In 1851, when the 32-year-old Herman Melville published his masterpiece Moby-Dick, he was already known as a man who’d consorted with cannibals. His first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), was an international sensation. A fictional travelogue based on his adventures, some of them sex-
ual, in the Marquesas Islands, it offended genteel Christians and sold pretty well, so Melville dipped into his escapades again for Omoo (1847), more tales from the South Seas, and the career of Herman Melville, swashbuckling author, was launched.
The young salt then married Boston Brahmin Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Actually, the scandalous Melville was something of a Brahmin himself. Grandson of the Revolutionary War hero Gen. Peter Gansevoort, and of Maj. Thomas Melvill, a hero of the Boston Tea Party, Melville was also related to the Van Rensselaers of Albany, the New York State Dutch equivalent of Boston blue blood.
Now a bona fide writer, Melville published another, more complex romance of Polynesian adventure, Mardi (1849), not nearly as popular as his first two, and the autobiographical Redburn (1849), followed by a story of seamen, White-Jacket (1850): five novels in a manic four years.
The scene is set. Melville is “the first American literary sex symbol,” writes Hershel Parker in Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891. From then on, Melville has to deal with a public that typecasts its authors: Melville is a sailor who writes, not a writer who sailed. He also must live down a reputation for writing too fast and, as his novels grow less popular, shoulder an ever-enlarging specter of mortgaged debt, neither of which would be easy for anyone, least of all the man whose own improvident father, the importer Allan Melvill, had squandered the family fortune, such as it had become, as well as his sanity and his patrimony, dying when Herman was only 12.
Yanked out of school, the young Melville (as the name was spelled after Allan’s death) then clerked in a bank for $150 a year; he also worked in his elder brother’s store, ran an uncle’s farm, taught school and in 1839 set out to sea in a merchant ship bound for Liverpool. “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” says Ishmael in Moby-Dick, “then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” In 1841 Melville signed on to the whaler Acushnet, jumped ship and met his tribe of cannibals.
All this is copiously documented in the 941 pages of Parker’s Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851 (1996), which ends when Melville, living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, presents to his Berkshire neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a copy of the newly minted Moby-Dick, containing that singular act of literary generosity, its printed dedication to Hawthorne “in token of my admiration for his genius.”