Herman Melville's Literary Pipes

Portrait of Herman Melville by Artur Lopes

Moby-Dick; (1851), the most famous tale of whaling and the high seas ever written, was a commercial disaster. Its author, Herman Melville, made about $1,200 from the 3,200 total copies sold in his lifetime. It was a critical and popular failure, and readers didn't know what to make of its complex themes and erratic point of view. Like Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Emily Dickinson, and other tragic artists, Melville was ahead of his time, misunderstood, and unappreciated. His greatest novel was unrecognized for its genius until long after his death.

He did receive some critical acclaim early in his career but was unable to maintain his popularity. His first novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), both south sea adventure romances, were lighter and more accessible to readers than was Moby-Dick. The story of Ahab and the white whale is much denser and is not what his contemporary readers expected. Its abrupt changes in style included lapsing into technical writing regarding whales and whaling equipment, confusingly ribald sexual themes that were dropped from the original British printing, and difficult, complex sentence structure that could be disorienting. Readers searched for some universal revelation of truth within the thematic complexities and, without a modern framework from which to assess the work, they failed.

It wasn't until the 1920s that a revival of Melville's literature elevated his reputation. William Faulkner at that time famously said that he wished he had written Moby-Dick. Our more modern literary sensibilities did not exist in the 1850s when the novel was published, and it wasn't until 100 years after the author's birth that the complexity and ambiguity of his prose were appreciated.

It wasn't until the 1920s that a revival of Melville's literature elevated his reputation

All of his books were out of print by 1876. Today, Melville is known as one of the great American authors, but he died in relative obscurity in 1891 after a 20-year career as a customs inspector, having abandoned writing prose, except for Billy Budd, which was left unfinished at the end of his life. The need to provide for his family had rendered the pursuit of a literary career impractical.

Melville and Pipe Smoking

It's little surprise that Melville was a dedicated pipe smoker. Great authors of his era and later have found that pipe smoking and writing complement and enhance each other, some claiming that without tobacco, they could not write. We need look only at such authors as Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S Lewis, P.G Wodehouse, J. B. Priestley, or Carl Sandburg to confirm that many talented writers have found enormous benefit in pipe smoking.

Herman Melville also enjoyed his pipes, though there is no real information about the specifics. His pipes are often mentioned in his biographies, but we don't know what tobacco he smoked or what brands of pipes he enjoyed. Still, it's interesting to see the confirmation. In Herman Melville (1950), by Newton Arvin, for example, Melville is described as purchasing tobacco at a hotel that had the same name as his older brother Gansvoort, who was named for their mother's maiden name: "When, as an obscure man of fifty, Melville himself one day, out of curiosity, dropped in at the Gansevoort Hotel in New York, on the corner of West Street and Little West Twelfth, bought a package of tobacco, and inquired what the word Gansevoort meant..." (21)

Herman Melville: A Biography (1951), by Leon Howard, describes a magazine article that Melville penned as humorous and accessible.

Despite the wholly imaginary "plot" in his sketch and his exaggerated representation of his age and his henpecked condition, there was a certain amount of reality in his picture of himself with his pipe in his mouth, "indolently weaving" his "vapors" and getting the reputation of being "sour and unsocial" while a houseful of women, "like all the rest of the world," ignored his "philosophical jabber" and tried to manage his affairs. (224)

In another example of pipe smoking from Howard's biography, Melville "sat on his northern piazza in clear weather, smoking his pipe, reading Shakespeare, and gazing off at the distant mountains." (227)

Howard again mentions pipe smoking, this time in terms of the recall of Melville's granddaughter: "Much of his time must have been spent as his eldest granddaughter remembered him, sitting on the narrow, iron-trimmed porch which ran across the back of the house, smoking his pipe with his cane at hand and looking down into the garden." (331)

Interestingly, Melville seems to have thought of his pipe smoking as a spiritual pursuit. "But the belief that he had wrestled long and valiantly was a major consolation to a man who professed to find the peace of God in a pipe of tobacco, who anticipated an early entrance into a personal Nirvana, and who yet had a normal longing for some sort of claim to immortality." (Howard, 335)

Melville seems to have thought of his pipe smoking as a spiritual pursuit

Melville gave lectures for a couple of years, and while traveling he kept note of his expenses, including those for laundry, tobacco, and an occasional cigar. Prices were much different in the 1800s, and his notes are interesting, as reproduced in Hershel Parker's Herman Melville: A Biography, Vol 2, 1851-1891 (2002): "Melville kept meticulous records of his expenditures on his tour, so that we have his expenses for laundry and tobacco and the occasional comforting cigar..." (373)

