Today’s post comes from Alyssa Manfredi at the National Archives History Office.
Herman Melville is still revered today as one of the great American writers. Over his career, Melville wrote 17 short stories, 11 novels, and countless essays and poems.
Melville was born in New York City in 1819, the third of eight children. When Melville was 12 years old, his father died, and he and his siblings had to work to cover the family’s expenses. Melville eventually left his preparatory school to work as a bank clerk to support his family.
At 18, Melville began working as a school teacher, where he taught students of varying ages, some as old as he was. He published his first short fictional essays in the Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser. While written fairly early in his career as a novelist, the piece contains Melville’s familiar abundance of allusions as well as the baroque literary style. Baroque literature is as extravagant as its homonymous architecture style: extravagant, hyperbolic writing that features Biblical elements and vivid imagery. This style carried into his writing later in his career.
A few years later, when he was 21, he began working on a merchant ship as a green hand, an inexperienced member of a whaling crew. Merchant and whaling ships around this time sailed south to warmer waters where whales dwelled.
During that time, encounters with a white sperm whale named Mocha Dick appeared in popular newspapers. Mocha roamed around Cape Horn, and though he was said to be fairly docile, he would aggressively attack ships when provoked, making him the bane of many crews. He was allegedly slain by a crew in 1838 after he attempted to help a female whale whose calf had just been killed by the whalers. When inspected, Mocha Dick had been harpooned over 20 times, and his body yielded 100 barrels of oil; more than double that of a normal-sized sperm whale.
Melville is best known for his work Moby-Dick, partially inspired by the whale Mocha Dick. The novel is narrated by a man named Ishmael, who joins a ship led by a maniacal Captain Ahab, who tirelessly sails to take vengeance on the white sperm whale that bit off his leg. The crew included harpooner Queequeg and first mate Starbuck, who inspired the name of the famous coffee company.
Moby-Dick is packed with technical details about whales and whaling practices. Melville takes up five chapters writing about how to remove and harvest blubber of a whale, but in doing this, he gives the readers a realistic image of what it was like to work on a whaling ship without ever getting their feet wet.
Melville’s verbose descriptions were exceptional and contrasted greatly with his friend and fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegorical prose. While vastly different in style, the two men were fond of each others’ literary works and quickly became close friends. In publishing the renowned Moby-Dick, Melville dedicated the book to Hawthorne, “in token of my admiration for his genius.”
For more information about Melville’s time at sea, read our blog Herman Melville: A Voyage into History.