Herman Melville sails for the South Seas

Herman Melville sails for the South Seas


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On January 3 1841, writer Herman Melville ships out on the whaler Acushnet to the South Seas.

Melville was born in New York City in 1819. A childhood bout of scarlet fever permanently weakened his eyesight. He went to sea at age 19, as a cabin boy on a ship bound for Liverpool. Two years later, he sailed for the South Seas.

The Acushnet anchored in Polynesia, where Melville took part in a mutiny. He was thrown in jail in Tahiti, escaped, and wandered around the South Sea islands for two years. In 1846, he published his first novel, Typee, based on his Polynesian adventures. His second book, Omoo (1847), also dealt with the region. Moby-Dick—his third novel, and the one he's most famous for—initially flopped and was not recognized as a classic for many years.

Meanwhile, Melville bought a farm near Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house in Massachusetts, and the two became close friends. Melville continued writing novels and highly acclaimed short stories. Putnam’s Monthly published “Bartleby the Scrivener” in 1853 and “Benito Cereno” in 1855.

In 1866, Melville won appointment as a customs inspector in New York, which brought him a stable income. He published several volumes of poetry. He continued to write until his death in 1891, and his last novel, Billy Budd, was not published until 1924.


Herman Melville

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Herman Melville, (born August 1, 1819, New York City—died September 28, 1891, New York City), American novelist, short-story writer, and poet, best known for his novels of the sea, including his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851).

What was Herman Melville’s family like?

Herman Melville’s family was descended from Scottish and Dutch settlers of New York and had taken leading roles in the American Revolution and in the early affairs of the United States. One grandfather was a member of the Boston Tea Party, and the other was known for defending Fort Stanwix, New York, against the British.

What is Herman Melville famous for?

Herman Melville was briefly famous in his lifetime as the writer of adventure novels such as Typee and Omoo. Beginning in the early 20th century, Melville’s works, including Moby Dick, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and Billy Budd, rose in critical esteem, and he was eventually considered to be one of the great American writers.

What were Herman Melville's jobs?

As a young man, Herman Melville worked as a schoolteacher. He then worked on the sea, first as a cabin boy and later as a harpooner on a whaling ship. For a time Melville made a living by writing popular novels, but he spent his last decades in obscurity working as a customs inspector.


Melville at Sea

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In 1851, when the 32-year-old Herman Melville published his masterpiece Moby-Dick, he was already known as a man who’d consorted with cannibals. His first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), was an international sensation. A fictional travelogue based on his adventures, some of them sex-

ual, in the Marquesas Islands, it offended genteel Christians and sold pretty well, so Melville dipped into his escapades again for Omoo (1847), more tales from the South Seas, and the career of Herman Melville, swashbuckling author, was launched.

The young salt then married Boston Brahmin Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Actually, the scandalous Melville was something of a Brahmin himself. Grandson of the Revolutionary War hero Gen. Peter Gansevoort, and of Maj. Thomas Melvill, a hero of the Boston Tea Party, Melville was also related to the Van Rensselaers of Albany, the New York State Dutch equivalent of Boston blue blood.

Now a bona fide writer, Melville published another, more complex romance of Polynesian adventure, Mardi (1849), not nearly as popular as his first two, and the autobiographical Redburn (1849), followed by a story of seamen, White-Jacket (1850): five novels in a manic four years.

The scene is set. Melville is “the first American literary sex symbol,” writes Hershel Parker in Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891. From then on, Melville has to deal with a public that typecasts its authors: Melville is a sailor who writes, not a writer who sailed. He also must live down a reputation for writing too fast and, as his novels grow less popular, shoulder an ever-enlarging specter of mortgaged debt, neither of which would be easy for anyone, least of all the man whose own improvident father, the importer Allan Melvill, had squandered the family fortune, such as it had become, as well as his sanity and his patrimony, dying when Herman was only 12.

Yanked out of school, the young Melville (as the name was spelled after Allan’s death) then clerked in a bank for $150 a year he also worked in his elder brother’s store, ran an uncle’s farm, taught school and in 1839 set out to sea in a merchant ship bound for Liverpool. “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” says Ishmael in Moby-Dick, “then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” In 1841 Melville signed on to the whaler Acushnet, jumped ship and met his tribe of cannibals.

All this is copiously documented in the 941 pages of Parker’s Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851 (1996), which ends when Melville, living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, presents to his Berkshire neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a copy of the newly minted Moby-Dick, containing that singular act of literary generosity, its printed dedication to Hawthorne “in token of my admiration for his genius.”

In fact, Parker’s fine sleuthing turned up a newspaper article, printed in the 1852 Windsor, Vermont, Journal, that recounts Melville meeting Hawthorne for dinner at a hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts, conveniently situated between Pittsfield and the small house the Hawthornes were occupying on the border of what today is known as Tanglewood. And on the basis of this gossip column, Parker speculates that the dinner took place circa November 14 and that as the two friends lingered, alone in the dining room, Melville handed Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. (“In no other way could Hawthorne have had a copy so soon,” Parker explains.)

As Hawthorne held Moby-Dick in his hand, “he could open the book in his nervous way (more nervous even than normally),” writes Parker, “and get from his friend a guided tour of the organization of the thing now in print, and even sample a few paragraphs that caught his eye or that the author eagerly pointed out to him.” He could indeed. Whether he did is another matter, though not for Parker, as secure in his fantasy as Edmund Morris is in his imaginary Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. “Take it all in all,” Parker concludes, “this was the happiest day of Melville’s life.”

This reconstructed dinner purports to have happened because Parker, a mighty researcher, has loaded his book with enough fact, detail and circumstantial inference to oblige assent from a weary reader. Yet despite the hulking material he’s amassed from a mountain of newspapers, a fairly new cache of family papers and a host of collateral letters, to name just a few of his sources, Parker continually veers into unwonted speculation that then careens into certainty, moving back and forth between data and guesswork, seamlessly fusing the two and squandering his credibility as biographer along the way. The happy dinner is a jarring case in point–and surprising in the work of a scholar as seemingly scrupulous as Parker, the associate general editor of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville.

Yet the happy dinner is essential to Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891, another prodigious undertaking, 997 pages, that chronicles the second, sad half of Melville’s life. Here, Parker focuses on Melville’s relationship to Hawthorne. But it’s one of his book’s more contradictory themes, since Parker is irritated by the pairing. Neighbors only for eighteen months, the two authors afterward saw one another about three more times but in the nineteenth-century eye were yoked forevermore, Melville in the background and remembered, “if remembered at all,” snaps Parker, “as a man who had known Hawthorne, the literary man who had known Hawthorne during the Lenox months.”

Of course, Parker isn’t the first biographer implicitly to lay the blame for Melville’s neglect at Hawthorne’s feet. Laurie Robertson-Lorant, whose earnest Melville: A Biography appeared the same year as the first installment of Parker’s biography, doesn’t much like Hawthorne. Though Hawthorne appreciated Moby-Dick, he took Melville literally when he said not to write about it, and Robertson-Lorant never forgave him, particularly since Moby-Dick met with uncomprehending reviewers who called it “careless,” “patchy,” “dazzling” and “absurd.” Sales were predictably bad.

Worse yet, in 1852 Melville published Pierre, or, The Ambiguities, an undomestic novel about incest and authorship (the two symbolically related), which also contained a coruscating sendup of writers and editors. They were not amused. Herman Melville Crazy ran a headline in one New York paper. Enter Parker, who reasonably argues that Melville’s screed against publishers was a wanton act of self-destruction (or hubris) and then less reasonably suggests that Melville “may have sensed what would become a recurrent phenomenon for the rest of his life, that he was being eclipsed by Hawthorne.” This is Parker speaking, not Melville. Despite Melville’s capaciousness, Parker is convinced that envy preoccupies Melville, though the evidence suggests Parker is the envious one, so riled is he by Hawthorne’s posthumous reputation and Melville’s sinking one. Parker closely identifies with Melville, at times too closely, and will cross swords with anyone who ignored, outsold, criticized or just plain didn’t like Melville.

But alas, Melville was in fact forgotten in America until his own posthumous revival in the 1920s, especially in Britain, when, Parker declares more than once, Moby-Dick and sometimes Pierre take their place in a literary pantheon that does not include the establishment writer (according to Parker) Hawthorne. “Not one of all these British admirers ever asked Melville what it had been like to be a friend of Hawthorne,” Parker writes near the end of his book. “They understood that Hawthorne, like Longfellow, was immensely popular but not of the same order of literary greatness as Melville and Whitman.” Take that, you American fools.

The question of Hawthorne’s immense popularity aside–the truth is, he couldn’t earn a living as a writer–Melville’s treatment by a boorish America obsessed with commonplace prosperity is another of Parker’s themes, and he strews his biography with the silly statements of vapid critics like Melville’s friend Evert Duyckinck, whom he also holds responsible for Melville’s eclipse. The trouble here isn’t that Parker is wrong but that his target–American stupidity–is too wide a mark. Americans can be stupid, to be sure, and Melville’s gifts are staggering, but so is his tendency for self-subversion his almost vicious search for meaning–“if man will strike, strike through the mask!”–ends with his pervasive, magniloquent sense that nothing will avail. This makes him a complex, fascinating man and genius of heartbreaking proportion. “Ourselves are Fate,” he wrote in White-Jacket.

After Pierre, Melville presumably wrote another book from a story he’d heard, while vacationing in Nantucket, about Agatha Hatch, the abandoned wife of a bigamist sailor. According to Parker, who expertly excavated information about the lost manuscript, including its title (“The Isle of the Cross”), Melville finished this book, which his publisher, Harper’s, was prevented from printing for some unknown reason. (Parker thinks the Harper brothers feared a suit from survivors of Agatha Hatch, should they have recognized themselves, although he concludes that the prospect is unlikely.)

