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Herman Melville Essay, Research Paper

An anti- transcendentalist or not Melville, Herman (1819-91), American novelist,

a major literary figure whose exploration of psychological and metaphysical

themes foreshadowed 20th-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 had declined in the

world. ?The Gansevoorts were solid, stable, eminent, prosperous people; the

(Herman?s Father?s side) Melvilles were somewhat less successful materially,

possessing an unpredictable. erratic, mercurial strain.? (Edinger 6). This

difference between the Melville?s and Gansevoorts was the beginning of the

trouble for the Melville family. Herman?s mother tried to work her way up the

social ladder by moving into bigger and better homes. While borrowing money from

the bank, her husband was spending more than he was earning. ?It is my

conclusion that Maria Melville never committed herself emotionally to her

husband, but remained primarily attached to the well off Gansevoort family.? (Humford

23) Allan Melville was also attached financially to the Gansevoorts for support.

There is a lot of evidence concerning Melville?s relation to his mother Maria

Melville. ?Apparently the older son 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. This was 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. he taught school and then sailed for the South Seas in

1841 on the whaler Acushnet. After an 18 month voyage he deserted the ship in

the Marquesas Islands and with a companion lived for a month among the natives,

who were cannibals. He escaped aboard an Australian trader, leaving it at

Papeete, Tahiti, where he was imprisoned temporarily. He worked as a field

laborer and then shipped to Honolulu, Hawaii, where in 1843 he enlisted as a

seaman on the U.S. Navy frigate United States. After his discharge in 1844 he

began to create novels out of his experiences and to take part in the literary

life of Boston and New York City. Melville’s first five novels all achieved

quick popularity. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Omoo, a Narrative of

Adventures in the South Seas (1847), and Mardi (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 near Pittsfield,

Massachusetts, where he became an intimate friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to

whom 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 the

whaler Pequod, and Moby-Dick, a great white whale that once tore off one of

Ahab’s legs at the knee. Ahab is dedicated to revenge; he drives himself and his

crew, which includes Ishmael, narrator of the story, over the seas in a

desperate search for his enemy. The body of the book is written in a wholly

original, powerful narrative style, which, in certain sections of the work,

Melville varied with great success. The most impressive of these sections are

the rhetorically magnificent sermon delivered before sailing and the soliloquies

of the mates; lengthy ?flats,? passages conveying nonnarrative material,

usually of a technical nature, such as the chapter about whales; and the more

purely ornamental passages, such as the tale of the Tally-Ho, which can stand by

themselves as short stories of merit. The work is invested with Ishmael’s sense

of profound wonder at his story, but nonetheless conveys 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 of the

supernatural being projected in the writings of Melville, as is amply obvious in

Moby Dick. The story revolves around the idea of an awesome sea mammal, which

drives the passions of revenge in one man and forces him to pursue a course of

action which leads ultimately to his death as well as the deaths of his

companions. There is a great deal of imagination involved in these stories and

the creativity is highly apparent. There is an expression of belief in the

supernatural, as the author strives to create the image of a humongous beast in

the mind of the reader. There are no indications that Melville was in any way

averse to fame or to the pursuit of excellence in his work. Every author, when

writing a book, is hopeful of it?s 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 the Scrivener? and the ten descriptive sketches of the Gal?pagos

Islands, Ecuador, ?The Encantadas.? Bartleby’s story is an allegory of

withdrawal suggesting more than one level of interpretation. Among them,

Bartleby may be seen as a writer (like Melville), who chooses no longer to

write; or as a human walled off from society by his employment on wall Street,

by the walls of his building, by the barriers of his office nook within the

building, by the 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, and the story that

presents it, are like dead letters that will never reach those that would profit

from 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 declining situation. This story, on an allegorical level

represents Melville, his life, and what he wished his reading audience would

understand about him. This is probably what he wanted, 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 pondered over. As such he is as

focused on leaving an impression on his readers as any other writer on 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 a writer who had the power to be able to express his own emotions

and experiences through his characters. This he has accomplished by writing

stories, which had a depth, an essence of their own. Melville was not o much

concerned with the commercial success of his works, but that was still a very

high contributing factor to the motivation behind his writings. Although he

mainly drew on his personal experiences while formulating the stories that he

wrote, he greatly embellished them through his imagination and creativity to

create literary masterpieces out of them, which are appreciated greatly today.

Being a success meant a great deal to Melville and he was always aware of the

fact that his books were not very popular during his lifetime. In fact Bartleby

the Scrivener relates to this very fact through its portrayal of a writer, and

it is greatly reflective of Melville?s own private situation. 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 accepted

failure was prevalent in Scrivener. Yet this did not make Melville any less

desirous of fame and 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 readers before reaching a level of maturity and

respect in this profession. The quality of work is judged solely on the readers

perception of the work and nothing else. Melville was desirous of hitting the

right cord with the readers and his audience. He wanted to be able to capture

the attention of his audience and leave an impact on their minds, so that the

tale would be remembered long after it had been read. With Moby Dick, he used

the powerful tool of imaginative fantasy to capture the attention of his

readers. The story incorporated the extraordinary, action, adventure, revenge,

suspense…in fact every ingredient necessary for commercial success. But it

didn?t prove to be so. The book is appreciated not as a classic 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 of working, finally

declines rapidly to reach his demise. However, in Herman Melville’s ‘Benito

Cereno’ reveals the author’s disgust with Emersonian transcendentalism through

the self-delusions of the protagonist. Cereno personifies nature, seeing it as a

benevolent force that acts deliberately for the good of humanity. Melville makes

it apparent that such idealism offers no practical use in a world that is as

much evil as good, and will likely be a burden. 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 their idealism, he has

portrayed the image of a hard core idealist who is converted to a realist

through the experiences that he goes through. This also drew on his seafaring

days as experience and he struggled to bring across the death of the idealist

and the birth of the realist. But at the end of the day, whatever emotions he

possessed about the nature of idealism and idealistic thought, still form an

integral part of him. Whether or not the reader understands the general aura of

wanting to achieve something from his creations, yet Melville still strove to be

a commercial success and his aim for excellence in the field of writing

continued.


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