreshadowed20th-century literary concerns but whose works remained in obscurity until the 1920s,when his genius was finally recognized. Melville was born August 1, 1819, in New York City, into a family that haddeclined in the world. The Gansevoorts were solid, stable, eminent, prosperous people; the(Hermans Fathers side) Melvilles were somewhat less successful materially, possessing anunpredictable. erratic, mercurial strain. (Edinger 6). This difference between the Melvillesand Gansevoorts was the beginning of the trouble for the Melville family. Hermans mothertried to work her way up the social ladder by moving into bigger and better homes. Whileborrowing money from the bank, her husband was spending more than he was earning. Itis my conclusion that Maria Melville never committed herself emotionally to her husband,but remained primarily attached to the well off Gansevoort family. (Humford 23) AllanMelville was also attached financially to the Gansevoorts for support. There is a lot ofevidence concerning Melvilles relation to his mother Maria Melville. Apparently the olderson Gansevoort who carried the mother’s maiden name was distinctly her favorite.(Edinger 7) This was a sense of alienation the Herman Melville felt from his mother. Thiswas one of the first symbolists to the Biblical Ishamel. In 1837 he shipped to Liverpool as a cabin boy. Upon returning to the U.S. hetaught school and then sailed for the South Seas in 1841 on the whaler Acushnet. After an18 month voyage he deserted the ship in the Marquesas Islands and with a companionlived for a month among the natives, who were cannibals. He escaped aboard anAustralian trader, leaving it at Papeete, Tahiti, where he was imprisoned temporarily. Heworked as a field laborer and then shipped to Honolulu, Hawaii, where in 1843 he enlistedas a seaman on the U.S. Navy frigate United States. After his discharge in 1844 he beganto create novels out of his experiences and to take part in the literary life of Boston andNew York City. Melville’s first five novels all achieved quick popularity. Typee: A Peep atPolynesian Life (1846), Omoo, a Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), andMardi (1849) were romances of the South Sea islands. Redburn, His First Voyage (1849)was based on his own first trip to sea, and White-Jacket, or the World in a Man-of-War(1850) fictionalized his experiences in the navy. In 1850 Melville moved to a farm nearPittsfield, Massachusetts, where he became an intimate friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, towhom he dedicated his masterpiece Moby-Dick; or The White Whale (1851). The central theme of the novel is the conflict between Captain Ahab, master of thewhaler Pequod, and Moby-Dick, a great white whale that once tore off one of Ahab’s legsat the knee. Ahab is dedicated to revenge; he drives himself and his crew, which includesIshmael, narrator of the story, over the seas in a desperate search for his enemy. The bodyof the book is written in a wholly original, powerful narrative style, which, in certainsections of the work, Melville varied with great success. The most impressive of thesesections are the rhetorically magnificent sermon delivered before sailing and the soliloquiesof the mates; lengthy flats, passages conveying nonnarrative material, usually of a technicalnature, such as the chapter about whales; and the more purely ornamental passages, suchas the tale of the Tally-Ho, which can stand by themselves as short stories of merit. Thework is invested with Ishmael’s sense of profound wonder at his story, but nonethelessconveys full awareness that Ahab’s quest can have but one end. And so it proves to be:Moby-Dick destroys the Pequod and all its crew save Ishmael. There is a certain streak ofthe supernatural being projected in the writings of Melville, as is amply obvious in MobyDick. The story revolves around the idea of an awesome sea mammal, which drives thepassions of revenge in one man and forces him to pursue a course of action which leadsultimately to his death as well as the deaths of his companions. There is a great deal ofimagination involved in these stories and the creativity is highly apparent. There is anexpression of belief in the supernatural, as the author strives to create the image of ahumongous beast in the mind of the reader. There are no indications that Melville was inany way averse to fame or to the pursuit of excellence in his work. Every author, when
