Saturday, February 26, 2011

Melville's Genre Mix

To me, the exact genre of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is a little unclear. Yes, it is a work of fiction, with made up characters and an untrue plot. However, the details on whaling and life as a whaler are so precise that perhaps this book could even be considered a non-fictional reference tool. Even though Captain Ahab is based off of God and is compared to the pyramids and ancient Egypt, the reader knows Ahab is a fiction character. One could not go to Melville’s time and find THE Captain Ahab. He is a peculiar character, full of strength, yet lacking all sorts of human emotion and compassion. Ishmael describes his first time seeing Ahab on deck: “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould” (Melville 134). Melville makes up many details about Ahab, as well as the rest of the characters on board the Pequod.

Contrastingly, one prime example of the factual aspect of Moby Dick can be seen in Chapter 32: Cetology. Melville spends pages upon pages exploring the scientific aspects of whales. He divides the whales “into three primary Books (subdivisible into Chapters), and these shall comprehend them all, both small and large. I. The Folio Whale; II. The Octavo Whale; III. The Duo-Decimo Whale” (Melville 148-149).

Instead of focusing on one specific passage of Moby Dick, I thought of the book as a whole and wanted to know about the reason for both fiction and non-fiction elements in Moby Dick. I read chapter eleven titled “The Man Who Lived Among the Cannibals” in Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s book titled Melville: A Biography. In this chapter, Laurie explained who the audiences who were reading the books published during Melville’s time were. Ninety percent of white adults could read, with a variety of subject matter suiting their tastes. Men and women differed greatly on the types of books they read. Robertson-Lorant says, “most working-class women, if they had time to read at all, looked for novels that portrayed families happier than their own, while most working-class men preferred action-packed adventures set in exotic locales, or crime novels with urban settings” (Robertson-Lorant 199). One of Melville’s earlier works Mardi was unconventional and unappealing to readers, and the narrator Taji was said to even be annoying. Mardi was highly unsuccessful and was rejected by the people. Many Americans were in search of a good book. However, neither the men nor women wanted to read one laced with melodramatic language, or “lapses of narrative control, combined with the rapid shifts from serious to comic tone” (Robertson-Lorant 196). Overall the general public saw Melville as nothing more than a sailor who wrote books about traveling. He wasn’t seen as the satirist and great poetic author as he wished to be. The chapter title comes from what publishers and readers continued to view Melville as: a man who lived among the cannibals (196).

“Vogaging ‘chartless’ through the archipelagoes of Mardi had convinced Melville that fiction captured the truth of human experience better than ‘unvarnished facts’ did” (Robertson-Lorant 200). However, Melville still needed to make a living by his pen, so he promised Harper & Brothers publisher Richard Bentley that he would start to write “a plain, straightforward, amusing narrative of personal experience-the son of a gentleman on his first voyage to sea as a sailor-no metaphysics, no conic-sections, nothing but cakes & ale” (198). Before publishing Moby Dick in in 1851, Melville had two more works published after Mardi: Redburn and White-Jacket. These books were still about the sea and shipping, but the readers sympathized with the narrator and played with ideas of symbolism while reading. The situations in these books could be related to by the young men reading them, such as poverty and disease, alcoholism, and sexual tension (208). The only problem was that Melville didn’t love what he was putting out for the public. If he wanted to be a widely-read author and survive, he would have to put out books to appeal to his readers. Or, he could put out what his heart desired (such as in Mardi) and be a poor, un-loved author. Talking about Redburn and White-Jacket, Meleville says “being books, written in this way, my only desire for their ‘success’ (as it is called) springs from my pocket, & not from my hard. So far as I am individually concerned, & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sorts of books which are said to ‘fail.’ –Pardon this egotism” (215).

While the end of the chapter does not cover Melville’s thoughts on writing Moby Dick, this was his next published book, and it seems pretty clear to me what he did. Instead of writing for his heart and having no readers, or writing for his brain and having tons of readers, Melville created a hybrid of these two, and published a book loved by readers everywhere: Moby Dick. It has the stories of adventure the men were looking for, and for the women, the members of the Pequod formed their own type of family. For Melville, he got to explain with great intensity the descriptions of whales (hence the chapter “Cetology,”) and what it was like to be a whaler, while also having fun creating characters and a fictional story (such as Ahab). Reading Laurie Robertoson-Lorant’s book Melville: A Biography helped me understand why exactly Melville’s famous book Moby Dick was laced with a combination of both fiction and non-fiction, unlike a standard book with one or the other.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Mob- Dick, or, The Whale. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1996.


  1. This is an interesting draft. Perhaps because it is both more and less argumentative than what most people have been writing (your middle section is more or less raw summary of the book, but your opening and closing sections really read like they are taken from the beginnings of two different essays), there's a lot to work with here. I think your take on Melville's mixed motives is smart and worthwhile; what could stand an extended development (if you were to revise) are the contrasting claims that MD is a mix of fiction and nonfiction (reasonable enough), that that Melville was writing a mix of what he had to write and what he wanted to write (well supported), and that the two are related in some way. I'm totally unclear on whether you see him as someone who preferred nonfiction and added fiction, or vice versa, or if you're still working out the details. Regardless, this is an able reading of the biography in relationship with the novel, with clear potential for an essay , despite (or maybe because of!) what I see as a degree of contradiction at the end.

  2. This is a really perceptive move you made; without knowing it, I think I was wondering the same things that you were about the genre of Moby Dick as a whole. It is really fascinating to see the input of a source that knows the reactions of the time. I'd be really interested to see Melville's thoughts on this subject, if there is an extant record of them somewhere.