“My Yale College and My Harvard”: The Writing of Herman Melville’s Sea Works

A WHALE-SHIP WAS MY YALE COLLEGE and my Harvard,” Herman Melville writes in Moby-Dick (ch. 24). Of course, it wasn’t only Melville’s time aboard whaleships and at sea that led to his writing of Moby-Dick: he spent many hours deeply engaged in reading. Nonetheless, his time at sea was very important.

More than any other American author, Herman Melville used the sea as setting and concept in creating great literature. His books are far more than adventure stories. In his works, Melville struggles with human interactions in a diverse and complex world, the boundaries of knowledge, and the search for truth. Melville’s success began with his first book, Typee (1846), and continued with Omoo (1847). Although financial success eluded Melville after these first two books, their reception was a major influence on his continuing to write on maritime subjects. His time at sea inspired his next four books: Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), White-Jacket (1850), and Moby-Dick (1851). Only Pierre (1852) is a complete departure from the sea: he returns with “The Encantadas” (1854), the John Paul Jones section of Israel Potter (1854–1855), and “Benito Cereno” (1855). Moreover, The Confidence-Man (1857) is set on a steamboat, and many of Melville’s Civil War poems in Battle-Pieces (1866) concern naval warfare. Late in his life, however, he published Clarel (1876), an 18,000-line poem of a pilgrimage through the Holy Land with little maritime association, and Timoleon (1891), a small collection of nonmaritime poems. Nonetheless, his other late collection of poems, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), and Billy Budd, Sailor (1924), the short novel he was working on at the time of his death, exhibit a powerful maritime influence.

Melville’s first sea voyage began at age nineteen, when he signed on to the full-rigged merchant vessel St.Lawrence (1833), Oliver P. Brown, master. Melville sailed from New York to Liverpool and back to New York: the passage to England took twenty-seven days and the passage home forty-nine days. Melville’s fourth book, Redburn: His First Voyage, subtitled Being the Sailor-boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service, describes in a fictional manner what Melville encountered as he learned the skills of a sailor.

Melville’s next major trip was in 1840 when he traveled to Illinois by boat with his friend Eli James
Murdock Fly. Their three-day journey by canal boat from Albany to Buffalo may have provided the description of the Erie Canal found in chapter 54 of Moby-Dick, “The Town-Ho’s Story.” Melville and Fly crossed Lake Erie by steamboat and then, from Detroit, booked passage on a Lake Huron and Lake Michigan steamboat to Chicago. From there, they crossed the prairie to Galena, Illinois, where Melville’s uncle, Thomas Melville Jr., had a farm. It is unknown whether Melville actually went up the Mississippi River; however, his time on inland waterways decidedly influenced his tenth book, The Confidence-Man, a bleak work of despair set on board the Fidèle, a Mississippi River steamboat. The month and route of Melville’s return to New York are unknown.

With his family in financial trouble, Melville embarked from New Bedford, Massachusetts, on January 3, 1841, for the most influential voyage of his life. He joined the crew of the whaleship Acushnet (1840), Valentine Pease Jr., master, on its maiden voyage, sailing from Fairhaven, Massachusetts. His time on the Acushnet is the basis for his account of a whaling voyage in his sixth book, Moby-Dick. But the vessel Melville creates in Moby-Dick, the Pequod, is a fantastical Nantucket ship, with belaying pins of sperm-whale teeth and a tiller made from the lower jaw of a sperm whale. Melville, at age 21, shipped as a green hand on the Acushnet—the same rank he had held on the St. Lawrence. However, before his whaling years were finished, Melville had worked his way up to bow oarsman, the position held by Ishmael in Moby-Dick, and then possibly to boatsteerer (harpooneer).