Parker nicely points out that “The Isle of the Cross” is the missing link between Pierre and Melville’s subsequent magazine tales, including the brilliant story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” an inquiry into moral accountability and the fecklessness of social norms. It was collected in a volume of stories, The Piazza Tales (1856), which also includes the great “Benito Cereno,” about an insurrection aboard a slave ship that turns shallow parlor values upside down, and “The Encantadas,” sketches that Melville may have purloined from a longer, unpublished manuscript of his about tortoises, whose crowning curse, Melville writes, “is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world.” This is pure Melville: philosophical, rueful, ironic, bold. He also serialized a historical novel, Israel Potter, in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, in which he forecast, argues Parker, the ultimate loss of his own career. But he didn’t stop writing.

Now the father of four (two boys and two girls), Melville had already begun the satiric Confidence-Man (1857) when his health collapsed, likely under the weight of depression and heavy debt. Loans due, he had to sell off eighty acres to save his farm from seizure by a creditor humiliated, he borrowed $5,000 from his father-in-law, who’d already contributed $5,000 to family coffers. A kind man where Melville was concerned (though he cut an equivocal place in history by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act), Judge Shaw dispatched the ailing Melville to Rome, Egypt and the Levant, where Melville had long wanted to go, hoping to find among the hieroglyphics tidings to quiet his uneasy soul.

He traveled by way of Liverpool, where Hawthorne, stationed as American consul, briefly entertained him. “He certainly is much overshadowed since I saw him last,” Hawthorne observed, noting Melville’s strange comment that he’d

“pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated” but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists–and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before–in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.

Melville never received a more searching analysis.

As Hawthorne surmised, Melville would not find what he sought in the vastness of the Pyramids, and after returning to America, he beached his pen to earn a scant living on the lecture circuit, his audiences complaining that his whiskers muffled his words. A platform fiasco, he took off again, intending to circumnavigate the globe, but when he disembarked in San Francisco and learned that publishers had rejected a new manuscript, he returned home, defeated and miserable. His works falling out of print, he solaced himself in long walks around New York City after he and his family moved there in 1863, and eventually landed a dry-dock job as a Custom House inspector.

Oddly, the unsold manuscript was a book of poems. Why write poetry? Given the prestige of poetry in the nineteenth century, it’s not a question, says Parker, Melville would have thought to ask. But that’s no answer. The man was chronically depressed, debt-ridden and rightly fed up with publishers and readers yet write poetry he did, perhaps seeking something unavailable to the novel, especially during wartime. The trenchant Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) contains such poems as “The House-top,” Melville’s reflection on the 1863 draft riots, and his ironic depiction of Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” Parker favors Melville’s allusive, ambitious epic, “Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land” (1876), though the jury’s still out on that. I myself would like to be convinced, but Parker prefers to tease out the poem’s hypothetical references to Hawthorne rather than traffic in enormities, poetic or otherwise.

Similarly, Parker gives remarkably short shrift to the tragic death of Malcolm, Melville’s firstborn, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 18. Here, Parker should indulge his penchant for speculation: Why did Malcolm tuck his gun under his pillow each night? What was he trying to tell his father, with this pistol and ball? Did Melville hear him? And wouldn’t it be safe to assume that Malcolm’s ghost, not Hawthorne’s, spooked Melville when he visited the Berkshire Hills in 1869, just before he began writing “Clarel”? Do littérateurs haunt only one another?

Likewise, Parker could dig deeper into allegations about Melville’s abuse of his wife, which so upset her brothers they wanted to kidnap her and the children and hustle them back to Boston. Psychological abuse, Parker admits but physical abuse? Throwing her down the stairs? Poet Charles Olson reportedly got the word from Melville’s oldest granddaughter, and he’s not a source a responsible biographer can put much faith in, says Parker, except that the claims are worth interpreting at least in terms of Melville’s fascination with violence. The posthumously published tour de force Billy Budd, an inside narrative, as Melville terms it, tells of an innocent youth’s murder: Malcolm? Melville’s younger, more sexual self? The beleaguered Melville frequently did abandon his wife, whom he seemed to love, though he was clearly drawn to the company of men, either in fantasy or in the context of his work. (Edwin Miller, an unreliable biographer, imagines Melville propositioning Hawthorne in the Berkshire Hills and Hawthorne rejecting him: more grist for the anti-Hawthorne mill. On this subject, Newton Arvin remains the best, most elegant, Melville interpreter to date.)

Commendably cautious, Parker eschews reckless or fashionable theories about Melville’s sexuality. Yet questions remain, skirted by Parker, as if his dizzying array of biographical detritus would prevent our posing them. Cramming his book with long, bloodless catalogues of what Melville might have seen or read, Parker layers each sentence with so much stuff he sacrifices drama, insight and even, on occasion, grammar. “Knowing Melville’s sightseeing habits as detailed in his journals,” Parker obfuscates, “chances are he saw all he could see, keeping a lookout for superb views.” He then provides us with all these vistas, plus newspaper reports and tangential historical information, fudging the biographical imperative: to show how Melville transforms the shaggy minutiae of life and its myriad characters (whether Hawthorne, Malcolm, a besieged wife or a shipmate) into an alembic of wishes, conflicts and disappointments that, taken together, reflect him, a mysterious, roiling, poignant writer alive, painfully alive, in every phrase he wrote.

Still, Parker offers a sweeping history of the reviews Melville received, a comprehensive account of Melville’s reading (ditto his literary sources), a jeremiad against mediocrity in American letters, all the characters in Melville’s extended family, a record of his aching debt and a peevish defense of an artist who needs, as artist, no defense at all.

Grateful scholars will chew over this massive undertaking in years to come, as they should, saluting Parker for his devotion, solemnity and sheer stamina. As for Melville the man: As Ishmael presciently remarks in Moby-Dick, “I cannot completely make out his back parts and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.”

Brenda Wineapple Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation.


A Sperm Whale Strikes

Whaling was no easy venture. Whalers would set off from the main ship in teams aboard smaller boats, from which they would try to harpoon a whale and stab it to death with a lance. At least the crew aboard the Essex were on the main ship when the sperm whale attacked them.

Owen Chase, the first mate on the Essex, first saw the whale. At 85 feet long, it was abnormally large even for a male sperm whale — which made it that much more frightening when it pointed itself directly at the ship. The whale was reportedly covered in scars and had been floating not far from the ship for some time, watching.

Thomas Nickerson/Wikimedia Commons Cabin boy Thomas Nickerson sketched out the whale’s attack on the Essex ship.

But after shooting a few warning spouts of water into the air, the whale barreled toward the vessel.

“I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods [550 yards] directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots (44 km/h), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.” Owen later recalled in his published narrative of the experience, The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex.

“The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.”

“I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase continued.

Biodiversity Heritage Library By the late 1930s, more than 50,000 whales were killed annually.

Finally, the whale retreated, and the crew scrambled to patch the hole the beast had punched in its ship. But according to Chase’s account, the attack wasn’t over. “Here he is — he is making for us again,” screamed a voice. Chase saw the whale, once again swimming toward the ship. After smashing into the bow, the creature swam off and disappeared.

To this day, no one knows why the whale attacked the ship. However, author Nathaniel Philbrick suggested in his book, In the Heart of the Sea, that the whale’s aggression likely wasn’t accidental. He speculated that the underwater frequency of the crew nailing a replacement board on the ship piqued the creature’s curiosity.

After the attack, the Essex ship began to take on water. The men shoveled supplies into their rowboats and quickly abandoned the whaleship.


Omoo : A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

Following the commercial and critical success of Typee, Herman Melville continued his series of South Sea adventure-romances with Omoo. Named after the Polynesian term for a rover, or someone who roams from island to island, Omoo chronicles the tumultuous events aboard a South Sea whaling vessel and is based on Melville’s personal experiences as a crew member on a ship sailing the Pacific. From recruiting among the natives for sailors to handling deserters and even mutiny, Melville gives a first-person account of life as a sailor during the nineteenth century filled with colorful characters and vivid descriptions of the far-flung locales of Polynesia.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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LibraryThing Review

Continues Melville's adventures in the Pacific, at first aboard a very miserable and poorly commanded whaler, then at Tahiti and a nearby island with his comic sidekick, Doctor Long Ghost. Very entertaining and thought provoking. Читать весь отзыв

LibraryThing Review

You may have heard of the author. This is one of his lesser-read works, although not the least read, that would be Clarel. Even though part of this novel takes place on a whaleship, and has preachers . Читать весь отзыв


Queequeg and his harpoon

In a previous post about whaling, I mentioned that desertion was a financial strategy used by management and labor. For management, the goal was sometimes to cause a sailor to desert on the return voyage, after the hold was full of whale oil and baleen, thus increasing the profits for those who stayed on board and for the ship’s owners. For labor, the goal was sometimes to desert soon after receiving the advance. And labor had a major non-financial incentive too, as living conditions on a whaler included bad food, crowded and dirty living spaces, and a work schedule that alternated between utter boredom before the hunt, followed by several days of non-stop work processing the whale carcass after a successful hunt. Jumping ship in Rio de Janeiro or some tropical island might seem like a pretty good idea.

In Leviathan, Eric Jay Dolin has this note about such deserters:

Deserters who decided to live on the tropical Pacific islands were often viewed with derision by other whalemen. John F. Martin, of the ship Lucy Ann out of Wilmington [Delaware?], described the scene that greeted the ships when they stopped off at one of these islands, and in the process paints a none-too-flattering picture of deserters. ‘When a ship comes in the white men flock on board they are called beach combers & a regular set of scoundrels they are, they are too lazy too work at home for a living & prefer staying here where the living grows to their hands without having to work for it. Their object in coming to the ship was to beg clothes as they can not go naked like the natives their skin will not stand the sun…’ Log of the Lucy Ann of Wilmington, entry for February 19, 1843. [from footnote number 58 for chapter 14]

Perhaps the most famous deserter from a whaleship was Herman Melville. Melville’s desertion and return to the mainland is a fairly complicated story involving quite a few islands and ships, one that is told in great detail in Herman Melville: A Biography, 1819-1851 by Hershel Parker (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
In 1840, Melville signed a contract with the agent representing the owners of the Acushnet, a newly-built whaling ship. His category was “Green Hand” (near the bottom of the ranks), and along with an advance of $84, he was slated to receive 1/175th of the profits of the voyage upon its completion. The share earned by a crew member was commonly called a “lay,” and was the inverse of the fraction of the proceeds from the voyage, so the “50th lay” or “the fiftieth” was 1/50 of the proceeds. According to Davis et al.’s In Pursuit of Leviathan, the traditional dividing line between good and mediocre wages was a lay of 1/100. In Moby Dick, Melville spends a few pages on the lays offered to Ishmael – a relatively unskilled whaleman, who got the 300th lay – and Queequeg – a highly skilled harpooner, who got the 90th lay. See Chapters 16 (The Ship) and 18 (His Mark) for Melville’s account of the negotiations (via Project Gutenberg).

