Charlie Connelly reports on Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, and how two trips to Europe reflected his changing fortunes.
Moby Dick is cited by many respected literary eggheads as the Great American Novel. Like many novels dubbed ‘great’, not many people have read it all the way through, which considering it’s a blend of history, philosophy and zoology as well as a work of fiction in which many chapters seemed to have been placed in a random order, isn’t particularly surprising.
Its greatness today can possibly be measured best by the fact a Twitter account that puts out quotes from the book every couple of hours has 52,000 followers, probably considerably more than those who have actually read Herman Melville’s book from cover to cover since the dawn of Twitter but an effective measure of a novel’s presence in popular culture nonetheless.
It is a bit of a tough read admittedly, certainly in parts, but Moby Dick is well worth persevering with. It’s an immersion of a book, one of the most effective works at constructing a time and place, a book in which you can hear the creak of ship’s timbers and hear the crash of the waves even though they’re not actually being described. Melville transports the reader to a mid-19th century whaling town and whaling ship via some of the most evocative and heady writing about maritime life ever committed to paper.
Is this 160-year-old book still relevant today? Whaling is, with a few lamentable exceptions, a dead industry and personally I can’t see how the relentless, obsessive and inflexible pursuit of something so obviously dangerous, wrong-headed and self-defeating has any relevance to modern Britain at all. Yet as the world marks the bicentenary of Melville’s birth this month the book and its author are hot stuff again.
One aspect of the author’s life and philosophy that I guarantee is being overlooked among musings of the literary press is Melville’s Europhilia.
Moby Dick is a book absolutely rinsed in north America, but the United States was still a young country then, no more than a couple of generations old when it was written, and as well as having a European background Melville made two influential and significant journeys to Europe at crucial periods during his lifetime.
Herman Melville was the son of a New York dry goods merchant and his wife, both of whom came from Dutch families. Melville senior travelled extensively and spent a great deal of time in Europe, not least spending two years studying in Paris as a young man, bringing home to his son tales of the cities and people across the Atlantic.
The young Herman spent a frustrating period office-bound as a clerk in a family business after completing his education, a period he later plundered as the inspiration for his brilliant novella Bartleby the Scrivener, until his elder brother Gansevoort thought he would fare better as a seaman.
Melville made his first voyage aged 20 in 1839 aboard the St Lawrence, a merchant ship carrying cargo from New York to Liverpool. There’s every chance he took with him the May 1839 edition of The Knickerbocker and lay in his hammock reading a true story by the adventurer and publisher Jeremiah Reynolds of the quest to find a white sperm whale named Mocha Dick off the coast of Chile.
The following December Melville signed on as a crew member of the whaling ship Acushnet out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, setting sail three days into 1841 and not returning home for three years. During the voyage Melville met the son of Owen Chase who presented him with a copy of his father’s book Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale Ship Essex of Nantucket, in which he told of how in 1820 his ship had been rammed twice and sunk by an enormous sperm whale.
“The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea and close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me,” wrote Melville later.
The last months of his three-year maritime wanderings were spent as a member of the US Navy and Melville’s adventures in the South Seas inspired his first two books Typee and Omoo, both of which proved hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, meaning that when he had completed the manuscript of his fifth book, White Jacket, or, The World in a Man-o-War, based on his naval experiences, he decided to travel to London himself to seek a publisher.
He arrived in London in the autumn of 1849, having sailed on the packet ship Southampton from New York and gone ashore at Deal on the Kent coast. He took lodgings in a Georgian house with a view of the Thames at the bottom of Craven Street, which runs down to the river close to Charing Cross station, in a building that stands today adorned with a plaque commemorating Melville’s stay in rooms that overlooked the water.
As he walked around the city wearing a new green coat which, he recorded in his journal, “attracted attention”, his thoughts coalesced into the story of what would become Moby Dick. As he looked out at the river and saw the distant masts of the whalers at Greenland Dock, memories of his whaling years came flooding back. He found himself spotting references and reminders everywhere, not least when he viewed the whaling scenes painted by J.M.W. Turner for the whaling magnate Elhanan Bicknell, of which there are echoes in Moby Dick when Ishmael arrives at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford at the start of the book, passing as he enters a painting of an “exasperated whale” that has impaled itself on the masts of a ship it had tried to leap over.
