He was born August 1, 1819, in New York City and died on Sept. 28, 1891 also at New York City. A great American novelist, short-story writer, and poet, Melville best known for his novels of the sea, including his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851).
The following links and text were drawn from
Biography and selected bibliography of the writer.
Confidence-Man: His Masquerade
Book by Herman Melville (1857). Includes an annotated bibliography.
Heritage and youth.
Melville's heritage and youthful experiences were perhaps crucial in forming the conflicts underlying his artistic vision. He was the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill, in a family that was to grow to four boys and four girls. His forebears had been among the Scottish and Dutch settlers of New York and had taken leading roles in the American Revolution and in the fiercely competitive commercial and political life of the new country. One grandfather, Maj. Thomas Melvill, was a member of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and was subsequently a New York importer. The other, Gen. Peter Gansevoort, was a friend of James Fenimore Cooper and famous for leading the defense of Ft. Stanwix, in upstate New York, against the British.
In 1826 Allan Melvill wrote of his son as being "backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension . . . of a docile and amiable disposition." In that same year, scarlet fever left the boy with permanently weakened eyesight, but he attended Male High School. When the family import business collapsed in 1830, the family returned to Albany, where Herman enrolled briefly in Albany Academy. Allan Melvill died in 1832, leaving his family in desperate straits. The eldest son, Gansevoort, assumed responsibility for the family and took over his father's felt and fur business. Herman joined him after two years as a bank clerk and some months working on the farm of his uncle, Thomas Melvill, in Pittsfield, Mass. About this time, Herman's branch of the family altered the spelling of its name. Though finances were precarious, Herman attended Albany Classical School in 1835 and became an active member of a local debating society. A teaching job in Pittsfield made him unhappy, however, and after three months he returned to Albany.
Wanderings and voyages.
Young Melville had already begun writing, but the remainder of his youth became a quest for security. A comparable pursuit in the spiritual realm was to characterize much of his writing. The crisis that started Herman on his wanderings came in 1837, when Gansevoort went bankrupt and the family moved to nearby Lansingburgh (later Troy). In what was to be a final attempt at orthodox employment, Herman studied surveying at Lansingburgh Academy to equip himself for a post with the Erie Canal project. When the job did not materialize, Gansevoort arranged for Herman to ship out as cabin boy on the "St. Lawrence," a merchant ship sailing in June 1839 from New York City for Liverpool.
The summer voyage did not dedicate Melville to the sea, and on his return
his family was dependent still on the charity of relatives. After a grinding
search for work, he taught briefly in a school that closed without paying
him. His uncle Thomas, who had left Pittsfield for Illinois apparently
had no help to offer when the young man followed him west In January 1841
Melville sailed on the whaler "Acushnet," from New Bedford, Mass., on a
voyage to the South Seas.
In June 1842 the "Acushnet" anchored in the Marquesas Islands in
present-day French Polynesia. Melville's adventures here, somewhat
romanticized, became the subject of his first novel, Typee (1846). In July
Melville and a companion jumped ship and, according to Typee, spent
about four months as guest-captives of the reputedly cannibalistic Typee
people. Actually, in August he was registered in the crew of the
Australian whaler "Lucy Ann." Whatever its precise correspondence with
fact, however, Typee was faithful to the imaginative impact of the
experience on Melville. Despite intimations of danger, Melville
represented the exotic valley of the Typees as an idyllic sanctuary from a
hustling, aggressive civilization.
Although Melville was down for a 120th share of the whaler's
proceeds, the voyage had been unproductive. He joined a mutiny that
landed the mutineers in a Tahitian jail, from which he escaped without
difficulty. On these events and their sequel, Melville based his second
book, Omoo (1847). Lighthearted in tone, with the mutiny shown as
something of a farce, it describes Melville's travels through the islands,
accompanied by Long Ghost, formerly the ship's doctor, now turned
drifter. The carefree roving confirmed Melville's bitterness against
colonial and, especially, missionary debasement of the native Tahitian
These travels, in fact, occupied less than a month. In November he
signed as a harpooner on his last whaler, the "Charles & Henry," out of
Nantucket, Mass. Six months later he disembarked at Lahaina, in the
Hawaiian Islands. Somehow he supported himself for more than three
months; then in August 1843 he signed as an ordinary seaman on the
frigate "United States," which in October 1844 discharged him in Boston.
The years of acclaim.
Melville rejoined a family whose prospects had much improved.
Gansevoort, who after James K. Polk's victory in the 1844 presidential
elections had been appointed secretary to the U.S. legation in London,
was gaining political renown. Encouraged by his family's enthusiastic
reception of his tales of the South Seas, Melville wrote them down. The
years of acclaim were about to begin for Melville.
Typee provoked immediate enthusiasm and outrage, and then a year later
Omoo had an identical response. Gansevoort, dead of a brain disease,
never saw his brother's career consolidated, but the bereavement left
Melville head of the family and the more committed to writing to
support it. Another responsibility came with his marriage in August 1847
to Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts. He
tried unsuccessfully for a job in the U.S. Treasury Department, the first of
many abortive efforts to secure a government post.