Herman Melville, 1846-47

Melville’s Adventures
Melville shipped off from New Bedford, Massachusetts on the Acushnet in January, 1841 (the city of New Bedford sits on the west bank of the Acushnet River), and never got his pay day, because he jumped ship in July 1842 on the Marquesas Islands. He wrote letters to his family, and his whereabouts were also sometimes available in the newspapers published in seaports, which had listings of ship sightings that included the amount of whale oil already stowed, which could give loved ones (and other interested parties, like debt collectors, I imagine) a sense of when the ship would be returning home. This information traveled quite slowly, at the pace of sailing ships.

A life-changing moment for Melville might have occurred in July 1841 (I say might, because Melville’s memory of these events was sketchy, and documentation slight), when he might have met Owen Chase’s son (William Henry Chase) while his ship and Chase’s ship held a meeting at sea (called a “gam” in Moby Dick, see Chapter 53). At this “gam,” Melville first received a copy of Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. The sinking of the Essex was well-known to whalers, and haunted many of their days and nights. In 1820, while hunting whales in the wide-open expanses of the South Pacific, a wounded and enraged male sperm whale rammed the ship several times, sinking it. The survivors loaded themselves and as many provisions as they could salvage into three whale boats. One of the boats was lost, but two were saved by other ships, after a harrowing 90 and 95 days at sea, which included cannibalism. (Into the Deep, a film from PBS’s American Experience, presents the story as the ‘hook’ for an exploration of the American whaling industry in the 19th century.) Many years later, while working on Moby Dick, Melville wrote in his personal copy of Chase’s book, “The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me.” And the Essex gets a mention in chapter 45 of Moby Dick, when Ishmael recounts sperm whale attacks on ships in order to build up the reputation of the white whale.

In early 1842, the Achusnet was whaling in the vast stretch of open ocean between the Galapagos Islands and the Marquesas Islands. On July 9, 1842, while his ship was in port in the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a shipmate deserted. After some tough days in the jungle – torrential downpours, fevers, all kinds of biting and stinging insects – Melville and his companion found refuge in a native village and settled down on the island. Melville must have found it unsatisfactory, as just a month later Melville shipped out on another whaler, the Lucy Ann of Australia.

The Lucy Ann was a troubled ship, with some of the crew in open revolt and others in a “sick out” – i.e., claiming they were too sick to work – and others deserting at various ports. After arriving in Tahiti, ten men were charged with various crimes and were thrown in prison by the British consulate. Melville got mixed up in this somehow, and was held as a semi-prisoner on the island, not fully free but not imprisoned. The Lucy Ann, meanwhile, left port on the next leg of its voyage.

After extricating himself from his legal entanglements, Melville joined another whaler, the Charles & Henry, with a contract that bound him only until the next port, and they shipped off from Tahiti in early November 1842. This ship was quite well equipped (in relative terms), and included a library, giving him the first access to books since the desertion in July. The ship eventually reached the port of Lahaina in present-day Hawaii, and on May 2, 1843 he was a free man again. But again, not for long. On August 20, he shipped out on the man-of-war United States, as a sailor in the United States Navy. For the next fourteen months, he worked on the United States, which coincidentally made calls in two of Melville’s recent haunts, the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti. Finally, in October 1844, Melville returned to the mainland, as the United States landed at Norfolk.

These experiences were invaluable for Herman Melville’s career as a writer, as they led to two slightly fictionalized accounts of his time in the South Pacific – Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas – were inspiration for several fully fictional works, and set the foundation for his greatest work, Moby Dick.

Image Credits: Drawing of Queequeg from a 1902 edition of Moby Dick, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Painting of Herman Melville in 1846-47 by Asa Twitchell, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Map showing location of the Marquesas Islands downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.


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On this day in 1850, Herman Melville purchased a farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, shortly after meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne. A successful author, apparently unwilling to leave the Berkshires, he finished the novel that would sink his career looking out at the whale-shaped outline of Mount Greylock. The novel, considered by many to be one of the masterpieces of American literature, was generally seen as far too fantastical a translation of the whaling adventures that had made him a popular success. In difficult financial straits, the family sold the farm in 1863 and eventually moved to New York City where Melville worked as a customs inspector. Moby-Dick was not rediscovered until the 1920s.

Moby Dick was a resounding failure when it was published in the 1850's.

In January of 1841, a young Herman Melville boarded the whaleship Acushnet, and left the port of New Bedford bound for the distant Pacific Ocean. At 21, Melville was beginning a voyage that he would later draw on for several novels of seafaring life, including the American classic, Moby-Dick.

Melville was born to a prosperous family in New York City. When he was still a boy, his father's importing business went bankrupt. A distraught Alan Melville committed suicide, leaving his wife to care for eight children. She moved the family to Albany, and from the age of 13, Herman Melville helped to supplement the struggling family's income. At 20, he decided to make his living at sea and signed on as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool.

Melville fell in love with the sea. When he returned to the United States, he tried teaching school, but it could not compare with the arduous adventure of seafaring life. Whaling was nearing its peak, and crews were needed for the dozens of ships headed from Massachusetts ports to the Pacific whaling grounds. On December 30, 1840, the 21-year-old Melville signed on to the crew of the whaleship Acushnet. He would spend 18 months on the Acushnet, learning to be a whaler. As he later wrote about his character, Ishmael, ". a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." Melville took part in the hunting and killing of whales, in harvesting and processing whale oil aboard ship. He endured gales and calm, experienced excitement and boredom, followed ship's discipline, all the while absorbing the lore of the veteran seamen who made up the Acushnet's diverse and colorful crew.

"A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard" -- Herman Melville

Among the many stories Melville heard from his fellow sailors were tales of Mocha Dick, the infamous huge white whale known to attack whale boats and take sailors to their death. In May of 1839, the popular Knickerbocker Magazine described "this renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, [as] an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, . he was white as wool! . Numerous boats are known to have been shattered by his immense flukes, or ground to pieces in the crush of his powerful jaws." According to this account, the huge whale was unconquered but not invulnerable. His back was serried with irons, and he trailed from 50 to 100 yards of line in his wake. "His name seemed naturally to mingle with the salutations which whalemen were in the habit of exchanging, in their encounters upon the broad Pacific the customary interrogatories almost always closing with, 'Any news from Mocha Dick?'"

The power of these stories was underscored for the young Melville by a chance meeting he had with a sailor named William Henry Chase. Chase's ship and the Acushnet exchanged visits while at sea. Chase's father Owen had survived the sinking of the Essex by a great whale in the South Seas in 1820. Reading Owen Chase's account of the ordeal, Melville later wrote, while "on the landless sea, and so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck, had a surprising effect upon me."

"No! in thunder” -- Herman Melville, quoting his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne

While Melville was gathering adventures and stories, his ship was not having much success hunting whales. After 15 months, Melville and a friend deserted the ship when it stopped in Polynesia. They lived among the native Typee people for several weeks before Melville joined another whaler. The crew of this ship mutinied, and Melville spent time in a Polynesian jail. After several more years at sea, Melville returned to Boston, married, and settled down to write about his adventures.

Melville's early books were popular hits, especially Typee, which was set on the exotic and cannibalistic islands of the South Seas. After publishing five novels in as many years, Melville moved to the Berkshires in 1850. There he struck up a friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was living nearby. Melville was 15 years younger than Hawthorne and considerably more successful. But Melville admired his fellow author greatly. Soon after he wrote in a letter that Hawthorne, “says No! in thunder,” describing a social-critical stance that exerted an enormous influence on Melville's work and was the catalyst for Melville's decision to turn his story of the great whale from a rollicking adventure tale into a complex narrative that many critics consider the greatest American novel ever written.

It was not until the 1920s that Moby-Dick was rediscovered and hailed as a magnificent work of literature, now celebrated for its in-depth portrayal of American diversity and its discontents.

Published in 1851 and dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Moby-Dick was a critical and commercial failure. For several years, Melville continued to earn a living lecturing about his adventures in the South Seas. He published five more books but none of them sold well. His reputation faded. He moved to New York and got a job with the Customs Revenue service. When he died in 1892, he hadn't written a book in 25 years. The New York Times was the only paper to carry an obituary. It said simply that "he was the author of Typee, Omoo, Mobie Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years."

It was not until the 1920s that Moby-Dick was rediscovered and hailed as a magnificent work of literature, now celebrated for its in-depth portrayal of American diversity and its discontents.

If You Go

Herman Melville's Arrowhead, his home in Pittsfield, 1850-1862, is open to the public.

The Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield maintains a Melville Memorial Room.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is in the National Historic Whaling Park.

Links

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Western and Southeast regions of Massachusetts.

Sources

Bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick made the case for reading this classic work in Why Read Moby Dick? (New York: Viking, 2011)

Melville: A Biography by Laurie Robertson-Lorant (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).

Melville: His World and Work, by Aldrew Delbanco (Alfred A. Knopf. 2005).

Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution, by Paul Gilje (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

"Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal," by J.N. Reynolds, Esq. in The Knickerbocker, or New-York Monthly Magazine. Vol. 13, No. 5, May 1839, pp. 377-92.

Herman Melville: A Biography by Hershal Parker (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, 2002).


We retrace the journey that had a long-lasting influence on the enigmatic author’s improbable career

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This is the tale of a man who fled from desperate confinement, whirled into Polynesian dreamlands on a plank, sailed back to “civilization,” and then, his genius predictably unremunerated, had to tour the universe in a little room. His biographer calls him “an unfortunate fellow who had come to maturity penniless and poorly educated.” Unfortunate was likewise how he ended.

