"Comparing Two Giants of Nautical Literature"
Ernest Hemingway once said “modern literature began with
“Huckleberry Finn” but E.L. Doctorow argued that it was “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville “that swallowed civilization whole”. Melville (1819-91) was born in New York City the same year Walt Whitman was born. Hemingway (1899-1961) was born in Oak Park, Chicago, Illinois.
Both men had an affinity for the sea. In Melville’s case, it was inbred. His father was a successful merchant and Melville’s youth was spent haunting the docks and staring at the great sailing ships that docked along the East River in Manhattan, then, as now, one of America’s most important ports. When his father died and left the family financially strapped it was natural for Melville to ship aboard a merchant ship as a regular deck hand and then switch to the whaler, Acushnet for higher pay. Eventually, all his experiences enabled him to become a writer of note even before he ventured to tackle his masterpiece, “Moby Dick”.
His first nautical books were “Typee” and “Omoo” which were basically travel logs of the South Seas. They were both successful. These were followed by “Redburn”, exposing the brutality amongst sailors in Liverpool, and “White Jacket” which details the life of a young sailor at sea.
By 1850 he was already working on “Moby Dick”.
Having actually crewed on the Acushnet he knew the adventure, toughness and fear that every whaler feels in his veins. He was aware of the sinking of the whaler, Essex in 1820 by an attacking sperm whale called “Mocha Joe” that took it to the bottom of the sea in 1820. The few survivors reverted to cannibalism to survive. The whale took its revenge and inspired Melville to craft a tale much larger than he experienced or read about in the telling of the Essex tragedy.
It took him a year and a half to complete his masterpiece. When published in 1851, it did not receive the reviews and sales he expected which sent him into a depression. After that, he concentrated mainly on poetry, enjoying limited success. He eventually took a job at the New York Customs House to support his family. Melville passed away in 1891 not knowing that in the twentieth century and beyond, his works and in particular “Moby Dick” would be recognized as a literary masterpiece. At his death he was working on one more seafaring tale, “Billy Budd”. It was finally published in 1924 and is recognized today as a work exposing the cruelties of impressing sailors and the difficulties of life in general as a sailor on 19th century vessels.
Melville’s “Moby Dick” comes in at #1 as the most read nautical book of all time. If he only knew that his great book would influence other great sea writers like Zane Grey, John Steinbeck, Sebastian Jung, Joseph Conrad, Jack London and of course, Ernest Hemingway.
In Hemingway’s case, his love for the sea was acquired having been brought up in the Midwest. He fell in love with the sea while living in Key West and Cuba where he spent his time writing and developing sport fishing techniques on his boat Pilar.
Hemingway’s nautical masterpiece came later in his career after having lived in Paris and written novels about his experiences in WWI and the Spanish Civil War in novels such as ‘‘For Whom The Bells Toll”(By the way - They toll for you!) and “A Farwell to Arms’’. In1929 he switched things up a bit with his first nautical novel, “To Have and Have Not”. It is a semi-autobiographical story about his boat Pilar, life in Havana, Cuban revolutionaries, and illegal cargoes (Booze, no doubt) that was run at night between Cuba and Key West.
Twenty three years later, in 1952, he followed up with “The Old Man and the Sea’’.
Paradoxically, it was a giant seafaring tale about an old Cuban fisherman who refuses to be bested by a giant marlin, while fishing far off the shores of Cuba. It was told in only 127 pages as compared to “Moby Dick”, which weighs in at a mammoth 624 pages, proving “Size does not matter”! Though both works are different at first glance due to their size proportion, they have strong similarities in being epic stories of man against both the sea and it’s more formidable inhabitants, whales and giant marlin.
It is interesting to note that ”The Old Man And The Sea’’ comes in at #2 in popular seafaring literature. It was Hemingway’s last major success. He did write one more nautical novel that was semi-autobiographical, and unfinished – “Islands in the Stream’’. It is a tale about an artist/sports fisherman, living and working on a Caribbean island. I read this book years ago and was not impressed. It probably deserves a re-read.
If you have an affinity for all things nautical, these authors and their works deserve a read. They are mirrors into the past by giving the reader insight into the ways of the sea that both Melville and Hemingway have made part of our common past by bridging the past with the present.
C. 2020 Article and Illustrations by Mark C. Nuccio
All rights reserved.
Contact the Author- mark@ designedge.net.