Today we left Boston and headed west to the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, where Herman Melville lived from 1850-1863. It was here in Pittsfield that Melville wrote what many consider to be the greatest of American novels, Moby Dick. Melville’s home-Arrowhead, as it is called-which functions as a Melville museum, was our sole stop for the day, but it was worth the detour from our Great Awakening theme.
Herman Melville’s writing career was unusual. His first book, Typee, was a semi-autobiographical tale of his whaling adventures in the South Pacific. Typee was an immediate popular success and brought Melville overnight fame. His second book, Omoo, picked up where Typee left off, but was still written as popular fiction.
In writing Moby Dick, Melville aimed higher. He wanted to produce great literature, rather than mere popular fiction, and so he wrote a book with thick with symbolism, many layers, and a message. Many believe Moby Dick to be the greatest piece of American literature ever produced. There is some disagreement as to the symbolism and the main theme of the book, but I side with those who believe Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for the white whale is a symbol of man’s unholy pursuit of God. Moby Dick is packed with theological symbolism, starting with the name of the characters and carried through to the last act of the captivating story.
However Moby Dick was a commercial failure when it flopped, Melville was devastated.
Two years later, in 1853, Melville wrote Bartleby the Scrivener, a story about a very competent clerk, who does excellent work but refuses to do all his boss asks him to do, instead responding politely, “I prefer not to.” It was Melville’s way of saying to the public that he would not write what the public thought it wanted just because they were willing to pay for it. He wanted to give them something deeper; he wanted to do something more than merely entertain them.
In 1863, Melville sold his house in Pittsfield and moved back to New York where he spent the last twenty-eight years of his life in relative obscurity, working as a customs house inspector. Then, in 1924 the manuscript of Billy Budd, which had been discovered amongst Melville’s unpublished works was published, and a new generation began looking at Melville’s writings again. It was then people began to recognize Moby Dick for the masterpiece it is.
In the kingdom of God, writers of fiction fulfill their calling when they entertain their readers. When they can also instruct their readers in Truth through theme, story, and symbolism, they perform an even higher calling. Melville sought the higher calling and to do so he sacrificed fame in his lifetime, but in doing so he produced one of the greatest books of all time.
The evangelists of the Great Awakening faced a similar dilemma. They experienced not only the opprobrium and even physical violence from those outside the Church but opposition from ministers within the Church, who criticized them for fostering “enthusiasm” and heresy. But Edwards, Whitefield, the Wesleys, Tennant, Brainerd, and others held their ground. They took the hard road, recognizing the right thing and the hard thing are often the same thing. They fulfilled the Apostle Paul’s command to the Corinthians to “act like men” and stand firm for Truth. I Corinthians 16:13. In short, when pressured within and without the church to depart from the Truth, they responded, “I prefer not to.” GS