Herman Melville Biography

Melville’s Early Life

Herman Melville (1819–1891), American author, was born in New York City on the 1st of August 1819, the son of a commission merchant and importer of French dry goods who lived more extravagantly than his pocketbook permitted by borrowing from his father and his widowed mother-in-law. Melville and his brothers were educated at the New York Male High School. After Melville’s father died in 1832, his uncle secured for him a position as a clerk at the new York State Bank. He was twelve years-old.

This Herman Melville biography will introduce you to the fascinating author of Moby Dick.

 

In 1834, Melville’s older brother, Gansevoort, hired him to run his cap and fur store. In 1835, Melville resumed his education while still running his brother’s store. Financial problems in 1837 had Melville’s mother move the family to a small farm he managed briefly until he took a position for a semester as a schoolteacher in Massachusetts. After his brief stint as a schoolteacher, Melville returned to live with his mother, and his first known published essay appeared.

Sea Voyage Experiences As Writing Material

In 1839, at the age of 18, Melville shipped as a cabin-boy aboard the merchant ship St. Lawrence, thus being enabled to make his first visit to England. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) draws on his experiences in this journey. In January 1841, at 22, Melville sailed for a long whaling cruise to the Bahamas, Cape Horn, the South Pacific, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru. After a year-and-a-half he deserted his ship at the Marquesas Islands, on account of the cruelty of the captain; was captured by cannibals on the island of Nukahiva, and detained, without hardship, four months.

Melville was rescued by the crew of an Australian vessel, which he joined. He was discharged in the Hawaiian Islands in May 1843 where he worked several jobs before joining the US Navy, which landed him at Boston in October 1844. Melville draws on his Navy experience in his fifth book, White Jacket (1850). His first book, Typee (1845) is loosely based on his Nukahiva experience and quickly became a bestseller; his experience on the Australian vessel provided material for Omoo (1847), the sequel to Typee. The success of both books quickly gave Melville a reputation as a writer and an adventurer.

Mid- and Later-Life

Melville married Elizabeth Shaw in 1847 and they eventually had four children. Around this time, Melville turned out three well-received books in three years — Mardi (1848), Redburn (1849), and White Jacket (1850). Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850, and the two became fast friends. In October 1851, Melville’s The Whale was published in Britain in three volumes, and was quickly followed in November by Moby Dick in the United States in one volume. The book was not especially well-received, though its first sentence, “Call me Ishmael,” soon became a remarkably famous literary opening.

Melville’s next book, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) was even less well-received. It was a story so out of character with the author that some thought Melville was deranged. From 1853 to 1856 Melville published only tales and sketches. In late 1856, Melville began a six-month tour of the British Isles and the Mediterranean. His last full-length novel, The Confidence Man was published in 1857. While it was poorly reviewed at its release, the novel is acclaimed in modern times by literary analysists.

Most of Melville’s books were not lucrative for the author, so he took up public lecturing, which was also not well-received. Likewise, poetry he submitted to a publisher was not accepted. In 1866, Melville took a position as a customs inspector for the City of New York, which he held for 19 years. By 1876, all of his books were out of print. Melville died in 1891, at age 72.

Literary Legacy

Herman Melville, American author, 1861. Reproduction of photograph, frontispiece to Journal Up the Straits. Public domain in the U.S.

Herman Melville, American author, 1861.

Melville’s writings are numerous, and of varying merit; his verse, patriotic and other, is forgotten; and his works of fiction and of travel are of irregular execution. Nevertheless, few authors have been enabled so freely to introduce romantic personal experiences into their books: in his first work, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, or Four Month’s Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas (1841), he described his escape from the cannibals; while in Omoo, a Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), White Jacket, or The World in a Man-of-War (1850), and especially Moby Dick, or The Whale (1851), he portrayed seafaring life and character with vigour and originality, and from a personal knowledge equal to that of Cooper, Marryat or Clark Russell.

Surprisingly, these records of adventure were followed by other tales so turgid, eccentric, opinionated, and loosely written as to seem the work of another author. Melville was the product of a period of American literature when the fiction written by writers below Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne was measured by humble artistic standards. While not popular during his own time, in the early 1900s there began a kind of revival for Melville’s works, and analysis thereof, which continues to this day.


You will study Herman Melville in Module 3.5 of American Literature, book 3 of the Excellence in Literature curriculum.

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