Call Him Ishmael

Darkness at Noon for Herman Melville




 Herman Melville, after four years before the mast, came ashore in New York fit and bronzed and handsome, bubbling over with wonderful tales of what he had done and seen, tales of typhoons and shipwrecks and mutinies and great whales and cannibals in the South Seas and beach-combers in Hawaii, of life in the forecastles and in the rigging of whaling ships, merchant ships, warships of the United States Navy. The tales enthralled his family and friends, and everyone urged him to write them down. He sat down at a desk and with the same energy he had used to scrub decks and chase whales he raced his pen over page after page of paper to turn out, in a few weeks, a novel he called Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life, a recollection of the time he had jumped ship on the island of Nuku Hiva and lived a while there with a native tribe, and had a love affair with a beautiful maiden he called Fayaway A lynx-eyed publisher snapped it up, and a few months later it appeared in the bookstores and Melville woke one morning to find he was famous.

 Typee had everything a book needed to be a best-seller in 1846. It was an engaging vigorous narrative full of action in the depth of seas, in jungles, the exotic charms of life in an edenic paradise as yet untouched by the new order then being brought in by the gunships and missionaries of the West. It even had some sex, for since it dealt with pagan savages the ordinary whalebone-corseted standards of puritan morality did not apply, and Fayaway could strip to the buff and spread our her garment as a sail to waft the two lovers across a pond in Nuku Hiva, something that Hester Prynne could not possibly, for all her Scarlet Letter, dream of doing in Massachusetts.

 (Critics in our day have devoted much time to debating whether, if he Melville had sex with Fayaway, he also had sex with his shipmates in the hundreds of nights he spent on rolling hammocks in the fetid fonrecastles of his various ships. Charles Olson found a curt and convincing answer: No, they were too dirty.)

 More books followed Typee pell-mell. Omoo, another Polynesian adventure story. Redburn, based on his first sea voyage from New York to Liverpool. White Jacket, based on his voyage home on the American warship. Readers could not get enough of them.

 For all their high spirits and breathless pace, these were not just the musings of a jolly tar reliving a colorful past. They also contain precise and angry accounts of cruelty, oppression, misery and crime, on ships, on Pacific beaches, in the slums of Liverpool. The devil-may-care narrative breaks repeatedly into speculations about the nature of reality and of morality which were to haunt all his later writings, so much so that one of his biographers, Lewis Mumford, saw nothing comic about including “Life, sinister meanings of, p. 124" among the entries in his index. He was always a man subject to wide swings of temper from brightness to gloom, from the age of 12 he was constantly fascinated and tormented by the complexities and ambiguities of life.

 He had been raised in a high-toned family striving to live up to the standards of its noble ancestors, the Melvills who had been lairds on Scotland, the Gansevoorts who had been Dutch patroons owning immense estates in the Hudson River valley. One of his grandfathers, Major Thomas Melvill, painted like a Mohawk, had been a ringleader in the Boston Tea Party which was the first act of what was to become the American Revolution, the other, General Peter Gansevoort, had been the leader in the successful fight to save Fort Stanwix, one of the victories that turned the tide of the Revolutionary War .

 The sheltered easy-going boyhood in upstate New York came to an abrupt end when the boy was twelve. His father went bankrupt and died in delirium, and Herman and his older brother Gansevoort were thrust into the big world to make their way as they could. Gansevoort, considered the bright hope of the family, followed in his father’s footsteps, made a mess of the family business, and died. Young. Herman, considered the dullard of the family, good enough perhaps to be a clerk or a surveyor, failed in a variety of jobs and finally in desperation signed on as a common seaman, as lowly and demanding and ill-paid job as you could get, aboard a passenger ship sailing from New York to Liverpool. It was a still more desperate step when a year later he joined the crew of a whaler.

 Whaling ships went on voyages that might last for months, for years. Their crews were made up mostly of rough rowdy desperate men, outcasts and criminals, alcoholics, bums. On average, half of them could be expected to desert on their voyage out, to be replaced by drifters picked up on the beaches of the South Seas.

