Melville, Herman. 1853. Bartleby, the Scrivener
At its simplest, is about a sailor who is hanged in order to assure discipline aboard a warship, but the story is not simple. Melville was always alert to the complex implications of events, and he employs oppositions that defy resolution and raise questions that evoke ambiguous answers. Is Billy guilty of murder? Are there mitigating circumstances? Is Captain Vere correct in convoking a drumhead court martial and directing its verdict? From these elementary questions larger ones emerge. Is Vere a compassionate man who in full knowledge of the situation does his duty despite his inclinations? Or is he a creature of an authoritarian tyranny which destroys the free, the beautiful, and the loving? In any case, Vere is the central actor in a story with political resonances and with spiritual significance as well, for Billy is an offering in a ritual of restoration. Despite the narrator's remarks to the contrary, a "symmetry of form" artfully controls the density of allusion and thematic subtleties of the tale, and as always with Melville, ends with questions rather than an answer.
Moby Dick; Or the Whale, by Herman Melville
By this time Melville was more interested in writing poetry. Meanwhile, his brother Thomas, captain of a clipper ship, proposed that he join him on his next voyage. They would go around Cape Horn and perhaps around the world. Melville arranged his business affairs and they sailed for San Francisco in May 1860. He left with his brother Allan a manuscript volume of verse which he hoped would find a publisher. It did not.
For three seasons, between 1857 and 1860, Melville went on the lecture circuit. In his first season he had sixteen engagements, lecturing on "Statues in Rome" to an audience attracted mostly by his reputation as the author of and . The next season he lectured a dozen times on "The South Seas," with moderate success and for higher fees. In his last season he gave three lectures on "Traveling." His record book shows that he earned a total of $1,273.50. By comparison, in 1856, earned about $1,700 lecturing as a supplement to his writing.
Herman Melville Facts - Biography
The sources of Melville's masquerade include his youthful trip on the Western riverboats, a "fancy dress picnic" in September 1855 about which there was much ado in Pittsfield, and the career of a New York swindler known as "The Confidence Man," whose exploitation of the trustful was reported in the New York press in 1849 when he was jailed and in 1855 when he was again at large. The wider sources include Melville's reading in myth, metaphysics, satire, and . Less directly but more profoundly among the sources of is Melville's notion, pervasive in the 1850s, that life is some kind of April Fool joke played on man. Thus he wrote his friend and Lizzie's cousin, Henry Savage: "It is--or seems to be--a wise sort of thing, to realise that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of a joke.... And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed around pretty liberally and impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it." The same idea is voiced by Ishmael in . There are times, he says, "when a man takes his whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own."
The Making of Herman Melville's 'Moby-Dick' - Biography
Israel survives by adapting to the circumstances and blending into the background. Episodes in which he changes his clothing recur and are significant. In the end, the fictive Israel Potter is a forgotten man. He seeks the house in which he was born and finds only its hearthstone, an obstacle to the ploughman working nearby, but Potter's life has subsided into the patterned processes of nature which he accepts. The book did not do much, one way or another, for Melville's reputation, but it presages the pattern of subsidence that his own life eventually takes.
Herman Melville bibliography - Wikipedia
The historical Israel Potter was something of a hero at a subordinate level. He was a common soldier wounded at Bunker Hill, a sailor in the infant American navy, secret courier for , and gardener for King George III before he disappeared into a life of penury in London climaxed by his ultimate return to America, where his pension claim was denied. Melville exploits Potter's adventures, giving them a picaresque cast, touching up the pathos and irony, and introducing a patriotic strain. Borrowing from the biographies of John Paul Jones, he expands the naval action, painting a sea battle that is at once dramatic and dehumanized in its mechanistic quality, and he introduces a sketch of Ethan Allen as a British prisoner of war to illustrate the "essentially Western" spirit of America. He also slyly satirizes Franklin, whose Poor Richardesque advice on the virtues of hard work and frugality cheats Israel of his small pleasures.