Melville’s Whale


ENG 343: The American Novel

Lesson 3: Melville’s Whale
Sept. 9-20, 2002


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

  • Summarize the life and literary contributions of Herman Melville.
  • Insightfully discuss characters, themes, and other features of Moby-Dick.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), discuss the exposition of Moby-Dick.  Where does the novel appear to be headed?

Presentation: “Melville’s Whale” (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning:

Symbolism: Interpret the various symbols in the novel.

Evil: What does this novel have to say about the nature of evil?

Form: Analyze the form of Melville’s novel.  In particular, explain the departures from conventional narrative forms.

Relationships: Examine the various relationships in the novel.  In what ways do they differ from other relationships?  What does the novel have to say about the connections between human beings?

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

Think Again: In a brief essay (300 words), discuss the conclusion of Moby-Dick.  Where does the novel wind up?

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:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • American Renaissance


Make sure you are familiar with the following key date:


1851: Melville publishes Moby-Dick


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources 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 September 6, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


In our last lesson, we explored a novel by America’s first great novelist, James Fenimore Cooper.  We turn now to what may be America’s greatest novel by one of the nation’s greatest writers, Herman Melville.  Our ride aboard the Pequod with Ishmael and Captain Ahab will be a challenging one, but a rewarding one.  Climb aboard!


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.




The America that saw the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851 was in some ways a very different nation from the one in which James Fenimore Cooper published The Pioneers in 1823.  For starters, it was twice as old.  It was also much larger, having admitted Florida, Texas, California, and other states (Map).  In 1845, newspaper editor John O'Sullivan famously proclaimed that the land to the West of the original colonies belonged to the United States "by right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative self-government entrusted to us."  One might even argue that America had become a deeper nation.  That is, in politics, religion, technology, politics, social reform, and the arts, the America of the 1850s was a rich, active, and, at times, turbulent place.  The American culture of this period showed the same hunger, confidence, and sense of adventure that characterized the westward migration.  While western pioneers were exploring and settling the land, other Americans broke ground in the scientific, social, and artistic realms.  Major inventions included Samuel B. Morse's telegraph in 1844 and Elias Howe's "sewing jenny" in 1846.  Between 1830, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first to operate in America, and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, American laborers laid more than 30,000 miles of track.  Meanwhile, dramatic changes took place in American society, thanks to social reformers such as educators Horace Mann and Catharine Beecher, prison reformer Dorothea Dix, women's advocate Lucretia Mott, and abolitionists Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and William Lloyd Garrison.  This was also the age of temperance societies and utopian communities, including Brook Farm.  Finally, Americans were reading more than they ever had and were witnessing important developments in the field of art.  Literate Americans could choose from numerous magazines and newspapers, including 47 newspapers in New York alone in 1830.  New Yorkers packed a free gallery operated by the American Art-Union, an association of artists and patrons who sought to promote American art, and the world saw the emergence of several important American artists, including Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and Hiram Powers.

American literature, meanwhile, was enjoying a flowering unparalleled by any other period in the nation’s history.  In the first five years of the 1850s alone, American readers saw the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden (1854), and Walt Whitman’s poetry volume Leaves of Grass (1855), along with books by Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and others.  In fact, the literary scholar F.O. Matthiessen famously named the age the “American Renaissance.”  The literature of the mid-nineteenth century was distinctive in a number of ways.  Edgar Allan Poe helped to shape a distinctively American short story, and Whitman departed from European poetic models by developing free verse.  Hawthorne wrote symbolic, even ethereal novels that differed from the works of his English contemporaries.  In content, Thoreau, Longfellow, Whitman, Stowe, and others not only set works in American locales, but also drew heavily on American themes, issues, and identities—including exploration, democracy, individualism, slavery, native Americans, and frontiersmen—while also lending their American perspectives to eternal subjects, such as nature, religion, and truth.

In many ways, Melville’s Moby-Dick captures much of the life and literature of this age.  Indeed, we might read this large and dense novel as a compendium of the social, political, intellectual, and artistic developments of America in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Here is a rich, complex portrait of democracy, individualism, human psychology, nature, evil, romance, and much more.

Works Cited

Barbour, James.  “‘All My Books Are Botches’: Melville’s Struggle with The Whale.”  Writing the American Classics.  Ed. James Barbour and Tom Quirk.  Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.  25-52.

Christman, Margaret C.S.  1846: Portrait of the Nation.  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.


In this lesson, we have explored one of America’s greatest artistic masterpieces.  In our next lesson, we turn to what may be its most politically significant novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


We also need to be looking ahead to our trip to Asheville.  Please e-mail me in the next week to let me know whether you plan to go on this trip and, if so, whether you will need transportation.