Herman Melville: In New Bedford, Massachusetts, the USA and the World

Melville in New Bedford

On January 3, 1841, a cold, blustery day, Melville sailed from New Bedford onboard the ship Acushnet of Fairhaven, bound on a whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Five years later, he transformed the events of this journey into a series of books beginning with Typee (1846) and culminating in Moby-Dick (1851), often called America’s greatest novel. New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world at the time Melville embarked, is vividly represented in Moby-Dick. Some sites described in the novel can be visited today, including the Seamen’s Bethel, where Ishmael and his companion, the remarkable Polynesian harpooner Queequegsat sat before the prow-shaped pulpit; the handsome mansions of Quaker ship owners, such as the Rotch-Jones-Duff House; and the environs of the African-American church into which Ishmael stumbled as he was searching for lodging. In 1858 Melville returned to New Bedford to present a lecture on “Statues in Rome.” With his sister Kate living in New Bedford through the Civil War years with her children and husband, John Hoadley, the city lived on in Melville’s mind long after his own visits there.


Melville in Massachusetts

Melville had roots in Massachusetts, his  paternal grandfather having taken part in the Boston Tea Party. Melville was born in New York and spent his early years there, however he moved to the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in 1850, where he bought “Arrowhead,” a 160-acre farm, which gave him a “sea-feeling” in the country. During his years in the Berkshires, he worked the farm and wrote Moby-Dick, three additional novels, and a number of memorable short stories. In his study on the second floor of Arrowhead, from which he could see the whale-shaped contour of Mt. Greylock on the horizon, his mind also began to turn toward poetry.

At this time Melville also developed a deep friendship with the noted American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived near Lenox. He also frequently accompanied his wife Lizzie when she returned for visits to her childhood home in Boston, enjoying the opportunity to visit the city’s libraries and to converse with his father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. When he returned to live in New York in 1863, he kept Arrowhead in the family by selling it to his brother, Allan. 


Melville in the United States and the World

Among his many experiences in life, Melville was a mariner. He sailed in the American merchant and naval service, and the whaling service in both American and Australian ships. With the bulk of his literary success bound up with seafaring, when, in Moby-Dick he proclaims, “the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete,” he firmly anchors his mariner’s philosophy.  His seafaring experiences provided the catalysts for his early novels, including Moby-Dick. Although his later novels, short stories, and poems are usually set on land and in cities, the ocean, its creatures, its power and its influence continued to inspire his writing. Through extensive travel and reading, Melville developed an appreciation for the world’s many cultures, as is apparent in all of his writings from his first work, Typee (1846), set on the Marquesean island of Nuku Hiva, to his last, Billy Budd, Sailor (1891), set on a British man-of-war. With his imagination framed in a global context, Melville’s concerns were nonetheless quintessentially American. It is no accident that the “great American novel” is set on a whaler. Given his proud lineage, he never ceased to be concerned about the unfulfilled promises of America’s democratic experiment. With his life spanning the nineteenth century (1819-1891), Melville was attuned to injustices caused by industrial, economic, political, and environmental developments. His writings repeatedly testify to his sympathies for oppressed peoples everywhere.

As a young novelist and as a mature poet, Melville used language in exploratory and often astonishing ways. His innovative uses of language were his vehicle in exploring universal concepts of faith and truth, art and beauty. That Melville’s writings continue to appeal to countless contemporary readers in the United States and around the world may be attributed to his religious, philosophical, and aesthetic search as well as to the range of social, political, and environmental issues he addresses.

Attention to Melville’s writings is diversely expressed in international popular culture through editorials, advertisements, and cartoons as well as through the visual arts, fiction, music, and films. Moby-Dick has been translated into almost all the world’s written languages. Today’s global and popular interest in Melville reflects not only his own appreciation for multiple cultures; it also reflects his commitment to continued learning and searching.

Melville’s voyage, then, was never complete. The Melville Society Cultural Project (MSCP) seeks to continue that voyage for an ever-growing audience.


For more information about Melville’s New Bedford, click here.

For more information about Melville’s Moby-Dick, click here.

Last modified: January 5, 2017