Possibly the most expensive pipe Melville ever invested in was a gift for his Uncle Herman. We don't know exactly what it was, but Parker's biography reports that Melville "arrived carrying a substantial present for Uncle Herman, a pipe and tobacco that cost him $3.25." (368)

Parker also wrote about one tobacco purchase made by Melville, who recorded it despite its modest cost: "He may have recorded entries a little out of order, but it looks as if he stayed over in Buffalo, running up a large (lodgings?) bill of $4.37, which included 'Ale,' while he renewed his tobacco supply for $.06." (369)

Pipes were a more exciting subject in Melville's fiction than in his real life. His books mention them in greater detail than his records indicated for his own pipes. They have more thematic and symbolic meaning in his fiction than anything mentioned in his personal letters or biographies.

Pipes in Melville's Writings

While Melville nearly abandoned prose writing in his later life, he did pursue poetry and wrote some lengthy and detailed verse. One short poem, however, is about pipe smoking:

"Pipe Song" by Herman Melville

Care is all stuff:--
Puff! Puff!
To puff is enough:--
Puff! Puff
More musky than snuff,
And warm is a puff:--
Puff! Puff
Here we sit mid our puffs,
Like old lords in their ruffs,
Snug as bears in their muffs:--
Puff! Puff
Then puff, puff, puff,
For care is all stuff,
Puffed off in a puff--
Puff! Puff!

It isn't what one might call a good poem. It's uninspired and uninteresting, which is in contrast to his much more impressive treatment of pipes in his novels. Typee (1846), for example, is the most famous and popular of his books during his lifetime and made him known as "the man who lived among the cannibals." It is based on Melville's actual experiences. He worked aboard whaling vessels for five years, and Typee is the story of his adventures after jumping ship at the island of Nuku Hiva in the South Pacific in 1842, where he lived among the natives until taking a berth on another passing whaler.

Arrowhead Farmhouse, the residence of writer Herman Melville

Typee and Pipes

There were pipes and tobacco on the island and their use was common after meals:

So much for the first course; several other dishes followed it, some of which were positively delicious. We concluded our banquet by tossing off the contents of two more young cocoanuts, after which we regaled ourselves with the soothing fumes of tobacco, inhaled from a quaintly carved pipe which passed round the circle. (77-78)

Pipes were also part of the native uniform, so to speak:

The loins of the warrior were girt about with heavy folds of a dark-colored tappa, hanging before and behind in clusters of braided tassels, while anklets and bracelets of curling human hair completed his unique costume. In his right hand he grasped a beautifully carved paddle-spear, nearly fifteen feet in length, made of the bright koar-wood, one end sharply pointed, and the other flattened like an oar-blade. Hanging obliquely from his girdle by a loop of sinnate, was a richly decorated pipe; the slender reed forming its stem was colored with a red pigment, and round it, as well as the idol-bowl, fluttered little streamers of the thinnest tappa. (pg 83)

Typee by Herman Melville

Melville's stay on the island was comfortable. He was even provided a servant who saw to his smoking needs:

Having perfected his arrangements, he would get my pipe, and, lighting it, would hand it to me. Often he was obliged to strike a light for the occasion, and as the mode he adopted was entirely different from what I had ever seen or heard of before I will describe it.

A straight, dry, and partly decayed stick of the Habiscus, about six feet in length, and half as many inches in diameter, with a smaller bit of wood not more than a foot long, and scarcely an inch wide, is as invariably to be met with in every house in Typee as a box of lucifer matches in the corner of a kitchen cupboard at home. The islander, placing the larger stick obliquely against some object, with one end elevated at an angle of forty-five degrees, mounts astride of it like an urchin about to gallop off upon a cane, and then grasping the smaller one firmly in both hands, he rubs its pointed end slowly up and down the extent of a few inches on the principal stick, until at last he makes a narrow groove in the wood, with an abrupt termination at the point furthest from him, where all the dusty particles which the friction creates are accumulated in a little heap.

At first Kory-Kory goes to work quite leisurely, but gradually quickens his pace, and waxing warm in the employment, drives the stick furiously along the smoking channel, plying his hands to and fro with amazing rapidity, the perspiration starting from every pore. As he approaches the climax of his effort, he pants and gasps for breath, and his eyes almost start from their sockets with the violence of his exertions. This is the critical stage of the operation; all his previous labors are vain if he cannot sustain the rapidity of the movement until the reluctant spark is produced. Suddenly he stops, becomes perfectly motionless. His hands still retain their hold of the smaller stick, which is pressed convulsively against the further end of the channel among the fine powder there accumulated, as if he had just pierced through and through some little viper that was wriggling and struggling to escape from his clutches. The next moment a delicate wreath of smoke curls spirally into the air, the heap of dusty particles glows with fire, and Kory-Kory, almost breathless, dismounts from his steed. (127-28)

It is typical of Melville to go into great detail such as in his above description of fire-generating technique. Later, in Moby-Dick, the author would demonstrate similar descriptive analysis for various activities, such as his account of the preparation of harpoons, or his more mundane explication of chores like the maintenance of rigging. It's a strategy that provides realism and texture, demonstrating that Melville's experience as a sailor is legitimate and offering the reader a commensurate reality.

