Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819, the third of eight children born to Maria Gansevoort Melville and Allan Melville, a prosperous importer of foreign goods. When the family business failed at the end of the 1820s, the Melvilles relocated to Albany in an attempt to revive their fortunes. A string of further bad luck and overwork, however, drove his father to an early grave, and the young Melville was forced to start working in a bank at the age of thirteen.
After a few more years of formal education, Melville left school at eighteen to become an elementary school teacher. This career was abruptly cut short and followed by a brief tenure as a newspaper reporter. Running out of alternatives on land, Melville made his first sea voyage at nineteen, as a merchant sailor on a ship bound for Liverpool, England. He returned to America the next summer to seek his fortune in the West. After settling briefly in Illinois, he went back east in the face of continuing financial difficulties.
Finally, driven to desperation at twenty-one, Melville committed to a whaling voyage of indefinite destination and scale on board a ship called the Acushnet. This journey took him around the continent of South America, across the Pacific Ocean, and to the South Seas, where he abandoned ship with a fellow sailor in the summer of 1842, eighteen months after setting out from New York. The two men found themselves in the Marquesas Islands, where they accidentally wandered into the company of a tribe of cannibals. Lamed with a bad leg, Melville became separated from his companion and spent a month alone in the company of the natives. This experience later formed the core of his first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, published in 1846. An indeterminate mixture of fact and fiction, Melville’s fanciful travel narrative remained the most popular and successful of his works during his lifetime.
Life among these natives and other exotic experiences abroad provided Melville with endless literary conceits. Armed with the voluminous knowledge obtained from constant reading while at sea, Melville wrote a series of novels detailing his adventures and his philosophy of life. Typee was followed by Omoo (1847) and Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), two more novels about his Polynesian experiences. Redburn, also published in 1849, is a fictionalized account of Melville’s first voyage to Liverpool. His next novel, White-Jacket; or The World in a Man-of-War, published in 1850, is a generalized and allegorical account of life at sea aboard a warship.
Through the lens of literary history, these first five novels are all seen as an apprenticeship to what is today considered Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick; or The Whale, which first appeared in 1851. A story of monomania aboard a whaling ship, Moby-Dick is a tremendously ambitious novel that functions at once as a documentary of life at sea and a vast philosophical allegory of life in general. No sacred subject is spared in this bleak and scathing critique of the known world, as Melville satirizes by turns religious traditions, moral values, and the literary and political figures of the day.
Melville was influenced in the writing of Moby-Dick by the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, whom he met in 1850 and to whom he dedicated Moby-Dick. Melville had long admired Hawthorne’s psychological depth and gothic grimness and associated Hawthorne with a new, distinctively American literature. Though the works of Shakespeare and Milton and stories in the Bible (especially the Old Testament) influenced Moby-Dick, Melville didn’t look exclusively to celebrated cultural models. He drew on sources from popular culture as well; whaling narratives, for example, were popular in the nineteenth century. Melville relied on Thomas Beale’s encyclopedic Natural History of the Sperm Whale and the narrative Etchings of a Whaling Cruise, by J. Ross Browne.
By the 1850s, whaling was a dying industry. Whales had been hunted into near extinction, and substitutes for whale oil had been found. Despite its range of cultural references and affiliation with popular genres, Moby-Dick was a failure. Its reception led Melville to defy his critics by writing in an increasingly experimental style and eventually forsaking novels in favor of poetry. He died in 1891.
Moby-Dick remained largely ignored until the 1920s, when it was rediscovered and promoted by literary historians interested in constructing an American literary tradition. To these critics, Moby-Dick was both a seminal work elaborating on classic American themes, such as religion, fate, and economic expansion, and a radically experimental anachronism that anticipated Modernism in its outsized scope and pastiche of forms. It stands alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as a novel that appears bizarre to the point of being unreadable but proves to be infinitely open to interpretation and discovery.