Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
On Christmas Day, 1840, a young man of twenty-one signed aboard a newly built whaling vessel registered in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. As the Acushnet slipped its moorings on the third of January, 1841 and fetched Buzzard’s Bay, Herman Melville was able to look aft and watch New Bedford fading from view, along with his torment of an overbearing mother, the self-inflicted death of his father, and a lifetime of parental favoritism to his older brother.
Melville soon found life on the Acushnet to be another sort of torment under the sadistic Captain Pease. After 18 months at sea, he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands, looking to enjoy life with the native islanders for an idyllic spell. His shore leave lasted until August of 1842 when he signed on to the Lucy Ann, a whaler which proved to possess a particularly disgruntled crew. The ship arrived in Tahiti six weeks later and, when the crew threatened mutiny, Herman and ten sympathetic souls were off-loaded in leg irons and imprisoned on shore.
Fortunately, the island prison proved “free and easy”, allowing him to come and go nearly at will, and in November Melville secured a berth on the Charles and Henry, a Nantucket whaler bound for Hawaii. Five months later, Melville was a free man in Honolulu where he found employment setting up pins in a bowling alley and then as a clerk for Montgomery’s.
Returning again to the sea, he signed aboard the U.S.S. United States, the flagship of the Pacific Fleet, as an able-bodied seaman. The ship sailed back to the Marquesas and Tahiti, then heading for South America. Calls were made at Lima, Peru and Valparaiso, Chile, before rounding Cape Horn for Rio de Janeiro.
After 14 months the flagship arrived in Boston in October 1844. Herman Melville was discharged with the first dollars in his pocket he had seen in four years. He would never go back to sea again as a working sailor.
He returned repeatedly, however, through his novels. His first three tales, Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Mardi (1849) were all set in the South Sea Islands. Then followed his epic quest, Moby Dick (1851). Even at his death forty years later in 1891, Herman Melville was working on another novel of the sea. Billy Budd, which, after extensive editing, was published thirty-three years later in 1924.