Who could have predicted the greatness that lay before Herman Melville? In 1841, the earnest young man sneaked out on his unpaid landlady and signed on with the New Bedford whaler Acushnet, bound for the South Seas. He was 21, eager and shockingly open-minded, yearning not just to see but to live. In Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) and the other seafaring novels inspired by his exploits over the next three years, written in the half-decade before he commenced Moby-Dick, his word-voyage aboard the Pequod, Melville wrote with bighearted curiosity about fearsome “savages” and cultural otherness. To honor this prophet of empathy, this spring I set out for French Polynesia, to see some of the watery part of the world, and to view what I could of the place and its inhabitants, which formed in our novelist his moral conscience and gave unending sail to his language and his metaphors. Back in America, he had to learn to savor these gifts, for after tasting briefly of success he would not have much else to sustain him.

Herman Melville was born 200 years ago, on August 1, 1819. Both of his grandfathers were celebrities of the Revolutionary War. His mother’s father, Peter Gansevoort, had defended Fort Schuyler against the Redcoats. His father’s father, Thomas Melvill (no “e”), one of Samuel Adams’ co-conspirators, took part in that infamous hooliganism called the Boston Tea Party. After victory they both came into money. Unfortunately for Herman Melville, his father, Allan, borrowed heavily from many quarters, including his wife’s not yet allotted inheritance, concealing debts, skipping out on creditors.

Allan died in 1832. Now Herman, age 12, had to leave school to toil at the New York State Bank, of which his unforgiving benefactor Uncle Peter was one of the directors. From this torture the boy was pulled out to labor at his elder brother Gansevoort’s furrier establishment, which presently failed. We glimpse him back in school, then out again: a would-be canal surveyor, and probably a hired laborer. “Sad disappointments in several plans which I had sketched for my future life,” runs the opening page of his fourth novel, Redburn (1849), a crowd-pleaser about a naif on his first voyage among rough sailors, ringing highly autobiographical. “The necessity of doing something for myself, united to a naturally roving disposition, had now conspired within me, to send me to sea as a sailor.”

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Herman Melville, at 27 years old, c. 1846, around the time he published Typee and Omoo, the South Seas novels that made him famous. (Culture Club / Getty Images)

In 1839, Melville signed up as a deckhand on the St. Lawrence to Liverpool. He was gone from June to October—barely long enough to peep into the wider world. In January 1841 he absconded again, this time to board the whaler Acushnet.

It was on the Acushnet that Melville read The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, a memoir of the expedition whose destruction, out on Pacific waters after a gigantic sperm whale smashed its head into the ship, gave our not-yet author a first inkling of the plot of his greatest work. In the 19th century, of course, whales were not intelligent creatures to be protected but monsters to be monetized. “For, thought Starbuck,” chief mate of the Pequod in Moby-Dick, “I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs.”

By June 1842, having sailed south around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, the Acushnet had filled 750 barrels with whale oil. Melville wrote later about how it would have been obtained:

The red tide poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill. His tormented body rolled not in brine but in blood, which bubbled and seethed for furlongs behind in their wake. The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men. Starting from his trance into that unspeakable thing called his ‘flurry,’ the monster horribly wallowed in his blood, overwrapped himself in impenetrable, mad, boiling spray. At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore. shot into the frighted air: and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea. His heart had burst!”

After 18 months at sea, Melville was getting sick of the whole business. In Typee, his first novel—a mix of autobiography, fabulist chicanery, and unattributed borrowings from many earlier works, in which he dramatized the time he spent among Polynesian cannibals until, fearing for his life, he fled—Melville, in the guise of a character called Tom, denounced the Acushnet’s captain as a tyrant, pronounced the voyage overprotracted, bemoaned the food. I myself would have declined whale-cruising on first sight of those dark and filthy cubbyholes set in around the bow, their wood on the verge of decay—how they must have stunk! Here slept the crew, sometimes for two or three years at a stretch.

According to Typee, Melville bathed with his indigenous lover "Fayaway" each morning in the river running through Nuku Hiva's Taipi Valley. (Irenaeus Herok)

Coming into Taiohae Bay, off Nuku Hiva, part of a Polynesian island group called the Marquesas, Melville wrote in Typee that the beauty of the harbor “was lost to me then,” seeing as he could focus only on six French warships. He happened to be arriving as the French and British were openly competing for Polynesian converts and territory. That year, a French admiral named Abel Aubert du Petit-Thouars sweet-talked the archipelago’s chiefs, who imagined they were getting protection, into signing annexation treaties.

What might have been going on there in June of 1842? One badly reproduced engraving from a “commemorative” 1992 booklet is at least said to derive from that very month. In it we see the bay crawling with ships and boats, not to mention what might be a native canoe, while onshore stand at least two rows of stout-looking French edifices, evidently of stone or brick. As the Melville scholar John Bryant, founder of the journal Leviathan and editor of the Penguin Typee, remarks: “The young whaler had come to Nuku Hiva at precisely the moment in which that island culture was about to die.” Melville was not shy in condemning what he saw. One of Typee’s page headings reads: “REFLECTIONS ON EUROPEANS’ CRUELTIES.”

Corinne Raybaud, a French historian who has lived in Tahiti for 40 years, and has much to say about our author’s Polynesian travels, told me that Melville wasn’t the first Anglo to visit Nuku Hiva, but he might have been the first, or among the first, to dwell with that island’s most anti-European tribe, the Typee—or, as they now orthographize themselves, the Taipi. Her best guess was that he was there, all told, for three weeks.

For Melville, the lure, I think, was the idea of Polynesia. As one American missionary reported of his encounters there, a dozen years before Melville took to sea, “I am more and more disgusted with the nakedness and a hundred other of the odious appurtenances of heathenism forced on us at every turn.” Those “appurtenances” made many a young man’s heart sing, as Melville would have known: He had a cousin aboard that missionary’s very ship. How must this idea of Polynesia have inflamed our raw young American, who came from drudgery, shame, worry and degradation? What must it have been like for him, undernourished in experience and overfed on Christian pieties, to chart his own moral course on this partially unmapped continent?

Today, Taiohae Bay’s astonishingly blue water-circle is softly enwrapped by the curves of high green promontories decorated by rain and ferny jungle. My first impression of it, descending a serpentine route from Nuku Hiva’s dry side, consisted of golden light shooting down across the tops of palms and banana trees in the slanting valley, and a sudden cleanly bitter fragrance. Two days later, Taiohae’s circlet of hills was drier, and some of the glow had bled out of the sky. On another drizzly morning the bay wore brilliant mirror-gray, like a daguerreotype. I thought I scented pua blossoms.

Once at anchor, the Acushnet’s captain, upon releasing the men for shore leave, could not abstain from warning against the “tattooed scoundrels” who might inveigle them into a stew pot. The legend of those scoundrels preceded them. As Typee relates, “Their very name is a frightful one for the word ‘Typee’ in the Marquesan dialect signifies a lover of human flesh.” Evidently not so frightful as to forestall shore leave, however. How could such cautions win out against testosterone and earnest curiosity? Off rowed the starboard watch, Melville among them. It was July 9, 1842. He would not board the Acushnet again.

(Guilbert Gates)

Immediately a rainstorm caused Melville’s party to shelter in “an immense canoe-house which stood hard by the beach.” After the others had fallen asleep, Melville-as-Tom and shipmate Toby Greene crept out and began to ascend the mountain. They would hardly have been daunted by that warm rain. It must have washed away the stink of rotten whale blood and old sweat. They were trading cruel discipline for breadfruit, foul biscuit for mangoes, gravelike berths of darkness for the emerald life that pulsates through Typee. Their hopes were decorated by wild taro with its thick, dark leaves, by those yellow flower-stars on the massive hibiscus trees.

My hopes, after departing Taiohae, were pearl-gray like the water itself. I set out with Jean Pierre Piriotua, a man of Taipi extraction who guided me on Nuku Hiva and agreed to bring me to the valley of his relatives. Passing a cemetery, we next left behind the uninscribed wooden monument to a vagabond named Melville, erected by a local artist in the early 1990s. On Nuku Hiva, light, color and fragrance were as restless as the sea itself. We climbed a cemented road, winding steeply up out of the bay, alongside a banana plantation, with a wet red cliff to the right and sky to the left. Readers of Typee might plausibly infer that Tom and Toby’s ramble begins with a comparable route. (Here I pause to admit that one should never mistake Melville’s narrative voice for literal truth—yet what am I to do? I read his books in a spirit of imaginative empathy, spiced with skepticism.) All too soon, Tom and Toby encounter steep canyons and ridges that bewilder them. Dividing their meager store of bread, they stumble on, weakening, getting soaked at night in makeshift lean-tos. Tom begins to go lame. And then they approach a precipice and gaze down into a paradisiacal valley of “universal verdure.” Unsure whether the valley is home to a supposedly friendly tribe of Nuku Hivans, or to the “ferocious Typees,” our heroes descend into that moist green heaven. And then what? Well, you know from the title where they land.

Having appropriately milked the shock of their choice, Melville promptly begins—and here is what gives Typee much of its richness—to undermine its sinister connotations. First the Taipis feed them, an excellent termination to five starving days. And the blessings continue! They lie down to sleep unmolested. In the morning, nubile members of “the adorable sex” conduct a “long and minute . . . investigation” of their persons.

The Taipi Valley is dotted with the ruins of old settlements and the stone foundations of abandoned houses, such as this one where, according to legend, Melville lived. (Irenaeus Herok)

The powerful chief Mehevi now visits, dressed in a splendidly imposing outfit. What Tom, whose name the chief pronounces “Tommo,” finds “most remarkable” is “the elaborate tattooing displayed on every noble limb.” Most Euro-American observers from this period would have deployed the word “hideous.” Melville asserts that Mehevi “might certainly have been regarded as one of Nature’s noblemen, and the lines drawn upon his face may possibly have denoted his exalted rank.”