writing a book, is hopeful of its success and Melville was no less. The Piazza Tales (1856) contain some of Melville’s finest shorter works;particularly notable are the powerful short stories Benito Cereno and Bartleby theScrivener and the ten descriptive sketches of the Gal pagos Islands, Ecuador, TheEncantadas. Bartleby’s story is an allegory of withdrawal suggesting more than one level ofinterpretation. Among them, Bartleby may be seen as a writer (like Melville), who choosesno longer to write; or as a human walled off from society by his employment on wallStreet, by the walls of his building, by the barriers of his office nook within the building, bythe brick surface he faces out his window, and by the walls of the prison where he dies.Bartleby’s employer, the narrator of the story, has several walls of his own to break out of.In his final grasp at communication, the narrator invites the reading that Bartleby’s life, andthe story that presents it, are like dead letters that will never reach those that would profitfrom them. He leaves us with the words, “Ah Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” In “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, Melville tries to relate to the reader and explain his decliningsituation. This story, on an allegorical level represents Melville, his life, and what hewished his reading audience would understand about him. This is probably what hewanted, but readers, initially, see a melancholy story about the condition of humanity. Whether or not Melville is an anti-transcendentalist is a question to be ponderedover. As such he is as focused on leaving an impression on his readers as any other writeron the writing block. Therefore, I believe that Melville was transcendental in many ways.He was a writer who portrayed his own persona through his writings and thus he was awriter who had the power to be able to express his own emotions and experiences throughhis characters. This he has accomplished by writing stories, which had a depth, an essence of theirown. Melville was not o much concerned with the commercial success of his works, butthat was still a very high contributing factor to the motivation behind his writings. Although he mainly drew on his personal experiences while formulating the storiesthat he wrote, he greatly embellished them through his imagination and creativity to createliterary masterpieces out of them, which are appreciated greatly today. Being a successmeant a great deal to Melville and he was always aware of the fact that his books were notvery popular during his lifetime. In fact Bartleby the Scrivener relates to this very factthrough its portrayal of a writer, and it is greatly reflective of Melvilles own privatesituation. He probably wished that his writing would be more popular among the readers,although he professed his own demise with Bartleby’s atrophy. The expression of acceptedfailure was prevalent in Scrivener. Yet this did not make Melville any less desirous of fameand popularity. He still strove to deliver excellence in his works in any way possible. Every writer in history has had to find a place for himself in the mind of his readersbefore reaching a level of maturity and respect in this profession. The quality of work isjudged solely on the readers perception of the work and nothing else. Melville wasdesirous of hitting the right cord with the readers and his audience. He wanted to be ableto capture the attention of his audience and leave an impact on their minds, so that the talewould be remembered long after it had been read. With Moby Dick, he used the powerfultool of imaginative fantasy to capture the attention of his readers. The story incorporatedthe extraordinary, action, adventure, revenge, suspense…in fact every ingredient necessaryfor commercial success. But it didnt prove to be so. The book is appreciated not as aclassic work and Melville has received much more fame in the present time frame. In Scrivener, he drew a picture of a man very similar to himself. A man sick ofworking, finally declines rapidly to reach his demise. However, in Herman Melville’s’Benito Cereno’ reveals the author’s disgust with Emersonian transcendentalism throughthe self-delusions of the protagonist. Cereno personifies nature, seeing it as a benevolentforce that acts deliberately for the good of humanity. Melville makes it apparent that suchidealism offers no practical use in a world that is as much evil as good, and will likely be aburden. Cereno is Melville’s strongest example of his suspicions for the American idealist. In this one case through his expression of disgust towards the idealists and theiridealism, he has portrayed the image of a hard core idealist who is converted to a realistthrough the experiences that he goes through. This also drew on his seafaring days asexperience and he struggled to bring across the death of the idealist and the birth of therealist. But at the end of the day, whatever emotions he possessed about the nature ofidealism and idealistic thought, still form an integral part of him. Whether or not the readerunderstands the general aura of wanting to achieve something from his creations, yetMelville still strove to be a commercial success and his aim for excellence in the field ofwriting continued.