Herman Melville, Sailor and Writer


ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 11: Herman Melville, Sailor and Writer
Oct. 28-Nov. 1, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the life and literary contributions of Herman Melville.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Melville’s fiction.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:


Read “Herman Melville” and Billy Budd, Sailor.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: Make a chart listing the major characteristics for each of the major characters in Billy Budd, Sailor: Billy, Claggart, and Captain Vere.

Presentation: Herman Melville, Sailor and Writer (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning

Character Foils: Building on your response to the “Think Fast” exercise, compare the characters of Billy and Claggart.  In what ways do these figures serve as character foils?

Allusions: Identify at least three allusions in the novelette and explain how they help to shape its meaning.

Ethics: Take a close look at Vere’s speech to the other sailors charged with sentencing Billy.  What ethical principles underlie his position?  Do you agree with him? Defend your position.

Genre: A novelette is longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel.  In what ways does Billy Budd, Sailor resemble each of these genres?

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: In a brief essay (200-300 words), use details from works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville to make an argument about the nature of evil.

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:

  • novel
  • novelette
  • character foilt


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the resource listed below:


The Life and Works of Herman Melville features excerpts from Melville’s own writings, reactions to his work, and numerous links.


Writing the American Classics, a scholarly volume by James Barbour, discusses the composition of Moby-Dick.

The Melville Log, compiled by Jay Leyda, features a detailed chronology of Melville’s life.

Updated October 25, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


After narrow escapes from Dr. Rappaccini and a mysterious figure in the woods outside Salem, we will take to the sea in this lesson as we study a novelette by Herman Melville.


As the creator of the novel Moby-Dick (1851), the story of Captain Ahab and his obsessive pursuit of a white whale, Herman Melville is one of America’s best-known writers.  His masterpiece, widely regarded as one of the great works of world literature, has inspired countless responses from both literary scholars and the general public.  Furthermore, Melville’s prolific and multi-faceted career, which spanned nearly a half-century, produced a number of other classic works of fiction, including the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1856) and the novelette Billy Budd, published posthumously in 1924.  Like Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen Crane, Melville also mastered the art of verse; it has been suggested, in fact, that he ranks behind only Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson among American poets of the nineteenth century.  In addition to his collection of poems about the American Civil War, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), and two other books of short poems, he produced one of the longest poems in English, the 150-canto Clarel (1876).  Like his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, who strongly influenced him, Melville was one of the leading American Romantics.  His heavily symbolic works explore a wide range of human experience and psychology, but often focus on faith, the nature of evil, and the tension between the individual and society.


The Melville—or “Melvill,” as it once was spelled—family was notable even before Herman came along.  Both of his grandfathers had figured prominently in the American Revolution, and the family he joined with his birth in New York City in 1819 was well-to-do.  In 1831, however, Melville’s father went bankrupt and died in a delirium, and the family moved to Albany, New York.  Later, he would lose his brother Gansevoort to an unexplained illness.  In his youth, the son worked as a bank clerk, a farmer, and a bookkeeper; he also taught in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  A turning point in Melville’s life came in 1839 when he began his life aboard sailing vessels. First, he sailed as a cabin boy aboard the trading ship St. Lawrence to London.  Two years later, he sailed on a whaling ship called Acushnet, but jumped ship in 1842 and spent a month in the Marquesas islands in the South Seas with his friend Richard Tobias Greene.  The next year, he enlisted as a seaman on the frigate United States.


Melville’s life at sea proved to be lucrative.  In 1846, he published his first novel, Typee, a largely autobiographical account of his time in the Marquesas.   This adventurous romance impressed a young Walt Whitman, then still a relative unknown, who wrote: “A strange, graceful, most readable book this.  As a book to hold in one’s hand and pore dreamiily over of a summer day, it is unsurpassed” (qtd. in Christman 172).  Typee was also a popular success and helped to launch Melville’s career as a successful novelist.  Indeed, his wedding to Elizabeth Shaw the following year had to be moved at the last minute to prevent hoards of his admirers from mobbing the ceremony.


Melville’s writing career was to take some strange turns, however.  After the initial successes of Typee and Omoo (1847), the man known for exciting sea novels gave his readers something different in his next novel, Mardi (1849).  As James Barbour explains in Writing the American Classics, Melville had been inspired by his reading and produced a more philosophical book.  Mardi, however, failed commercially, and Melville returned to adventure stories, publishing Redburn in 1849 and White-Jacket in 1850.  In the latter year, Melville developed a somewhat intimate friendship with one of the most respected authors of the day, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the connection was to exert an enormous influence on him.  At this time, Melville was at work on another sea novel, but he was torn between two motivations.  In a letter to Hawthorne, he wrote: “Dollars damn me. . . . 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” (25).  The friendship with Hawthorne, Barbour explains, inspired Melville, as did his reading of Shakespeare, and he elected to revise and expand his novel, which he published in 1851 under the title of Moby-Dick; or, the Whale.  As Melville probably had anticipated, the book did not succeed commercially, but it also did not draw universally enthusiastic reviews from critics.  Indeed, his next novel, Pierre (1852), his protagonist becomes an ambitious novelist struggling in a world that does not appreciate great literature.  Of this protagonist, Melville writes: “He shall now learn, and very bitterly learn, that though the world worship Mediocrity and Common Place, yet hath it fire and sword for all contemporary Grandeur” (264).


Despite the disappointment that obviously followed the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville continued to write serious fiction.  Over the next decade, he produced two notable novels, Pierre and The Confidence-Man (1857), as well as a book of short short stories called The Piazza Tales, which included “Bartleby the Scrivener.”  He also traveled in the Holy Land in 1856 and 1857 and, no longer the popular novelist, struggled to make a living from lecturing between 1857 and 1860.  In 1866, he landed a job as a customs inspector and worked in this position for nearly two decades.  In the what might be considered the second phase of his literary career, he published several books of poetry, including Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), Clarel (1876), John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), and Timoleon (1891).  During this time, he also lost his son Malcolm to suicide in 1867.  Shortly before his death in 1891, he produced another masterpiece of fiction the novelette Billy Budd, Sailor, which was discovered and published many years later.


We turn now from the Romantics to look at another set of writers, the Transcendentalists.  We will begin next week with a look at Ralph Waldo Emerson.