And yet—as much as anyone else, Herman Melville was of his time. In Typee he informs us that these “simple savages” can gain “the utmost delight from circumstances which would have passed unnoticed in more intelligent communities.” To condemn Copernicus for not calculating all that later astronomers proved, to expect of Aristotle that he should see the wrong of slavery, is to deserve the future’s most merciless judgment of our own errors that remain invisible to us. Melville could be brave and noble-hearted, for although he was of his time he was also alienated from it. In asserting that “savages” could be justified in resenting their injuries at the hands of “civilization”—a truism to us—he was going against his own interest, and I thank him for it. Inconsistent in his politics, at times truculent, then fearful about his material prospects, among the Taipi this half-formed young autodidact now found his moral compass-needle whirling in the magnetic storms of the unknown.

The scholar Ruth M. Blair proposes that in the character of Tommo, Melville is forming “the complex vision of ‘civilization’ . . . that would put him for the rest of his life out of kilter with his contemporaries.”

What most powerfully reorients Tommo’s magnet is “the beauteous nymph Fayaway, who was my peculiar favorite,” one of “several lovely damsels” who make up the co-residents of Tommo’s Taipi Valley abode—an iconic cannibal heroine for all time. Melville describes her at affectionate length. Fayaway was “the very perfection of female grace and beauty,” he says. You see, “each feature” was “as perfectly formed as the heart or imagination of man could desire.” He adds: “This picture is no fancy sketch it is drawn from the most vivid recollections of the person delineated.” In this portrait, I cannot help but see someone real, someone who was loved.

Many of the people I met on Nuku Hiva believed that “Fayaway” actually existed. They said her name was Peue. Jean Pierre taught me how to say that name: Pah-oo-ay. He said that it meant “beautiful” or “woman.”

Another Nuku Hivan guide who went by Richard Deane—his “local name,” he said, was Temarama, Marquesans traditionally forgoing family names—told me that “Peue means the carpet weaving with banana leaves.” He pronounced her name Peh-oo-weh.

He said, “Peue was the daughter of one chief over there, and they gave her as a gift to Herman Melville to try to keep him in the middle of them, to use him like a white chief and use him like a translator, and bring some new technique of war and technology to fight the strangers”—that is, the Europeans.

“So you think they wouldn’t have eaten him?” I asked.

(But Jean Pierre thought they might have.)

I asked Jean Pierre, “What do you think of Melville—good or bad?”

“The local people like Melville. A beautiful man with white skin and blue eyes, make him a wife! Peue is wife for important people.”

In societies across Polynesia, elaborate tattoos (from the Polynesian word "tatau") have been used for thousands of years to indicate genealogy, wealth and social status. (Irenaeus Herok)

Not long before the road forked he said: “This mountain, Melville take to Taipi Nui place,” and he pointed across the next abyss. Although he possessed the romantic credibility of a native informant, my certainties had been poisoned by bitter academic contests about Melville’s veracity, and about the topography itself. I thought to myself: How could anybody know?

Now we went down into the Taipi Valley, which lay as Melville described it, long and narrow between two high ridges. Inland of the greenish sea with its magnificent clouds, the bay appeared shallow and flat-bottomed. I dreamed my way out into that long stretch of wide ocean. There were many white yachts, which Jean Pierre said were inhabited by foreigners who anchored here “to relax.”

Up the valley ran the river called Vai-i-nui, the big water. The name “Taipi” means “high tide” or “where the river meets the sea.” So here we were, at Taipi. Jean Pierre picked a white pua blossom from a tree, which he placed in his long dark hair.

Ocean view at Mahaena on Tahiti, French Polynesia. (Irenaeus Herok) Bird’s-eye view of Marae Arahurahu on Tahiti. (Irenaeus Herok) Opunohu Bay on Moorea, French Polynesia. (Irenaeus Herok) Taipivai Valley on Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia. (Irenaeus Herok) Opunohu Bay on Moorea, French Polynesia. (Irenaeus Herok)

I had requested to meet any Taipi who might bear Melville among his ancestors, so Jean Pierre drove me to meet his uncle, Monsieur Jean Vainiaanui, “called Pukiki,” as he added in my notebook. “The white of his skin, of the skin of his family, is the same you,” said my guide. “C’est le descendant.”

The front room of the house was dim and moderately cool. The uncle and aunt showed small pleasure at my intrusion. They had met journalists before. Since I myself would have disliked being imposed on in the name of some distant foreign ancestor who had impregnated my greater than great-great-grandmother and then abandoned the family, I kept it short—all the more so since Jean Pierre, who ordinarily stood by me in case I had questions, now strolled outside and left me to my own devices. Perhaps the bargain ran as follows: The uncle submitted to interviews in order to help Jean Pierre make money. In return, Jean Pierre avoided performing any action that would extend those interviews.

Retiring into a dark inner room, Monsieur Vainiaanui returned with a small photoportrait of Melville, which of course impressed me until I learned that a “French friend” (perhaps a journalist) had recently presented it to him.

“Sir, are you a descendant of Melville?”

He said something that sounded like “Pas mari.” I could make no sense of it. A fluent French speaker who reviewed the audio file later concluded: “He really is mumbling, and that was the hardest part to figure out. I believe that he is saying no, that he is not a descendant of Melville, because the first word is definitely ‘pas,’ or ‘not.’”

“For how many generations has your family been here?” I asked Monsieur Vainiaanui.

He was silent, then said: “Many. We live here. My great-great-grandfather came here.”

“How many people are there now in Taipivai?”

“And the people here, they still have memories of Melville?”

“What do you think of him? For you, is he someone good or bad?”

“Yes, a good question. Good or bad? I think that Melville was an adventurer he was someone who wanted to see things. It was normal that he came here.”

“And the people here don’t have any memory of Peue?”

Hating myself for having troubled him, I thanked him for the interview and went out.

“So he is Melville’s descendant?” I asked once more.

We re-entered Jean Pierre’s truck and drove to a lonely spot in the jungle, approaching the site where Melville might have lived with Peue among the Taipi. Entering the midmorning steam bath, I telescoped my segmented walking stick and launched into another Marquesan perspiration. Jean Pierre was warning about the mosquitoes: “Beaucoup de dengue,” he laughed. (Nearly everybody I asked in the Marquesas had suffered at least one visitation of the fever.) Then we walked down a hill-track that quickly petered out in the shrubbery.

Tikis and engravings at the extensive ceremonial site called Tohua Koueva, near Taiohae, which belonged to the clan of a Nuku Hivan chief killed by the French in 1845. (Irenaeus Herok) A tiki at the Nuku Hivan site of Hikokua, in use from A.D. 1250 until the 19th century. The site is also home to the graves of early Christian missionaries. (Irenaeus Herok) A tiki at Puamau, on the island of Hiva Oa, which Melville visited after fleeing Nuku Hiva. Half a century later, Paul Gauguin lived out his final years here. (Irenaeus Herok)

In ten minutes we reached our destination, which according to Typee lay “about halfway up the ascent of a rather abrupt rise of ground,” where “a number of large stones were laid . . . to the height of nearly eight feet.” At no great distance flowed the Vai-i-nui River—evidently the stream in which Tommo and Peue bathed for a half-hour each morning. So far, topography corresponded to description, and there, at a right angle to the slope, rose a flat-topped boulder-eminence of approximately eight feet. Its Taipi name, as transliterated by Melville, was a pi-pi. Upon it would once have risen some family’s house, whose bamboo frame and hibiscus-wood transverses were of course long gone.

Jean Pierre said that this tohua, a central cleared area for clan festivities that at one end might include a place for human sacrifice, had been abandoned generations ago due to malaria, before the dengue fever came.

“How do you know this was the Melville site?”

“Because my grandfather told me,” Jean Pierre said.

Mostly the tohua was a jumble of rocks, the ground overgrown to an ankle’s thickness by an ivyish plant that had been imported from New Zealand to feed the cows. Here where Melville and Peue used to “stroll along,” “sometimes hand in hand,” with “perfect charity” for all “and especial good-will towards each other,” I took my own promenade—until Jean Pierre warned me against falling coconuts. In 2007 a tourist and her guide were killed by them at a scenic waterfall nearby.

Sitting on a mossy wet boulder, I gazed down a steep wall of rocks to the river. My knees were glowing with bites. Below was a pavement of white-lichened boulders and the lovely breeze and the brown-green Vai-i-nui, a rapid creek. In its flow the wading Taipi maidens used to soak their coconut shells and polish them with stones.

I picked a hard green lime from its thorny branch. It was very fragrant. When we stopped for a cheese and cracker lunch, Jean Pierre cut it for me with his machete, so that I could squeeze it into my water bottle.

One of the characteristics of Typee most offensive to 19th-century Americans was its unashamed eroticism. (Another was Melville’s rage against the missionaries.) When he began composing it, he “went far indeed in planting not just sensuous but actually obscene passages in his decorous manuscript,” writes his biographer Hershel Parker. Omitting those, let us content ourselves with lesser innuendoes: “Bathing in company with troops of girls formed one of my chief amusements.” “There was a tenderness in her manner that it was impossible to misunderstand or resist.” “Every evening the girls of the house . . . would anoint my whole body”—your whole body, Herman?—“with a fragrant oil, squeezed from a yellow root.”

Our hero was apparently living easily. But then what? Just as the red, white, yellow and green flower garland that my Taiohae femme de ménage Isabelle draped round my neck smelled so spearmint-bright at first, then wilted and began to stink, just so it was, my friends, for poor old Tommo! You see, he kept worrying that his Typee hosts would eat him.

Nuku Hiva's Church of the Sacred Hearts was described by Robert Louis Stevenson, who visited in 1888, as "good, simple, and shapely." (Irenaeus Herok)

What if those ill thoughts were mere embellishments, and the simple truth was that the joy had drained from his sojourn in Taipivai? “The gods themselves are not for ever glad,” he writes in Moby-Dick. “The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers.”

Most likely is that being ignorant of the Marquesan language and culture, he simply did not know whether he was on the menu.

