WHAT THEY TRADED: Herman Melville
"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." -- Moby Dick

Herman Melville had a double revolutionary lineage, so you couldn't just walk right up to his face and call him a bad writer who was bad for American letters. You had to think about it and get your facts straight. You had to number your notecards. Both of his grandfathers were heroes in Mr. Washington's war, and his whole family had salt in their blood, if not their wounds. When the sea pulled, they felt it, and Melville was the one who went. Melville went out there and stuck his flag in the sea and watched it float away and then sink.

Despite his well-placed connections and good breeding, Melville's father died penniless after losing all of his money by speculating in the War of 1812. He left behind his wife and eight children, dying just in time to avoid seeing his family's honor and fortune plummet into a near-bottomless sinkhole. At the age of 12, little Herman entered the marketplace, looking for work suitable to a person of tender years and tender habits. After experimenting with freshwater sailing in the Great Lakes, Melville finally signed up as a cabin boy on a sea-going vessel. The ship was headed on a short jaunt across the Atlantic to Liverpool, "England's Inbox."

The duties of a cabin boy on an early nineteenth century merchant vessel included running errands for the ship's captain and tending to the needs of the officers. This often meant giving expert blowjobs while wearing a scented blonde wig, and never telling a rotten soul, goddamn your eyes. This also meant singing the soprano part during ship sing-alongs, and giving out hugs whenever the fragile, alcoholic sailors broke down and swore vengeance to God and country, or swore to do themselves harm, leaving no one left to tie knots on the front jib-boom, ensuring all would perish as the ship slowly drifted into an iceberg or giant compass rose.

Whether or not Melville was brutalized and molested during his first seagoing experience is incidental. A brooding nature ran deep within the man, and despite knowing what was at stake, he gave himself the sea (and its ships) as his "way out," welcoming the loneliness, horror, and squalor of life among the outcast, considering it the world's most honest and good-natured thrashing.

But Melville was no stony naturalist: no, he was the bouyant, idealistic sort who had big plans and big dreams and who felt greatness within him. For this reason, he shipped out again soon after his first voyage, this time headed around the world as a full-fledged member of the crew, never again to keep a peg up his ass so that his anal cavity would remain pliant, distended, and ready.

Melville signed ship's articles aboard a ship called the "Acushnet," a vessel which was headed round the horn of Africa to do business. He was not treated well. He was dehumanized, belittled, and bereft of human sympathy and conversation. When the "Acushnet" stopped in the Marquesas Islands to fill up with hemp and tobacco, Melville jumped ship and scuttled out into the jungle to try his luck with the native cannibals.

He was outcast from the outcast.

The cannibals were nice to Melville, as if he were an invited guest as opposed to a gatecrashing Anglo sonofabitch. Some men are made to eat here, and some are made to eat in the hereafter. They did not eat him, and did not mind that he did not eat others. He enjoyed a fine mash of tapas every day and smoked a lot of hallucinogenic tobacco.

"Whoever is not in the possession of leisure can hardly be said to possess independence. They talk of the dignity of work. Bosh. True Work is the necessity of poor humanity's earthly condition. The dignity is in leisure. Besides, 99 hundreths of all the work done in the world is either foolish and unnecessary, or harmful and wicked."

Melville came to the conclusion during his "life among the natives" that the cannibals spread the myth of their fearsome man-eating tendencies in order to scare Westerners away from their paradise. There were no real cannibals! And yet, he suffered -- he could not communicate with any of these natives to the degree of subtlety that his finely-tuned senses demanded. He lived there for three weeks and then went home, catching the first American ship that happened to cross his path.

He was outcast from the outcast of the outcast.


Aboard ship on his passage back to America, Melville -- a naturally taciturn and dense man with few friends -- suddenly became a storyteller, an illuminator, and then a writer. So many people wanted to know about his cannibals that he wrote a book that fictionalized his adventure called "Typee" and then he was FAMOUS!

"Typee" sold hundreds of thousands of copies. But Melville made a mistake: he thought the the world was hanging from his tongue. Melville blinked, looked around, and got to work. He decided not to rest on his literary fame. He would tell the hard, angry stories that stirred in his soul. He would give away his impressions, philosophies, and saltwater-cured insights and he would not flinch from the hard places that his keen intelligence took his readers. He would show the world what could be gained by fleeing the embrace of civilization and searching for truth in nature, in the hearts of men abandoned by their countries, and in the depths of the unforgiving oceans.

And yet, he treated his writing like he was putting nails in a cheap house: something that would give him temporary shelter. Something that couldn't last:

"I have been building some shanties of houses (connected with the old one), and likewise some shanties of chapters and essays. I have been ploughing and sowing and raising and printing and praying."

You know what happened.

After decades of writing novel after novel that plunged like a harpoon into the nature of man and God with the wit, wisdom, and perspective of a sailor and cynic, Melville took stock and found that he was penniless, unloved, and unread. He was writing philosophy from the human heart; people wanted action / adventure yarns about the sea and its monsters. His mistake was in his judgment of the American palate, and in his inability to compromise. He knew himself; he knew what he would not do.

Poor as fuck, he spent two years hanging out with Nathaniel Hawthorne, until Nathaniel Hawthorne said "look, I can't get you a government job" and then Melville said "to hell with help." He published "Moby Dick" and only sold 3,000 copies of it. His wife and family looked at him, licking their lips, and he remembered his own father, and the way his own father had abandoned his mother, brothers, and sisters after failing, and what he had to do as a result.

"What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches."

His oldest son shot himself. One less mouth to feed? His last two novels "The Isle of the Cross" and "Billy Budd" went unpublished altogether. "The Isle of the Cross" no longer exists. It sunk. It is an unsalvaged wreck, lost to tide and history.

Not only poor, but also hated by the public, Melville sighed, stopped trying to publish, moved to New York City, and got a job in a Customs House in order to provide for his family.

He worked there for 19 years until he died of heart failure. "The New York Times" spelled his name wrong in his obituary -- Henry Melville. He is buried in the Bronx. His most famous relative is that techno guy, Moby.


The two writers who have penned the "Moby Dick" screenplay -- an action adventure yarn about the sea and its monsters -- are each making six figures for their "work," according to "Variety." They are finally giving the people what they want, and are -- God bless -- making the money that would have kept Melville writing fiction.

What is a cannibal? A cannibal is a human who eats another human in order to gain his power.

People write difficult, real books every day. Maybe you don't want to read them. Buy them anyway. Buy one a week. Speculate. Give writers lunch, and lie to them: tell them you care and that they are doing good work. Lie to them. Keep them going. Keep them writing. Not for you: you are a waste already. But value the things that are valuable, even if you don't understand them. For the future. For the sea.

"There are more people to-day who believe Herman Melville dead than there are those who know he is living. And yet if one choose to walk along East Eighteenth Street, New York City, any morning about 9 o'clock, he would see the famous writer of sea stories -- stories which have never been equalled perhaps in their special line. Mr. Melville is now an old man, but still vigorous. He is an employee of the Customs Revenue Service, and thus still lingers around the atmosphere which permeated his books. Forty-four years ago, when his most famous tale, Typee, appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. Publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And to-day? Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best-informed literary men in this country laughed recently at my statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two city blocks. "Nonsense," said he. "Why, Melville is dead these many years!" Talk about literary fame? There's a sample of it!" -- Edward Bok, Publisher's Weekly, 1890

Posted by miracle on Fri, 26 Sep 2008 22:47:22 -0400 -- permanent link

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