Herman Melville: 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 Galpagos 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.
Herman Melville: An Anti- Transcendentalist or Not?