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Melville, Herman

sea dick moby book

(US, 1819–91)

At the age of 20, Herman Melville shipped on board a packet ship bound for Liverpool. Though traumatic, his experience as a deck hand instilled in him the love of the sea that was to take him on further voyages and inspire much of his work, including the magnificent whaling epic, Moby Dick (1851). Though massive and endlessly digressive, there is no better introduction to Melville's work; this was the book into which he poured his soul, encompassing both his genius for telling a stirring adventure story and his ambition to use the novel as a vehicle for presenting spiritual truth. Ranging far and wide through the great beliefs and philosophies of the world, in one sense it is a fable about the human quest for meaning. But it is also, quite simply, a great yarn, the tale of young Ishmael's gruelling voyage aboard the Pequod under the command of the obsessive Captain Ahab. Ahab's insane pursuit of the great white whale, Moby Dick, a creature symbolizing the sea itself, is a classic seafaring drama and a dazzling feat of invention.

The factual detail of Moby Dick was based on Melville's own experiences as a whalerman in the South Seas, as was Typee (1846). Those who find the sheer scale of Moby Dick intimidating might prefer to try this first. It is a simpler adventure story, fast-paced, full of cliffhanging suspense and South Sea romance: ‘naked houris—cannibal banquets—groves of cocoa-nuts—coral reefs—tattooed chiefs—and bamboo temples.’ Sailors Tommo and Toby jump ship in the Polynesian islands and live with the cannibal Nukuheva society. As lively and humorous as all of Melville's work, Typee is also typically reflective, presenting two flawed worlds. The cannibalism of Tommo's hosts reflects the devouring of Polynesia by the civilized world, the pernicious effects of the missionary influence, and European colonization apparent in the loss of tribal culture and the devastating introduction of malaria and syphilis. But there are no paradises. The Polynesian world is gorgeous and innocent, but dangerous: Eden with a nightmare shadow of totemic ritual and cannibalism. Typee is a book of contrasts. Unable to speak the language, lamed and obliged to be carried by his ‘servant’, Kory-Kory, Tommo is infantilized, while the Nukuheva ‘savages’ come to represent authority.

Melville produced many other works during his life, but it was not until long after his death that his final book, Billy Budd (written 1888–91), was published (1924). Again both a drama of life at sea and an allegory (this time of innocence and wickedness) it is set on a British man-of-war against the background of the British fleet's Great Mutiny and naval uprisings at Spithead and the Nore. Blue-eyed Billy, the handsome sailor with a nervous stammer, childlike, peaceable, and charming, falls foul of the malignant master-at-arms, Claggart, is falsely accused of fomenting mutiny, and ultimately sacrificed to the implacable martial law of the navy. Short and simple, it was a fitting swansong.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain.


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