Herman Melville
(Portrait from 1885)
Quick Overview

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).


His Life




The following links and text were drawn from

Related Internet Links

The Life and Works of Herman Melville
Comprehensive guide to information about Melville. Includes a complete bibliography of Melville biographies, letters, and journals and links to the complete texts of several of Melville's stories and his more popular novels.

Herman Melville
Biography and selected bibliography of the writer.

 The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade
Book by Herman Melville (1857). Includes an annotated bibliography.

 The Portent

His Life:
[Heritage and youth][Wanderings and voyages.]

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
                   American consul.

                   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
                   obituary notice.

                   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
                   and selections.


                   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.