Melville was not financially successful as a writer, having earned just over $10,000 for his writing during his lifetime. After his success with travelogues based on voyages to the South Seas and stories based on misadventures in the merchant marine and navy, Melville's popularity declined dramatically. By 1876, all of his books were out of print. In the later years of his life and during the years after his death, he was recognized, if at all, as a minor figure in American literature.
Melville revival and Melville studies
The "Melville Revival" of the late 1910s and 1920s brought about a reassessment of his work. The starting point was Carl Van Doren's 1917 article in a standard history of American literature and his encouragement to Raymond Weaver, who wrote the first full-length biography, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic (1921). Weaver edited and published the unfinished manuscript, Billy Budd, which he discovered among papers shown to him by Melville's granddaughter, in a new collected edition of Melville's works. Other works that helped fan the flames were Carl Van Doren's The American Novel (1921), D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), Carl Van Vechten's essay in The Double Dealer (1922), and Lewis Mumford's biography, Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision (1929).
Starting in the mid-1930s, the Yale University scholar Stanley Williams supervised more than a dozen dissertations on Melville which were eventually published as books. Where the first wave of Melville scholars focused on psychology, his students were prominent in establishing Melville Studies as an academic field concerned with texts and manuscripts, tracing Melville's influences and borrowings (even plagiarism), and exploring archives and local publications. Jay Leyda, known for his work in film, spent more than a decade gathering documents and records for the day by day Melville Log (1951). Led by Leyda, the second phase of the Melville Revival emphasized research and tended to feel that Weaver, Murray, and Mumford favored Freudian interpretations which read Melville's fiction too literally as autobiography, exaggerated Melville’s suffering in the family, mistakenly inferred a homosexual attachment to Hawthorne, and saw a tragic withdrawal after the cold critical reception for his last prose works rather than a turn to poetry as a new and satisfying form. Other post-war studies, however, continued the broad imaginative and interpretive style. Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael (1947) presented Ahab as a Shakespearean character, and Newton Arvin's critical biography, Herman Melville won the nonfiction National Book Award.
In 1951 Billy Budd was adapted as an award-winning play on Broadway, and premiered as an opera by Benjamin Britten, with a libretto on which the author E. M. Forster collaborated. In 1962 Peter Ustinov wrote, directed and produced a film based on the stage version, starring the young Terence Stamp and for which he took the role of Captain Vere. All these works brought more attention to Melville.
In the 1960s, Northwestern University Press, in alliance with the Newberry Library and the Modern Language Association, launched a project to edit and published reliable critical texts of Melville's complete works, including unpublished poems, journals, and correspondence. The aim of the editors was to present a text "as close as possible to the author's intention as surviving evidence permits". The volumes have extensive appendices, including textual variants from each of the editions published in Melville's lifetime, an historical note on the publishing history and critical reception, and related documents. In many cases, it was not possible to establish a "definitive text," but the edition supplies all evidence available at the time. Since the texts were prepared with financial support from the United States Department of Education, no royalties are charged, and they have been widely reprinted.
The Melville Society
In 1945, The Melville Society was founded, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the study of Melville's life and works. Between 1969 and 2003 it published 125 issues of Melville Society Extracts, which are now freely available on the society's website. Since 1999 it publishes Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, currently three issues a year, published by Johns Hopkins university Press.
Melville did not publish poetry until late in life and his reputation as a poet was not high until late in the 20th century.
Melville, says recent literary critic Lawrence Buell, “is justly said to be nineteenth-century America’s leading poet after Whitman and Dickinson, yet his poetry remains largely unread even by many Melvillians.” True, Buell concedes, even more than most Victorian poets, Melville turned to poetry as an “instrument of meditation rather than for the sake of melody or linguistic play.” It is also true that he turned from fiction to poetry late in life. Yet he wrote twice as much poetry as Dickinson and probably as many lines as Whitman, and he wrote distinguished poetry for a quarter of a century, twice as long as his career publishing prose narratives. The three novels of the 1850s which Melville worked on most seriously to present his philosophical explorations, Moby-Dick, Pierre, and The Confidence Man, seem to make the step to philosophical poetry a natural one rather than simply a consequence of commercial failure.
In 2000 the Melville scholar Elizabeth Renker wrote "a sea change in the reception of the poems is incipient". Some critics now place him as the first modernist poet in the United States; others assert that his work more strongly suggests what today would be a postmodern view. Henry Chapin wrote in an introduction to John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), a collection of Melville's late poetry, "Melville's loveable freshness of personality is everywhere in evidence, in the voice of a true poet". The poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren was a leading champion of Melville as a great American poet. Warren issued a selection of Melville's poetry prefaced by an admiring critical essay. The poetry critic Helen Vendler remarked of Clarel : "What it cost Melville to write this poem makes us pause, reading it. Alone, it is enough to win him, as a poet, what he called 'the belated funeral flower of fame'".
