Most people know American author Herman Melville only by his most famous novel, the story of Captain Ahab and his paranoid and nightmarish hunt for the gigantic white whale Moby Dick. Of course, it is Melville‘s singular and also very best story. But, if you are trying to get to know the author Herman Melville better, you should also consider some of his other short stories or novels.
But let’s first stay with the white whale. “Call me Ishmael.” The first sentence alone has become an icon. It is one of the most recognizable opening lines in Western literature. Published in 1851, Moby Dick is considered to be one of the Great American Novels and a treasure of world literature. It is a story of revenge. It tells the adventures of wandering sailor Ishmael, and his voyage on the whaler Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab has one purpose on this voyage: to seek out Moby Dick, a ferocious, enigmatic white sperm whale, for revenge. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab’s boat and bit off his leg at the knee, which now drives Ahab to take revenge.
Actually, Melville based the story on two real life events. One event was the sinking of the ship Essex in 1820, after it was rammed by a large sperm whale 2,000 miles away from the western coast of South America. The other event was the alleged killing of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick in the late 1830s, in the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha. Mocha Dick was rumored to have about twenty harpoons in his back from other whalers, and appeared to attack ships with premeditated ferocity.
But besides Moby Dick, I especially like another one of Melville’s short stories: ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener‘. Bartleby is a kind of clerk, a copyist, “who obstinately refuses to go on doing the sort of writing demanded of him.” You definitely should read the story by yourself. If you “would prefer not to“, you and Bartleby do have more in common than you might think.
Bartleby is considered to represent Melville’s relation to his commercial, democratic society, because he was very frustrated by that time about his situation as a writer. Though no great success at the time of publication, Bartleby is now among the most noted of American short stories. It has been considered a precursor of absurdist literature, touching on several of Albert Camus‘ and Franz Kafka‘s themes in such works as “A Hunger Artist” and “The Trial“.
At yovisto academic search engine you might watch a short documentary from the University of California in San Diego ‘A voyage to Paradise: The Road to Moby Dick‘ showing highlights of the Maritime Museum San Diego with emphasis on the South Sea voyages of Herman Melville that had a strong influence on the writing of Moby Dick.
References and further Reading:
- Herman Melville in wikipedia
- Bartleby the Scrivener at project Gutenberg
- Philipp Hoare: What Moby Dick means to me, The New Yorker, Nov 3, 2011.