Friday, March 18, 2011

Kirby on Melville

When I first picked up the biography on Herman Melville by David Kirby, this book struck me as being for a mature and very literate society. It was somewhat hard to get through without a dictionary, but the chapter named “The Life” sufficiently made me aware of how much Melville’s early years shaped his writing. By knowing more about Melville’s past, it becomes easier to understand Moby Dick. The chapter starts off by explaining Melville’s hard times as a child. His family was barely scraping by, moving from home to home and surviving on the bare essentials. This can easily be related to the narrator of Moby Dick, Ishmael. After all, one of the main reasons Ishmael decides to join a whaling ship (aside from being tired of life on land), is because he is broke. This is stated by Ishmael on the very first page of the Moby Dick: “having little or no money in my purse…I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world” (Melville 3). Due to family debt, Melville “was obliged to live the picaro’s life” (Kirby 23). Ishmael was a picaro, or vagabond, just like Melville: they both wandered from place to place. The most striking resemblance here is seen by Ishmael and Melville both joining ships when they have nothing else to lose. While Ishmael joined the Pequod, Melville joined the St. Lawrence. Melville’s first ship was a merchant ship instead of whaling ship, but he still got the idea of life on board a vessel. Knowing Melville himself actually spent time on board ships gives the reader a sense of validity to the conditions of life on board.

One of these “conditions” could be considered the sexual relationships between shipmates. We talked a lot in class about how Melville gives a lot of obvious, drilling shout-outs to sex between his characters, especially between Ishmael and Queequeg. Kirby seems to think these ideas sprung from Melville’s own romantic relationships. Specifically, a newspaper published Melville’s “Fragments from a Writing Desk” on May 4 and 18, 1839. These “Fragments” were fictional pieces focusing on romantic love. In the first piece, a letter to a fake friend, Melville “describes three attractive young women in overblown terms” (Kirby 22). While plain old “describing” the beauty of women might have been socially acceptable during Melville’s time period, explicitly telling the reader two characters (especially two MALE characters) were having sex was certainly not. Perhaps like Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself,” Melville had to be sneaky and put the sexual references in Moby Dick, and let the reader decide if they wanted to acknowledge the innuendos, or let them slide. Knowing about Melville’s past on writing romantically on women makes it easier for the reader to pick up on Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg. One early example of this in Moby Dick can be seen when Ishmael, talking about Queequeg and himself just having sex, says “thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair” (Melville 58).

Continuing on with Queequeg, we know from Moby Dick that he was a cannibal, and that Ishmael was not even very fazed by this. Upon first glance, one might wonder how Melville came up with such a seemingly accurate portrayal of Moby Dick. Kirby’s book reveals that Melville himself spent time among cannibals when he jumped ship off his second ship, the Acushnet. For almost a month, Melville lived with the Typees, who were known to have cannibalistic ways. “Yet if, as her reports in Typee, Melville was concerned enough to keep a careful eye on the meal preparation of his hosts, apparently there was never any real danger that the Typees might make a tasty dinner” of Melville (Kirby 26). Understanding Melville’s alliance and maybe even acceptance of the cannibalistic Typees can help us understand why Ishmael is so accepting of Queequeg. Naturally Ishmael is at first worried, but then he learns to love Queequeg more than anything else in the world, regardless of his past.

Finally, there was one particular part of Kirby’s biography that screamed out “Ahab” to me. While Melville was staying with the Typees, he “suffered from a mysterious ailment of the leg” (Kirby 26). It does not take the reader much to connect this easily with Ahab, who lost his leg in an encounter with Moby Dick. While Melville might not have had to wear a replacement ivory leg, I find it pretty simple to connect Melville’s leg problems directly to Ahab’s. I think that maybe Melville needed to give Ahab some sort of setback to not only give purpose to finding Moby Dick, but to show Captain Ahab’s power. To do this, all Melville had to do was draw on his personal experiences, and voila: the disabled yet demanding and overconfident captain is complete. Even with one leg, Ahab is still that strong pyramid the crew fears. Through reading biographies such as David Kirby’s “Herman Melville,” a reader of Moby Dick can better understand the novel and where the characters and ideas come from.

Works Cited:

Kirby, David. “Herman Melville.” Continuum, New York: 1993.

Melville, Herman. “Moby Dick.” Penguin Group, New York: 2003.


  1. One difficulty I had here is that you, although you clearly did your reading, you didn't use it to go very much beyond material we talked about in class. We talked in class about the necessity of veiling discussion of same-sex encounters (at least partially veiling them). So, how could you have extended or challenged that discussion, based on your research? Similarly, we talked about Melville having been at sea. That doesn't mean that you couldn't do so as well - but it does mean that you should, again, have extended (or challenged) the initial observation that his experiences were based in knowledge.

    I liked the discussion of Melville's leg condition (this is actually described in great detail in Typee, in one example of the semi-autobiographical character of that novel - but it didn't seem clearly focused.

    Maybe the central issue here is that you were using your perfectly good research in a scattered way: what you needed to do was pose a question or present an idea, however tentatively, based on your research, rather than being all over the place.

  2. I liked all of your points in your paper. I remember reading that Melville suffered a leg injury when I read part of his biography, but I didn't think to connect it to Ahab's leg. I also thought the paragraph about the letter where Melville was desbribing women to be interesting. I wish you had had an better overarching argument that brought all of the little arguments together, maybe what it means that all of the characters represent small pieces of Melville?