Gender studies revisionism
Although not the primary focus of Melville scholarship, there has been an emerging interest in the role of gender and sexuality in some of his writings. Some critics, particularly those interested in gender studies, have explored the male-dominant social structures in Melville's fiction. For example, Alvin Sandberg claimed that the short story "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" offers "an exploration of impotency, a portrayal of a man retreating to an all-male childhood to avoid confrontation with sexual manhood," from which the narrator engages in "congenial" digressions in heterogeneity. In line with this view, Warren Rosenberg argues the homosocial "Paradise of Bachelors" is shown to be "superficial and sterile".
David Harley Serlin observes in the second half of Melville's diptych, "The Tartarus of Maids," the narrator gives voice to the oppressed women he observes:
As other scholars have noted, the "slave" image here has two clear connotations. One describes the exploitation of the women's physical labor, and the other describes the exploitation of the women's reproductive organs. Of course, as models of women's oppression, the two are clearly intertwined.
In the end he says that the narrator is never fully able to come to terms with the contrasting masculine and feminine modalities.
Issues of sexuality have been observed in other works as well. Rosenberg notes Taji, in Mardi, and the protagonist in Pierre "think they are saving young 'maidens in distress' (Yillah and Isabel) out of the purest of reasons but both are also conscious of a lurking sexual motive". When Taji kills the old priest holding Yillah captive, he says,
[R]emorse smote me hard; and like lightning I asked myself whether the death deed I had done was sprung of virtuous motive, the rescuing of a captive from thrall, or whether beneath the pretense I had engaged in this fatal affray for some other selfish purpose, the companionship of a beautiful maid.
In Pierre, the motive of the protagonist's sacrifice for Isabel is admitted: "womanly beauty and not womanly ugliness invited him to champion the right". Rosenberg argues,
This awareness of a double motive haunts both books and ultimately destroys their protagonists who would not fully acknowledge the dark underside of their idealism. The epistemological quest and the transcendental quest for love and belief are consequently sullied by the erotic.
Rosenberg says that Melville fully explores the theme of sexuality in his major epic poem, Clarel. When the narrator is separated from Ruth, with whom he has fallen in love, he is free to explore other sexual (and religious) possibilities before deciding at the end of the poem to participate in the ritualistic order marriage represents. In the course of the poem, "he considers every form of sexual orientation – celibacy, homosexuality, hedonism, and heterosexuality – raising the same kinds of questions as when he considers Islam or Democracy".
Some passages and sections of Melville's works demonstrate his willingness to address all forms of sexuality, including the homoerotic, in his works. Commonly noted examples from Moby-Dick are the "marriage bed" episode involving Ishmael and Queequeg, which is interpreted as male bonding; and the "Squeeze of the Hand" chapter, describing the camaraderie of sailors' extracting spermaceti from a dead whale. Rosenberg notes that critics say that "Ahab's pursuit of the whale, which they suggest can be associated with the feminine in its shape, mystery, and in its naturalness, represents the ultimate fusion of the epistemological and sexual quest." In addition, he notes that Billy Budd's physical attractiveness is described in quasi-feminine terms: "As the Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd's position aboard the seventy-four was something analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the highborn dames of the court."
Law and literature
In recent years, Billy Budd has become a central text in the field of legal scholarship known as law and literature. In the novel, Billy, a handsome and popular young sailor is impressed from the merchant vessel Rights of Man to serve aboard H.M.S. Bellipotent in the late 1790s, during the war between Revolutionary France and Great Britain. He excites the enmity and hatred of the ship's master-at-arms, John Claggart. Claggart accuses Billy of phony charges of mutiny and other crimes, and the Captain, the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, brings them together for an informal inquiry. At this encounter, Billy strikes Claggart in frustration, as his stammer prevents him from speaking. The blow catches Claggart squarely on the forehead and, after a gasp or two, the master-at-arms dies.
Vere immediately convenes a court-martial, at which, after serving as sole witness and as Billy's de facto counsel, Vere urges the court to convict and sentence Billy to death. The trial is recounted in chapter 21, the longest chapter in the book. It has become the focus of scholarly controversy; was Captain Vere a good man trapped by bad law, or did he deliberately distort and misrepresent the applicable law to condemn Billy to death?