Herman Melville's genius was not recognized widely during his lifetime. Today, his novel "Moby-Dick" about one man's obsession with a great white whale – and the call of the sea to sailors – is considered universally as one of the greatest novels of all time. What makes it so great?
One hundred and seventy five years ago this month Melville set sail aboard the whaler Acushnet, sailing from Massachusetts around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean. (He said his life began when his ship sailed in January 1841.)
Melville's real-life adventure included living in the Marquesas Islands with Typee natives, purported cannibals. He served on other whalers and traveled through Polynesia/Tahiti, ending up in Honolulu before signing on as an "ordinary seaman" to work on the frigate USS United States, which returned to Boston, Massachusetts in the fall of 1844.
To appreciate Melville's literary skills at painting pictures with words, read his somewhat fanciful description of the insulated island culture that was Nantucket in the 1800s. Nantucketers – owners of the sea – more comfortable aboard ship that on land. For a time, Nantucket was America's center for hunting the "salt-sea mastodon" nearly two centuries ago:
Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it - a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don't grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.
Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this island was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction. Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket, – the poor little Indian's skeleton.
What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught crabs and quohogs in the sand; grown bolder, they waded out with nets for mackerel; more experienced, they pushed off in boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant belt of circumnavigations round it; peeped in at Behring's Straits; and in all seasons and all oceans declared everlasting war with the mightiest animated mass that has survived the flood; most monstrous and most mountainous! That Himmalehan, salt-sea Mastodon, clothed with such portentousness of unconscious power, that his very panics are more to be dreaded than his most fearless and malicious assaults!
And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders; parcelling out among them the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as the three pirate powers did Poland. Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it. Merchant ships are but extension bridges; armed ones but floating forts; even pirates and privateers, though following the sea as highwaymen the road, they but plunder other ships, other fragments of the land like themselves, without seeking to draw their living from the bottomless deep itself. The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business, which a noah's flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.
The preceding excerpt from Chapter XIV of Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" is published in Ambassador Caroline Kennedy's "A Patriot's Handbook," reviewed Jan. 24. Melville's description of Nantucket is a nice companion piece to a Navy Reads review last month of Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea."
Melville had a lasting legacy on the Navy.
He achieved his greatest success with his novel "Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life." In addition to "Moby-Dick," he wrote "Billy Budd, Sailor" and "White Jacket" or, "The World in a Man-of-War." The latter was read by members of the U.S. Congress and is considered by historians to be instrumental in abolishing flogging in the U.S. Navy.
From Naval History and Heritage Command's "Brief History of Punishment by Flogging in the U.S. Navy":
"Meanwhile in March 1850 Herman Melville's novel, White-Jacket, or The World in a Man-of-War was published. It contained a chapter on flogging and others on its evil effects and unlawful use. He called for its abolition. Some naval officers took exception to Melville's remarks and wrote rebuttals, a few of which were published in newspapers or pamphlets. The document reproduced above, A Plea in Favor of Maintaining Flogging in the Navy, may have been inspired by Melville's novel, by the action of Congress, or by the campaign of some officers and civilians to restore the practice of flogging. This effort was decisively defeated after a speech in the Senate in 1851 by Senator Robert F. Stockton of New Jersey, a former Navy captain. Naval officers had to adjust to new conditions, and there was increased pressure on Congress to enact new regulations. In March 1855 Congress passed a law for the more efficient discipline in the Navy. This established a system of summary courts martial for minor offences. It could sentence guilty men to a solitary confinement, with or without single or double irons, and/or a diet of bread and water for a limited time. It could also give bad conduct discharges. In 1862 Congress gave the force of law to a major revision of all Navy regulations that reflected a more progressive view of discipline."