Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 in New York City and is best known for his novel “Moby Dick.” He was born into a country where the relics of aristocracy were fading, and Melville himself was an example of one of those relics. His paternal grandfather was an honored participant in the Boston Tea party and his maternal grandfather was a decorated general in the Battle of Saratoga. Herman’s father Allen; however, struggled financially to support his family and eventually filed for bankruptcy after his business failed. Melville’s once prosperous and decorated family had fallen into bankruptcy within only a couple generations. This forced Herman Melville to find his own way in life without the support of his family. This led him towards numerous adventures at sea, which may have been therapeutic for him.
“Moby Dick” is one of Melville’s novels where the idea of being independent is presented. The main character, Ishmael, states in the beginning of the book that “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is dam, drizzly November in my soul;…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” (Melville, “Moby Dick”)
It appears from this passage that going to sea is almost like a sort of therapy for Ishmael. It seems to me that Ishmael is feeling very depressed, perhaps almost suicidal in the beginning of the book. He doesn’t give any insight into what may be the cause of his bad feelings, but it seems that going to sea is the only therapy that can cure his illness.
This may have been how Melville felt during his early adolescence, when he was coming to terms with the financial condition that he was in. Herman was 12 years old when his father died and left his family penniless. Although Herman was able to study the classics for a couple of years, his time in school was interrupted and he felt compelled to support his family financially. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to assume that at this point in his life Melville may have a little like Ishmael felt in the beginning of “Moby Dick;” although, Melville may not have been aware of the fact that a voyage out to sea would be the solution to his problems.
Another instance where Melville gives us insight towards is feelings about going off to sea is in his novel “White Jacket,” which is partly an account of the times Melville spent as a sailor in the United States Navy aboard the USS United States. There are many similarities between “Moby Dick” and “White Jacket” including the symbolism of the color white and the adventure of going to sea. Another similarity is the main character’s disposition towards life at sea.
Oh, give me again the rover's life — the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! let me leap into thy saddle once more. I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares; sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me hear the clatter of hailstones on icebergs, and not the dull tramp of these plodders, plodding their dull way from their cradles to their graves. Let me snuff thee up, sea-breeze! and whinny in thy spray. Forbid it, sea-gods! intercede for me with Neptune, O sweet Amphitrite, that no dull clod may fall on my coffin! Be mine the tomb that swallowed up Pharaoh and all his hosts; let me lie down with Drake, where he sleeps in the sea. (Melville, “White Jacket”)
From this passage it appears that the narrator in “White Jacket” and Ishmael share many of the same feelings towards life at sea. They both seem to be sick of life on land and are drawn to the ocean in search of adventure. There is also a similarity in their views towards death. While Ishmael appears to be near suicidal in his desire to set sail, the narrator in “White Jacket” doesn’t seem to be depressed at the moment, but appears to have no trouble with the thought of dying at sea.
In both “Moby Dick” and “White Jacket” the narrator seeks an adventure at sea in order to escape the despair that he feels on land. I believe that these similarities can be explained by the difficulties that their author, Herman Melville, experienced during his life and the reprieve that he must have felt while he was on board a ship.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick Or, The Whale. New York: Penguin Group. Print.
Melville, Herman. White Jacket.
"Herman Melville." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 27 Feb. 2011