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Melville, Herman (1819-1891)

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

In the prologue to his biography of Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford states that Melville shares with Walt Whitman the distinction of being the greatest imaginative writer America has produced. Mumford declares that in depth of religious insight there is no one in the nineteenth century to compare with Melville except Dostoyevsky.

Herman Melville was born in New York City of Scottish-Dutch ancestors. One of his grandfathers joined the Boston Tea Party of 1773. A series of misfortunes, beginning with his father’s early death, preceded his shipping out from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on the whaler Acushnet. He jumped ship in Polynesia, whose island story Typee he wrote in 1848. This early work remained in print throughout his lifetime and was distributed worldwide thanks partly to its erotic symbolism.

Despite financial difficulties, he continued to write-with high encouragement by his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick, a tale of his whaling expedition, initially received small praise and small sales. Years of rheumatic pain during his resort to writing short stories for magazines were relieved by his appointment as an inspector of customs in New York City, where he joined the All Souls Unitarian Church.

Not until the 1950s did Herman Melville find recognition for what the Encyclopaedia Britannica names “a novel not equated in scope by any previous piece of American literature and never matched in its portentous portrayal of human struggle with the forces of the universe.”

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Despite the world’s final celebration of his remarkable literary achievement, Melville, his wife, and their eight children lived an impoverished life. In times of intense need, help arrived from his father-in-law, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts. When finally forced to face his financial failure as a novelist, Melville chose to restrict his literary labor to poetry. He sold his beloved farmhouse outside of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which he had named Arrowhead. It was here he had completed the writing of Moby Dick.

Melville’s Civil War poems of 1866 were followed by publication of his long poem, Clarabel: A Poem and Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1876). Later came two special printings which he limited to twenty-five copies each: John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891).

When Herman Melville died in New York in 1891, the New York Times reported: “Only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines.”


Selections from the Writings of Herman Melville

THE MARTYR
GOOD Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm-
When with yearning he was filled
To redeem the evil-willed,
And, though conqueror, be kind;
But they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And they killed him from behind.

There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.

He lieth in his blood-
The father in his face;
They have killed him, the Forgiver-
The Avenger takes his place,
The Avenger wisely stern,
Who in righteousness shall do
What the heavens call him to,
And the parricides remand;
For they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And his blood is on their hand.

There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare an iron hand.

THE TUFT OF KELP
All dripping in tangles green,
Cast up by a lonely sea,
If purer for that, O Weed,
Bitterer, too, are ye?


 


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