 But this boy had come through triumphantly, he learned how to handle himself through all the storms, the dangers and the brutalities, and he became an accomplished seaman, as handy at scrambling in the rigging as in pulling an oar in the flimsy boats which hunted down the whales.

 And now he was cashing in on his success. By the time he was thirty, he had five books behind him, and sales were more than satisfactory, except for Mardi; and a Voyage Thither, which, starting off as another South Seas adventure, turned after a few chapters into an overindulgence in his taste for what he called “ontological heroics over a bottle of brandy,” endless pages of barroom philosophy which all readers in 1848, and even his greatest admirers today, preferred to skip over impatiently.

 But outside of that one stumble, everything seemed to be going very well. At the age of 30 he was considered a luminary of American letters. Crowds followed him when he went striding, a regular matinee idol, through the streets of Boston to go courting the beautiful Elisabeth Shaw, daughter of the Chief Justice of Massachusetts, and when it came time for their wedding, the location had to be moved at the last minute, because it was feared that the throngs of besotted admirers – a century later they would be called groupies – might disrupt the proceedings.

 He had gone on to raise a batch of bonny children on a farm he loved in the Berkshires, with a mountain he loved looming over it. People who saw him bounding on the rocks when he went on outings with his literary friends, with the champagne corks popping afterward, must have thought that he was on top of the world. And he must have felt on top of the world when one day in 1850 he sat down to write down the title of his new book, The Whale. It would be printed under that title in England. It would be known in America as Moby-Dick.

 There were a couple of outside influences which would help make that year a magic one for Melville.

 For the first time he had found an edition of Shakespeare with type large enough to read easily, he read it all, he scribbled his enthusiasm in all the margins, he was intoxicated with the rolling thunder of the blank verse, he marveled at the way a single man’s single fatal blunder could create a universal tragedy.

 And for the first time he had met a friend whose vision and whose talent were equal to his own. He discovered that Nathaniel Hawthorne was living six miles down the road from him, in Lenox. He rushed to met him, and for a few months the shy reclusive middle-aged author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables and so many marvelous short stories, and the boisterous young sailor-philosopher, saw each other almost daily and enjoyed one of the most intense and fruitful friendships in literary history. Sophia Hawthorne sat as a fascinated bystander while she watched Melville “dash his tumultuous waves of thought up against Mr. Hawthorne’s great, genial, comprehending silences.”

 Those great silences helped fire Melville’s imagination to a fever point where it could work virtually nonstop month after month to create the new book, the great book. 

 It started out with a few chapters in much the vein of the old ones, a lively straightforward account of his whaling days, the only part of his seafaring experiences he had not yet mined for material.

 “Call me Ishmael,” the narrator of the book begins, but unlike the Ishmael fo the Bible he is not a wild man with his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him. He makes close friends with the cannibal harpooner Queequeg, he is a keen and sensitive observer of the life in the brawling port where the tavernkeepers “dearly sell deliriums and death” to the hapless souls who will sign on for pitiful wages to pass endless months of toil in storm-tossed waters on the whaler Pequod.  

 But as he wrote on, the book exploded under him. Working away for ten or more hours a day, for four hundred or more days, the tumultuous waves took over, and turned his conventional adventure story into a whale of a book, awesome in size and in conception, packed with everything he had learned about the violent uncertainties of life at sea, and everything he could remember from his tumultuous readings of theology and history and philosophy which he summarized as “Hegel and Schlegel.” Out of that turmoil came Captain Ahab, one of the titanic figures of world literature, the crazed Nantucketer sea captain who leads himself and his crew of 30 men to death in the chase of a white sperm whale. Once the Pequod is at sea, everything takes on superhuman dimensions. Queequeg virtually disappears, a weird boatload of Persians turns up in the cramped space below the Pequod’s decks, and Ishmael is only a hapless bystander watching the superhuman wrestling match between Captain Ahab and the white whale which once bit off his left leg and is now the symbol of all the inscrutable malevolence of the universe..

 Everything is symbol, and critics have vied to find ever more profound meanings in them..It has been maintained that Captain Ahab symbolizes the Puritan tradition of New England, white-male imperialism, the United States of America, Man vainly defying Fate, Free Will vainly defying predestination, the Ego vainly trying to dominate the Id, as well as the author’s revenge on the father who abandoned him, as Abraham abandoned Ishmael in the Bible, at a tender age.

