Please wait while we process your payment
If you don't see it, please check your spam folder. Sometimes it can end up there.
Don’t have an account?
Create Your Account
Sign up for your FREE 7-day trial
Already have an account? Log in
Choose Your Plan
$4.99/month + tax
$24.99/year + tax
Save over 50% with a SparkNotes PLUS Annual Plan!
for a group?
Get Annual Plans at a discount when you buy 2 or more!
$18.74 /subscription + tax
Subtotal $37.48 + tax
on 2-49 accounts
on 50-99 accounts
Want 100 or more?
for a customized plan.
You'll be billed after your free trial ends.
7-Day Free Trial
Renews September 29, 2023
September 22, 2023
Discounts (applied to next billing)
This is not a valid promo code.
(one code per order)
Annual Plan - Group Discount
SparkNotes Plus subscription is $4.99/month or $24.99/year as selected above. The free trial period is the first 7 days of your subscription. TO CANCEL YOUR SUBSCRIPTION AND AVOID BEING CHARGED, YOU MUST CANCEL BEFORE THE END OF THE FREE TRIAL PERIOD. You may cancel your subscription on your Subscription and Billing page or contact Customer Support at email@example.com. Your subscription will continue automatically once the free trial period is over. Free trial is available to new customers only.
For the next 7 days, you'll have access to awesome PLUS stuff like AP English test prep, No Fear Shakespeare translations and audio, a note-taking tool, personalized dashboard, & much more!
You’ve successfully purchased a group discount. Your group members can use the joining link below to redeem their group membership. You'll also receive an email with the link.
Members will be prompted to log in or create an account to redeem their group membership.
Thanks for creating a SparkNotes account! Continue to start your free trial.
Your PLUS subscription has expired
*See discount terms and conditions.
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.
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 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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Typee!