Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 on Pearl Street in New York City to Maria Gansevoort Melville and Allan Melville. Both the Gansevoorts and the Melvilles had ties to the American upper class; the families both played important roles during the Revolution. Allen Melville was a prosperous merchant in New York. Towards the end of the 1820s, however, his business failed. The Melvilles moved to Albany in search of a better fortune. They did not find it. Allen Melville soon went bankrupt, almost lost his mind, and died. Following his death, Melville was forced to leave school at age thirteen to work at a bank. He would be sporadically educated throughout his teens with limited formal schooling.
Starting at age eighteen, Melville tried a series of professions including being an elementary school teacher and a reporter. After the options failed to interest him or to earn him good wages, he signed up as a merchant sailor on a brief trip to England. When he returned to the U.S., Melville tried to find work in Chicago, but soon was forced home again to help his debt-ridden family. Driven to desperation at age twenty-one, Melville signed up to work on a whaler, the Acushnet. This journey took him around South America and into the Pacific Ocean. After eighteen months on board, the ship arrived in the Marquesas Islands. There, Melville decided to abandon ship. With his shipmate, Richard Tobias Greene, he took refuge on the island and accidentally wandered into a tribe of cannibals. Melville stayed with them for four weeks before he was rescued by an Australian vessel. Melville's adventures with this cannibalistic group of natives would become the subject of his first novel, Typee (1846), which was subtitled, "A Peep at Polynesian Life."
Leaving the Marquesas, Melville soon found himself on a ship that was little better than his former one. Rebelling against it, he became embroiled in a mutiny and was jailed for a few weeks in a British prison. This experience also gave rise to a novel, Omoo 1947. After being freed, Melville stayed in Tahiti and Hawaii trying to earn money to make his way home. Eventually, he was hired on a US Navy frigate and returned to Boston in October of 1844.
Back in the States, Melville started working on drafting his experiences. Two different publishers accepted Typee for publication in 1846, one in New York and one in England. Charles Murray published the British edition in February of 1846 as part of the "Colonial and Home" Series. This series was a quasi-anthropological library that profiled cultures in Colonial lands. To satisfy Murray, Melville added some additional passages describing the culture of the Typees. The first American edition appeared in March of 1846. It was basically the same as the British copy, with some additional editing.
Typee was an immediate success both in American and England. At the same time, it was highly criticized for its mockery of missionaries and its open discussion of sexuality. Some also doubted its verity, believing that Melville had made up the entire tale. The latter criticism ended when Toby reappeared and verified Melville's account, an experience captured in the sequel "the Story of Toby." The condemnation of Melville's content only disappeared when a highly edited version of Typee appeared in August of 1846. This "Revised American Edition" cut approximately fifty passages deemed "racy" or controversial. Soon after, Melville sold the text to another publisher and it was again reprinted in full. Despite the criticism, Typee always remained a best seller. Until the end of the 1930s, it was Melville's most popular text.
Melville went on to write three more novels based upon personal experiences: Ommo (1847), Redburn (1848), and White Jacket (1850). His other books include Mardi (1849), Moby Dick(1851), Pierre (1852), Israel Potter (1855), The Piazza Tales (1856), and The Confidence Man (1857). One of his best received texts, Billy Budd, was only completed five months before his death and published posthumously.
Most of Melville's texts were noticeably influenced by the years he spent at sea, most of the novels being set at sea themselves. Melville believed that his time away from America gave him the opportunity to develop a unique intellectual mindset that allowed him to better understand what was happening in his own country. Melville's primary concerns were the conflicts of his age—the expansion of the American empire, the effect of the industrial revolution, and the conflict between the races in the States. Despite the popularity of his texts, Melville could not always make enough money as a writer to support his family. For many years, he was forced to work as a customs agent in New York City to supplement his income.
Herman Melville died of a heart attack on September 28, 1891. Many years after his death, the popularity of Typee came to be surpassed by his masterpiece, Moby Dick.
Take a Study Break!