 Fortunately for the average reader, there is more to it than symbol.

 Stripped to its anecdotal skeleton, the story of Ahab and his whale might have made a deliciously disquieting tale by Poe or movie by Hitchcock. And it has been made into a movie more than once, but never with the eerie grandeur of the book.

 Ahab himself is a variation of the standard Romantic hero who defies the laws o God and man and probability to stand alone against the marshaled forces of fate. He differs, however, from all most all other figurations of this hero, from Lord Byron to Superman, in one important respect: he has a job. He puts in a full working day, he is a functioning figure in the world of practical commonsense routine.

 There is even a Mrs. Ahab back home in Massachusetts, though the author wisely avoids giving any domestic details. The life of a woman bound for life to this captain must have contained depths of horror that no mere man like Herman Melville could hope to sound.

 As captain of the Pequod, Ahab is manager and part owner of an industrial enterprise at the cutting edge of technology in mid-nineteenth-century America. Today we tend to think of whaling as a picturesque feature of an artsy-craftsy past. In fact, whaling was a brutal but essential fact of life, as essential an industry in Melville’s time as silicon-chip manufacture is in ours, and as revolutionary. Throughout history most daily activities had to come to an end at nightfall, except in the homes of rich people who could afford hand-made candles. In the first half of the 19th century, before any one dreamed of exploiting petroleum, whale oil from newly explored oceans was a convenient, cheap, mass-produced commodity, conferring light on any old home or office or factory after the sun went down..

 The mass production of whale oil was largely the creation of the whalers of America, who, as noted are extolled in Chapter 24 of Moby-Dick, “The Advocate,” outnumbered all the rest of the whale-men of the world, sailing “a navy of upwards of seven hundred vessels, manned by 18 thousand men; every year importing into our harbors a well-reaped harvest of $7,000,000.”

 A good quarter of the books 135 chapters are devoted to descriptions of how a whale ship operated: the endless days of keeping the ship tidy and running , the constant dangers of storm and hidden reef and monsters of the deep, the fearful excitement of the hunt, the fury of the kill in blood-stained waves, the highly skilled factory work that follows when the carcass is cut up and the oil extracted from the blubber in furnaces that smell of “the left wing of the day of judgment.”

 Many if not most readers are tempted to skim over these chapters. If they do.they miss such fascinating information as how the skin of the whale’s penis, “longer than a Kentuckian is tall,” is made into a protective garment for the mincer, the man who is under standing orders to slice the blubber into strips that fall as fast as sheets of paper from an orator’s desk.

 The chapters are also a vital part of the book’s structure. It is all that mass of down-to-earth detail, the round of daily labors and the daily perils that gives dimension and dignity to the voyage of a collection of down-and-outers and a lunatic captain. They become epic characters and,, caught up in the epic flow, readers find it just as natural for magnificent Elizabethan rhetoric to be spouted by 19th-century illiterate Nantucketers as by illiterate 11th-century Scottish warlords like Macbeth.

 Ahab survives because he never becomes mere symbol, he always remains a Nantucket sea captain treading the solid oak decks of a Pequod which, despite its spectral Persians is never a mere ghost ship. Melville was after and above all an old sailor who had learned the hard way how to keep his feet fixed on something firm if he wanted to survive. Even if it was only a slender spar a hundred feet above a stormy ocean, he made sure he knew all about spars. He liked to remind himself and his public that he who passed “years between the whale’s black flukes and the white shark’s fin” had a firmer grip on real life than other contemporary writers. When he found Emerson benignly writing in his book-lined room in Concord that storms were just as beneficial to the sailor’s health as calms, he scrawled in the margin, “To one who has weathered Cape Horn as a common sailor, what stuff this all is.”

 Moby-Dick was in a sense the Cape Horn of his life. But there was no calm and glorious Pacific on the other side. He came out of the frenzy of creation in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. And the rest of his life, all forty years of it, was all down hill.

