The First Great Novelists
Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson—as well as their contemporaries, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe—represent the first great literary generation produced in the United States. In the case of fiction writers, the Romantic vision tended to express itself in the form Hawthorne called the “Romance,” a heightened, emotional, and symbolic form of the novel. As defined by Hawthorne, Romances were not love stories, but serious novels that used special techniques to communicate complex and subtle meanings.
Instead of carefully defining realistic characters through a wealth of detail, as most English or continental novelists did, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe shaped heroic figures larger than life, burning with mythic significance. The typical protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals. Hawthorne’s Arthur Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Ahab in Moby-Dick, and the many isolated and obsessed characters of Poe’s tales are lonely protagonists pitted against unknowable, dark fates that, in some mysterious way, grow out of their deepest unconscious selves. The symbolic plots reveal hidden actions of the anguished spirit.
One reason for this fictional exploration into the hidden recesses of the soul was the absence at the time of settled community. English novelists—Jane Austen, Charles Dickens (the great favorite), Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, William Thackeray—lived in a complex, well-articulated, traditional society and shared, with their readers, attitudes that informed their realistic fiction.
American novelists were faced with a history of strife and revolution, a geography of vast wilderness, and a fluid and relatively classless democratic society. Many English novels show a poor main character rising on the economic and social ladder, perhaps because of a good marriage or the discovery of a hidden aristocratic past. But this plot does not challenge the aristocratic social structure of England. On the contrary, it confirms it. The rise of the main character satisfies the wish fulfillment of the mainly middle-class readers of those days in England.
In contrast, the American novelist had to depend on his or her own devices. America was, in part, an undefined, constantly moving frontier populated by immigrants speaking various languages and following strange and crude ways of life. Thus, the main character in an American story might find himself alone among cannibal tribes, as in Melville’s Typee, or exploring a wilderness like James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, or witnessing lonely visions from the grave, like Poe’s solitary individuals, or meeting the devil walking in the forest, like Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. Virtually all the great American protagonists have been “loners.” The democratic American individual had, as it were, to invent himself. The serious American novelist had to invent new forms as well: hence the sprawling, idiosyncratic shape of Melville’s novel Moby-Dick and Poe’s dreamlike, wandering Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
Herman Melville 1819-1891
Courtesy Harvard College Library
Herman Melville was a descendant of an old, wealthy family that fell abruptly into poverty upon the death of the father. Despite his upbringing, family traditions, and hard work, Melville found himself with no college education. At 19, he went to sea. His interest in sailors’ lives grew naturally out of his own experiences, and most of his early novels grew out of his voyages. His first book, Typee, was based on his time spent among the Taipis people in the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville’s masterpiece, is the epic story of the whaling ship Pequod and its captain, Ahab, whose obsessive quest for the white whale, Moby-Dick, leads the ship and its men to destruction. This work, a seemingly realistic adventure novel, contains a series of meditations on the human condition.
Whaling, throughout the book, is a grand metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge. Although Ahab’s quest is philosophical, it is also tragic. Despite his heroism, Ahab is doomed and perhaps damned in the end. Nature, however beautiful, remains alien and potentially deadly. In Moby-Dick, Melville challenges Emerson’s optimistic idea that humans can understand nature. Moby-Dick, the great white whale, is an inscrutable, cosmic existence that dominates the novel, just as he obsesses Ahab. Facts about the whale and whaling cannot explain Moby-Dick; on the contrary, the facts themselves tend to dissolve into symbols. Behind Melville’s accumulation of facts is a mystic vision—but whether this vision is evil or good, human or inhuman, is not explained.
Ahab insists on imaging a heroic, timeless world of absolutes. Unwisely, he demands a finished “text,” an answer. But the novel shows that just as there are no finished texts, there are no final answers except, perhaps, death. Certain literary references resonate throughout the novel. Ahab, named for an Old Testament king, desires a total, Faustian, god-like knowledge. Like Oedipus in Sophocles’ play, who pays tragically for wrongful knowledge, Ahab is struck blind before he is finally killed.
Ahab’s ship Pequod is named for an extinct New England Indian tribe; thus the name suggests that the boat is doomed to destruction. Whaling was in fact a major industry, especially in New England: It supplied whale oil as an energy source, especially for lamps. Thus the whale does literally “shed light” on the universe. The book has historical resonance. Whaling was inherently expansionist and linked with the historical idea of a “manifest destiny” for Americans, since it required Americans to sail round the world in search of whales (in fact, the present state of Hawaii came under American domination because it was used as the major refueling base for American whaling ships). The Pequod’s crew members represent all races and various religions, suggesting the idea of America as a universal state of mind, as well as a melting pot. Finally, Ahab embodies the tragic version of democratic American individualism. He asserts his dignity as an individual and dares to oppose the inexorable external forces of the universe.