Melville and Reinterpretation

MelvilleYesterday I went to a talk on Herman Melville’s sources at the Lansingburgh Historical Society in Upstate New York, given by Dr. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, a Melville scholar at the University of Connecticut. As we sat in the living room of the house Melville lived in as a young man, one floor down from where he had written his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, Dr. Bercaw Edwards gave us a sense of what source material Melville used in his work, including biographical and literary material, and to what extent he used them. Some works inspired him thematically, like Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton, yet other work he quoted from extensively, like various encyclopedias. Still others he used to inform his history and storylines, like travel narratives of Polynesia to fill in gaps in his South Pacific experience. Still others he used as nearly a sentence-by-sentence frame for his own creative work on the matter (as he did with Israel Potter and “Benito Cereno”). At one point, Dr. Bercaw Edwards paused and clarified her position on his usage: “I like to say that he borrowed this material.”

It raises an interesting point. Plagiarism laws were a lot more lenient back in the 19th century, so it would have been “Ok” to do what he did, I would think, in the eyes of the public. But the greater question is how we should view Melville’s work in light of knowing that he used other material in this way. I think if Melville were a lesser writer, and used these sources to substitute for original creative thought, there would be a different argument. But Melville, one of America’s greatest writers and essentially a modernist before there was such a thing, could be said to have been reinterpreting source material in the same way Warhol reinterpreted the Campbell Soup Can. He used Shakespeare in general, and King Lear specifically, to influence his creation of Ahab in Moby-Dick, but he didn’t lift Lear and plop him down upon the Pequod (all literature inspires all other literature, and there will never be such a thing as a truly original character). In regards to Melville using descriptions and stories of Polynesian life from contemporary travelogues to fill out the action of Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, it only becomes problematic if one insists that those novels are fully autobiographical; if they are supposed to be (which they’re not), then the assumption is that Melville is claiming experiences that are not his own, but someone else’s. But if they are just supposed to be novels (which they are), then there is no issue with him doing further research, like any other writer would, to get the location, history, and action correct. As for lifting text from encyclopedias, often he’s doing so to make a commentary on the text itself, as he does extensively in Moby-Dick, specifically when quoting scientific resources. It also add some verisimilitude to Ishmael’s research; he would have come across the same text. As for using already established texts as a frame for Israel Potter and “Benito Cereno,” I personally don’t know enough about Melville’s stories and the source texts, but it seems no different than filmmakers who want to reinterpret Shakespeare plays; the characters, the plot, the narrative framework, all belong to Shakespeare, but the setting, the words, the action, are reinterpretations from an author inspired by the original story wanting to put their unique touch on it.

All this to say that at first blush it may seem odd or confusing why Melville leaned so heavily on other works in his works, but such is the life of a writer, to extensively explore in order to be inspired. Also, since Melville employed elements of modernism in his writing, it can be said that he was exploring elements of post-modernism – pastiche, collage, imitation, interpretation, appropriation – in his writing process. Knowing how forward-thinking of a writer Melville was, these sources in his hands would not be passed off as his own, but be used to further his creations.




  1. Very interesting, what a great lecture/discussion to attend! I don’t think Melville could have done what he did without a lot of “borrowing” – there’s more in Moby Dick than could fit in any one brain.

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. Came across your post because I’m reading Typee right now, and blogging about it.

    I guess the main difference is in citation. When a filmmaker reinterprets Shakespeare, we all know that’s what is going on, because Shakespeare’s name is on the project. When Melville wholesale lifts passages from elsewhere and leads us to believe he wrote them, that feels different.

    Do you know of a source, online or otherwise, that lays out which passages of Typee are “borrowed”? I’d be really interested to see that. Thanks!


    • Hi Willie – thanks for your post! Dr. Edwards did talk a lot about sources for Melville’s early work, and while I haven’t read them, I would recommend Cannibal Old Me and Melville’s Sources, both by her. I haven’t read Typee yet, but I’m about to!


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