In another episode that concentrates on smoking, Melville describes in almost erotic detail the pipe technique of a female companion, Fayaway:

The first day after Fayaway's emancipation, I had a delightful little party on the lake—the damsel, Kory-Kory, and myself. My zealous body-servant brought from the house a calabash of poee-poee, half a dozen young cocoa-nuts—stripped of their husks —three pipes, as many yams, and me on his back a part of the way. Something of a load; but Kory-Kory was a very strong man for his size, and by no means brittle in the spine. We had a very pleasant day; my trusty valet plied the paddle and swept us gently along the margin of the water, beneath the shades of the overhanging thickets. Fayaway and I reclined in the stern of the canoe, the gentle nymph occasionally placing her pipe to her lip, and exhaling the mild fumes of the tobacco, to which her rosy breath added a fresh perfume. Strange as it may seem, there is nothing in which a young and beautiful female appears to more advantage than in the act of smoking. How captivating is a Peruvian lady, swinging in her gaily-woven hammock of grass, extended between two orange trees, and inhaling the fragrance of a choice cigarro! But Fayaway, holding in her delicately-formed olive hand the long yellow reed of her pipe, with its quaintly carved bowl, and every few moments languishingly giving forth light wreaths of vapor from her mouth and nostrils, looked still more engaging. (154)

Pipes continue to carry importance in another episode:

After the morning meal was concluded, pipes were lighted; and among them my own especial pipe, a present from the noble Mehevi. The islanders, who only smoke a whiff or two at a time, and at long intervals, and who keep their pipes going from hand to hand continually, regarded my systematic smoking of four or five pipefuls of tobacco in succession, as something quite wonderful. When two or three pipes had circulated freely, the company gradually broke up. (176)

The islanders ... regarded my systematic smoking of four or five pipefuls of tobacco in succession, as something quite wonderful

There is a sacredness to pipe smoking in Typee that Melville emphasizes with an anthropological, investigative approach, as demonstrated by his description of a pipe given him by the king:

Frequently in walking through the groves I observed bread-fruit and cocoa-nut trees, with a wreath of leaves twined in a peculiar fashion about their trunks. This was the mark of the taboo. The trees themselves, their fruit, and even the shadows they cast upon the ground, were consecrated by its presence. In the same way a pipe, which the king had bestowed upon me, was rendered sacred in the eyes of the natives, none of whom could I ever prevail upon to smoke from it. The bowl was encircled by a woven band of grass, somewhat resembling those Turks' heads occasionally worked in the handles of our whip-stalks. (253)

Pipes in Moby-Dick

Illustration of the final chase of Moby-Dick

Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas was Melville's sequel to Typee, and it too is heavily laden with the mention of pipes — 18 times, to be exact. However, in Omoo, smoking does not take on the same anthropologic importance and is mainly mentioned as a minor descriptor for various characters. It was with Moby-Dick that Melville elevated pipes to thematic and character-development prominence.

Three characters in the novel are especially defined by their pipes: Queequeg, Stubb, and Ahab. Queequeg, a Polynesia harpooner, displays a dual nature, both civilized and what was termed in the time of Melville as "savage." Ishmael, the narrator, does not know what to make of Queequeg at first. Covered in tattooing, he's initially interpreted as a cannibal, but Ishmael gradually learns that Queequeg is more civilized than anyone he has previously met. A person's soul is of more value than their religion or physical appearance.

Queequeg smokes a tomahawk pipe, which like its owner, possesses a dual nature, as both a weapon and a smoking instrument, in effect symbolizing friendship and peace as well as the dangers inherent in cross-cultural divides. Queequeg is a heroic character, courageous and generous, saving the lives of two men during the action of the novel as well as saving Ishmael's life indirectly at the end of the novel when Queequeg's coffin/sea chest pops up in the ocean as a lifebuoy.