 The common belief that he went to pieces because the masterpiece he had created did not get the recognition it deserved is not quite accurate. Moby-Dick did get some favorable reviews, especially in England, sold fairly well, remained in print. for several years and brought in a steady if modest stream of royalties.

 And he threw himself with rapidly renewed vigor into writing a new novel, to be called Pierre, or the Ambiguities. The trouble was that he had run out of marketable material. The center of his life had been the sea, and he had no more sea stories to tell.

 He may have deluded himself into believing that Pierre would be a popular romance with enough passionate hearts and mysterious palpitations behind dark veils to please all the ladies in the land. What the ladies got was a thick stew of incest, murder, outraged innocence, suicide and ontological heroics, its theme described by a latter-day admirer as “a radical dualism that inverts the absolute duration of Chronos and empties it of any existential ‘measure’ of relevance.” No wonder no one in 1852 cared to buy it.

 With the sea behind him, life on land now consisted of trying to find enough “Time, Strength, Cash and Patience” (as he prayed for in Chapter 32 of Moby Dick) to be able to spend all day writing away at his desk, in a household that might include at a given moment a wife, a mother, a brother, a sister-in-law, four babies and four spinster sisters.

 “It is my earnest desire,” he wrote half-jokingly to his father-in-law, “to write those sort of books which are said to ‘fail,’” And those were the sort of books he would write for the rest of his life.

 “Dollars damn me,” he said, and he regularly had to be bailed out of a lack of them by his wife’s relatives.

 He tried to make some cash by going on the lecture circuit. But unlike Emerson, or Dickens, or Mark Twain, he had nothing of the showman in his personality, and audiences paid only tepid attention to his pedantic lectures on subjects like the statuary of ancient Rome.

 His relatives tried hard to get him a post in the diplomatic service. His friend Hawthorne had written a campaign biography of his college chum Franklin Pierce and, when Pierce was elected president in 1856, was rewarded by being appointed to the well-paid and undemanding post of U. S. Consul in Liverpool. But Melville had no talent or taste for political chores, and it took ten years of constant lobbying and pulling strings in Washington to finally get him, at the age
of 47, a job as customs inspector in the Port of New York.

 The jolly tar was now a bureaucrat, supervising and transcribing on paper the small operations that keep the great machine of a commercial world operating steadily and smoothly. He was a conscientious customs inspector as he had been a conscientious sailor, and he was an honest one to boot. In a day when it wasroutine for inspectors to line their pockets with fees for looking the other way when certain products were unloaded at the docks, if an importer slipped some bills in Melville’s pocket, they would he quietly, impassively, handed back.

 Every working day for the next 19 years, as he walked in his old sailor’s stride down to the docks at the foot of Gansevoort street to inspect incoming cargoes, he could not help reflecting, as he wrote sadly in a letter to a friend, that the street was named for his grandfather, the hero of Fort Stanwix, and he was the only walker on that street who had any idea of, or interest in, that fact. Nor could he help reflecting that his friend Hawthorne, who had once done his own miserable stint in the customs house in Salem, was now basking in international fame as the premier novelist of mid-century America, while the works of Herman Melville stood dusty and unsold on the shelves of the bookstores which bothered to carry them.

 The pendulum of his emotional nature, always prone to swing between high-spirited jollity and black despair, went to violent extremes. Once when Lizzie told her family that she was afraid he was going insane, and they paid for a four-month tour in Europe and the Middle East for him to give him a chance to regain his balance, he visited old friends in New York before sailing, and one of them described him as “bursting fresh from his mountain charged to the muzzle with his sailor metaphysics and jargon of things unknowable,” and reciting bawdy stories from The Deameron. A few weeks later, he was in England visiting Hawthorne who wrote in his journal, “Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated.” .

 Hawthorne would later draw on his memories of Melville into a character in a novel: “ for external polish, or mere courtesy of manner, he never possessed more than tolerably well-educated bear; although, in his gentler moods, there was a tenderness in his voice, eyes, mouth, in his gesture , and every indescribable manifestation, which few men could resist, and no women.”


 His black moods made for an unhappy home life. His wife Lizzie was at least once tempted to leave. It is said that he came home drunk one night and knocked her down a stairway. But she gritted her New England teeth and stayed faithfully on, bravely copying out his unruly handwriting on the leaves of manuscript that kept steadily flowing from his desk.

