Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York City. His family was well-off, but his father went bankrupt and insane, and died when Melville was twelve. Melville briefly attended Albany Classical School in 1835, but left to pursue his own interests. He did most of his learning on his own, 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 influenced each other's writing, though Hawthorne was probably influenced Melville more than Melville influenced him.

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 at Wall Street and its examination of the legal and business mentality—and the toll the developing business world can take on its workers—Melville's story is surprisingly modern. Like Captain Ahab, Bartleby is a character that has been examined and re-examined by each passing 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 (see Analysis of Major Characters).

In 1855, Melville published two more short stories: "The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles," and "Benito Cereno." Of the two, "Benito" has enjoyed the greater enduring popularity, for the reasons discussed below. But "The Encantadas" also represents a forward step in Melville's artistry. Written in ten "sketches," "The Encantadas" reveals a Melville experimenting with form. At times, the sketches almost become prose poems, a mood that is evoked by Melville's use of lines from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen at the beginning of each sketch. "The Encantadas" represents a return to the exotic locales the readers loved in Typee, but this time it is on Melville's own terms. Melville intersperses metaphor and poetic contemplation (along with a little wry humor) throughout the sketches, creating a mood that critic Warner Berthoff claims is "nearest in vision and address to the descriptive mass of Moby Dick." The Encantadas are actually the Galapagos Islands, which became famous around the same period for their instrumental role in Charles Darwin's development of evolutionary theory. "The Encantadas" represent a sort of marriage between Melville's early, travel-oriented works and the poetic, visionary Melville of Moby Dick. But "The Encantadas," while an important part of Melville's work, has not had the popularity with non-academic readers that Moby Dick, "Bartleby the Scrivener," "Benito Cereno", and Melville's final work, Billy Budd, have enjoyed.

The enduring popularity of "Benito Cereno" with both readers and critics alike is due to its relevance to race. Written in the midst of the slavery crisis that would lead to the Civil War just six years later, it is nearly impossible to imagine that Melville did not take the question of race into consideration. Melville was raised in New York and lived his adult life in Massachusetts amongst the Transcendentalists—a hotbed of the abolitionist movement. Melville recognized the inevitable conflict that is created by slavery; in 1859 he wrote the poem "The Portent" after the execution of John Brown, the abolitionist who murdered several slave owners. Melville knew that Brown's death signaled the end of verbal negotiation for the slavery crisis.

In "Benito Cereno," Melville also draws attention to the inevitability of conflict and death in the institution of slavery. Nowhere in the story does Delano congratulate himself for defeating the slaves. He never condemns the slaves for their insurrection, though he certainly pities Cereno and he knows that the boat must be retaken. But the reader suspects that Cereno would treat any mutineers, black or white, in this manner. In the original account by the real-life Amasa Delano (an account which Melville follows very closely), Delano even refers to the slaves as "mutineers."

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.