Another pipe smoker is Stubb, the second mate, whose "short, black little pipe [is] one of the regular features of his face. You would almost as soon have expected him to turn out of his bunk without his nose as without his pipe." That pipe is a form of relaxation, but also a constant element of his existence. He maintains "a whole row of pipes there ready loaded, stuck in a rack" and when preparing for sleep, he would smoke each in turn and reload them to be ready for the next time they were smoked. It sounds like Stubb may have been a fan of the delayed gratification technique, in which tobacco is improved by pre-lighting and waiting, though the text indicates only that he loaded his pipes in advance.

"You would almost as soon have expected him to turn out of his bunk without his nose as without his pipe."

Stubb is never without his pipe, and when dressing each day, he would "instead of putting his legs into his trousers, he put his pipe into his mouth." Again, a dual nature is advanced in the symbolism of Stubb's pipe, which acts as a deterrent for disease, as it was thought to do in the 19th century, as well as emotionally distancing him from the misery of a difficult environment.

"instead of putting his legs into his trousers, he put his pipe into his mouth"

Captain Ahab, in contrast to the other characters, does not maintain his pipe smoking throughout the novel. In chapter 30, he grows disgusted because his pursuit of vengeance against the white whale is not consistent with the peaceful activity of pipe smoking. Ahab finds no pleasure in his pipe and throws it into the sea because it distracts him from his one true purpose: to find and kill Moby-Dick. He discards the one object in his life that could bring him peace and satisfaction, choosing instead to concentrate on his vengeance. It's a highly symbolic gesture and central to the character.

The white whale, Moby-Dick himself, is often compared to and metaphorically represents a pipe. His appearance is equated with that of a pipe, the stem of a pipe similar to the tail of the whale, and while smoke billows from the bowl of a pipe, misty vapors emerge from the whale's blow hole. A chapter titled "Stubb Kills a Whale" emphasizes the connection.

The small boat used to pursue the whale is called the "smokers boat," and the similarities between that boat and the whale are emphasized. The whale itself is described as a "portly burgher smoking his pipe," all while Stubb is smoking his own pipe as the whale is described similarly, "jet after jet of white smoke was agonizingly shot from the spiracle of the whale, and vehement puff after puff from the mouth of the excited headsman."

After the whale is killed and Stubb's pipe is empty, he says, "Yes; both pipes smoked out!" referring to the finish of each. "Withdrawing his [pipe] from his mouth, Stubb scattered the dead ashes over the water," signifying a further connection between whale and pipe. In fact, the novel flatly states at one point that the "whale and pipe are one."

Tobacco, pipe smoking, and the sailors who toiled on the seas have been inextricably linked in our public consciousness. Sailors smoked, if not so commonly now, certainly during the more romantic era of pirates and whaling. Herman Melville did much to promote that concept. He was a sailor, a whaler, and a writer of immense talent whose most prolific performances were tales of the sea. It's unfortunate that Melville would never know of his enormous influence and eventual popularity. His own tragedy is not unlike that of the whales that were hunted to the point of near extinction. Neither would know that the future would be more encouraging.


  • Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville
  • Typee (1846) by Herman Melville
  • Omoo (1847) by Herman Melville
  • Herman Melville (1950) by Newton Arvin
  • Herman Melville: A Biography (1951) by Leon Howard
  • Herman Melville: A Biography, Vol 2, 1851-1891 (2002) by Hershel Parker
  • Comments

      • D. on February 4, 2022
      • I really enjoyed this article. The Artur Lopez portrait depicting the white whale (metaphorical pipe) and the white clay tavern pipe criss-crossed like crossbones with both tails/stems up and heads/bowls down with the billowing smoke connecting them at their holes/bowls is a great representation of the two being one. Amazing work of the artist. Melville's farmhouse looks like a paradise to me, the picture transported me there and it screams peace and quiet (except for the sounds of a rooster or any other farm animals that might be around, which wouldn't bother me). Sometimes I have to partake in the delayed gratification technique due to life's circumstances, and though I wouldn't say that I'm a fan, that I do it all the time, I still enjoy the smoke just as much...sometimes more. I've let a pipe sit for more than 3 days after the charing light, gone back to it, and still enjoyed the smoking experience. I digress. Now I will need to catch up on some long overdue reading of H. Melville. Thank you for this look and insight into, a fellow pipe smoker, Herman Melville's life for which I knew very little about.

      • D. on February 4, 2022
      • *Artur Lopes

      • Professor Fate on February 6, 2022
      • I really enjoyed this article and your writing style.

      • Stan R. on February 6, 2022
      • Great detailed article. If visiting NYC (Manhattan) there is a bronze plaque commemorating Melville’s home at 104 East 26th Street. Although the building was long ago torn down, directly across the street is a similar brownstone that captures what his domicile resembled.

