Melville Is Rediscovered as a Major American Novelist

Critical, editorial, and biographical initiatives early in the twentieth century revived interest in the writings of Herman Melville and led to recognition of Melville as a major literary artist.

Summary of Event

To appreciate the Herman Melville revival, one needs to know something of the writer’s earlier reputation. Melville burst on the literary scene in his twenties with Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) Typee (Melville) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), Omoo (Melville) novels based on his experiences in the Marquesas Islands after he had deserted the whaling ship on which he had been a crew member. The public took greedily to these exotic romances, and Melville quickly became famous. Literature;Melville revival
Melville revival
[kw]Melville Is Rediscovered as a Major American Novelist (1920-1924)
[kw]American Novelist, Melville Is Rediscovered as a Major (1920-1924)
[kw]Novelist, Melville Is Rediscovered as a Major American (1920-1924)
Literature;Melville revival
Melville revival
[g]England;1920-1924: Melville Is Rediscovered as a Major American Novelist[04990]
[g]United States;1920-1924: Melville Is Rediscovered as a Major American Novelist[04990]
[c]Literature;1920-1924: Melville Is Rediscovered as a Major American Novelist[04990]
Melville, Herman
Lawrence, D. H.
Mather, Frank Jewett, Jr.
Metcalf, Eleanor Melville
Van Doren, Carl
Weaver, Raymond M.

Not content merely to capitalize further on this material, Melville penned a succession of more serious books that disenchanted his early readers. The strangeness of Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851) Moby Dick (Melville) especially alienated the public, and a few years later Melville gave up fiction for poetry. Gradually, Melville fell into literary obscurity. In his mid-forties, he obtained a job as a customs inspector in New York to support his family. He died in 1891, and for several decades thereafter, literary historians ignored him or mentioned him only briefly as the author of Typee and Omoo, often to compare him unfavorably with Robert Louis Stevenson—a writer who, ironically, owed his interest in the South Seas to his reading of Melville.

One of the few enthusiastic Melvillians, Carl Van Doren, contributed an essay on Melville to the new Cambridge History of American Literature that was published in 1917, and at Van Doren’s suggestion, a young Columbia University professor named Raymond M. Weaver joined in an effort to promote the Melville centennial in 1919. Discovering that no full-length biography of Melville existed, Weaver went to Eleanor Melville Metcalf, the writer’s granddaughter, who supplied him with both recollections and previously unpublished manuscripts. Meanwhile, Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., published the best essay on Melville yet in the August, 1919, edition of a periodical simply called Review.

Weaver discovered a nearly finished short novel on which Melville had been working in his retirement. Set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it focuses on a young merchant seaman impressed on a British warship who incurs the enmity of the ship’s master-at-arms. The malicious officer accuses the innocent and uncomprehending Billy Budd of planning a mutiny; Billy, a stutterer, cannot defend himself verbally and instead strikes his accuser dead before the captain’s eyes. Although a favorite of the captain and all his shipmates, the young man is tried, convicted, and hanged.

The appearance of Weaver’s biography, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, Herman Melville (Weaver) in 1921 generated new interest in Melville’s work. The widely read American critic Van Wyck Brooks Brooks, Van Wyck observed that Melville’s name was suddenly “in everyone’s mouth,” although he conceded that soon Melville might be forgotten again. Still, Brooks pointed out, the publicity would undoubtedly bring Melville to the attention of at least a few readers who would permanently value his books.

Meanwhile, other champions of Melville were arising. Melville’s reputation benefited particularly from the efforts of admirers abroad; Augustine Birrell, H. M. Tomlinson, and Viola Meynell were among the English writers heard from early in the Melville revival. The most influential of Melville’s English critics, however, was famed novelist D. H. Lawrence, who in 1923 published a quirky but brilliant book titled Studies in Classic American Literature. Studies in Classic American Literature (Lawrence, D. H.) Despite its stodgy title, the book dealt wittily and perceptively with such already highly regarded American writers as Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe; it also devoted two chapters to Melville. Lawrence engaged in a certain amount of ridicule of all these American writers, including Melville, but he called Moby Dick “a surpassingly beautiful book.”

