He was a garrulous sailor and adventurer, a teacher and customs inspector that washed up on the shores of Mazatlan, Mexico in 1850- but we know him best as the author of those sempiternal books on travel, gothic romanticism, and allegorical nautical high-fiction.
Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York City, the third child to a family of merchants. At the age of twenty, after the family relocated to New Bedford, Massachusetts and after a brief stint as a schoolteacher, Melville took to the high seas as a sailor on a merchant ship. Like his father, he aspired to affluence and adopted a luring for the glittering blue abyss that seemed to stretch to eternity.
A year later he would don a tarpaulin and join the seasoned crew of the whaler “Acushnet,” on the unforgiving and contemptuous seas and this experience would have a profound impact on his life and ultimately the world of literature.
Much of his most famous novel, Moby Dick, that he would write eleven years later, especially early on in the story, was taken from his real-life experiences as a whaler including the whale, an actual slippery albino archmage named Mocha Dick that tormented whalers in the Equatorial Pacific with his elusiveness.
The year was 1840 when Melville set sail for the Pacific and it would be four long years before he returned to his family in New Bedford.
But all four years weren’t spent solely in the perilous pursuit of whaling. After about eighteen months at sea, the globetrotting romantic and future author jumped ship with a friend in the Marquesas Islands, a verdant archipelago and lived paradisiacally amongst the cannibal natives.
While the crew slept off their hangovers one early morning, the two men slipped away into the trees. This action would eventually lead to the creation of his first novel, the pseudo-Marchen adventure, “Typee” (1846), the fantastical account of his life amongst the remote Polynesian people.
After a number of months, Melville left the Marquesas and sailed on a few other ships eventually arriving in Hawaii. Once there he signed onto an American Naval frigate, the “USS United States.” It was during this return voyage home that he would first set foot on the idyllic coastline of Mazatlan and wrote a brief tribute to the city in his novel “White-Jacket.”
“In the earlier part of the cruise, while making a long tedious run from Mazatlan to Callao on the Main, baffled by light headwinds and frequent intermitting calms, when all hands were heartily wearied by the torrid, monotonous sea…” (Chapter 53)
His brief stay in the city would be memorialized with his name attached to a local hotel and a plaque to go along with other plaques over the years of famous writers that had visited the city.
The plaque located close to the entrance of the Melville Suites reads:
The city has always held an appeal for literary giants- some that traveled there and others that may have sailed to her fair golden shores. In 1902 Joseph Conrad wrote in his piece “To-morrow:”
“A prospecting engineer in Mazatlan took me along with him to help look after the wagons. A sailor’s a handy chap to have about you anyhow. It’s all a desert: cracks in the earth that you can’t see the bottom of; and mountains- sheer rocks standing up high like walls and church spires, only a hundred times bigger. The valleys are full of boulders and black stones. There’s not a blade of grass to see; and the sun sets more red over that country than I have seen it anywhere- blood-red and angry. It is fine.”
And then in the 1952 Jack Kerouac traveled to the city by bus from Arizona. He recalled his experience to his friend poet Allen Ginsberg:
“Hot and flat right on the surf, no tourists whatever, the wonder spot of the Mexicos really but nobody hardly knows, a dusty crazy wild city on beautiful Acapulco surfs.”
It has always been a city with a siren call- and it was a perfect locale for a fertile mind like Melville’s to get lost.
Upon returning to New Bedford Melville began writing stories of his adventures for his family and they encouraged him to publish the stories for the public. Melville sat down and wrote Typee which was an instant success.
The sequel “Omoo (1847) would also be successful in providing Melville with financial security for the first time in his adult life. He would marry a Bostonian woman named Elizabeth Shaw and the two would have four children together. But the call of the sea never fully left him and his later works were also splashed with seafaring adventure, experience and jargon.
The books that followed Omoo- “Mardi (1849) and “Redburn” (1849) were not as well received. In 1850 he wrote “White-Jacket,” and in 1851 the classic “Moby Dick,” would be published to mixed reviews. From
1851-1891 Melville would produce around twelve other works including poetry collections though nothing ever came close to the success of his earlier work.
As he struggled to produce fiction he dabbled in a variety of literary genres eventually focusing on poetry that he could continue to write for the remainder of his life.
Despite his early successes in 1860 he submitted a collection of poetry to a publisher and was soundly rejected. He would eventually take a job as a customs inspector- a position that he would hold for nineteen years.
A couple of his poetry collections would be published with a small print run including an epic poem that stretched a staggering 18,000 lines and is considered one of the longest poems ever written. His manuscript for Billy Budd would be discovered after his death and published receiving high acclaim. It would also be adapted into a Broadway play as well as an opera in 1951. And in 1961 it would become a motion picture.
Melville died in relative obscurity on September 28, 1891, in New York City at the age of 72 and though this literary career fizzled out quietly during his lifetime, his work experienced a renaissance over the years propelling him back into the mainstream and today he is considered one of the world’s greatest novelists.
By Greg Evans