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 whales 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.
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."
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 Hawthorne was an enormous influence on Melville's work. He 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.
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 the magnificent work of literature that it is.
Herman Melville: A Biography by Hershal Parker (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, 2002).
"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.
Melville: A Biography by Laurie Robertson-Lorant (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).
Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution, by Paul Gilje (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
Melville: His World and Work, by Aldrew Delbanco (Alfred A. Knopf. 2005).