Herman Melville was an American novelist, essayist and poet. During
his lifetime, his early novels were popular, but his popularity
declined later in his life. By the time of his death he had nearly
been forgotten, but his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, was "rediscovered"
in the 20th century.
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, as
the third child to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill (Maria would
later add an 'e' to the surname), and received his early education
in that city. One of his grandfathers, Major Thomas Melvill, participated
in the Boston Tea Party. Another was General Peter Gansevoort,
who was acquainted with James Fenimore Cooper and defended Fort
Stanwix in 1777.
father had described the young Melville as being somewhat slow
as a child and Melville was also weakened by the scarlet fever,
which permanently affected his eyesight. The family importing
business went bankrupt in 1830, and the family moved to Albany,
New York, with Herman entering Albany Academy. Prior to that year,
he attended Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Manhattan.
the death of his father in 1832, the family (with eight children)
moved to the village of Lansingburgh on the Hudson River. Herman
and his brother Gansevoort were forced to work to help support
the family. Herman remained there until 1835, when he attended
the Albany Classical School for some months.
roving disposition and a desire to support himself independently
of family assistance led him to seek work as a surveyor on the
Erie Canal. This effort failed, and his brother helped him get
a job as a cabin boy in a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He
made the voyage, visited London, and returned on the same ship.
Redburn: His First Voyage, published in 1849, is partly founded
on his experiences of this trip.
good part of the succeeding three years, from 1837 to 1840, was
occupied with school-teaching. At any rate, he once more signed
ship's articles and on January 1, 1841, sailed from New Bedford,
Massachusetts harbor on the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific
Ocean. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and traveled to the
South Pacific. Melville left very little direct information about
the events of this 18 months' cruise, although his whaling romance,
Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, probably gives many pictures of life
on board the Acushnet.
decided to abandon the vessel on reaching the Marquesas Islands.
He lived among the natives of the island for several weeks and
the narrative of Typee and its sequel, Omoo, tell this tale. After
a sojourn to the Society Islands, Melville shipped for Honolulu.
He remained there four months, working as a clerk. He joined the
crew of the American frigate United States, which reached Boston,
stopping on the way at one of the Peruvian ports, in October of
1844. Upon his return, he recorded his experiences in the books,
Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, and White-Jacket, published seriatim
in the following six years.
married Elizabeth Shaw (daughter of noted jurist, Lemuel Shaw)
on August 4, 1847. The Melvilles resided in New York City until
1850, when they purchased Arrowhead, a farm house in Pittsfield,
Massachusetts (which is today a museum). Here Melville remained
for thirteen years, occupied with his writing, and managing his
farm. There he befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in the
area. He wrote Moby-Dick and Pierre there, works that did not
achieve the same popular and critical success of his earlier books.
Following scathing reviews of Pierre by critics, publishers became
of wary of Melville's work. His publisher, Harper's, rejected
his next manuscript, The Isle of the Cross, which has been lost.
in Pittsfield, because of financial reasons, Melville was persuaded
to enter the lucrative lecture field. From 1857 to 1860, he spoke
at lyceums, chiefly recounting his adventures in the South Seas.
He also became a customs inspector for the City of New York, a
post he held for 19 years.
an illness that lasted several months, Melville died at his home
in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891, age
72, in virtual obscurity. The New York Times listed his name in
an obituary as "Henry Melville." He was interred in
the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.
his later life, his works no longer popular with a broad audience,
he was not able to make money from writing. He depended on his
wife's family for money, along with his own attempts at employment.
His short novel Billy Budd, an unpublished manuscript at the time
of his death (it had remained in a tin can for 30 years), was
published in 1924 and later turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten,
a play, and a film by Peter Ustinov.
Herman Melville's Religious Journey, Walter Donald Kring detailed
his discovery of an old document listing Melville as a former
member of the Unitarian Church of All Souls. Until the advent
of this revelation, little had been known of his religious leanings.
Moby-Dick has become Melville's most famous work and is often
considered one of the greatest American novels. It was dedicated
to Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. It did not, however,
make Melville rich. The book never sold its initial printing of
3,000 copies in his lifetime and total earnings from the American
edition amounted to just $556.37 from his publisher, Harper's.
Melville also wrote White-Jacket, Typee, Omoo, Pierre, The Confidence-Man
and many short stories and works of various genres. His short
story "Bartleby the Scrivener" is among his most important
pieces, and has been considered a precursor to Existentialist
and Absurdist literature.
short stories The Tartarus of Maids and The Paradise of Bachelors,
as well as his posthumous novella Billy Budd have been seen by
some contemporary critics as anticipating key issues in the fields
of gender studies and queer studies. For example, the critic Eve
Sedgewick has made notable contributions to the understanding
of gender and sexuality in Melville's fiction.
Melville's 1855 short story Benito Cereno is one of the few works
of 19th century American literature to confront the African Diaspora
and the violent history of race relations in America.
is less well known as a poet and did not publish poetry until
late in life; after the Civil War, he published Battle-Pieces,
which sold well. But again tending to outrun the tastes of his
readers, Melville's epic length verse-narrative Clarel, about
a student's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was also quite obscure,
even in his own time. This may be the longest single poem in American
literature. The poem, published in 1876, had an initial printing
of only 350 copies. The critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of the
poem in the New York Public Library in 1925 "with its pages
uncut." Essentially, it had sat there unread for 50 years.
poetry is not as highly critically esteemed as his fiction, although
some critics place him as the first modernist poet in the United
After the success of stories and travelogues based on voyages
to the South Seas during his youth, Melville's popularity declined.
In the later years of his life and during the years after his
death he was recognized as only a minor figure in American literature.
The publication in 1924 of Billy Budd and Lewis Mumford's biography
Herman Melville: A study of His Life and Vision began a revival
in critical studies of Melville's work.
work was followed by a string of important criticism and biography,
including Jay Leyda's The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of
Herman Melville, 1819-1891, Leon Howard's Herman Melville: A Biography
and Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work. Due to these
works and the subsequent profusion of research on Melville's work
he has become universally recognized as a major canonical figure.
Today, he may be the most written-about American author.