The Myth of Herman-Henry Melville

by | Jun 27, 2019

We love hero stories, its true.
Sometimes, though, we also love failure stories a little too much.

You know the one.

The now-famous author of ‘Moby Dick’, Herman Melville, was so obscure that even the newspaper published the wrong name in his obituary. They wrote ‘Henry’ instead of Herman.

Or, so the fable goes.

And I have to admit, when I first read it, I had a small smudge of relish in my heart.
That embarrassing response was me justifying my sometimes-sense of failure.

I felt that, heck, if Herman ‘Henry’ Melville was a great writer and no one new, then maybe I, too, who no one really knows and who is certainly not yet known for his great work (as a writer, entrepreneur, and, yes, visionary – at least if you ask me, but don’t ask my neighbor); maybe I, too, can take heart that I am a great something-or-other like Melville.

The feeling that I am already among the greats somehow lets me off the hook.
I am relieved.

The feeling that I am not where I want to be is acceptable because, heck, even Melville wasn’t.
The uneasiness in me lifts.

The feeling that I am not where I want to be perhaps is the very evidence that I am great.
The sticky shadow of required work rising behind me gives way to sunshine.

Commence sitting easily back in my chair. (Some may call it slumping.)
Commence smirking at the world’s foolishness for not widely accepting me. (Some may call it justifying mediocrity.)

Except that the fable was not true.

Skim the history and you’ll see actual clippings of Herman Melville’s obituary. No mention of this ‘Henry’ fellow. No forgotten Herman.

In fact, if you search ‘Herman Melville obituary’, you’ll see the normal obituary of a normal Herman man. And you’ll see a painting of a normal Herman man. And where Henry will let you off the hook, Herman is looking down from his perch in the painting asking you why you are not just out there doing the work and chasing your own creative white whale.

Henry will let you off the hook. Herman will ask why you aren’t chasing the creative white whale.

Perhaps instead of reading failure myths and relishing them too much we should let them drive us to engage the work we avoid. The very things I avoid because of that damned Melville are, in truth, the very things that will get me there.