Melville, Herman

Tagged: Author

(1819-1891) US author whose first professional publication, "Fragments from a Writing Desk" (4-18 May 1839 Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser), is an exercise in Gothic grotesquerie. He is of course best known for such radically symbolic novels as The Whale (1851; vt Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale 1851); the great whale of this novel has served as an archetype for the more Metaphysical variety of sf Monster, his tormented and tormenting pursuer Captain Ahab as an almost demonic Antihero, and the whaling ship Pequod as an illuminated Ship of Fools. Melville's blending in Moby-Dick of rational explanation, romantic openness, and the inexplicable was later to become typical of sf, and like all his greater work has served as a model for Equipoisal ventures into the deeps between genres. The book's influence has normally been implicit, though it has been specifically homaged, as in Roger Zelazny's "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" (March 1965 F&SF); rather superficially in Philip José Farmer's Sequel by Other Hands; The Wind Whales of Ishmael (1971) and in Bruce Sterling's Involution Ocean (1977). Though Pierre; Or, the Ambiguities (1852) is not literally fantastic, the immersion of its protagonists in a Gothic, mythopoeic, horrifying New York leads to scenes of genuine Vastation (see Horror in SF); Pierre is one of the first novels of stature to have been (mostly) set in New York; for most nonfantastic predecessors to this early text, David S Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (1988) is useful as background.

In The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), Melville's violent conflict with the dictates (or concept) of a manipulative destiny may well have provided some sf writers with inspiration for contemporary sf tales of justified Paranoia; in the enigmatic confidence-man himself (see Mysterious Stranger), Melville compresses into one portrayal a multivalent interrogation of Identity whose implications for fiction would not be fully taken up until the next century; and the setting of the tale on a Mississippi riverboat unmistakably evokes, as did the Pequod, the Ship of Fools.

Of more direct sf interest is Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (1849 3vols), seemingly a thinly fictionalized narrative of his South Pacific journeys as a seaman, but easily understood in terms of the Fantastic Voyage: as the narrator and his proxies penetrate further and further into the mysterious Mardi Archipelago (see Archipelago; Island), germs of Utopia and Dystopia are encountered, and at least one Lost Race in the increasingly Metaphysical gloaming. On a smaller scale but with perhaps added intensity, "The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles" (March-May 1854 Putnam's Monthly Magazine) as by Salvator R Tammoor is a fantasticated depiction of the Galápagos Islands as a kind of hell; it was assembled in The Piazza Tales (coll 1856), along with some other tales that are reminiscent of the work of Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne; one of them, "The Bell-Tower" (August 1855 Putnam's Monthly), set in Renaissance Italy, describes the construction of a Machine-man whose function it will be to strike the hour on a large bell, but which in the event kills its maker. The story can be read as allegorical of mankind's hubris, and a comment on the implications of the new era of mechanical invention and science that Melville was beginning to witness. [JC/PN]

see also: History of SF; Robots.

Herman Melville

born New York: 1 August 1819

died New York: 28 September 1891

works (selected)


Library of America

  • Herman Melville, Vol 1 (New York: The Library of America, 1982) [omni: includes Typee, Omoo and Mardi: And a Voyage Thither: Library of America: hb/]
  • Herman Melville, Vol 2 (New York: The Library of America, 1983) [omni: includes Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick: Library of America: hb/]
  • Herman Melville, Vol 3 (New York: The Library of America, 1984) [omni: includes Pierre; Or, the Ambiguities, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, Billy Budd and other material: Library of America: hb/]

individual titles

about the author

The immense critical bibliography on Melville is not focused on his relevance to Fantastika; we list a partial exception:


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