Indeed, the Melville revival primarily rescued from oblivion Melville’s tale of Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale, while the two early novels continued to attract much more notice than any of his other later poetry and fiction. Critics began to praise the suspense in Moby Dick, the author’s use of dramatic dialogue, and even the shifts in point of view that earlier critics had disparaged. Weaver’s subtitle for his biography, Mariner and Mystic, clearly influenced commentators on the novel. No one had doubted Melville’s qualifications as a mariner, but now Moby Dick was viewed (not always approvingly) as “a struggle between realism and mysticism.” Readers continued to be exasperated by the novel, but they began to consider the possibility that the difficulties of Melville’s style justified and even rewarded sustained attention. Questions such as “What does the great white whale represent?” and “Who or what is Captain Ahab?” were increasingly addressed.

Between 1922 and 1924, the publication of a sixteen-volume edition of Melville’s complete works began to lead readers to consider not only the novels between Omoo and Moby Dick but also his later published fiction, including the long-neglected Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (1852), Pierre (Melville)
The Piazza Tales (1856), Piazza Tales, The (Melville) and The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857), Confidence Man (Melville) as well as his poetry. Especially important was the thirteenth volume of this edition, edited by Raymond Weaver and published in 1924, which included the previously unpublished short novel that Weaver decided to entitle Billy Budd, Foretopman. Billy Budd, Foretopman (Melville) The manuscript presented editorial problems that Weaver did not handle expertly, but the fact of an important novel from Melville, written thirty years after he had supposedly given up fiction, at the time far outweighed the problems resulting from Weaver’s shortcomings as an editor.

Despite its cumbersome style, Billy Budd is an intriguing story of guilt and innocence. In Captain Vere, who chooses to try Billy for murder and thereafter decides to execute him on the spot, Melville paints a classic struggle between professional duty and conscience. In the early years of the Melville revival, this late work claimed little critical attention, but its existence made clear that Melville’s fiction after that great classic could not be dismissed as airily as it had been for decades.


In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), T. S. Eliot argues that a new work of art not only adds to the existing tradition but also provokes a readjustment of the whole order of the works making up that tradition. Although Eliot could not have been thinking of Melville’s work when he wrote his essay, the idea certainly applies. In the 1920’s, Melville’s work was not precisely new, just newly acknowledged—although Billy Budd, of course, was just as new to its readers as any recent composition. That its recognition profoundly altered not only estimates of Melville the artist but also the canon of American literature cannot seriously be disputed.

Even geographically, the growing acknowledgment of Melville’s greatness is significant. As late as the 1920’s, the notion persisted that the history of American literature amounted chiefly to an account of New England writers, not only the still-revered Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, but also a host of others no longer seen as of the first rank: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and others less well known. Of course, New Yorkers such as Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper had their place, but that place was outside the perceived mainstream. Even the Missourian Mark Twain settled in Hartford and could, after a fashion, be accounted the latest of the “Connecticut wits.” The very fact of Twain’s removal to New England suggests the potency of the region’s aura.

The recognition of Melville and of his exact contemporary Walt Whitman Whitman, Walt made it impossible to see New England as the almost exclusive domain of nineteenth century American literature. These men were not only New York-born, but they were also cosmopolitan in ways beyond the scope of the New England literary establishment. Whitman celebrated the length and breadth of the land, and Melville had gone to, and sent his characters to, remote places around the globe. Even when Melville chose an American setting, as in his increasingly popular story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Bartleby the Scrivener” (Melville)[Bartleby the Scrivener] he hit upon a locale, in this case Wall Street in New York City, far from the ken of the New Englanders. Furthermore, he presented Bartleby as a victim of the new commercial and legal world; even Bartleby’s well-intentioned employer contributes to the impersonal and dislocating forces that swamp the forlorn copier of legal documents.

Melville had furnished readers with his fresh vision back in the 1850’s, but only seventy years later did it begin to expand the imaginative horizons of more than a handful of admirers. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the new emphasis on the whole range of Melville works—including his long-neglected poetry—was an important constituent in revealing the long-standing provincialism in American literary criticism. Lewis Mumford’s Mumford, Lewis 1929 Herman Melville, for example, devoted eighteen pages to Melville’s long narrative poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876).

