Herman Melville [1819-1891] is still considered to be a major figure in the American literary scene. He was born in New York city. After a brief schooling Melville was compelled to go to sea. Whatever deficiency there was in his education was made up by what he learned at sea. Melville speaks for himself when he makes Ishmael of his novel say that the whale-ship was “my Yale College and my Harvard. ” Life at sea turned out to be of immense profit to Melville when he started writing. The Pacific Ocean which the novelist knew intimately is recaptured in his stories.
For a short while Melville returned from sea and lived in New York City and started writing. His first book was Typee . Then came Omoo  in which he has given a striking picture of Tahitian life. These met with reasonable encouragement. Emboldened thus Melville continued writing, but soon he returned from realism to satire, thanks to the unsympathetic criticism of some reviewers. After his marriage in 1847, Melville wrote Redburn  a novel based on his experience during his first voyage and Mardi a satirical work in which he discussed topics of the day such as slavery, the abolition movement and so forth.
It was at this stage that Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was working on Moby Dick, his masterpiece and the dedication of this great novel to Hawthorne indicates the great influence that Hawthorne had on Melville. Moby Dick was published in 1851 and Pierre in 1853. In 1850, Melville wrote his White Jacket ,one of the best accounts ever written on the life and duties of a man-of-war’s crew. After this one notices in Melville a deterioration in standards. He devoted himself to the writing of short stories. The Piazza Tales is Melville’s great collection of short stories and sketches.
Among the finest are ‘Benito Cereno’, ‘Teste’, ‘The Lightning Rod Man’ so on. Melville’s literary activities were not, however, confined to short stories and novels only. He tried his hand in poetry and in 1865he published a volume of poems on Civil War themes, which he called Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War. The collection of poems that appeared under the title Other Poems have as themes metaphysical ideas, personal reminiscence and confession, art and aesthetics. As a poet Melville shows depth of thought rather than exquisiteness of expression.
It is interesting to note that Melville wrote Billy Budd a novella in 1886 and it got published in 1924. Among all the works of Melville it is Moby Dick that has earned for its author the great reputation that he enjoys. When it was published, it was not greeted with much enthusiasm. In fact among the nine novels that Melville wrote, Moby Dick was something in between a success and a failure. But according to the modern critical opinion, the work is nothing short of a masterpiece. Leon Howard says, “Moby Dick is one of those rare works of literature that have a capacity for growth through some inner vitality which increases with time.
” The novel is a superb mixture of realism and fantasy. It is based on details about the whaling industry of the South Pacific. Briefly the story runs as follows: Ishmael is a young schoolmaster stricken with a restless longing to go to sea arrives at New Bedford having made up his mind to go to the Pacific. At the Spouter Inn near the waterfront Ishmael has a strange bedfellow –Queequeg, a harpooner who looks like a cannibal. Contrary to Ishmael’s fears, Queequeg turns out to be a friendly soul and together they sign up as harpooners on the vessel the Pequod.
Captain Ahab of the Peqoud is a stern man. Ishmael learned that one of his legs was lost in an earlier encounter with a fierce white whale, popular among the whalers as Moby Dick. A deep scar on the face of the captain enhanced his sinister look. Ahab turns with a hatred for Moby Dick and offers a handsome reward in gold to the first man who sights the great white whale. The ship’s mates are anxious about the outcome of this mad chase for Moby Dick but they seem to be strangely under the spell of Captain Ahab to whom there is no alternative but chase his arch enemy and destroy him.
At last after days of fierce activity on the sea and grappling with the storm, the dreaded white whale is sighted. The confrontation between the whale and Captain Ahab last for three days. In this fierce conflict Pequod is shattered and Ahab killed. All the crew perish except Ishmael who survives to narrate, the saga of hatred and revenge. This is the story which Melville has worked out into an epic of the sea. The strength of the book lies among other things, in Melville’s vivid narration of the conflict, the conflict between the notorious white whale and the mutilated Captain obsessed with the thought of destroying his antagonist.
With Melville’s knowledge of the sea and his acquaintance with the whaling industry it was easy for him to lend verisimilitude to a theme that was of epic nature and fantastic proportions. Melville follows several methods to make the pursuit plausible. The first is furnishing the reader with a wealth of circumstantial details in the form of a factually accurate description of all the intricacies associated with whale hunting –the elaborate preparation of the equipment, the harpooning, the killing and cutting up of the whale, the melting of the blubber into oil.
To all these details Melville has added the latest scientific details regarding the habits of the sperm-whale. With such realistic details are blended reports of the fabulous beast ,the white humped monster who has become notorious among the sailors . Melville’s successful technique, in fact, is to blend realistic details with characters of epic grandeur and action that seems to be fabulous. In spite of the effect of verisimilitude, therefore, one cannot call Moby Dick a work of naturalism.
The language that Melville has made use of is strikingly in keeping with the grandeur of theme and action. The rhetoric is romantic, the language suggestive and symbolic and full of brilliant evocative power. The descriptions of the sea are powerful and awe-inspiring, meant to evoke in the reader an unforgettable experience. From the time of Beowulf, we find that the sea has kept its hold on literature and Melville’s book is one of the most striking tales of the sea.
It is filled with the ‘lore of the sea and of old whale-hunting days’ and the descriptions of the seaman with the loud shouts and their rough ways lend ruggedness to a theme that is itself one of unique strength and vitality. The dramatic conflict in the novel has been interpreted by many critics in many different ways. It is generally believed that the novel is an allegory and that Moby Dick symbolizes brute malice, universal power or the malevolence of the deity itself. Early in life Melville developed an attitude to life that was dark and brooding and in thi mood he found itself responding splendidly to Shakespearean tragic vision.
Life on the sea revealed to him a world of horror, suffering and evil that he had not dreamt of before , and in his mind there developed a tragic sense of life ,a gloomy view of man. He was drawn to Nathaniel Hawthorne, for Hawthorne’s ‘blackness’ like Shakespeare’s tragic characters excited Melville’s imagination. Melville always believed that 19th century America would produce a writer of Shakespearean stature. But he maintained that such a writer was more likely to be a novelist than a dramatist and that he would be quite daring and frank in revealing the darker sides of life.
This is the reason why Hawthorne’s novels and Shakespeare’s tragedies exerted such influence on Melville’s imagination. His book Moby Dick may be considered as half a Shakespearean play at times, in its characters, soliloquies, stage directions and all. In Captain Ahab we detect traces of both Hamlet and King Lear. Lear defying the wildest forces of nature and Hamlet looking upon external things as hieroglyphs were both characters that fascinated Melville. Thus, there went traits of both Lear and Hamlet into Ahab’s making.