Reflections on Two Hundred Years of Herman Melville: Part I: The Gospels of His Time By Leonard Engel

This is the first in a planned three-part series on the spiritual, metaphysical, and moral questions of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, offered on the occasion of Melville’s bicentennial this year. Parts II and III will appear in upcoming issues of TAC—Ed.

I am convinced that if Herman Melville were alive today, he would be an avid reader of Today’s American Catholic and, on occasion, a contributor. A rebel at heart, Melville, in all his major works, reveals a near obsession with religion and belief. His last major published work, a long narrative poem entitled Clarel, chronicles the narrator’s spiritual journey to the Holy Land. Many of Melville’s fictional characters have intense spiritual struggles, involving moral and ethical questions that often remain unsolved at the end of their stories. His good friend, and sometime mentor, Nathaniel Hawthorne noted in a journal entry after a visit from Herman:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, into a large, well-known family (the third of eight children) in New York City. Both of his grandfathers had been heroic figures in the Revolutionary War, and politics and religion were important touchstones in his early life. His father, Allan, was drawn to the liberalism of Unitarianism, but his mother, Maria Gansevoort, was deeply committed to the Reformed Dutch Church and its strict Calvinism, and at the age of three weeks, Herman was baptized at home by a minister of the South Reformed Dutch Church.

Allan was a businessman, but he must have been a poor one, for he went bankrupt and had to move the family to Albany in 1830. He died two years later, and Herman and his siblings were left to the heavy strictures of his mother’s Calvinism; his formal education also stopped during this time. (In a review of Hawthorne’s 1846 collection of short stories Mosses from an Old Manse, he writes about Hawthorne’s “blackness” and Calvinistic influence: Hawthorne has “a touch of Puritanic gloom. . . . [I]t is that blackness in Hawthorne . . . that so fixes and fascinates me. . . . [T]his great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.” As many scholars have noted, Melville here could be speaking about himself and his early religious training.)

After his father’s death, Melville’s adolescence was chaotic. His mother, depending on the beneficence of family members, tried to manage her household and the eight children, and Melville was shuffled from one residence and job to another. There was one other important influence on him during these formative years. In 1820, a year after his birth, the whaleship Essex was rammed by a large sperm whale in the south Pacific, 2,000 miles from the west coast of South America. The ship sank quickly, and the crew had to man the small whale boats with limited food and water as they headed toward South America. After months of torture, the few who barely survived did so by practicing cannibalism. This horrific tale was related in several books and etched into whaling lore, especially along the Atlantic seaboard. Growing up, Herman would certainly have heard the story and would have read it during his teenage years; he even met one the survivors.

In May 1839, at the age of 19, Melville signed on the merchant ship St. Lawrence as a deckhand. The ship cruised from New York to Liverpool and back, a journey he later fictionalized in his autobiographical novel Redburn (1849). After this initial taste of the sea, he wanted more, and on January 3, 1841, he set sail on the whaler Acushnet. Herman managed to tolerate the terrible shipboard conditions for a year and a half. On July 9, 1842, he and Richard Tobias Greene jumped ship in Nukahiva Bay, at the Marquesas Islands, and traveled into the mountains to avoid capture. He lived near the Taipi Valley for about a month. (His first book, Typee (1846), is loosely based on his adventures with the natives there.) Signing on with other whaleships, he traveled to Tahiti and finally to Hawaii; from there he joined the navy and shipped out on the frigate USS United States as an ordinary seaman. This homeward-bound ship visited the Marquesas Islands, among other places, before reaching Boston on October 3, 1844, when Melville was 25.

In a letter to Hawthorne in 1851, he writes, “Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life.” Yet almost all his major fiction is based on the adventures before his 25th year. The first two novels, Typee and Omoo (1847), were very successful, especially the former. However, with Redburn, Mardi (1849), and White Jacket (1850), one sees a change, both commercially and critically. Mardi, particularly, inspired the ire of critics; like Typee and Omoo, it featured romance and adventure in the South Seas, but also introduced the theme Melville would perfect in Moby Dick—the metaphysical quest—along with an exploration of various belief systems, which caused apoplexy in many reviewers.

Hoping to regain the popular acclaim and commercial success he achieved with Typee, Melville began Moby Dick in early 1850, intending to highlight adventure and romance. In a letter to his English publisher Richard Bentley in June 1850, he described the book as “a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries . . . it’s nothing but cakes and ale.” He concluded the letter by saying the book would be finished by the fall.

But then Herman read Hawthorne’s short fiction, met him at a literary soiree, and wrote the aforementioned review of Mosses from an Old Manse, which was published in August 1850. Moby Dick wasn’t published until 1851, and it was very different from the version described in the letter to Bentley. Hawthorne and his stories, with their obsessive characters, had a powerful influence on Melville, and instead of “cakes and ale,” Moby Dick dramatizes one of the greatest metaphysical quests in literature—not only for the mythical Captain Ahab, but for all the main characters.

During the year he was laboring over “the whale,” Melville frequently communicated to Hawthorne the struggle he was having. A letter from June 1851 makes this clear:

Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me,—I shall at last be worn out and perish. . . . What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. . . . Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.

Having the prescience to know he’s writing the “Gospels” of his time, yet knowing they will be unrecognized and he will die unknown, is just one example of Melville’s anguish while writing and revising Moby Dick.

Leonard Engel, Professor Emeritus of English at Quinnipiac University, lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife Moira McCloskey. He can be reached at Len.Engel@quinnipiac.edu.

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