August 1st is the horses’ birthday, but it also belongs to the whales, because Herman Melville was born this day in 1819.

437_Herman_Melville_photographIn January 1841, aged 21, Melville left America on the whaler Acushnet to spend four wild years roving about the Pacific, soaking up many an experience that led to his best writing. As he said, ‘A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard’. In July 1842 he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands and took up with a Polynesian tribe, the Typee. Although much feared as warlike cannibals, they treated him kindly.

Melville stayed a month with the Typee before setting off on another whaler, the chaotic Lucy Ann from Sydney, a ship so badly run the sailors mutinied and were jailed in Tahiti. This actually turned out well; soon freed, Melville enjoyed a stint of beachcombing and island hopping until joining a third whale ship, the Charles & Henry from Nantucket, on which he worked as a harpooner.

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This six-month cruise ended in Hawaii, where he worked three months ashore, carefully avoiding the Acushnet when it showed up (the captain still wanted his head on a stick for deserting). Eventually he got himself home by joining the U.S. Navy. In October 1844 Melville was discharged in Boston after a year or so with the frigate United States, and soon began writing, his muse aflame with all those maritime adventures.

His first novel, the best-selling Typee (1846), fictionalises his Marquesas sojourn. Its sequel Omoo (1847) covers the Lucy Ann mutiny and his beachcombing (Omoo is a Typee word for wanderer). His third, the highly strange Mardi (1848), is a first tilt at something deeper, a rambling oceanic odyssey awash with allegory and symbolism.

Mardi sold poorly, alas, prompting his return to semi-autobiography. Redburn (1849) was inspired by his first voyage, as a cabin boy in 1839, to Liverpool; this one is Melville at his most Dickensian. White-Jacket (1850) follows his naval career and was highly influential in ending flogging in the U.S. Navy.

Next came his second, and artistically triumphant, dive into mystical rhapsody – his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851), a book broiled in ‘hell-fire’, he once said. Of his subsequent works, all are worth exploring but I particularly recommend Bartleby (1853), one of the greatest, most subtly shattering short stories ever written and, unusually for Melville, set firmly on very dry land indeed – a lawyer’s office.

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