Melville, Herman

Tagged: Author

(1819-1891) US author whose first professional publication, "Fragments from a Writing Desk" (4-18 May 1839 Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser), is an exercise in Gothic grotesquerie. He is of course best known for such radically symbolic novels as The Whale (1851 3vols; vt Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale 1851 2vols); the great whale of this novel has served as an archetype for the more Metaphysical variety of sf Monster, his tormented and tormenting pursuer Captain Ahab as an almost demonic Antihero, and the whaling ship Pequod as an illuminated Ship of Fools. Melville's blending in Moby-Dick of rational explanation, romantic sublimity, and the inexplicable was later to become typical of sf, and like all his greater work has served as a model for Equipoisal ventures into the deeps between genres. The book's influence has normally been implicit, though it has been specifically homaged, as in Roger Zelazny's "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" (March 1965 F&SF); less seriously in Philip José Farmer's Sequel by Other Hands; The Wind Whales of Ishmael (1971), and in Bruce Sterling's Involution Ocean (1977).

Though Moby-Dick is haunted by supernatural intensities, Melville's first novel of anything like direct sf interest is the earlier Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (1849 3vols). This long tale, seemingly a thinly fictionalized narrative of Melville's South Pacific journeys as a seaman through the Mardi Archipelago, is easily understood in terms of the Fantastic Voyage, one whose intensity increases with each landing as the narrator and his proxies penetrate further and further into the string of Islands;several Utopian and Dystopian societies are encountered, and at least one Lost Race in the increasingly Metaphysical gloaming. Pierre; Or, the Ambiguities (1852) is not literally fantastic, but the immersion of its protagonists in a Gothic, mythopoeic, horrifying New York leads to scenes of genuine Vastation (see Horror in SF); Pierre is one of the first novels of stature to have been (mostly) set in New York; for most nonfantastic predecessors to this early text, David S Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (1988) is useful as background.

Some of Melville's short fiction, almost all of which follows Pierre, utilizes artifices typical of early Fantastika. "Bartleby: A Tale of Wall Street" (November-December 1853 Putnam's Monthly) masterfully evokes a sense that some Doppelganger in the shape of a suddenly manifest Mysterious Stranger has exposed and fixated the daylight world. "The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles" (March-May 1854 Putnam's Monthly Magazine) as by Salvator R Tammoor is a fantasticated depiction of the Galápagos Islands (see Archipelago) as a kind of hell. "The Happy Failure: A Story of the River Hudson" (1 July 1854 Harper's Monthly Magazine) features a Great Hydraulic-Hydrostatic Apparatus, though the device is, as with many nineteenth century American fictions, a hoax. "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (April 1855 Harper's Monthly Magazine) comprises two conjoined sketches; the first of these, "The Tartarus of Maids", is a prescient vision of an assembly-line sweatshop factory which gives birth to its product like a female in bondage (the sexual [see Sex] imagery is explicit).

Of these shorter works, the tale most sf-like and reminiscent of that of Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne is "The Bell-Tower" (August 1855 Putnam's Monthly); set in Renaissance Italy, it describes the construction of a Machine-man, an automaton (see Robots) whose function it will be to strike the hour on a large bell set into a conspicuously phallic tower, but which in the event kills its maker. The story can be read as allegorical of mankind's hubris, and a comment on the implications of the new era of mechanical invention and science that Melville was beginning to witness, and which he excoriates in his last novel (see below). This, "Bartleby", and "The Encantadas" were assembled with other adventurous but nonfantastic tales as The Piazza Tales (coll 1856).

In what may now seem the climax of his life's work (but whose disastrous reception on publication cut his professional career short), The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), Melville's last full-length tale, embarks upon a violent proto-modernist demolition of the concept (and presumptive dictates) of any destiny graspable by humans; it is a premonitory and disruptive anti-novel that may well have provided some sf writers with inspiration for contemporary sf tales of justified Paranoia and of Identity undermined. During the course of April Fool's Day 1857, a Shapeshifting Mysterious Stranger boards the Mississippi steamer Fidèle and in eight successive disguises dupes and disorients an aliquot sample of antebellum American society: never caught, hardly suspected (see Godgame; Secret Master), though the reader is obliquely warned that the surface story will be transgressed against:the words "stranger", "mysterious" and " impostor" appear in the first page of the tale ; the Club-Story-like tonality marking his imposition of various impersonations upon his dupes is intensified when, in the darker second half of the tale, the stranger begins literally to tell stories he claims are true. But "truth" is antic. The venue unmistakably evokes, as did the Pequod, the topos of the Ship of Fools set upon a no-exit course deathwards, as clearly adumbrated early on by one of the impostor's eventual victims: "You fools," he cries inflamedly but to no effect, "you flock of fools, under this captain of fools, in this ship of fools."

But though the tale may be seen as a malign Parody of the Fantastic Voyage, the journey here is inwards, for the vast and intricate Fidèle is clearly bigger inside than out [for Arabian Nightmare, Edifice and Little, Big see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], and no one is actually seen ever to disembark: the steamer's course may be identical to that taken in the first half of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which is set at almost the same historical moment, but the victims of The Confidence-Man are shut off from the Archipelago of the passing world. The final sentence of the tale – "Something further may follow of this Masquerade." – is a Slingshot Ending with no surcease in view. [JC]

see also: History of SF; Robots.

Herman Melville

born New York: 1 August 1819

died New York: 28 September 1891

works (selected)

series

Library of America

  • Herman Melville, Vol 1 (New York: The Library of America, 1982) [omni: includes Typee, Omoo and Mardi: And a Voyage Thither: Library of America: hb/]
  • Herman Melville, Vol 2 (New York: The Library of America, 1983) [omni: includes Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick: Library of America: hb/]
  • Herman Melville, Vol 3 (New York: The Library of America, 1984) [omni: includes Pierre; Or, the Ambiguities, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, Billy Budd and all previously uncollected tales: Library of America: hb/]

individual titles

about the author

The immense critical bibliography on Melville is not focused on his relevance to Fantastika; we list a partial exception below.

links

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