      • Mike Hutchinson on February 6, 2022
      • The picture of Arrowhead reminds me that it still exists in Pittsfield MA. It's a fascinating place to visit, especially his writing room with its view of Mt. Greylock which inspired some of his writings. Worth a visit, for sure!

      • Joe M on February 6, 2022
      • What a concise yet comprehensive overview of Melville and his writing. Pipes aside, this may be compelling enough to get me to actually read Moby Dick instead of pretending, like I did so in school (I’m relieved to know my English teacher won’t read this). I didn’t know any of my classmates then who read it cover to cover, and now I wonder if it’s even appropriate to read until you have a few more miles on your engine to understand some of these complexities. Another great article Mr. Stanion.

      • Joseph Kirkland on February 6, 2022
      • Wow! Chuck. Thank you for bringing this article on one of our great novels.The period of 1849-1855 was one of the most fertile and productive periods of great American Literature. We had Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Thoreau’s Walden, Moby Dick, of course, and the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass just to mention a few.Keep up the great work.

      • Jon Seward on February 6, 2022
      • Thank you so much for this article. The care and detail to properly associate the story with the art of pipe smoking was truly extraordinary. Thank you, again!

      • WG on February 6, 2022
      • Whaling was and is a dispicable activity. Nowhere does Melville say this. Therefore, I can't respect him.

      • Suffering Succotash on February 6, 2022
      • "You're despicable..." -Sylvester. It was a different time back then and I would guess, assume, or wager that people were far less educated on marine life and their importance in the ecosystem. Killing whales to the point of extinction is cruel, ignorant, and irresponsible. Do have respect for writers who kill friendly E.T.s in their stories, because that's also despicable and fiction. I still enjoyed this Sunday read.

      • Suffering Succotash on February 6, 2022
      • "You're despicable..." -Sylvester. It was a different time back then and I would guess, assume, or wager that people were far less educated on marine life and their importance in the ecosystem. Killing whales to the point of extinction is cruel, ignorant, and irresponsible. Do YOU have respect for writers who kill friendly E.T.s in their stories, because that's also despicable and fiction. I still enjoyed this Sunday read.

      • Zach on February 6, 2022
      • Chuck, A very well done article here. Thank you for writing these.

      • Pipey on February 6, 2022
      • “the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.”

      • Astrocomical on February 6, 2022
      • It's shame he was not recognized before he died. His book is in the 100 Greatest Classics by Easton Press. I know, I have one.

      • DAVE SOMMER on February 6, 2022
      • Thank you once again my friend. That was nice relaxing Sunday afternoon read. I as well have a pipe going when I am sitting down to write something. Doesn't everybody? Looking forward to the March article. PUFF PUFF!!!! Dave

      • Ron on February 6, 2022
      • Nice piece. But I would defend the poem as an appropriately inelegant expression, by an old man, of too much caring. It moved me to a haiku version: Care is all hard stuff. We sit here with weed and pipe, Puff stuff is enough.

      • Everything Zen on February 6, 2022
      • I was also inspired by H. Melville's "Pipe Song" to write a haiku. 'When life is too much, traffic sucks and bills pile up, to puff is enough.' -me

      • Reader and smoker on February 6, 2022
      • We need to hear more about Fayaway!

      • Everything Zen...I don't think so on February 6, 2022
      • 'When life is too much, your job sucks and bills pile up, to puff is enough.' -🎍🗾⛩️🕉️ Om...

      • Scott on February 6, 2022
      • One of Melville's gifts was his ability to express meaning through the creation of his own words. To invent new words that the reader understands is the mark of master writer. Definitely a good author to read while smoking a pipe.

      • SO on February 7, 2022
      • Thank you for a very wonderful and interesting article.

      • Jack koonce on February 10, 2022
      • Another great article- thank you

      • Mark on February 11, 2022
      • Really wonderful article. I’m a great fan of Melville and this was a lovely read. I am indebted to you for the pleasure it brought me, and thank you for honoring his memory.

      • VICTOR C on February 18, 2022
      • really good article, I've only read Moby Dick, I found TAIPI (Typee) in a store of old books, now I'll read it with different eyes. Saludos de Chile!!

      • S.R. Tarnmoor on November 29, 2022
      • Also love Melville's ode to tobacco -- "Herba Santa". The first stanza:After long wars when comes releaseNot olive wands proclaiming peaceCan import dearer shareThan stems of Herba Santa hazedIn autumn’s Indian air.Of moods they breathe that care disarm,They pledge us lenitive and calm.

    Join the conversation:

    This will not be shared with anyone

    challenge image
    Enter the circled word below: