Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Ten: Fish Stories and Lawyers, the Mind of Melville

Melville's Major Works
Typee     1846
Omoo      1847
Mardi     1849
Redburn   1850
White Jacket 1850
Moby Dick 1851
Pierre    1852
"Bartleby" 1852
Confidence Man 1857
poetry volumes
Billy Budd 1891
Melville considered himself a novelist,
He thought his short stories were hack work, profitable, easier, “pot boilers” (writing to make money in order to put food in the pot).
But many of his short works were brilliant, artisticially.
In his career, he was extraordinary writer, and quite unpredictable.
He considered himself, at times, an amateur writer,  didn't know what to do
His genius, a gift to Romantics
cross connections
With Poe, dollars damned him to poverty, tried to make a living at writing and failed.

Melville  had a sense of what would sell, and used that sense to a degree.
He ignored this sense with some of his longer works like Mardi, Moby Dick, Pierre, and the Confidence Man, but when these would not pay, he wrote shorter works that would sell.
With Melville's best books  something unmanageable rose within him; he knew Moby Dick would not sell, but he wrote it anyway.

Hawthorne's  intense interests were in psychological dilemmas.
In the beginning, Melville did not have the sophistication to pursue this approach to writing (with works like Typee, Omoo, Redburn).

Melville's personal adventures lend to his adventures in fiction.

Melville was an out and out romantic.
He believed behind every natural fact is a spiritual fact.
His works have a spiritual dimensions, “shrouded in blackness ten times black”

Melville thought that Emerson's romanticism was all together too cheery.
He thought Shakespeare's writing suited him better, a quick probing into the axis of reality.
Melville was concerned with uttered truths, so terrifically true others would go mad uttering them. (as a Dark Romantic)

Dark Truths:
in fiction, these are expressed through indirections, subtleties. The writer doesn't commit himself, but alludes to things.

Melville's chief artistic principle: to master of the great art of telling the truth

Melville's "truth telling" fiction was too far ahead of its time, not appreciated by his generation.

Mardi, experimental story telling, more metaphysical and intellectual, a prelude to his later complex works.
Pierre, interprets transcendentalist pamphlets, alludes to incest and questions the accepted morality of the western society.
Confidence Man, offers a very pessimistic view of fellow humanity's "trust" of one another.

Melville was sometimes more concerned with the ideas in his writing, instead of the craft of writing itself.
There were glaring technical errors in his novel, Moby-Dick, which was greatly rewritten and reimagined over time. Some vestiges of the old version in the newer version.
Ahab has barrel full of legs, but later breaks his wooden leg and goes to carpenter to get a new one made.

Two Major Phases of Melville's writing career:

First phase:
Melville as yarn spinner
epic sweep, universal themes
extraordinary heroes and villains
Moby Dick is the peak of this period
settings, wide open
first person narratives

Second phase:
after Pierre in 1852
more magazine writing
condense more and more into less and less
third person narratives more common
suggestiveness in the detail of material
"Bartleby" subtitle is a Story of Wall Street

First six novels in First Person
Pierre in Third Person, but the narrator here is certainly not Melville

South seas
Toby and he run away
cannibals, Typee Indians, leg injured to he cannot easily escape
Paradise vs Paranoia (fear of being eaten)
woman takes care of narrator, tells the unvarnished truth
readers/critics thought he was lying about what happened
narrator gets aroused (what?, by a native girl! impossible that a white man would be interested in a native)
got him in trouble, readers condemn his displayed morals

Later, Melville starts to back off from such first person narrators
speaks through multiple characters who are "crazy" or "obsessed" or certainly "unreliable" in their own unique ways
narrators are witnesses, not participants
last two thirds of Redburn is "witnessing"

Moby Dick
two fictional worlds depicted:
a. Ishmael’s world, he is a lazy, speculative observer
b. Ahab: shakes his fist at God if defied, "I'll be damned"

In some ways, the novel is a Rorschach test
readers identified with Ahab until we decide he's crazy, gone too far
then readers identify with Ishmael

Melville's imagination often included a "what if?" quality in many of his works 
cannibals, what if they eat me?
disciplinary flogging in the navy, what if I rebel?

Some works like "Bartelby," examines moral issues.
For Melville, a "moral emergency" is a circumstance that immediately, dramatically proposes a moral difficulty for characters (or the reader).

Melville is claustrophobic, liked openness of crow's nest on a ship. So Bartelby and its "walls" are very enclosed, characters are circumscribed (whether physically or by their beliefs/mores/social constrictions/obsessions)

Questions and Considerations


Works Cited


Other Resources









Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University