In 1847 Melville began a third book, Mardi (1849), and became a
regular contributor of reviews and other pieces to a literary journal. To
his new literary acquaintances in New York City he appeared the
character of his own books--extrovert, vigorous, "with his cigar and his
Spanish eyes," as one writer described him. Melville resented this
somewhat patronizing stereotype, and in her reminiscences his wife
recalled him in a different aspect, writing in a bitterly cold, fireless room in
winter. He enjoined his publisher not to call him "the author of Typee and
Omoo," for his third book was to be different. When it appeared, public
and critics alike found its wild, allegorical fantasy and medley of styles
incomprehensible. It began as another Polynesian adventure but quickly
set its hero in pursuit of the mysterious Yillah, "all beauty and innocence,"
a symbolic quest that ends in anguish and disaster. Concealing his
disappointment at the book's reception, Melville quickly wrote
Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) in the manner expected of
him. In October 1849 Melville sailed to England to resolve his London
publisher's doubts about White-Jacket. He also visited the Continent,
kept a journal, and arrived back in America in February 1850. The
critics acclaimed White-Jacket, and its powerful criticism of abuses in
the U.S. Navy won it strong political support. But both novels, however
much they seemed to revive the Melville of Typee, had passages of
profoundly questioning melancholy. It was not the same Melville who
wrote them. He had been reading Shakespeare with "eyes which are as
tender as young sparrows," particularly noting sombre passages in
Measure for Measure and King Lear. This reading struck deeply
sympathetic responses in Melville, counterbalancing the Transcendental
doctrines of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose general optimism about
human goodness he had heard in lectures. A fresh imaginative influence
was supplied by Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, a novel deeply
exploring good and evil in the human being, which Melville read in the
spring of 1850. That summer, Melville bought a farm, which he
christened "Arrowhead," near Hawthorne's home at Pittsfield, and the
two men became neighbours physically as well as in sympathies.
Melville had promised his publishers for the autumn of 1850 the novel
first entitled The Whale, finally Moby Dick. His delay in submitting it was
caused less by his early-morning chores as a farmer than by his
explorations into the unsuspected vistas opened for him by Hawthorne.
Their relationship reanimated Melville's creative energies. On his side, it
was dependent, almost mystically intense--"an infinite fraternity of
feeling," he called it. To the cooler, withdrawn Hawthorne, such depth of
feeling so persistently and openly declared was uncongenial. The two
men gradually drew apart. They met for the last time, almost as strangers,
in 1856, when Melville visited Liverpool, where Hawthorne was
Moby Dick was published in London in October 1851 and a month later
in America. It brought its author neither acclaim nor reward. Basically its
story is simple. Captain Ahab pursues the white whale, Moby Dick,
which finally kills him. At that level, it is an intense, superbly authentic
narrative of whaling. In the perverted grandeur of Captain Ahab and in
the beauties and terrors of the voyage of the "Pequod," however,
Melville dramatized his deeper concerns: the equivocal defeats and
triumphs of the human spirit and its fusion of creative and murderous
urges. In his private afflictions, Melville had found universal metaphors.
Increasingly a recluse to the point that some friends feared for his sanity,
Melville embarked almost at once on Pierre (1852). It was an intensely
personal work, revealing the sombre mythology of his private life framed
in terms of a story of an artist alienated from his society. In it can be
found the humiliated responses to poverty that his youth supplied him
plentifully and the hypocrisy he found beneath his father's claims to purity
and faithfulness. His mother he had idolized; yet he found the spirituality
of her love betrayed by sexual love. The novel, a slightly veiled allegory
of Melville's own dark imaginings, was rooted in these relations. When
published, it was another critical and financial disaster. Only 33 years old,
Melville saw his career in ruins. Near breakdown, and having to face in
1853 the disaster of a fire at his New York publishers that destroyed
most of his books, Melville persevered with writing.
Israel Potter, plotted before his introduction to Hawthorne and his
work, was published in 1855, but its modest success, clarity of style, and
apparent simplicity of subject did not indicate a decision by Melville to
write down to public taste. His contributions to Putnam's Monthly
Magazine-- "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853), "The Encantadas" (1854),
and "Benito Cereno" (1855)--reflected the despair and the contempt for
human hypocrisy and materialism that possessed him increasingly.
In 1856 Melville set out on a tour of Europe and the Levant to renew
his spirits. The most powerful passages of the journal he kept are in
harmony with The Confidence-Man (1857), a despairing satire on an
America corrupted by the shabby dreams of commerce. This was the last
of his novels to be published in his lifetime. Three American lecture tours
were followed by his final sea journey, in 1860, when he joined his
brother Thomas, captain of the clipper "Meteor," for a voyage around
Cape Horn. He abandoned the trip in San Francisco.
The years of withdrawal.