 For he kept on writing steadily during all those forty years of failure, books which are now treasured as at least flawed masterpieces but which made no impression on the public in his lifetime and brought in few damning dollars. He went on steadily despite personal tragedies like the loss of his two sons. Malcolm, the eldest, who liked to play with guns was found one morning in his locked bedroom with his brains blown out. The second, Stanwix, turned drifter and died a wretched lonely death in a San Francisco flophouse.

 Herman Melville never complained, he only let his bitterness and disappointment and disillusion slip out into his books.

 He always remembered that he was an heir to Melvills and Gansevoorts, and his view of the body politic was solidly conservative. Though he could hail an American people who could hurl an Andrew Jackson “higher than a throne,” he was scornful of materialism and progress, admired the principles of the Declamation of Independence but doubted that they could work in practice. His ideal society, as sketched in his poem “The Age of the Antonines” was the Roman Empire of the Silver Age when “a pagan gentleman reigned” over an orderly peaceful world, where everyone knew his place, there were no demagogues or parvenus, and honor counted for more than money.

 In his long poem Clarel, a group of travelers meet together in the appallingly arid wastes of the Holy Land to talk interminably as they sit on judgment on the world they live in. A bluff ex-sailor named Rolfe ventures to suggest that American democracy might be able to avoid the internal conflicts that destroyed all the great civilizations of the past. An ex-Confederate soldier named Unger, who.according to the literary critic Helen Vendler, presents Melville’s ”truest insights into the human condition,” replied that America is a mass of “slumberous combustibles sure to explode.” And indeed, looking out on the America of the post-Civil-War Gilded Age, with its racial conflicts, industrial strife, crime-ridden inner cities, unshackled corruption in Washington, unchecked greed on Wall Street, uncontrolled immigration, growing gap between rich and poor, he had every reason to be pessimistic about his country’s future.

 In his Civil War poem The House-top, he looks out on a battlefield which is not in the woodlands of northern Virginia but the “roofy desert” of lower Manhattan, where the Irish underclass of New York, enraged at being drafted into Mr. Lincoln’s army, is staging, against blacks, the first major American race riot, Looting and burning, it is ready to destroy the city. But “wise Draco comes” – Draco, the most severe and unforgiving lawgiver of ancient Athens - and the roaring guns of the United States Army restore order and peace. .


 The world of the last books – the books of forty years – is a dark place

where honesty and goodness bring only disillusion and despair.


 Found a family, build a state,

 (he says in Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the
 Twelfth Century).
 The pledged event is still the same:

 Matter in end will never abate

 His ancient brutal claim.


 Indolence is heaven’s ally here,

 And energy the child of hell:
 The good man pouring from his pitcher clear

 But brims the poisoned well.


 His heroes are broken men. The story Benito Cereno tells of a proud Spanish captain of a ship transporting African slaves. The slaves revolt and take over the ship and make him endure all the ignominy and shame of slavery.

 In Bartleby the Scrivener, there is a meek misfit, a Samuel Beckett character before his time, who takes a job as clerk in the office of a kindly New York lawyer, but who would “prefer not to” copy the papers his boss passes to him, in fact he would prefer not to lift a little finger to held this abominable world go round. He can be considered the first American dropout, and a much more radically consistent one than his followers of our days for he eventually starves himself to death.
 The Confidence Man, His Masquerade is a novel that is really a long bleak brilliantly written tract to prove that nobody and nothing on earth can be trusted.

 Even when he returned to his old sprightly narrative style in Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile – a reworking of the crude autobiography of the real Israel Potter, veteran of Bunker Hill and American spy in England during the Revolution – there is plenty of lively adventure in the few years of his embattled youth, but far more morose misery in the long years of neglect and silence which followed, years in which poor Potter suffered every manner of indignity, from spending months slaving as a prisoner in a brickyard to being denied a modest request for a bottle of brandy from Benjamin Franklin.


 Melville managed to get all these dark works of fiction published. But the reader response hardly justified the expense, and he was ready to give up on readers. “Herman is pretty well and very busy,” Lizzie one day wrote to her stepmother. “Pray do not mention to anyone that he is writing poetry – you know how much such things can spread.”. .