Let me describe a certain weird old ruin on the far side of the island. A honey smell came in the evening breeze, and I heard a crowlike croaking. Palms bent together and whispered behind the long, low walls of a wide-stepped terrace. I heard a fluttering sound, then a bird began calling waaa!, and everything stayed motionless on the black basalt platforms. In the humid twilight, the platforms with their white lichen began to look sinister. My eye was held by a single banyan tree, maybe 500 years old, which sprang upward like some grisly and sacred entity upon an altar. The clouds darkened the terraces were already silhouettes the leaves began to go utterly dark.

By the time that Jean Pierre led me to it, the site’s famous petroglyph boulder could barely be seen. Of its depictions I most remember the great turtle, represented because turtles come from the sea to lay eggs, then perish hence after we die, our spirit goes likewise to the sea thus the artist might have believed, Jean Pierre said, “maybe a thousand years after Christ.”

Nuku Hivan archaeological sites such as Kamuihei, featuring large stone petroglyphs, are thought to date from more than 600 years ago. (Irenaeus Herok)

Feeling my way with my walking stick, I tapped from boulder to boulder. Jean Pierre pointed into a deep pit, dark against the darkness, which he called the ancient calaboose. Really it was more like a meat locker—the place where captured enemy warriors were kept until eating time. Imagine being a lonely guest near any such place (and every clan had one), among people with whom one could scarcely communicate. How could Melville know what the smile of Peue really signified, or whether Kory-Kory, his gentle manservant, might suddenly take on a butcher’s role?

All we know of his escape—overwrought in Typee, which is not to say false the indigenes may have peacefully traded him back to the Europeans—is that in August 1842 our author ended up on the whaler Lucy Ann, an adventure he drew on for Typee’s sequel, Omoo. Short-handed thanks to desertions, the ship’s captain rescued Melville, who signed on to cruise as far as Tahiti. Reasonably fearful of more desertions, at Tahiti the captain forbade his men shore leave thus did Melville, insubordinate as always, join a mutiny. (It failed.)

In Tahiti they threw him in Calabooza Beretanee (Melville’s transliteration), which in Tahitian means “English jail.” I would have liked to see this place, but nothing remained of it. Our author had his little ways soon his confinement was relaxed, then remitted, and he found himself a vagrant once again. In the time he was in Tahiti, he observed white missionaries invading people’s homes at mealtimes, while native constables dragooned whomever they could catch to Sunday services. The new moral code was punitively enforced the education system was a sort of apartheid. Omoo bitterly describes the cane-thumping old missionaries at whose sight the natives “slink into their huts.” Melville could only conclude that “the Tahitians are worse off now” for the encounter.

In Omoo, Melville sails from Tahiti to the beaches of Moorea, with its "musical" waves, in the boat of two "Yankee lads" who were deserters like him. (Irenaeus Herok)

In Papeete, French Polynesia’s capital, on Tahiti, my pension host Luc François did not disagree with Melville. “I wish the missionaries stay at home, because they say their god is better than other god!” He laughed. “They say, ‘Now you have to pray to my god, you have to put on a dress, you have to hide a tattoo.’ But my tattoo is my clan’s story, my children’s story. But they say, ‘My god don’t like!’ We are a small place, a small piece of the universe. Why come to me and say like that?”

With native culture changed, Melville concluded that the islanders’ “prospects are hopeless.” The English-language guidebook whose job it was to entice me here, so that I could inflict my own mite of cultural damage, admitted that “domestic violence and incest are prevalent. This is closely connected with high rates of alcoholism . . . little progress has been made.” I found the guidebook’s final assessment off the mark. For one thing, Tahiti’s inhabitants, about 9,000, according to Melville, now numbered nearly 200,000. Some of them smiled at me, right there in Papeete’s motionless humid shadows, with traffic’s soft hum all around me as I sat in a grove of palm trees, entertaining people with my compliments in bad French. At night they danced for each other, not for money. Their language still lived.

Around November 1842, Melville decamped for the island of Moorea. Finding himself pressed into unhappy work digging potatoes, he decided to visit a village called Tamai, where “dwelt the most beautiful and unsophisticated women.”

For the sake of scholarship, I tootled over to Tamai, now orthographized Temae, and in a different part of the island than where Melville had put it. He spoke of a lake yes, I did see a body of brackish water beside the airport its shallows were stringy with algae and littered with rotting coconuts. Some days after viewing the “passionate” movements, “with throbbing bosoms,” of those Temae sylphs, Melville received warning that the law was coming fearing that he would be arrested for vagrancy, he had to clear out.

Moorea—seen here from Opunhu Bay—was punctuated with "steep cliffs, hung with pendulous vines, swinging blossoms in the air," Melville wrote. (Irenaeus Herok)

I next lay down in a concrete pavilion by the turquoise ocean with its reef line just before the horizon. Ten days after fleeing the constables at Temae, Melville marched into this exact spot. He was expert as ever at accepting the hospitality of Polynesians. Bathed, sated and dressed, he took the time to admire coconut oil burning inside a lamp made from half a green melon, “a soft dreamy light being shed through the transparent rind.” And here I want to say that so much of his Polynesian writings have to do, as well they should, with the pleasures of idleness, and even somnolence.

The slender, middle-aged Papeetian lady whose machete opened a juice-coconut for me had never heard of Melville she wondered if that might be my name. The radio was playing an old song I always liked about going to San Francisco. On the way out of town a sign warned of false prophets.

Finally, Melville shipped out on the whaler Charles and Henry. Sometime between January and March 1843, he arrived in Hawaii, then called the Sandwich Islands. Most of his doings there cannot be verified. He might have landed at Lahaina. We know he passed some time in Honolulu, where he signed a one-year contract to work as an Englishman’s bookkeeper. Meanwhile the Acushnet, which had also arrived in Hawaii, posted a complaint of desertion against him.

In August 1843, having characteristically broken his contract, Melville enlisted on the USS United States. They landed at Nuku Hiva in October, then came a week anchored just off Tahiti, and that was the last he ever saw of Polynesia.

By now the shy young innocent had found his sea legs. He could defy, desert, blaspheme and fornicate with the best. He had grown comfortable with the fact that “from the wild life they lead . . . sailors, as a class entertain the most liberal notions concerning morality and the Decalogue.” And indeed, as Charles Roberts Anderson rather sourly writes on the last page of his 1939 tome Melville in the South Seas: “Within a decade the high priest of the South Seas had become, in his own eyes at least, the heretic of an inquisitional civilization.”

Melville hated restrictions on his liberty hence his mutinies and vagabondage. So he kept right on calling out authority, ranging ahead in a long cruise toward unfettered self-expression,

which in our world naturally equals self-destructiveness. Of Hawaii, he wrote, “What has [“the savage”] to desire at the hand of Civilization. Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer the question. The missionaries may seek to disguise the matter as they will, but the facts are incontrovertible.” Defiant always, with ever-growing daring in his style, he sailed in the direction of his unknown greatness.

And so he came home to his America—by no means to ours. “Thrice happy are they who, inhabiting some yet undiscovered island, have never been brought into contaminating contact with the white man,” runs Typee. It follows that he had contaminated them, and they most certainly did him the same favor.

He wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he adored, that he “had no development at all” until age 25, which is to say, around 1844. In that year he began to write Typee. The Harper brothers rejected it a year later. His brother Gansevoort, who remained the family’s support, carried it to the London publisher Murray, who printed it moderately bowdlerized in 1846. Almost immediately, thanks to the writer Washington Irving, Typee gained an American publisher, George Putnam.

The first reviews were favorable—and no other book of his ever sold so well. It made him famous. But on March 14, a British periodical, The Critic, said: “Seldom have savages found so zealous a vindicator of their morals rarely, too has Christianity owned so ungrateful a son.” Although Typee and then Omoo continued to garner praise, attacks on his Christianity, bolstered by Horace Greeley’s denunciations of his “hankering for loose company not always of the masculine order,” began to undo Melville’s career.

When Gansevoort died suddenly in 1846, the young author had to increase his efforts to support his penniless old mother. Fortunately, he had attracted the rich and pretty Elizabeth Shaw.

What did she see in him? He was handsome—fascinating—a storyteller. He must have seemed someone of promise. In other words, he happened, in that weird interlude between when he was forgetting Peue’s excellence at playing the nose flute but was scarcely yet imagining the long bulk of the white whale gliding toward the Pequod, to be capable of what most people call “responsibility.”

Pressured by his American publisher into reprinting Typee with numerous anti-missionary and erotic expurgations, he went along, hoping for some future income guarantee—for he craved to marry Lizzie, whose father did not intend to throw her into poverty.

With that self-destructive defiance I love him for, he sharpened his harpoon against the missionaries, quite gleefully, in Omoo. Nor did he desist. Hershel Parker writes that he finally “settled” his “grudge against his Presbyterian accusers and tormenters” in Chapter 10 of Moby-Dick, in which Ishmael worships the cannibal Queequeg’s wooden idol.

But that actually settled nothing. Again and again the great white whale of Judeo-Christian conformity smashed at his morals. Lizzie had hoped to marry Herman in church, “but we all thought,” she wrote in a letter, that “if it were to get about previously that ‘Typee’ was to be seen on such a day, a great crowd might rush out of mere curiosity”—or worse.

On August 7, 1847, three days after the wedding, the Daily Tribune chuckled: “BREACH OF PROMISE SUIT EXPECTED MR. HERMAN TYPEE OMOO MELVILLE has recently been united in lawful wedlock to a young lady of Boston. The fair forsaken FAYAWAY will doubtless console herself by suing him. ”

The Melvilles lived on Lizzie’s father’s money. To improve his reputation, which is to say his finances, in 1849 Herman rushed out Mardi and Redburn, followed by White-Jacket the next year, all tales of a novice at sea. These mollified, if they did not excite, reviewers: “Mr. Melville seems likely to go ahead again, if he will only take time and pains, and not over-write himself.” In the best fashion of any career-suicide, he regarded both latter volumes with contempt, writing to Lizzie’s father (who may not have been delighted to hear it) that “it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to ‘fail.’”