In November 1841 the Acushnet spent six days at anchor off Chatham Island in the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos, the location of Melville’s ten sketches entitled “The Encantadas” (1854), were called enchanted because the baffling currents in nearby waters were, Melville writes, “so strong and irregular as to change a vessel’s course against the helm, though sailing at the rate of four or five miles the hour” (sketch first, “Encantadas”). The Acushnet returned to the waters of the Galapagos for the month of January 1842, but the six days at Chatham Island in 1841 were the longest continuous period during which Melville may have had the possibility of going ashore. Surprisingly, Chatham Island is referred to only twice — and then in passing — in “The Encantadas.”

When the Acushnet reached Nukahiva in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842, Melville and his shipmate Richard Tobias Greene, whom he called “Toby,” deserted and made their way to the interior. Melville hurt his leg en route and was forced to remain behind while Toby escaped, hoping to secure medicines for Melville. However, Toby never returned, and Melville learned only years later that he had effected his escape on another Fairhaven whaleship, the London Packet.

The embellished story of his adventures on Nukahiva is told in Melville’s first book, Typee. In reality he spent only one month on the island (July 9 – August 9, 1842), but he lengthens the time to four months in his book.

Melville escaped from Nukahiva on the Australian whaleship Lucy Ann (1819), Henry Ventom, master. Now signed as an able seaman, he joined a crew torn by dissent. The Lucy Ann was barque-rigged and quite small, only eighty-seven-feet long, with a sickly captain and a first mate, James German, who was prone to drink. In addition, the vessel was inadequately officered: it carried four whaleboats, but had only one mate, two illiterate boatsteerers, and a newly shipped boatsteerer who soon turned against the captain. A whaleship carrying four whaleboats would normally carry four mates (or boatheaders) and four boatsteerers (or harpooneers). The captain soon became very ill, and German headed for Tahiti, where the captain was put ashore. In an effort to prevent desertion yet staying close to the captain, the Lucy Ann left port and sailed back and forth off the harbor of Papeete, Tahiti; there, ten men refused duty. Those ten men were held on the French frigate La Reine Blanche and later they were taken to a Tahitian “calaboose” (jail). Melville joined the mutineers in their confinement ashore where during his time as a prisoner Melville was under a doctor’s care and his leg was treated. Roughly three weeks later, in October 1842, Melville escaped to the neighboring island of Eimeo (now Moorea), Society Islands. Melville’s passage on the Lucy Ann, the mutiny and his imprisonment are treated in his second book, Omoo.

Melville wandered the island of Eimeo until November 1842, when he joined the Nantucket whaleship Charles and Henry (1832), John B. Coleman Jr., master. Melville evidently signed on as boatsteerer and spent five months aboard the Charles and Henry, much less than the claim of “the author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer” which he made to his English publisher, Richard Bentley (letter of June 27, 1850). From his time on the Charles and Henry, Melville drew the beginning of his third book, Mardi.

Discharged at Lahaina, Maui, Melville traveled to Oahu aboard the Star, Captain Burroughs, master. During Melville’s stay in Honolulu, the Acushnet came into port and Valentine Pease Jr., on June 2, 1843, filed an affidavit taking notice of Melville’s desertion eleven months earlier, a federal offense. Six weeks later, Melville enlisted as an ordinary seaman on the American naval frigate United States (1797), James Armstrong, master. The frigate sailed under the pennant of Commodore Thomas Catesby Jones. Melville was one of approximately 480 men on board.

Melville spent fourteen months on the United States, and in that time he witnessed 163 floggings. His absolute hatred of this form of corporal punishment resounds throughout his fifth book, White-Jacket, and in his final work, Billy Budd, Sailor. Melville’s long period at sea ended on October 3, 1844, when the United States arrived at Boston. He traveled on the ocean several more times, but never again as a seaman. In 1860, he sailed around Cape Horn aboard the clipper ship Meteor (1852) with his younger brother, Thomas, as captain. Homesick and depressed, however, Melville took a steamer from San Francisco to Panama, crossed the isthmus, and then returned to New York on the steamer North Star.

