Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 on Pearl Street in New York City, the third of eight children born 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 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 fortune. In another string of bad luck, overwork drove Allan to an early grave, and the young Herman 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 briefly settling in Chicago, he went back east 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. 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.

Leaving the Marquesas, Melville soon found that life on a ship that had rescured was little better than it had been on the Acushnet. Rebelling against it, he became embroiled in a mutiny and was jailed for a few weeks in a British prison. This experience would also give rise to a novel, Omoo in1847. 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.

Life among these natives and numerous other exotic experiences abroad provided Melville with a rich supply of 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 and Omoo were followed Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), another novel 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 more 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 a prologue to the work that 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.

Motivated to the passionate intensity of Moby-Dick in part by a burgeoning friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville was unperturbed by the lukewarm reception that his grandest novel enjoyed in the initial reviews. However, Melville reevaluated his place in the literary world after the outraged reaction to his next novel, Pierre; or The Ambiguities, which appeared in 1852. The sole pastoral romance among Melville’s works, this self-described “rural bowl of milk” became known as a decidedly bad book as much for its sloppy writing as for its incestuous theme and nebulous morals.

After the disastrous reception of Pierre, Melville turned his attentions to shorter works. In the following five years, he published numerous fictional sketches of various lengths in several prominent periodicals of the day. Most notable among these works are the short story “Bartelby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” and the novella “Benito Cereno.” (All three of these works are examined in a SparkNote Study Guide called Melville Stories.) In this period, he also published his final two completed novels: a historical work titled Israel Potter; or Fifty Years of Exile, in 1855, and a maddeningly bleak satire of trust titled The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, in 1857.

In the remaining thirty-five years of his life, Melville’s literary production cooled considerably, grinding nearly to a halt. A brief stint on the national lecture tour gave way to more stable employment as a customshouse inspector, a job he held for almost twenty years before his retirement in the late 1880s. A volume of war poetry, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, appeared in 1866, and Melville published the lengthy poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land in 1876. Toward the end of his life, Melville produced two more volumes of verse, John Marr and Other Sailors in 1888, and Timoleon in 1891, the year that Melville died.

At the time of his death, Melville had recently completed his first extended prose narrative in more than thirty years. However, this work would remain unpublished for yet another thirty-three years, appearing in 1924 in a limited London edition under the title of Billy Budd. Only after Melville began to gain wider acclaim in the mid-20th century did scholars and general readers begin to read Billy Budd with serious care. Based in part on events Melville himself experienced at sea, Billy Budd also incorporates a historical incident involving Melville’s first cousin, who played a role, similar to Captain Vere, as an arbitrator in a controversy involving the trial and execution of two midshipmen on board the U.S.S. Somers in 1842.

Background on Moby-Dick

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 19th 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.

Read more about Melville’s contemporary and inspiration, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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.