Call me Herman.

I was born on the first of August, 1819 in the city of New York. My father, Allan Melvill, worked as an importer of French goods, and my family lived in relative comfort until his death in 1832. I was twelve. It is one thing to know your father as a child. It is another to grow and know him as a man, for in your own skin you feel him move. In your own voice you hear his. I seek not to bestow upon my work a trivial sense of sudden and all-too-enveloping understanding, but rather at last to feel on my flesh the breath of that which I have sought. My work... dare I say, my art... exists in and of itself as both an account (with, let us admit, some elaboration on my part) of my adventures as a young man, and as what has essentially become a canvas for the spilling of my brain. But I admit now here to you my ultimate motivation. Interpret as you wish my work through eyes of philosophy, religion, or personal autobiography, but know this: that any filter by which you may view my writing must inevitably be tinted by my search for reunification with he who fathered me. I will speak of this through Clarel, which, you shall come to see, may be a religious pilgrimage, but is just as much a quest for absent patriarchy.

Primarily, it seemed, my father died of illness, as he had crossed the Hudson River on foot in below-zero temperature only a year or so earlier. In retrospect, however, it is easy to see from where his fate truly arose. He died of stress. And many years later I would know precisely how he felt. I do not think that I fully realized in my youth the pressure he had been under, having borrowed extensively from his own father in order to move to America and raise a family of eight children, in which I had been the second of four boys.

My father came from the lineage of Major Thomas Melvill, whom history would remember as a “’Mohawk’ at the Boston Tea Party.” (Barbour, 4) George Washington himself had appointed him Collector of the Port of Boston in 1789 and this position was not lost on those with whom he lived, particularly my father. I could see then the tall order it was to fill the shoes of such an esteemed man, a figure of importance within our own family, and therefore a figure all would try desperately never to let down. It only raised the bar that my mother’s family, the Gansevoorts, was also successful, having taken part in the Revolutionary War. The hero of Fort Stanwix had been none other than General Peter Gansevoort, he who had “prevented the British from reinforcing General Burgoyne before the Battle of Saratoga.” (4)

For a while my father did well, travelling the globe and thereby instigating, by way of his business travels, a wanderlust which would itself grow to plague me. His business permitted gradually increasing luxury in our surroundings; our New York homes growing larger and more pleasant as time went on. But expenditures were built upon weak foundation, as a good portion of the money invested in such projects had been lent by the good-natured benefactors of the Gansevoort family, as well as by my own grandfather. It was not long after the war ended that the country plummeted into severe economic depression, and this took a dramatic toll on my family, again particularly my father. He proceeded to set up stake in the fur industry, using money borrowed from brother-in-law Peter Gansevoort as capital. This too drove my father to distress, as the shakiness of the business led my family to greater and greater financial reversals. Our homes began shrinking, our dinners getting smaller, my father getting older.

We were then settled in Albany, and in the coldest moment of winter my father traveled to New York on business. It was in his return that he crossed the Hudson.

Nearly one year later he would be dead.


I suppose you have been informed by some of the family, how very ill, Herman has been. It is manifest to me from Elizabeth’s letters, that she has felt great anxiety about him. When he is deeply engaged in one of his literary works, he confines him[self] to hard study many hours in the day, with little or no exercise, & this specifically in winter for a great many days together. He probably thus overworks himself & brings on severe nervous affections. He has been advised strongly to break off this labor for some time, & take a voyage or a journey, & endeavor to recruit. No definite plan is arranged, but I think it may result, in this that in the autumn he will go away for four or five months,...[1]

And so it was that I found myself in Jerusalem. I wonder often to myself if the period in which a work is created is at all crucial to the development of that work. I suspect that it is, undeniably, yes. I could not bring myself in the years prior to the writing of Clarel to pen the voices in my head that battled over the nature of those aspects national which had frequently haunted me. It was only a matter of years subsequent to my first exposure to the theories of Darwin that I began to question. How can we believe? How can we have faith? How can we retain the abstract in the face of the realist? Slip by me, slip through me, yes, an inconsequential lull, the requisite period of frustration all artists must know. To feel the sting of bitter rejection at the hands of your once-adoring public, aah. Was I he of Typee skill? Was I he of Omoo fathering? Once, but no more. Now in their eyes but a rebel was I... weaving rejections of all that must inhabit popular acceptance, art, adventure, suspense, romance. Suppress me softly, let not be sung my father song. I did not remember leaving them behind.

