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In the six months Melville was stationed on the gun-deck of this floating hell, he was forced to watch 163 of his shipmates flogged, often by mercilessly sadistic officers. On the positive side, the United States had a well-stocked library, and two or three members of the crew told stories and wrote poetry, skills that made them pleasant companions for Melville when they had time to relax and spin yarns or sing chanteys during their watches. In White-Jacket (1850), his bitterly satirical account of his six months’ cruise in the Navy, he immortalized seagoing bards like Jack Chase, foreman of the maintop, who recited whole cantos of Portugal’s epic poem, the Lusiad.

Soon after the Civil War broke out in 1861, Melville began reading The Rebellion Record, a compendium of war dispatches followed by dozens of pages of conventional patriotic verse. Soon, he was writing his own poetry, some of it in response to the news, and some to memorialize the dead relatives of his friends. In 1862, badly shaken up in a carriage accident while driving with his friend Joseph E. A. Smith, editor of the Berkshire Evening Eagle, he sold Arrowhead to his brother Allan and moved his family to a brownstone at 104 East 26th Street in Manhattan.

Like his Quaker captains, he was a man of ‘‘greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart,’’ who ‘‘by the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters, and beneath constellations never seen here at the north,’’ was ‘‘led to think untraditionally and independently’’ (MD 73). A voracious reader, he traveled in books and in his imagination as well as in ships and carriages and trains and wrote more than one ‘‘mighty book’’ (MD 497) whose ‘‘bold and nervous lofty language’’ (MD 73) takes us through ‘‘the great flood-gates of the wonder-world’’ (MD 7).

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