 He was approaching the end of his life, unknown, disregarded. A mischievous reporter had put an item in a New York newspaper that “there are more people who believe Herman Melville dead than there are those who know he is living.”

 He had learned to take it all with philosophic dignity. He lived quietly in a comfortable apartment, surrounded by grandchildren who adored him. A revival of interest in his sea books in literary circles in England helped reinforce his convection that one day the whole world would pay its respects to him. He liked to compare himself to the century plant which, when it flowers after a hundred barren years, can afford a moment of pity for the generations of haughty roses, all now dead and forgotten, which in the brief moment of their fragrant lives thought of it as an uninteresting weed.

 He walked down to the docks every day for exercise. And he kept on writing.

 When he was past 70, he went back to writing a novel. Like the others, the idea that set if off, came from reminiscences of life at sea. Not, in this case, his own life but that of his cousin Guert Gansevoort. Half a century before, this young man, while serving in peacetime as a junior officer aboard the USS Somers in Caribbean waters, had been appointed to head a court-martial of three young sailors who had been overheard concocting a harebrained scheme to start a mutiny and turn the Somers into a pirate ship. It was presumably a mere childish prank, but the ship’s captain was a strict humorless disciplinarian of the old school ,and he took it very seriously, and he made sure that all three of the wretched boys would be found guilty and hanged from a yardarm. A tremendous scandal ensued when the news got back to Washington, not least because one of the hanged men was the son of the Secretary of War. Lieutenant Gansevoort was violently attacked for having rushed too hastily to an outrageously cruel judgment, and though the Navy cleared him of any wrongdoing, he passed the rest of his life under a cloud of ignominy.

 As Melville brooded on this story, and recast it, it became a vehicle for his final comment on the tragic complexity of human events. He moves the scene to the Royal Navy of the 1790s, and he makes his central figure a young merchant seaman wrongfully impressed into service on a British warship, but loyally doing his best to serve his new masters as a good sailor must. Billy Budd, known as “the Handsome Sailor,” strong and cheerful, everybody’s favorite, might be the Herman Melville who had come ashore in New York forty years before. One day he is summoned to the captain’s cabin. He has been falsely accused by a shipmate of planning a mutiny. He is furiously indignant when he hears the malicious lie, cannot put his indignation into words, strikes out blindly with all his youthful force, and the accuser falls down, dead. Captain Vere, known as “Starry Vere” for his calm clarity of judgment, recognizes that the fatal act was wholly unpremeditated, that the real villain is the man lying dead at his feet, and all his humanity argues for some leniency toward the unfortunate, well-loved sailor. But he also knows that there is a war on, that his Bellipotent is one of the thin line of ships which is all that stands between England and invasion by a rapacious French army that has already ransacked and looted half of Europe. And the Royal Navy has that very year been wracked by two major mutinies that came close to destroying it. No breach of discipline can be permitted, no mercy can temper justice, when the slightest sign of weakness can lead to disaster. Wise Draco comes. The law must be carried out to the letter, and though Billy Budd, guilty of killing a shipmate, may be an angel, “the angel must hang.” And Billy Budd goes quietly and obsequiously to his fate.

 Some of Melville’s modern critics have expressed displeasure with his coming down so inflexibly for law and order. As he might gently have reminded them, few if any of them have ever commanded a ship in a war zone. .

 On April 19, 1891, he wrote the last lines of the song which concludes the book, a song sung by sailors after Billy Budd’s death. They are the last wods of Billy as he waits in the dark brig for sunrise and death: “roll me over fair,/ I am weary and the oozy weeds around me twist.”

 In August Melville organized his last book of poems and titled it Weeds and Wildings. He added a tender dedication to his long-suffering still-faithful wife, reminding her of a four-leaf clover he had picked “by the wayside on the early forenoon of the fourth day of a certain bridal month, now four years more than four time ten years ago.”

 He died on September 28. A New York Times editorial writer, assigned to write a brief obituary notice, called him “Henry Melville.”

©Robert Wernick 1995
Parts of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine