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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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!