A giant banyan tree, thought to be more than 600 years old, at the ancient sacred burial ground at the Kamuihei archaeological site, on Nuku Hiva. (Irenaeus Herok)

As if to prove the point, he now commenced his deep dive. He wrote in an adulatory essay about Hawthorne’s fiction: “Now it is the blackness in Hawthorne. that so fixes and fascinated me. This blackness it is that furnished the infinite obscure of his background—the background, against which Shakespeare pays his grandest conceits.”

What grand conceit could gambol to most contrasting advantage against a black background? Something white! And why was this whiteness something to write about, to dread, to be haunted by? It could be, as Melville wrote in “The Whiteness of the Whale,” the famous 42nd chapter of his opus, “that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation.” Who was Melville but a man impelled by the unknown? What remained for him but to voyage beyond everything, to the place where infinity is nothingness, and black and white contain each other?

By now the Melvilles had moved near the Hawthornes in the Berkshires, into the house they called Arrowhead. (Our hero mortgaged it twice over.) And so the former sailor shut himself up tight. Years later, his widow remembered that he “would sit at his desk all day long not eating any thing till four or five o clock—then ride to the village after dark—Would be up early and out walking before breakfast.” All the while he was borrowing money and more money, keeping his debts secret.

“What I feel most moved to write, that is banned—it will not pay,” he wrote to Hawthorne. “Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot.” Then for a brief moment he blinked at what was immutably decreed, temporarily lost faith in his own Shakespeare-black fatality, and added: “So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.” By then Moby-Dick was getting set in type.

A certain underwater photograph in my edition of The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex shows a sperm whale headed forward like a finned gray-green torpedo, its lower jaw a strangely narrow appendage to the underside of that vast and squarish head. Such was the whale that stove in the Essex, such must have been the whale in Moby-Dick: rushing to smash in everything, so that Melville’s greatness could come into glory.

In our day, the inhabitants of a biologically diminished planet may feel more sympathy than awe for “that unexampled, intelligent malignity” of the famous white whale, but what makes him such a hauntingly great literary character is his utter, and therefore utterly unreadable, alienness, an infinite magnification of the exotic otherness that his creator had sought in the South Pacific.


The True-Life Horror That Inspired Moby-Dick

In July of 1852, a 32-year-old novelist named Herman Melville had high hopes for his new novel, Moby-Dick or, The Whale, despite the book’s mixed reviews and tepid sales. That month he took a steamer to Nantucket for his first visit to the Massachusetts island, home port of his novel’s mythic protagonist, Captain Ahab, and his ship, the Pequod. Like a tourist, Melville met local dignitaries, dined out and took in the sights of the village he had previously only imagined.

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And on his last day on Nantucket he met the broken-down 60-year-old man who had captained the Essex, the ship that had been attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in an 1820 incident that had inspired Melville’s novel. Captain George Pollard Jr. was just 29 years old when the Essex went down, and he survived and returned to Nantucket to captain a second whaling ship, Two Brothers. But when that ship wrecked on a coral reef two years later, the captain was marked as unlucky at sea—a “Jonah”—and no owner would trust a ship to him again. Pollard lived out his remaining years on land, as the village night watchman.

Melville had written about Pollard briefly in Moby-Dick, and only with regard to the whale sinking his ship. During his visit, Melville later wrote, the two merely “exchanged some words.” But Melville knew Pollard’s ordeal at sea did not end with the sinking of the Essex, and he was not about to evoke the horrific memories that the captain surely carried with him. “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”

Pollard had told the full story to fellow captains over a dinner shortly after his rescue from the Essex ordeal, and to a missionary named George Bennet. To Bennet, the tale was like a confession. Certainly, it was grim: 92 days and sleepless nights at sea in a leaking boat with no food, his surviving crew going mad beneath the unforgiving sun, eventual cannibalism and the harrowing fate of two teenage boys, including Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin. “But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection,” Pollard told the missionary. “I hardly know what I say.”

The trouble for Essex began, as Melville knew, on August 14, 1819, just two days after it left Nantucket on a whaling voyage that was supposed to last two and a half years. The 87-foot-long ship was hit by a squall that destroyed its topgallant sail and nearly sank it. Still, Pollard continued, making it to Cape Horn five weeks later. But the 20-man crew found the waters off South America nearly fished out, so they decided to sail for distant whaling grounds in the South Pacific, far from any shores.

To restock, the Essex anchored at Charles Island in the Galapagos, where the crew collected sixty 100-pound tortoises. As a prank, one of the crew set a fire, which, in the dry season, quickly spread. Pollard’s men barely escaped, having to run through flames, and a day after they set sail, they could still see smoke from the burning island. Pollard was furious, and swore vengeance on whoever set the fire. Many years later Charles Island was still a blackened wasteland, and the fire was believed to have caused the extinction of both the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.

Essex First Mate Owen Chase, later in life. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By November of 1820, after months of a prosperous voyage and a thousand miles from the nearest land, whaleboats from the Essex had harpooned whales that dragged them out toward the horizon in what the crew called “Nantucket sleigh rides.” Owen Chase, the 23-year-old first mate, had stayed aboard the Essex to make repairs while Pollard went whaling. It was Chase who spotted a very big whale󈠥 feet in length, he estimated—lying quietly in the distance, its head facing the ship. Then, after two or three spouts, the giant made straight for the Essex, “coming down for us at great celerity,” Chase would recall—at about three knots. The whale smashed head-on into the ship with “such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.”

The whale passed underneath the ship and began thrashing in the water. “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase recalled. Then the whale disappeared. The crew was addressing the hole in the ship and getting the pumps working when one man cried out, “Here he is—he is making for us again.” Chase spotted the whale, his head half out of water, bearing down at great speed—this time at six knots, Chase thought. This time it hit the bow directly under the cathead and disappeared for good.

The water rushed into the ship so fast, the only thing the crew could do was lower the boats and try fill them with navigational instruments, bread, water and supplies before the Essex turned over on its side.

Pollard saw his ship in distress from a distance, then returned to see the Essex in ruin. Dumbfounded, he asked, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”

“We have been stove by a whale,” his first mate answered.

Another boat returned, and the men sat in silence, their captain still pale and speechless. Some, Chase observed, “had no idea of the extent of their deplorable situation.”

The men were unwilling to leave the doomed Essex as it slowly foundered, and Pollard tried to come up with a plan. In all, there were three boats and 20 men. They calculated that the closest land was the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, and Pollard wanted to set off for them—but in one of the most ironic decisions in nautical history, Chase and the crew convinced him that those islands were peopled with cannibals and that the crew’s best chance for survival would be to sail south. The distance to land would be far greater, but they might catch the trade winds or be spotted by another whaling ship. Only Pollard seemed to understand the implications of steering clear of the islands. (According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, although rumors of cannibalism persisted, traders had been visiting the islands without incident.)

Thus they left the Essex aboard their 20-foot boats. They were challenged almost from the start. Saltwater saturated the bread, and the men began to dehydrate as they ate their daily rations. The sun was ravaging. Pollard’s boat was attacked by a killer whale. They spotted land—Henderson Island—two weeks later, but it was barren. After another week the men began to run out of supplies. Still, three of them decided they’d rather take their chances on land than climb back into a boat. No one could blame them. And besides, it would stretch the provisions for the men in the boats.

Herman Melville drew inspiration for Moby-Dick from the 1820 whale attack on the Essex. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By mid-December, after weeks at sea, the boats began to take on water, more whales menaced the men at night, and by January, the paltry rations began to take their toll. On Chase’s boat, one man went mad, stood up and demanded a dinner napkin and water, then fell into “most horrid and frightful convulsions” before perishing the next morning. “Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital” of what came next, Chase wrote. The crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.” They then roasted the man’s organs on a flat stone and ate them.

Over the coming week, three more sailors died, and their bodies were cooked and eaten. One boat disappeared, and then Chase’s and Pollard’s boats lost sight of each other. The rations of human flesh did not last long, and the more the survivors ate, the hungrier they felt. On both boats the men became too weak to talk. The four men on Pollard’s boat reasoned that without more food, they would die. On February 6, 1821—nine weeks after they’d bidden farewell to the Essex—Charles Ramsdell, a teenager, proposed they draw lots to determine who would be eaten next. It was the custom of the sea, dating back, at least in recorded instance, to the first half of the 17th century. The men in Pollard’s boat accepted Ramsdell’s suggestion, and the lot fell to young Owen Coffin, the captain’s first cousin.

Pollard had promised the boy’s mother he’d look out for him. “My lad, my lad!” the captain now shouted, “if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.” Pollard even offered to step in for the boy, but Coffin would have none of it. “I like it as well as any other,” he said.

Ramsdell drew the lot that required him to shoot his friend. He paused a long time. But then Coffin rested his head on the boat’s gunwale and Ramsdell pulled the trigger.

“He was soon dispatched,” Pollard would say, “and nothing of him left.”

By February 18, after 89 days at sea, the last three men on Chase’s boat spotted a sail in the distance. After a frantic chase, they managed to catch the English ship Indian and were rescued.

Three hundred miles away, Pollard’s boat carried only its captain and Charles Ramsdell. They had only the bones of the last crewmen to perish, which they smashed on the bottom of the boat so that they could eat the marrow. As the days passed the two men obsessed over the bones scattered on the boat’s floor. Almost a week after Chase and his men had been rescued, a crewman aboard the American ship Dauphin spotted Pollard’s boat. Wretched and confused, Pollard and Ramsdell did not rejoice at their rescue, but simply turned to the bottom of their boat and stuffed bones into their pockets. Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”

The five Essex survivors were reunited in Valparaiso, where they recuperated before sailing back for Nantucket. As Philbrick writes, Pollard had recovered enough to join several captains for dinner, and he told them the entire story of the Essex wreck and his three harrowing months at sea. One of the captains present returned to his room and wrote everything down, calling Pollard’s account “the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge.”

Years later, the third boat was discovered on Ducie Island three skeletons were aboard. Miraculously, the three men who chose to stay on Henderson Island survived for nearly four months, mostly on shellfish and bird eggs, until an Australian ship rescued them.

