If you’ve lived in most any English-speaking country for any amount of time, you’ve almost definitely heard of Herman Melville. You’ve also quite likely have read at least one of his enthralling sea-faring novels. We’d like to share a little bit of information regarding Melville with you in this article, as well as discussing three of his most well-known books, including Typee, Omoo, and Moby Dick.
Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 in New York City. Though as is the case with many artists of many mediums, Melville’s work was largely unappreciated during his lifetime. However, he has posthumously become known as one of the greatest American authors of all time, especially among those who focused on the sea.
Much of his literature was based on his personal experiences, into which he’d blend a few fictional elements here and there. Melville started out his professional life as a schoolteacher and later decided to start a new life at sea. He served aboard a whaling ship that brought him to the South Pacific. He eventually tired of this occupation and deserted the ship and made his way to a small tropical island. All was well, except for the fact that the natives of this particular island, named Nuku Hiva, were rumored to be practitioners of cannibalism. Quite obviously, that was a bit of a problem for him.
After catching on with another ship that was bound for the United States, Melville returned to the USA, where he would spend much of the remainder of his life. Not long after his return, he began dating and eventually married a woman by the name of Elizabeth Shaw3. The couple relocated from New York City to Massachusetts and settled down, enjoying a peaceable domestic life and raising four children. It was shortly after returning the United States that Melville began his work as an author. He also did some lesser-known work as a poet and a public speaker/lecturer.
Since we’ve caught up with the point in Melville’s life where he became an author, now seems like an appropriate time to quickly discuss his first published novel. This novel is frequently referred to as Typee, though the full title is Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. This book was written in 1846, when he was 27 years old. This book is really just the first part of a two-part story, with the sequel Omoo being written in the following year.
Typee is loosely based on the experiences Melville had when he was living on the island of Nuku Hiva. For reasons unknown, he refers to it as “Nukuhiva”1 in both books of this series. During his living days, it was Typee and not Moby Dick that was largely considered to be his best and most famous novel. The latter of the two would not become famous nor critically acclaimed until well after his death.
The story of Typee features a protagonist by the name of Tommo who is working aboard Dolly, a whaling ship in the South Seas. He is rapidly tiring of this occupation and wants out. Along with his best friend Toby, Tommo deserts the ship and escapes to the island of Nukuhiva. The inhabitants of this island are known as Typees (hence the title) and much like the native islanders Melville encountered in real life, the Typees are rumored to be cannibals.
By and by, the natives win over the trust of Tommo and Toby through several acts of kindness and their very welcoming nature. However, Toby becomes more and more paranoid and eventually leaves the island, telling Tommo he plans to send a ship to the island to rescue him. He never does this and this is the last we hear of Toby in the story. With Toby gone, the natives begin to turn on Tommo and eventually make him into somewhat of a prisoner and servant. While he is initially demoralized by this, be begins to enjoy life on the tropical island and falls in love with a beautiful young Typee woman.
The good times come to an abrupt halt when the Typees are attacked by a nearby rival tribe and a full-on war ensues. It is during this period of war that Tommo catches the natives committing acts of cannibalism for the first time and decides he must escape while he still can. Another whaling ship passes by the island, taking Tommo on board and supposedly “rescuing” him. This however, is only the beginning of a new adventure…
Deciding it was best to keep busy, Herman Melville wrote Omoo, the sequel to Typee in 1847, less than a full year after finishing his first book. Omoois also a shortened version of a longer title. The official title of this book is Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas. As was the case with his previous book, Melville decided to include more semi-autobiographical content in this yarn as well.
Omoo begins with Tommo working as an unwilling servant aboard whaling vessel named the Julia which is bound
for the island of Tahiti. Tommo is hardly unique among the crew, as most are more or less working as captive servants for the incompetent and much-disliked Captain Guy. Despite his position of authority, Guy is generally disrespected and viewed as an weak greenhorn who knows precious little about whaling and the ocean life.
When the Julia arrives at Tahiti, Guy leaves the ship for some fun in the sun but orders his crew to remain on the ship and to continue pursuing whales. The crew heeds this command, but only for a brief period of time. They soon rebel against the captain and replace him with John Jermin, a man of great valor, knowledge, and experience.
Throughout the novel, there is a recurring theme of social hierarchy and a sharp division of those who are knowledgeable in the ways of the seafaring life and those who belong on land. Even among the servants, such a division is made and the land-dwellers are looked down upon. One character in particular, who goes by the nickname of “Rope Yarn” is constantly teased and belittled by his peers over his lack of seafaring knowledge, despite being one of the most likable members of the crew2.
