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Like many great people, Herman Melville was misunderstood during his time. Watch this video to find out why the author of the famous novel ‘Moby Dick’ died almost as a complete unknown.


You might find it ironic that you’re currently watching a video about Herman Melville when, at his death, most Americans had completely forgotten him as a writer – if they knew his name at all. Now, over 100 years later, most people know Herman Melville as the author of the story Moby Dick, one of the most well-known American novels of all time.

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In spite of his reputation for writing stories filled with adventure, Herman Melville’s younger years were not terribly exciting. He was born into a rather wealthy family, but his father eventually went bankrupt and then died, leaving Melville as the head of the family. Melville ended up quitting school and worked to support his family for seven years.

After all those years of hard work, Melville began seeking adventure in his early twenties and he decided to join a whaling expedition.After a couple of years out at sea, Melville returned to America and began writing about his voyage, including Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and Omoo, both about his time in Polynesia. In Typee, Melville elaborated on his experience with the cannibalistic tribe of the Typee and tells the story of a great love affair with a native girl named Fayaway.In the sequel, Omoo, the narrator goes off on a whaling trip on its way to Tahiti. There’s a mutiny, the crew is captured and the narrator explores the Tahiti culture. Both novels were highly successful as Americans embraced his tales of adventure. At this point Melville had achieved quite a bit of fame and a promising career, as readers were anxious to hear more.

While everyone else loved his stories, Melville himself grew tired of the same old stuff. He was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and began writing his famous novel, Moby Dick. Sadly, people weren’t too interested, and when he died in 1891 at the age of 72, no one really knew who he was. As Ralph Waldo Emerson would say, ‘To be great is to be misunderstood.’And thankfully, a few decades after Herman Melville’s death, people began to revisit his work and decided that he had been quite misunderstood during his lifetime.

Ever since, Melville has been known as one of the great writers of his time, and maybe even of all time.

His Works

So, I’ve already mentioned that Herman Melville’s most famous story is Moby Dick. His story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest to kill the white whale is what Melville is known for today, but at the time, no one was terribly excited about the book, and his popularity sunk. While this was obviously disheartening to Melville, it did not keep him from writing. Instead, he continued to experiment with the metaphysical, or the attempt to explain the fundamentals of nature.

Metaphysical is actually so much more than that simple definition; the problem is it’s not easy to define. The metaphysical is an abstract concept focused on the theories of human nature, especially in the sort of supernatural realms. Metaphysical literature explores why people do what they do and what the consequences are. In the case of Melville, he looked at people’s motivations for their decisions, and in the case of Captain Ahab, their obsessions.Melville continued writing and eventually experimented with the short story. The most well-known of these short stories is called ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,’ where he forces his readers to ask themselves, ‘What makes us human?’ Within his story, he explores individuality, both the good and bad of it, a likely stab at the transcendentalist perspective that embraces the individual. To the transcendentalist, people and nature were inherently good, if they were being self-reliant and if each person was true to him or herself.

In Melville’s story, the main character Bartleby refuses to follow society’s laws and winds up dying sad and lonely. Melville, of course, does not argue that we all need to be the same, but he does point out that while we do need to have time to ourselves and be our own person, we also need each other for survival and to challenge our own ideas, which is the theme, or the lesson to be learned. Again, the people during Melville’s time didn’t quite know how to take these ideas.

The public wanted more adventure stories, and this was, well, kind of weird and almost anti-adventure. As a result, his popularity continued to plummet.At the end of his life, Melville began writing a novel called Billy Budd, Sailor. Like his early stories, this novel takes place on a ship, this time in the English Royal Navy, where John Claggart falsely accuses Billy Budd of mutiny.

This forces the reader into a moral tale about human motivation and relationships – certainly a trip down the metaphysical lane but with the scenery of the old adventure tales. It wasn’t until 1924, a few decades after Melville’s death, that Billy Budd, Sailor was published. This sparked the resurgence of Melville’s reputation and is probably the reason we know who he is today.

His Style

As a Dark Romantic, Melville’s style falls in line with writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Dark Romantics are known for creating characters who are trying to make life better for themselves, but self-destruct in the process because of the supernatural forces of evil. Melville’s Captain Ahab, whose obsession with Moby Dick leads to his death, certainly fits this description.Of course, the language Melville uses to tell his stories is an even more important element of his style.

To put it simply, Melville is wordy. His descriptions are verbose and grandiose and include sentences with 471 words (and don’t worry, I’m not going to read it aloud to you). But it’s not just his sentence structure that is over the top. Melville’s diction, or word choice, is also complex. And while this may seem unnecessary for most readers, it’s actually a reflection of the complexity of his themes in his story.

One last thing to note about Herman Melville’s style is that in spite of being a Dark Romantic wrought full of gloom and doom, Melville does have a sense of humor. He’s sly about it, but Melville does tend to poke fun at his characters, through their own thoughts even. This is an element that offsets his verbosity and makes him an enjoyable read.

Lesson Summary

So, what’s the deal with this Herman Melville guy? Well, after starting off strong in his career writing adventure stories, his reputation went south after he began writing complex stories about the metaphysical, or human nature. A few decades after his death, his popularity was re-instated as people began to embrace his stories, the most famous of which is Moby Dick, a story about a deranged captain who is obsessed with killing a large whale. Through the use of complex sentences, elaborate diction and an understated sense of humor, Melville reflects the Dark Romantic perspective that no matter how hard we try to better ourselves, evil will always intervene.

Learning Outcomes

Completing this lesson should prepare you to:

  • Describe Herman Melville’s life and early stories
  • Explain why Melville’s later works caused his popularity to decline
  • Discuss Melville’s style, including the Dark Romantic elements

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