I was not tranquilized by “an analysis of internal form or with a passive acceptance of duality — of object and subject, of good and evil, of infinite and finite.” (Knapp, 18) Tangibility seduced me, a physical hunger inside drove me, and a burning desire for a cure to my own numbness required me to go. I knew that I would make nothing easy for my readers, had I any left, for my own complexity of internal questioning necessitated the injection into Clarel of a similar mental state. We were both lost together, and if he found his way, perhaps I would as well.

Dear reader, you should know now, in case of any preconceived belief: the notion that my literary works are entirely autobiographical is false. True, a good majority follow the path of my own adventures, but the inner workings of the imagination soon take over, and the hold of story is not long soaked in actuality. So it was with Clarel, which found more of my brain on paper than my actual exploits in the Holy Land. Pilgrims, Lowells, Nehemiahs: all subjects of my own critical mental postulations. How could I, and, indeed, these figures, reconcile faith in the Holy Father when daily we could suckle the breast of Mother Earth?

I found myself in a sepulchre not only of physicality, but also of mentality.


I saw my hand write the words.

Stones sealed the sepulchres—huge cones

Heaved there in bulk; death too by stones

The law decreed for crime;


Behold the stones! And never one

A lichen greens; and, turn them o’er—

No worm—no life; but, all the more,

Good witness.

(II, x, pp. 170-71)

I saw on page the manifestations of God’s own obstacles placed before me. I waded through the dust of my head, the numbness of my own illusory existence. I had forgotten. And I had receded into this forgetting to leave behind not only that which I had inescapably been, but that which I inescapably was. I returned from the Holy Land, and in writing remained there. Lived there. The stones trapped me there, locked me in that sepulchre. The work of a god? The work of myself? I willed my keepsakes, signed away what portion of me be left to sacrifice to that god, that art. In 1855 my fourth child, Frances, was born. The only child I could afford to feed was Clarel.

I went to the desert and found simply another ocean. God was an abstraction, as Moby-Dick had been. And, as the whale had owned the sea, the Father owned the sand. I found myself, as well a father, to be the Holy Land. I swam in myself. Still trapped was I by the stones. Was there to be no Father, then trapped were we all in a real sepulchre. Was I to have no father, then trapped was I in the abstract. Or, rather, the search for the abstract. I realized at once that Clarel was Ahab, and that Ahab was, unavoidably, me. God the Father was Allan Melvill the father, and Allan Melvill was a white whale, dooming me in his submersion to forever trail him, hunting him only to become him.

Accused was I of being of a rebel against the nature of art, of popular literature, of religion. Yet grasped by none was that against which I truly rebelled, and in the rebellion against which I ultimately failed. At twelve I lost my father, and at thirty-seven I had become him. I had no money, no professional success, and a growing family I could not support. I found in the desert no abstraction. I found in the sea no whale. I found in the Holy Land no answers to those questions I was asking. In my preconceived notion toward what Jerusalem would be, I realized that I was also, in a way, one of my own readers. I had anticipated romance, adventure, a terrific sweep which would tear down the stones and unlock the sepulchre, allowing me to breathe.

