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Melville, Herman

Entry updated 21 May 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(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 3vols; vt Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale 1851 2vols); the great whale of this novel has long 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 sublimity, 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 water margins where genres touch. The echoes of Ray Bradbury's screenplay for the film Moby Dick (1956) directed by John Huston (1906-1987) were detectable throughout his career, climaxing in the Space Opera novella Leviathan '99 (2007). Though the book's influence has normally been implicit, it has been specifically homaged, as in Roger Zelazny's "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" (March 1965 F&SF); less seriously in Philip José Farmer's Sequel by Other Hands, The Wind Whales of Ishmael (1971); in Bruce Sterling's Involution Ocean (1977); in China Miéville's RailSea (2012); in Jeffrey Ford's Ahab's Return; Or, the Last Voyage (2018), where Captain Ahab, who has survived, attempts to face down Ishmael, who has written Moby-Dick; and in Brian Evenson's "Leg" (in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell coll 2021), where a sentient leg drives its owner through "the currents of space" in search of something that will almost certainly sink his Starship.

Preceding the supernatural intensity that haunts Moby-Dick, Melville's first novel of anything like direct sf interest is Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (1849 3vols). This long tale, seemingly a thinly fictionalized narrative of Melville's South Pacific journeys as a seaman through the Mardi Archipelago, is at the same time readily understood as a Fantastic Voyage, one whose intensity increases with each landing as the narrator and his proxies penetrate further and further into the string of Islands making up the Mardi group; several Utopian and Dystopian societies are encountered, and at least one Lost Race in the increasingly Metaphysical gloaming. Pierre; Or, the Ambiguities (1852) is not literally fantastic, but 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.

Some of Melville's short fiction, almost all of which follows Pierre, utilizes artifices typical of early Fantastika. "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street" (November-December 1853 Putnam's Magazine) masterfully evokes a sense that some Doppelganger in the shape of a suddenly manifest Mysterious Stranger has exposed and fixated the daylight world, to whose every demand he responds, violating the contract of civilization: "I would prefer not to." "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 (again see Archipelago) as a kind of hell, with the protagonist compulsively tracing the map-like rockface shells of ancient tortoises for their vatic content (see Ruins and Futurity). "The Happy Failure: A Story of the River Hudson" (1 July 1854 Harper's Monthly Magazine) features a Great Hydraulic-Hydrostatic Apparatus, though the device is, like many nineteenth century American fictions that resemble sf, a hoax. "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (April 1855 Harper's Monthly Magazine) comprises two conjoined sketches; the first of these, "The Tartarus of Maids", is a prescient vision of an assembly-line sweatshop factory which gives birth to its product like a female in bondage (the sexual [see Sex] imagery is explicit).

Of these shorter works, the tale most sf-like and reminiscent of that of Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne is "The Bell-Tower" (August 1855 Putnam's Monthly); set in Renaissance Italy, it describes the construction of a Machine-man, an Automaton (see also Robots) whose function it will be to strike the hour on a large bell set into a conspicuously phallic tower, 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, and which he excoriates in his last novel (see below). This tale, along with "Bartleby", and "The Encantadas", was assembled with other adventurous but nonfantastic stories as The Piazza Tales (coll 1856). Melville's poetry, almost all written after his prose, was variously but only partially assembled during his lifetime; the Collected Poems of Herman Melville (coll 1947), late in the game, fills in a serious gap; the more recent Complete Poems (coll 2019) is convenient and justifies its title.

In what may now seem the climax of his life's work (but whose disastrous reception on publication cut short his professional career as a novelist) The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), Melville's last full-length tale – whose main successor in American literature may be John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor (1960; rev 1967) – embarks upon a violent proto-modernist demolition of the concept (and presumptive dictates) of any destiny graspable by humans; it is a premonitory and disruptive anti-novel that may well have provided some sf writers with inspiration for contemporary sf tales of justified Paranoia and of Identity undermined. During the course of April Fool's Day 1857, a Shapeshifting Mysterious Stranger boards the Mississippi steamer Fidèle and in eight successive disguises dupes and disorients an aliquot sample of antebellum American society. He is profoundly theatrical (like Melville in person), is never caught, and his impersonations go essentially undetected (see Godgame; a Secret Master), though the reader is obliquely warned that the surface story will be transgressed against, with the words "stranger", "mysterious" and "impostor" appearing in the first page of the tale. The Club-Story-like tonality marking his imposition of various personae upon his dupes is intensified when, in the darker second half of the tale, the stranger begins literally to tell stories he claims are true. But "truth" is antic. The steamer Fidèle unmistakably evokes, as did the wind-driven Pequod, the topos of the Ship of Fools set upon a no-exit course deathwards, as  adumbrated early on by one of the impostor's eventual victims: "You fools," he cries inflamedly to his fellow passengers, whom he fails to arouse, "you flock of fools, under this captain of fools, in this ship of fools."

But though the tale may be seen as a malign Parody of the Fantastic Voyage, the journey here is inwards, for the vast and intricate Fidèle is clearly bigger inside than out [for Arabian Nightmare, Edifice and Little, Big see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] and grows in the telling. No one is actually seen to disembark from the impostor's cardsharp ferry: the steamer's course may be identical to that taken in the first half of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which is set at almost the same historical moment, but the victims of The Confidence-Man are shut off from the Archipelago of the passing world, which is to say they learn nothing. The final sentence of the tale – "Something further may follow of this Masquerade." – is a parodic Slingshot Ending with no surcease in view, no escape from prison. [JC]

see also: History of SF.

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 all previously uncollected tales: 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 few partial exceptions below.


previous versions of this entry

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