Friday, April 1, 2011

The Wild Blue Yonder

Revision of Therapy of Adventure

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 a source of adventure and therapy for him.

The subject of adventure is mentioned in Melville’s work as early as his first novel, Typee ; in fact, The reader only needs to read the first paragraph to the preface of Typee before the notion of adventure is aroused in his mind. Melville says that “Sailors are the only class of men who now-a-days see anything like stirring adventure; and many things which to fire-side people appear strange and romantic, to them seem as common-place as a jacket out at elbows.” (Melville, “Typee”)

I believe that this passage gives insight to Melville’s thoughts and opinions regarding adventure. It appears that Melville is expressing a bias in favor of the life-style that sailors lead as opposed to the lives of ordinary, or “fire-side people.” Melville seems to believe that the lives of sailors are much more exciting than the lives of ordinary people and those things that may appear bizarre and seductive to ordinary people are common in the lives of sailors.

The views that Melville expresses towards the sea and adventure may be connected to his childhood. In Melville’s semi-autobiographical novel Redburn, Melville reminisces about his father, who had crossed the Atlantic several times on business affairs. He says that “of winter evenings in New York, by the well-remembered sea-coal fire in old Greenwich-street, he used to tell my brother and me of the monstrous waves at sea, mountain high; of the masts bending like twigs; and all about Havre, and Liverpool, and about going up into the ball of St. Paul’s in London.” (Melville, “Redburn”)

Melville continues to say “As I grew older my thoughts took a larger flight, and I frequently fell into long reveries about distant voyages and travels, and thought how fine it would be, to be able to talk about remote and barbarous countries; with what reverence and wonder people would regard me, if I had just returned from the coast of Africa or New Zealand; how dark and romantic my sunburnt cheeks would look; how I would bring home with me foreign clothes of a rich fabric and princely make, and wear them up and down the streets, and how grocers' boys would turn back their heads to look at me, as I went by.” (Melville, “Redburn”)

These passages provide good evidence for the argument that Melville was greatly influenced by his father and his stories about sailing as a child. It can be seen how inspired he was by his father’s exciting and romantic tales, and how much he obsessed over the idea of going to sea.

Considering the extent that Melville associated the sea with such positive attributes such as excitement, romance, and adventure, it isn’t surprising that he would incorporate it into much of his writing as a means for his characters to escape the dullness and misery of life on land.

“Moby Dick” is one of Melville’s novels where the sea provides a means for escape. 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”)

From this passage it appears that going to sea is almost like a sort of therapy for Ishmael. It seems 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 poor outlook on life, but it seems that going to sea is the only therapy that can relieve his misery.

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 felt a little like Ishmael in the beginning of “Moby Dick,” and he may have felt that a voyage out to sea would be the solution to his problems.

Another instance where the sea provides a means of escape and therapy 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;” in fact, Some parts of “White Jacket” seem like rough drafts of “Moby Dick.” The symbolism of the color white and the adventure of going to sea are both themes that are shared between the two novels. Another similarity is White Jacket and Ishmael’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 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.

It is apparent in Melville’s novels “Typee” and “Redburn” that Melville’s fascination with the sea began when he was a child and was inspired by his father. As Melville grew older, he became more attracted to the open ocean; and just as Ishmael and White Jacket turned to the sea to escape the desolation and dreariness of life on land; Melville ventured into the ocean when he entered adulthood and felt burdened by the pressures that life had placed on him. The use of the sea as a symbol of adventure and as a source of relieve is common among many of Herman Melville’s novels, and reveals much about his personal views towards life at sea.


Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick Or, The Whale. New York: Penguin Group. Print.

Melville, Herman. Redburn.

Melville, Herman. Typee.

Melville, Herman. White Jacket.

"Herman Melville." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 27 Feb. 2011

1 comment:

  1. Here's my comment from the first draft:


    Both the idea of focusing on adventure-as-therapy within the context of Melville's life, and the idea of exploring parallels between WJ and MD, are perfectly viable ideas. Because you rely on Wikipedia for the first and only briefly touch on the second topic, though, they're both diluted.

    For instance - if you were serious about talking about the text of WJ, you probably would have noticed the wealth of parallels between the chapter from which you're quoting and "The Mast-Head" from MD, which we talked about at length in class. The one reads almost as a rough draft for the other. Is it a big deal that you didn't notice or write about that? Hardly. But what you should have been looking for is *something* more concrete to write about, and a clearer focus.


    I'm posting that because this is an extension which, while adding worthwhile material, doesn't change the problems of the original: bad research (wikipedia is an ok place to figure out some sources, but you should never consider it a stopping point) and an argument which seems in danger of being both trivial and vague. The theme of adventure, and of adventure-as-therapy, is a good *starting point*. However, even the most cursory examination of MD (or Redburn, especially considering the london scenes or White-Jacket) would lead us to note just how dangerous and even tragic adventure can be.

    That doesn't mean that adventure isn't a form of therapy - but it's also a source of death and destruction, and the means by which people are controlled (see Ahab, but also the captain in Redburn, and don't get me started on Mardi), and many other things.

    All you're doing is scratching the surface of a worthwhile topic - one which desperately needed real research (starting with a biography) to jump start it.

    Your argument is trivial and vague, you show little knowledge of any of the texts, and your research - for a topic which really needed it - relies entirely on wikipedia. The idea, or starting point, remains fine, but the execution is lacking.