Once they arrived in Nantucket, the surviving crewmen of the Essex were welcomed, largely without judgment. Cannibalism in the most dire of circumstances, it was reasoned, was a custom of the sea. (In similar incidents, survivors declined to eat the flesh of the dead but used it as bait for fish. But Philbrick notes that the men of the Essex were in waters largely devoid of marine life at the surface.)

Captain Pollard, however, was not as easily forgiven, because he had eaten his cousin. (One scholar later referred to the act as “gastronomic incest.”) Owen Coffin’s mother could not abide being in the captain’s presence. Once his days at sea were over, Pollard spent the rest of his life in Nantucket. Once a year, on the anniversary of the wreck of the Essex, he was said to have locked himself in his room and fasted in honor of his lost crewmen.

By 1852, Melville and Moby-Dick had begun their own slide into obscurity. Despite the author’s hopes, his book sold but a few thousand copies in his lifetime, and Melville, after a few more failed attempts at novels, settled into a reclusive life and spent 19 years as a customs inspector in New York City. He drank and suffered the death of his two sons. Depressed, he abandoned novels for poetry. But George Pollard’s fate was never far from his mind. In his poem Clarel he writes of

A night patrolman on the quay

Watching the bales till morning hour

Through fair and foul. Never he smiled

Call him, and he would come not sour

In spirit, but meek and reconciled:

Patient he was, he none withstood

Oft on some secret thing would brood.

Books: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick Or, The Whale, 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers. Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, 2000, Penguin Books. Thomas Nickerson, The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, 2000, Penguin Classics. Owen Chase, Narrative of the Whale-Ship Essex of Nantucket, 2006, A RIA Press Edition. Alex MacCormick, The Mammoth Book of Maneaters, 2003, Carroll & Graf Publishers. Joseph S. Cummins, Cannibals: Shocking True Tales of the Last Taboo on Land and at Sea, 2001, The Lyons Press. Evan L. Balkan, Shipwrecked: Deadly Adventures and Disasters at Sea, 2008, Menasha Ridge Press.


John Putnam, the Melville of the South Street Seaport, Dies at 82

John Putnam, an expert on New York City’s maritime and commercial history whose impersonations of Herman Melville delighted visitors to the South Street Seaport Museum for decades, died on Sept. 9 in Staten Island. He was 82.

His daughter Sara Putnam said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Mr. Putnam — Jack, as he liked to be called — joined the museum in 1982 as an office manager and cook for the Pioneer, the museum’s schooner. He later worked as the retail manager of Bowne & Company Stationers, a small printing house owned by the museum, and then became the manager of the museum’s bookstore.

Mr. Putnam may have been one of the few modern New Yorkers who could say they lived aboard a square-rigged ship. For more than a decade he was the shipkeeper of the barque Peking, docked at Pier 16.

He was, as The New York Times put it in 2008, “the official historian and unofficial conscience of the South Street Seaport Museum.”

“Jack saw the roots of New York as we know it in the seaport,” Capt. Jonathan Boulware, the president and chief executive of the South Street Seaport Museum, said in a phone interview. “He saw the very literal and direct connection between South Street and Wall Street. Between South Street and Madison Avenue. Between South Street and Fifth Avenue. He told the history of South Street, Chapter One of the modern history of New York.”

Mr. Putnam first encountered Herman Melville through “Moby-Dick,” which was read to him when he was a boy. He became enamored of the author during a course at Harvard University taught by the psychologist Henry Alexander Murray, who was also a “Moby-Dick” scholar. In the 1960s, Mr. Putnam wrote and illustrated a chapter on whaling for the Norton Critical Anthology edition of “Moby-Dick” and worked on the Northwestern-Newberry edition of “The Writings of Herman Melville.”

Mr. Putnam began performing a one-man show at the South Street Seaport Museum, dressed as Melville, in 1990, and developed it into a walking tour of Lower Manhattan and the South Street Seaport, near Melville’s boyhood home, at 6 Pearl Street.

For Mr. Putnam, impersonating Melville came naturally.

“After a certain age, as a member of this gene pool, if you keep your hair and grow a beard you begin to resemble Herman,” Mr. Putnam told The Times in 2001.

With a square beard and dressed in period garb, he was enough of a Melville doppelgänger to be physically convincing. But it was his expansive knowledge of maritime history, the South Street Seaport and “Moby-Dick” that made the illusion complete.

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“He was able to bring to life what it was like to be at sea,” Captain Boulware said. “Jack Putnam and Herman Melville shared a common love of the sea. Yes, he looked like Melville yes, he could recite long passages of ‘Moby-Dick’ from memory. But it was that common love that brought the comparison to life.”

For the museum, Mr. Putnam was not just a link to the past he was a lodestar during its tempestuous recent history.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the museum, in Lower Manhattan not far from the World Trade Center, was closed for two years and lost money as tourism plummeted in New York. Just as the museum was beginning to right itself, the financial crisis of 2008 wiped out a number of promised donations. And in 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded the museum’s lobby with six feet of water, destroying the building’s electrical systems along with its cafe, admission desk, computer system and gift shop.

After the hurricane, the staff continued to meet weekly, and Mr. Putnam, even without an official job at the museum, became a motivator.

“His presence as a sort of a wise old man, but who didn’t take himself too seriously, was a buoying force for the staff of the museum,” Captain Boulware said.

John Bruce Putnam was born on July 2, 1936, in Boston to Philip Austin, a law librarian at Harvard Law School, and Thelma Madeleine (Arthur) Putnam, who worked at the Harvard development office. After graduating from Belmont High School he attended Harvard, where he was a member of the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps. He graduated in 1958 with a degree in English, then served at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia and later as a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve.

Mr. Putnam met Dianne Maxwell Coyle when they both had summer jobs in Nantucket, he as a garbage collector, she as a chambermaid. They later married. He then spent many years working as an editor on college campuses. In 1971 he became the executive director of the Association of American University Presses.

Mr. Putnam was an Elderhostel guide to the maritime history of New York aboard a number of trans-Atlantic voyages on the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Queen Mary 2. He was also a photographer and painter and built models of small rowing dories and sailing vessels from scratch.

His marriage to Ms. Coyle ended in divorce in the early 1980s. In addition to his daughter Sara, he is survived by his second wife, Saundra Smith another daughter, Jennifer Putnam a son, Nathaniel and four grandchildren.

For all Mr. Putnam’s recitations of Melville, there was one phrase for which family and friends remembered him best.

Taken from the first chapter of “Moby-Dick,” it goes: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet … then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”


Sailing with Melville in the south seas

PITTSFIELD - Sailors drifting for months in the south seas would make things to keep busy - shell mosaics, wooden boxes and tools for New England kitchens. And they used the materials they had on hand. They carved scrimshaw, whales' teeth - engraved and darkened with ash.

But they were not alone. The international crews of 19th-century whaling ships drifted among the south sea islands, and they saw the artwork the islanders made - and wore.

Tattoo artists in the south sea islands used ash as a dark pigment, said Betsy Sherman, director at Arrowhead, Herman Melville's home in the Berkshires.

This summer, as part of Call MeMelville- a community read of Melville's "Moby-Dick," with art, theater, music and storytelling- Arrowhead has opened "the Genius of Place," a series of exhibits exploring the environments that inspired Melville's novels - including the sailor art of the whalers and the Polynesian artwork that influenced them.

Polynesian tattoo artists would pierce the skin with a metal comb, Sherman said, and, then as now, the process hurt. A large tattoo might take several sessions. But, then as now, tattoos often marked passages and achievements. The tattoo artist had a pavillion, a sacred space, to do the work, and the tattoo itself was a ritual. Aboy or girl might get a first tattoo in becoming a man or woman.

Tattoos told stories, and they had social and religious value, Sherman said - just as people today have tattoos of religious symbols, words that have changed their lives, or the names of people they love.

Island women were tattooed most often on their hands and legs and behind their ears, she said men might be tattooed head to foot. The islanders Melville knew would have been. The islands inspired Melville too to create new work. In 1842, on his first and only whaling voyage, he jumped ship in Nuku Hiva, in the Marquesas, and lived there with the Tai Pi people. To escape from the ship, Sherman said, he talked about leaping into treetops and coming down a waterfall to reach the valley floor. He wrote his first novel based on his time there, in a place he called Eden. He would have known the intricate patterns of Polynesian tattoos - and he protested against their vanishing. By the 1880s, Sherman said, missionaries and European military forces had banned tattooing throughout Polynesia, except in Samoa. In 1923, the writer Willowdance Handy, traveling the south seas with her husband, set out to document tattoos and found few examples of the art. She talked with one artist who had given tattoos as a young man, but the artform was dying under colonial pressure.

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Melville's short stay in the south seas was long enough to make him sad and angry at the way Europeans treated the islanders. He was in Tahiti, Sherman said, when the French "claimed" it - prancing up and down the beach in their wool uniforms with gold braids, in the noon heat. Melville wondered what the islanders thought of them.

What did they think of the tubby, three-masted Acushnet, smelling of rendering blubber and men who hadn't showered in months? And, sailing further, what did the islanders think of New England?

By Melville's day, they served on whaling ships just as he did. In "Moby-Dick," Melville's character, Queequeg, is an islander afield on the New England coast. Ishmael (the novel's narrator) inadvertantly shares a room at a tavern with him before they set sail together.

What Melville made of his island inspirations also changed over time. Today, few people know "Typee," the south seas adventure story that first made Melville famous. Readers now are much more likely to know "Moby-Dick" - the book no one read in his lifetime.

"If people don't know anything about him, this is what they know," Sherman said. "It was his biggest novel and biggest failure, and it broke his heart. He knew it was the story in his heart, the one he wanted to tell."

If "Moby-Dick" is more than an adventure story, Queequeg is more than the ideal people in Paradise that Sherman describes in "Typee."

Queequeg enters the novel in a cheap inn late on a winter night, tired from a day on streets where he speaks the language haltingly. At first he frightens Ishmael - but he changes Ishmael's mind. Queequeg is considerate and generous. They end up (as often happened in taverns then) sharing a bed, and they begin the first morning of their voyage with gentleness.



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