Mostly, Melville spent his time in London as a tourist, sating his innate curiosity by exploring the city with boundless energy and enthusiasm; visiting the Tower of London, St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, taking in plays and making excursions out to Hampton Court and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. He found London’s pubs irresistible, venues like the Edinburgh Castle, “a place noted for its fine Scotch ale, the best I ever had. Had a glorious chop and a pancake, a pint and a half of ale, a cigar and a pipe, and talked high German metaphysics for a while”.
London was, in a sense, a gateway to the rest of the continent for Melville. At the end of November he took a boat from London Bridge to Boulogne and then travelled on to Paris, where he arrived and “dined a little after 5pm, splendid table – French dishes – ate I know not what” and familiarised himself with the local bars (“Any quantity of Bordeaux. Cold wine and chilly room. A lady talking of Flemish things”).
From there he moved on to Brussels with “a dull, dreary ride over all day over a flat, interminable pancake of a country”. He decides against visiting the site of the Battle of Waterloo en route – “cannot visit it and care not about it” – and progresses to Cologne where he enjoys himself again aided by strong drink. “I drank in the very vital spirit and soul of old Charlemagne as I turned the quaint old corners of this quaint old town,” he writes of a night spent consuming Rhenish wine and buying cigars from “pretty girls”, before making his way north to Ostend and catching the Dover packet.
The revolutionary fervour that swept the continent in 1848 had made Britain jumpy and when a copy of Thomas Hope’s controversial 1831 novel Anastasius, about a Muslim convert fighting in wars across eastern Europe, was found in Melville’s luggage at Dover it was immediately confiscated as “food for the fire”, leaving Melville “much enraged thereat”.
Back in London he travelled down the river to Greenwich where he met a black sailor, a resident of the Seamen’s Hospital there, who had been at the Battle of Trafalgar and spoke of his adventures in a conversation that appeared in Melville’s later story Billy Budd. On another excursion, at Tower Hill, he came across a one-legged man begging with a drawing hung on a card around his neck of the whale that had deprived him of a limb and his living.
It was an image that stayed with him and within months Melville was telling his publisher about a new book he was working on, “a romance of adventure founded upon certain wild legends in the southern sperm whale fisheries”. Moby Dick was published for the first time as The Whale in 1851 – in London.
Moby Dick is a novel that always seems at once of its time and out of its time. Certainly in its author’s lifetime it baffled critics and audience alike, sinking like a stone along with Melville’s contemporary reputation. Melville had thrown everything into the novel and after its failure strove even harder at the expense of his health, both physical and mental, to revive a stalled career. By 1856 he was struggling badly and it was thought another transatlantic journey might prove therapeutic to mind and body.
In October that year he set off across the Atlantic intending to visit London publishers and then go on to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage designed to remove him from his writing desk and restore his spirits, a way, in the words of Moby Dick’s Ishmael, of “driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation”.
His mood was certainly different from that of the curious, gregarious adventurer of his previous jaunt. Having arrived at Liverpool he’d called on the author Nathaniel Hawthorne in Southport, spending a few days sharing cigars with him among the sand dunes and looking out to sea where Hawthorne found him “much overshadowed since I saw him last”.
Melville’s journal of the trip opens on his first day in Constantinople, December 13, 1856. “Up early, went out,” he writes. “Saw cemeteries where they dumped garbage. Sawing wood over a tomb,” and that rather set the tone for everything that followed. In Rome he writes, “Whether it is coming from the East, or chafed mood, or what, but Rome fell flat on me… Tiber a ditch, yellow as saffron”. The Appian Way was “narrow, not suitable for dignity etc. Old pavement”. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is “black and grimy. Brick” while St Mark’s in Venice has “an oily looking interior, reeking look, disappointed”.
He makes his gloomy way back through Germany and Holland to London where he spends a “dreary Sunday, walked to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Got an idea of them”, while a visit to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon was “cheerless, melancholy”.
Cheerless and melancholy are apt descriptions of the rest of Melville’s life. Moby Dick would not be recognised as a classic until long after the author’s death in 1891. Indeed it was the centenary of his birth in 1919 that saw the first genuine reappraisal of his masterpiece, a book whose roots, some of them at least, lay on the other side of the world from the events it describes. In Europe, and London in particular, lay the remnants of both the hope and confidence of a writer on the verge of greatness and the despondency of a career and life in decline, unaware that he had written one of the greatest literary works of all time.