“How it affects one to be cheated in Jerusalem... No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine—particularly Jerusalem. To some the disappointment is heart sickening. Is the desolation of the land the result of the fatal embrace of the Deity? Hapless are the favorites of heaven.”[2]

I was alone and lost. I became little more than a tourist then, and in my writing little more than Jonah. The whale I had become was swallowing me. I was swallowing myself. The book would not sell, this I knew. It would be an indisputable, completely unforgivable commercial disappointment. And yet I could not stop. Though banned, though the book was doomed to be a botch, I had to write. I did not eat. I did not sleep. I did not breathe.

The fact is, that Herman, poor fellow, is in such a frightfully nervous state, & particularly now with such an added strain on his mind, that I am actually afraid to have any one here for fear that he will be upset entirely, & not be able to go on with the printing....If ever this dreadful incubus of a book (I call it so because it has undermined all our happiness) gets off Herman’s shoulders, I do hope he may be in better mental health—but at present I have reason to feel the gravest concern & anxiety about it—to put it in mild phrase.[3]

On the same day I received a check for $1,200 from my uncle, Peter Gansevoort, I received a telegram informing me of his death. The money was to be used for the publication of Clarel. The year was 1875. All that followed had been foreseen. The book sold 478 copies, and I was forced to recall it. I was no longer the same Herman Melville who had penned Typee and Omoo. I was no longer the young harpooner of the Lucy Ann. I was no longer hunting the whale. I was the whale. I was my father.

Critically the work was a lamb led to the slaughter. Clarel had found nothing. Suspected had I that perhaps the notion of love as the true answer would possess appeal to the common reader, but there was no logic in delusion. No reader would make it that far.

The sun suddenly rose. I may have been my father, but I was also Clarel. I needed not surrender to that “passive acceptance of duality — of object and subject, of good and evil, of infinite and finite.” (Knapp, 18) I needed not deplore my sepulchre—Clarel’s initial hostel. The desert may have been a wasteland, nightmares of stones trapping me, but what of beneath those boulders? No worms? No life? And what of it? All the more, good witness!

Bethlehem had offered the possibility not so much of an ultimate solution, but of an ultimate suggestion: love. If I, like Clarel, had begun in abhorrence of my conflict, in hatred of my “unbelief and directionless actions,” (Kenny, 398) in the hope that, should Clarel find his way, perhaps I would as well, then presented before me was the key to the sepulchre door. I had spun about Clarel a world that illuminated the impossibility of love between two men.

                                    Blue-lights sent up by ship forlorn

                                    Are answered oft but by the glare

                                    Of rockets from another, torn

                                    In the same gale’s inclusive snare.

                                                                                          (I, xiii, ll. 1-4)

But this whale was not going to drag me underwater. This whale and I were going to love each other. A soft light shined at last, and the Holy Land no longer seemed a desolate wasteland. I had spent 18,000 lines searching not simply for an abstraction, but for an abstraction with which I was at war.  And then there it was: nothing under the stone, but all the more. Peace with the abstraction. Let the whale go.


                                    Till Clarel—minding him again

                                    Of something settled in his air—

                                    A quietude beyond mere calm—

                                                                                          (III, xxxii, pp. 398-99)




                  I could breathe.


Works Cited / Consulted


Bernstein, John. Pacifism and Rebellion in the Writings of Herman Melville. The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton & Co., Publishers, 1964.

Bryant, John, ed. A Companion to Melville Studies. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Buell, Lawrence. “Melville the Poet.” The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Ed. Robert S. Levine. Cambridge, UK, 1998. 135-56.

Kenny, Vincent. Herman Melville’s Clarel: A Spiritual Autobiography. Hamden: Archon Books, 1973.

Knapp, Joseph G. Tortured Synthesis: The Meaning of Melville’s Clarel. New York: Philosophical   Library, 1971.

Melville, Herman. Clarel. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1991.


[1] from a letter by Melville’s father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, to his son, Samuel, in September 1856. (Kenny, 376)

[2] from Melville’s Journal, 1856, pp. 142, 154. (Kenny, 376-7)

[3] from a letter by Melville’s wife, Elizabeth Shaw, to Catherine Lansing, 1866. (Kenny, 378)