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Herman Melville

(1819-1891), American

Biography

Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York City. His family was well-off, but his father went bankrupt and died when Melville was twelve. Melville briefly attended Albany Classical School in 1835, but left to pursue his own interests. He was largely self-taught, reading literature, technical manuals, historical textbooks, and religious texts. From the age of twelve he held a variety of jobs, and in 1839 he shipped out as a cabin boy on the whaling ship Achushnet. The experience would later be translated into what is now his most famous novel, Moby-Dick. After the whaling voyage, he joined the U.S. Navy and traveled to many parts of the world, particularly the tropics—experiences which would inspire his first two novels, Typee and its sequel, Omoo. Typee, while a fictional narrative, is largely autobiographical, drawn from Melville's experiences among the Typee cannibals in the Marquesas Islands. Melville was rescued from the islands and eventually returned to the United States, where he wrote the narrative, and it was first published in Britain in 1846. A year later he married and moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, very near to the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The two became friends and literary influences on one another.

After the success of Typee and Omoo, Melville continued to write novels and narratives about his sailing experiences. But as he worked on a novel based on his experiences on the Achushnet, Hawthorne suggested that Melville consider writing the book more metaphorically, using whaling as a form of psychological insight into the human condition. Melville rewrote the novel, and Moby-Dick was born.

Published in 1851, Moby-Dick was a commercial failure. Depressed by this, Melville turned to more marketable writing, and in this period he began to write his short stories. The stories were usually published in magazines. The first of these stories was "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853). Since Melville was "rediscovered" by literary critics in the early twentieth century, "Bartleby" has been one of the most hotly debated stories in all of Melville's work. With its setting on Wall Street and its examination of the legal and business mentalities—and the toll the developing business world can take on its workers—Melville's story feels surprisingly modern. Like Captain Ahab, Bartleby is a character that has been examined and re-examined by each generation, who interpret him differently depending on their political or academic climate. Bartleby has been read as a fool, a tragic hero, and a psychologically-unbalanced individual. Some critics read "Bartleby" as an allegory for the evils of materialism, while still others read it biographically, interpreting Bartleby as a stand-in for Melville.

Melville went on to write many more stories and novels, but none of them ever enjoyed the popularity of Typee during his lifetime. Melville died in 1891, with only a single obituary to his name. Thirty years later, critics rediscovered his works, and began the process of building the enormous reputation that Melville enjoys today.

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SparkNotes

Herman Melville Quotes

Dolt and ass that I am I have lived more than 29 years, & until a few days ago, never made close acquaintance with the divine William. Ah, he's full of sermons-on-the-mount, and gentle, aye, almost as Jesus. I take such men to be inspired.

I do not oscillate in Emerson's rainbow, but prefer rather to hang myself in mine own halter than swing in any other man's swing. Yet I think Emerson is more than a brilliant fellow.

There is a certain tragic phase of humanity which, in our opinion, was never more powerfully embodied than by Hawthorne.

Call me Ishmael.

I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.

A smile is the chosen vehicle of all ambiguities.

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Autobiography

  • Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life

    (1846)

  • Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

    (1847)

  • Mardi: And a Voyage Thither

    (1849)

  • Redburn: His First Voyage

    (1849)

  • White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War

    (1850)

Novels and Novellas

  • Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

    (1851)

  • Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

    (1852)

  • The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles

    (1854)

  • "Benito Cereno"

    (1855)

  • Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile

    (1855)

  • The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

    (1857)

  • Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative)

Short Stories

  • "Bartleby, the Scrivener"

    (1853)

Poetry

  • Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

    (1866)

  • Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

    (1876)

  • John Marr and Other Sailors

    (1888)

  • Timoleon

    (1891)