Melville abandoned the novel for poetry, but the prospects for
publication were not favourable. With two sons and daughters to
support, Melville sought government patronage. A consular post he
sought in 1861 went elsewhere. On the outbreak of the Civil War, he
volunteered for the Navy, but was again rejected. He had apparently
returned full cycle to the insecurity of his youth, but an inheritance from
his father-in-law brought some relief and "Arrowhead," increasingly a
burden, was sold. By the end of 1863, the family was living in New York
City. The war was much on his mind and furnished the subject of his first
volume of verse, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866),
published privately. Four months after it appeared, an appointment as a
customs inspector on the New York docks finally brought him a secure
Despite poor health, Melville began a pattern of writing evenings,
weekends, and on vacations. In 1867 his son Malcolm shot himself,
accidentally the jury decided, though it appeared that he had quarrelled
with his father the night before his death. His second son, Stanwix, who
had gone to sea in 1869, died in a San Francisco hospital in 1886 after a
long illness. Throughout these griefs, and for the whole of his 19 years in
the customs house, Melville's creative pace was understandably
His second collection of verse, John Marr, and Other Sailors; With
Some Sea-Pieces, appeared in 1888, again privately published. By then
he had been in retirement for three years, assisted by legacies from
friends and relatives. His new leisure he devoted, he wrote in 1889, to
"certain matters as yet incomplete." Among them was Timoleon (1891),
a final verse collection. More significant was the return to prose that
culminated in his last work, the novel Billy Budd, which remained
unpublished until 1924. Provoked by a false charge, the sailor Billy Budd
accidentally kills the satanic master-at-arms. In a time of threatened
mutiny he is hanged, going willingly to his fate. Evil has not wholly
triumphed, and Billy's memory lives on as an emblem of good. Here there
is, if not a statement of being reconciled fully to life, at least the peace of
resignation. The manuscript ends with the date April 19, 1891. Five
months later Melville died. His life was neither happy nor, by material
standards, successful. By the end of the 1840s he was among the most
celebrated of American writers, yet his death evoked but a single
In the internal tensions that put him in conflict with his age lay a strangely
20th-century awareness of the deceptiveness of realities and of the
instability of personal identity. Yet his writings never lost sight of reality.
His symbols grew from such visible facts, made intensely present, as the
dying whales, the mess of blubber, and the wood of the ship, in Moby
Dick. For Melville, as for Shakespeare, man was ape and essence,
inextricably compounded; and the world, like the "Pequod," was subject
to "two antagonistic influences . . . one to mount direct to heaven, the
other to drive yawingly to some horizontal goal." It was Melville's
triumph that he endured, recording his vision to the end. After the years
of neglect, modern criticism has secured his reputation with that of the
great American writers.
D.E.S. Maxwell. Former Professor of English, York
University, Toronto. Author of Herman Melville and others.
MAJOR WORKS. Novels. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846);
Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847); Mardi
and a Voyage Thither (1849), a political and philosophical allegory;
Redburn, His First Voyage (1849); White-Jacket; or, The World in a
Man-of-War (1850); Moby Dick; or, The Whale (1851, as Moby
Dick; or, The White Whale in some later 19th-century editions); Pierre;
or The Ambiguities (1852); Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile,
(1855), a historical novel of the American Revolution; The
Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), a satirical allegory; Billy
Budd, Foretopman, a short novel written 1888-91 and found after
Melville's death; first published in Billy Budd, and Other Prose Pieces
Other stories, sketches, and journals
The Piazza Tales (1856), includes "The Piazza," "Bartleby the
Scrivener," "Benito Cereno," "The Encantadas, or, Enchanted Isles," and
"The Lightning-Rod Man"; The Apple-Tree Table and Other Sketches
(1922), contains 10 sketches first published in periodicals, 1850-56;
Journal up the Straits, October 1, 1856-May 5, 1857 (1935); Journal
of Melville's Voyage in the Clipper Ship, "Meteor" (1929).
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866); Clarel: A Poem and
Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876); John Marr, and Other Sailors;
With Some Sea-Pieces (1888); Timoleon (1891), a collection. Poems
unpublished during Melville's lifetime are included in later collections
Studies of the author's life and work include Edward H. Rosenberry,
Melville (1979), an introductory survey; Edwin H. Miller, Melville
(1975), a psychobiography; Raymond M. Weaver, Herman Melville,
Mariner and Mystic (1921, reissued 1968), interesting as the first
biography; Lewis Mumford, Herman Melville, rev. ed. (1963), a little
outmoded, but a sensitive appreciation of the man; Newton Arvin,
Herman Melville (1950, reprinted 1976), a judicious critical biography;
Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography (1951, reissued 1967),
a complete factual account of Melville's life, perceptively analytic; Jay
Leyda, The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville,
1819-1891, 2 vol. (1951, reissued 1969), a fascinating collection of
documents, photographs, and letters; William H. Gilman, Melville's
Early Life and Redburn (1951, reissued 1972), a thorough record of
Melville's youth and the relationships between fact and fiction in
Redburn; and Tyrus Hillway, Herman Melville, rev. ed. (1979), a
concise analytical biography. For literary criticism, see William E.
Sedgwick, Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind (1944, reissued
1972), one of the best studies of Melville's ideas as they appear in his
novels; A.R. Humphreys, Melville (1962), an excellent introductory
study; and Kerry McSweeney, Moby-Dick: Ishmael's Mighty Book
(1986), a compact but insightful and readable analysis of key points of
the work and of its place among Melville's other works.