Closer Readings Commentary

Celebrating Herman Melville

“Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken . . . It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting . . . If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne

The first week of August marks two anniversaries related to Herman Melville. The first is the August 1st birthday of the master writer. Each year to observe the occasion, Mystic Seaport in Connecticut holds its annual Moby-Dick marathon reading.

This collective reading is accomplished in just over twenty-four hours, proceeding through the dead of night, when dedicated listeners may forgo sleep and remain up for the full event!  Here is the link to the 32nd annual “Moby-Dick” Marathon at Mystic Seaport.

This annual ritual takes place aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaling vessel in the world, which is docked at the Seaport and available for visitors to tour. The Morgan underwent a full restoration, and in summer 2014, it embarked on a revival voyage up and down the New England seaboard to several ports of call. This sailing expedition was known as the “38th Voyage,” enlisting 80 participants from many walks of life in a seminal public-history project sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The second red letter date this first week in August signifies a watershed moment in literary history. On August 5, 1850, atop a crag of pale quartzite rock known as Monument Mountain in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, Melville met fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne for the first time. The occasion was a group picnic and as the weather turned, the partygoers took cover from a storm, giving the two accomplished writers a chance to get to know each other. At the time of this meeting, Melville had just turned 31 and Hawthorne was 46.

The connection they formed would have a lasting impact on the younger Melville, and, by extension, on the character of American literature. For after that fateful meeting and subsequent exchanges between the two authors, Melville expanded his masterwork, Moby-Dick into the dark, portentous epic we have today.

First-hand accounts of how these two 19th-century American men of letters met and formed a friendship can be found in their correspondence in The Life and Works of Herman Melville. Their lively exchanges make for fascinating reading, including one in which Melville discloses Moby-Dick’s secret motto to his confidant! 

EDSITEment-reviewed Hawthorne in Salem discusses the friendship between Hawthorne and Melville. According to David Kesterton of the University of Texas, though the writers had little in common on the surface, there were many reasons a “remarkable kinship” was initially fostered between the two. Kesterton draws a portrait of their relationship, which turned out to be short-lived, as they drifted apart in 1852.

EDSITEment offers several robust resources for teaching about Herman Melville’s life and works:

Curriculum unit Melville’s Moby-Dick: Shifts in Narrative Voice and Literary Genres serves to introduce advanced high school students to several unique features of the novel without demanding as much class time as would reading the entire text. The three lessons comprise a series of close readings of selected chapters from the novel.

  • Lesson 1. Narrative Voice has students explore Melville’s development of his first-person narrator, Ishmael, through a close reading of chapter 1. Students will consider Ishmael’s positioning of the Fates in the novel and the extent to which this positioning makes a narrative shift necessary to understanding the perspective of other characters.
  • Lesson 2. Dramatic Perspective has students perform a close reading of one genre, dramatic script, in chapter 37, to examine Melville’s characterizations of Ahab as a foil to Ishmael. Students then analyze the shifting perspectives that this chapter provokes within the novel, and delve deeply into Melville’s complex protagonists. Finally, this lesson addresses the impact this drastic shift has on the reader.
  • Lesson 3. Literary Genres guides students through Melville’s seamless integration of several literary genres—sermon, scientific writing, drama, and hymn—and moves into an analytical discussion of Moby-Dick as a masterwork that goes above and beyond the appeal of its fictional genre.

Student resource Launchpad “Bartleby, the Scrivener” serves as a guide for students to navigate through Herman Melville’s short story. It is augmented with video discussions based on Leon and Amy Kass’s What So Proudly We Hail curriculum series’ conversations, Session 10: Compassion: Toward Neighbors, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" to have students consider the essential question: “What do we owe our neighbors and fellow citizens?” (EDSITEment provides a general introduction to the Kasses’ series The Meaning of America: A New Approach to Civic Education.)

Asian Pacific Heritage Month features the story of a shipwrecked boy, Manjiro, brought to America by a whale ship. Manjiro was the first Japanese national to immigrate to the continental United States. He would go on to lead an amazing life and prove influential in ending Japan’s centuries of isolation from the West. In this feature, students may follow an interactive map of Manjiro’s voyage around the Pacific with a supplemental narrative timeline aligning his adventures with those of Herman Melville.