Willard Thorp, Thorp, Willard a Princeton University professor, is given major credit for promoting the academic study of Melville. The introduction to his Herman Melville: Representative Selections (1938) made it impossible for responsible critics and literary historians to neglect either Melville or the body of his writings. In the next decade, Melville became a fixture in college surveys of American literature and increasingly the focus of specialized courses. Not only Moby Dick but also all three of the works in Melville’s The Piazza Tales—“Bartleby the Scrivener,” The Encantadas, and Benito Cereno—as well as Billy Budd, Sailor (the title adopted in the corrected edition of Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., in 1962) became staples of American literature courses, and Pierre often joined Moby Dick in courses focusing on longer American novels.

The title of the fourth book in Van Wyck Brooks’s American literary history—The Times of Melville and Whitman (1947)—signifies the extent of Melville’s eminence a quarter of a century after the revival began. The following year, the new Literary History of the United States (1948), of which Thorp was an editor, included Melville among the handful of writers allotted long individual chapters. Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (Melville)[Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War] came to be acknowledged as among American literature’s finest war poems.

Another measure of the upswing in Melville’s reputation is the quantity of scholarly writing devoted to him. From the late 1920’s to 2005, the number of books and articles on Melville published annually swelled from an average of five to approximately one hundred. Few bookstores today fail to stock a selection of Melville titles, including, interestingly, Typee and Omoo, now considered very minor Melville works. Literature;Melville revival
Melville revival

Further Reading

  • Brooks, Van Wyck. The Times of Melville and Whitman. 1947. Reprint. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2005. Brooks is unusual among literary historians for his keen sense of place (his chapter “Melville in the Berkshires” is one example), his engaging narrative style, and his infectious enthusiasm for literary culture. Melville by no means dominates this substantial volume, but Brooks asserts that in Melville and Whitman, the United States “found its voices.”
  • Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Places Melville and his work within the context of his times through biographical material and also provides analysis of the important works. Includes illustrations.
  • Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951. Several decades after publication, this book remains one of the best all-around Melville biographies. Provides excellent insights not only into his life and thought but also into the reasons for Americans’ failure to appreciate properly one of the nation’s greatest authors until many years following his death.
  • Matthiessen, F. O. The American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. 1941. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. One of the earliest studies to examine Melville in relation to the sudden outpouring of great American literature in the mid-nineteenth century. Concentrates on five writers, relates Melville closely to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, and breaks new ground in investigating the Shakespearean influence on Melville.
  • Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography. 2 vols. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996-2002. Massive, highly detailed biography provides exhaustive exploration of Melville’s life. Includes illustrations, genealogical charts, and index.
  • _______. Reading Billy Budd. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1990. A close reading of the greatest discovery of the Melville revival. Examines the continuing liability of Weaver’s pioneering efforts; despite the availability of the subsequent, and superior, Hayford-Sealts edition of Billy Budd, the refusal by many critics to take full advantage of it has had the effect of perpetuating the errors of this leader in the revival.
  • _______, ed. The Recognition of Herman Melville. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967. A generous selection of Melville criticism often otherwise accessible only with difficulty. Divided into four chronological sections, of which the third, “The Melville Revival: 1917-32,” and the fourth, “Academic Recognition: 1938-1967,” constitute a particularly illuminating account of Melville’s remarkable resurgence. Preface aptly summarizes the movement.
  • Parker, Hershel, and Harrison Hayford, eds. Moby-Dick. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Presents the full text of Melville’s most famous novel as well as an unusually thorough summation, by scores of contributors, of the range of critical reaction to Melville up to and after the revival. As valuable for understanding the inevitable shifts in critical perspective as for understanding Melville.
  • Weaver, Raymond M. Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic. 1921. Reprint. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1968. Although out of date and misleading in its tendency to use details from Melville’s fiction as part of the biographical record, retains a place of honor as probably the single publication most responsible for the Melville revival.

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