As well as Typee and Omoo have been received from the 20th century onward, and deservedly so, it is Melville’s sixth novel that went on to become his most famous. This novel is one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and likely have read – it’s Moby Dick. Moby Dick (alternately referred to as “Moby-Dick” and “The Whale”) was written in 1851, four years after the completion of Omoo.
The main character and narrator of this story is Ishmael, a schoolteacher who has grown tired of the classroom and dreams of a life of adventure at sea. (See, we told you Melville liked to write from experience.) After leaving his teaching position, Ishmael heads to the whaling village of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He is greeted by a powerful storm on his first night in New Bedford and has no choice but to lodge for the evening in the creepy and dilapidated Coffin Inn.
While staying at the Coffin Inn, he ends up with a roommate by the name of Queequeg. Queequeg is a native of a South Pacific island who has ended up in New England by way of getting involved in the whaling industry. While Ishmael initially fears him, the two quickly bond and become close friends. Before long, they both set sail on the Pequod, a whaling ship preparing to set out on a long journey. It is lead by the megalomaniacal Captain Ahab, whose focus in life is finding, capturing, and killing Moby Dick, the enormous white whale who robbed him of his leg many years earlier.
Before setting sail, Ishmael and Queequeg run into a man by the name of Elijah who warns them against joining up with the crew of the Pequod, telling them that certain disaster awaits. Though disturbed, the two friends ignore these warnings and sign up for the crew and soon say goodbye to New Bedford and hello to a journey throughout the Atlantic Ocean.
While on the Pequod, a wide and colorful cast of characters are introduced. Along with the very imbalanced Captain Ahab, we also meet steadfast first mate Starbuck, cautious second mate Stubbs, and easy-going and jovial third mate Flask. These three mates operate smaller boats for the purpose of harpooning whales when seen and each of them picks a chief harpooner among the crew to assist them. Queequeg is Starbuck’s chief harpooner, a Native American named Tashtego fills this role for Stubbs, and Flask chooses Daggoo, a gigantic man of African descent to be the lead harpooner on his boat.
Things get off to a good enough start, with several successful harpoon attacks on whales which are brought about the Pequod, stripped, and stored in the ship’s blubber room. However, as time goes by, Captain Ahab starts caring less and less about profitability and becomes completely obsessed with catching his adversary Moby Dick. Moby Dick is spotted a few times throughout the story before the final showdown can take place. Finally, Ahab finally gets his opportunity to fight Moby Dick up close and personally. He succeeds in driving a harpoon deep into the whale’s flesh, but this only angers the gigantic creature. He swims with all of his might and tangles Ahab’s neck in the rope attached to the harpoon and strangles him to death.
Killing the captain doesn’t prove to be enough for the white whale – he wants the rest of the crew gone as well. Smashing his massive body into the ship over and over again, he utterly destroys it and then swims away. As a result the entire crew is pulled down under the sea where they meet their end in a cold and watery grave. Ishmael is the only crew member to survive, and his means of doing so are highly ironic. Earlier in the novel, Queegqueg becomes very ill and a coffin is built for him, as he is expected to die. He suddenly makes a miraculous recovery and puts the coffin aside.
When the ship is destroyed and the crew is rapidly sinking, Queequeg’s coffin floats up to the surface and Ishmael holds on to it for dear life. For three days he floats the ocean on the coffin, soon losing all hope of survival. It is just when he is about to give up that another whaling ship named the Rachel spots him and pulls him out of the water, saving his life and allowing him to tell the reader the fascinating tale of all that occurred during his tenure on the Pequod.
In addition to Melville’s personal experiences, there are other themes in this book that have been debated by literary scholars for years. Ahab, Ishmael, and Elijah are all prominent figures in the bible and fulfill somewhat parallel roles in this story as they do in the bible. Some argue that the search for Moby Dick is an allegory for the search of existence of God. Others dismiss this theory and liken the chase to a more simple mid-life crisis. No matter what your take on the underlying messages of Moby Dick might be, you’ll be sure to heartily enjoy this book should you ever happen to read it.
As stated before, Herman Melville was not recognized as a great or significant author during his lifetime, hence his need to supplement his income through poetry and public speaking. When he was alive, his writings netted him a total of just slightly more than $12,0003, a paltry amount for an author of multiple books even by the standards of his day.
Had he lived longer than his 72 years, he likely would have been shocked and elated to see the revival of his literature and the almost universally positive reviews that it received in later years. It’s a shame that he never was able to experience his success, but his works have left an indelible mark on American literature and have provided us with some of the greatest nautical fiction ever written. If you’ve never read any of these books, we strongly suggest that you pick one of them out for your next read.
On Herman Melville’s Omoo
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