Although unknown to him at the time, an event occurred while Melville was at sea on the Charles and Henry that would deeply affect his life. His first cousin, Guert Gansevoort, was first lieutenant on the United States training brig Somers (1842) under the command of Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie. Three men on the vessel, including the son of the Secretary of War, were hanged for mutiny on December 1, 1842. Mackenzie was court-martialed after questions arose as to whether a mutiny had actually been planned. Some claimed that Mackenzie should have waited until the Somers reached St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, a mere two days away, to try the men in a formal military court. Mackenzie was acquitted, but questions remain to this day. The many similarities between the Somers incident and Billy Budd, Sailor include a suspected mutiny; a “drumhead court,” or officers council, controlled by the commanding officer; punishment by hanging; and unresolved questions about the commander’s decision. Melville refers directly to the Somers in Billy Budd, Sailor, suggesting that he was still troubled almost fifty years later by an incident so closely tied to his family.

In his writings, Melville relied not only on his own experience but also very heavily on his reading. “I have swam through libraries,” he writes in Moby-Dick (ch. 32). Melville consumed books and was consumed by them. As he read, he argued with them, laughed and cried over them, and became fiercely angry with them. The books he owned are filled with notes and jottings done with slashing pen marks and furious periods. Melville’s reading, both literary and general, inspired his writing. An alchemist of words, Melville transformed his often mundane sources. For example, the information in the “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick (ch. 32) is borrowed nearly verbatim from the “Whales” entry in volume 27 of The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1843). As Melville infused the dry information with his own humor and philosophical ponderings, he transformed it into literature of the highest order.

Both his time at sea and his reading influenced Melville’s works, but he might never have achieved greatness had he not met first Evert Duyckinck, a man at the center of the New York literary world, and then Nathaniel Hawthorne. When Melville first met him, Duyckinck was the editor of Typee, and although the two men were markedly different, they became friends; Melville had access to Duyckinck’s library, one of the greatest private libraries in the country. Duyckinck wrote to his brother George: “Melville . . . has borrowed Sir Thomas Browne of me and says finely of the speculations of the Religio Medici that Browne is a kind of ‘crack’d Archangel.’ Was ever anything of this sort said before by a sailor?” (letter of March 18, 1848). In August of 1850, Duyckinck went to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to visit Melville, and it was during that visit that a party of ten, seven of whom were literary men, climbed Monument Mountain. Here, for the first time, Melville met Hawthorne. Melville’s new book, which he had previously told Duyckinck was “mostly done,” took another year to complete. That was Moby-Dick, and Melville’s long, philosophical conversations with Hawthorne reshaped the book, which he subsequently dedicated to Hawthorne. The letter Hawthorne wrote on first reading Moby-Dick has been lost, but not Melville’s response to it. Melville calls it “your joy-giving and exultation-breeding letter” and goes on to say: “A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book” (letter of November [17?], 1851).

Unfortunately, few others understood, and Moby-Dick was never reprinted in Melville’s lifetime. Melville spent the next forty years living in obscurity until his death in 1891. He wrote only two more full-length works after Moby-Dick, and worked for nineteen years as a customs inspector in New York City. It was a life of aching sadness and depression. When he died, he was yet again revising the manuscript he had entitled Billy Budd, Sailor. The redemption of his reputation began with the publication of Raymond Weaver’s biography, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, in 1921, and has continued to this day.


Mary K. Bercaw Edwards is a Visiting Scholar at Connecticut College. She teaches Literature of the Sea for the Williams College–Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program. Her first book, Melville’s Sources, was published in 1987 and her second, Melville’s Whaling Years, which she is coediting with Thomas Farel Heffernan, will be published next spring (2002). Dr. Bercaw Edwards sailed around the world in a 38-foot ketch with her family when she was 16 years old. She then taught Literature of the Sea and Maritime History for years on board 65-foot and 95-foot schooners for both Long Island University and Northeastern University, before coming to Mystic Seaport. In addition to teaching, she is foreman of the outdoor demonstration squad at Mystic Seaport and spends her days working aloft on the whaleship Charles W. Morgan and the full-rigged training ship Joseph Conrad.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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