Herman Melville played no part in the war, either as a civilian or a soldier, but shortly after it ended, he wrote a book of poems devoted entirely to Civil War incidents or personalities. They were the work of a highly individual man whose life had followed an erratic course.
Born in New York City on Aug. 1, 1819, of Dutch and Scottish descent, he was the third of eight children. His mother was the former Maria Gansevoort; his father, Allan, a fur and felt importer who went bankrupt in 1830 and died two years later. The family then relocated to Albany, where Herman attended the Classic School.
Melville became incurably restless. Having been a bank clerk and a schoolteacher, he then signed on as cabin boy, sailing in 1839 aboard a vessel bound for Liverpool, England. The sea was to influence both his life and his artistic creativity.
Despite poor eyesight, he became a writer. His voyage to Liverpool inspired his novel “Redburn” (1849), which did well. His books seem either to have been highly successful or total failures.
In January 1841, he left Fairhaven, Mass., on the Acushnet, a whaler going to the South Seas, but he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands, where he spent some weeks with friendly cannibals. One hopes he confined himself to a vegetarian diet.
He was rescued by another whaler, the Lucy Ann out of Australia, but the ungrateful Melville took part in a mutiny and was dumped in Tahiti along with other troublemakers. His exploits and misdeeds inspired his novels “Typee” (1846) and “Omoo” (1847). In 1844, having worked his passage as a seaman aboard the ship United States, he finally came home.
Already earning good money from his books, he became a full-time writer and in 1847 married Elizabeth Shaw. After living initially in New York, they purchased Arrowhead Farm outside Pittsfield, Mass. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a near neighbor. The two men became good friends, and Hawthorne encouraged Melville to write “Moby Dick.” This strange but compelling novel appeared in 1851, at first meeting an unenthusiastic reception.
After a trip to Europe in 1856, Melville wrote “The Confidence Man” (1857), the last novel to be published in his lifetime. He toured as a lecturer before spending 35 years working for the New York Customs House. He had not entirely abandoned writing, however. “Clarel” (1876), “John Marr” (1888) and “Timoleon” (1891) were books of verse, but who turns to them now?
“Piazza Tales” (1856) was a collection of well-written short stories, and “Billy Budd” has been described as “a brilliant novelette.” Completed in April 1891, it was not published until 1924, when it was recognized as a superb tragedy of the sea. In 1950, the famous English composer Benjamin Britten transformed it into an acclaimed opera.
In 1866, Melville published “Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War,” quite unlike anything he had done previously. He claimed it had been inspired by the fall of Richmond.
“I seem in most of these verses,” he wrote, “to have but placed a harp in a window and noted the contrasted airs which wayward winds have played upon the strings.” Presumably that was a fanciful way of admitting that the war poems, of variable length and one very long indeed, differ greatly in mood. They reveal a lack of sympathy for the South and its Lost Cause.
There are 72 poems, all told, some of them in a narrative form best described as melodramatic. Few would regard them as great poetry. Republished in 2000, “Battle-Pieces” at least indicates its author’s personal feelings about the War Between the States, to him an inexcusable rebellion.
In “Stonewall Jackson,” the great Southern warrior is treated harshly: “Justly his fame we outlaw, so / We drop a tear on the bold Virginian’s bier, / Because no wreath we owe.” In “The March to the Sea,” Melville writes: “Fighting was but frolic / In that marching to the sea,” an interesting opinion with which few, if any, Georgians were likely to have agreed.
The longest poem is “The Scout Towards Aldie,” consisting of 114 verses of seven lines each. Its subject is a search for the elusive guerrilla leader John Singleton Mosby; in essence, it is a restrained hymn of hate. Mosby, whom Ulysses S. Grant had hoped to catch and hang, was never caught and fought until the war ended. He died in 1916. Ironically, the Gray Ghost of the Confederacy was to become a loyal supporter of Grant in times of peace.
Is it possible to sum up Melville as man and author? A restless individual who seemed to follow no constant star who, while still enjoying success as an author, chose steady employment of an entirely different kind. Something of a mystic, as “Moby Dick” makes abundantly plain. The writer of best-sellers and other novels that fell by the wayside. Creator of emotional but hardly outstanding verse. He knew personal tragedy, one son having committed suicide and another having died after a long illness.
Herman Melville, who once wrote: “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard” and must be considered something of an enigma, died in New York on Sept. 28, 1891, but though “Moby Dick” has to be reckoned one of the most remarkable sea stories ever written, his Civil War poetry probably should be dismissed as nothing more than a historical curiosity.
Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.