Herman Melville Biography


Early Years and Education

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, the third of eight children. His father, Allan Melvill (the family changed the spelling of the last name around 1838) was of unsteady temperament but a prosperous importer and merchant in New York City. His mother, Maria Gansevoort, was a devoutly religious, somewhat critical woman from a colonial family of social standing in Albany. When Allan's fur and hat business began to fail, he moved it to Albany without success. The father died in 1832, bankrupt and apparently insane. The family moved to Lansingburgh in 1837 in an attempt to cut expenses.

Herman had a troubled childhood. A bout with scarlet fever at the age of seven left his eyesight permanently damaged, and, following his father's death, the family was so poor that Herman's education was sporadic. He studied the classics in Albany and trained to be a surveyor while in Lansingburgh but had to curtail his education to earn money for the family. Despite his weak eyes, Melville was an avid reader and delighted in finding, in his late twenties, an edition of Shakespeare with print large enough to accommodate him. But his real education was at sea. He could say, with Ishmael, "a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

Life at Sea and Marriage

Following brief stints as a clerk and schoolteacher, Melville signed on as a cabin boy with the trade ship St. Lawrence in 1839, completing a round trip to Liverpool. Upon his return, he again taught school, unsuccessfully sought work in New York City, and traveled on a Mississippi River steamboat. In January 1841, Melville's life took a significant turn as he sailed as a crew member on the American whaler Acushnet, taking the Cape Horn (southern tip of South America) route to the Pacific Ocean and the Marquesas Islands. There, in the summer of 1842, he and a friend jumped ship in response to the wretched conditions on board and the brutality of the ship's officers. Melville lived with friendly cannibals in the interior of Nuku Hiva for a month or so before joining the crew of the Australian whaler Lucy Ann. Melville's difficulty with the stern discipline aboard ships of the day continued. At Tahiti in September 1842, he and several other rebellious sailors refused to follow orders and were imprisoned on land. Easily escaping a few weeks later, Melville sailed on an American whaler, the Charles and Henry, ending up in Hawaii where, in April 1843, he was discharged and worked as a clerk and a pinsetter in a bowling alley. He signed on with the U. S. Navy frigate United States, again visiting Tahiti and the Marquesas as well as various Latin American ports before being discharged in Boston in October 1844.

Approaching the age of thirty, Melville sought stability in a marriage (1847) to Elizabeth "Lizzie" Knapp Shaw, daughter of the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and a friend of his sister Helen. Relying on borrowed money from his wife's family, Melville purchased a farm (1850), which he called Arrowhead, in Massachusetts. Nearby lived Nathaniel Hawthorne, fifteen years Melville's senior, who published his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, that year; the two became friends.

Writing and Reputation

Melville's writing career, much of which was inspired by his travels, began with the publication of Typee in 1846, followed relatively shortly after by Omoo (1847). The reaction to these first two novels was encouraging enough to make Melville believe, initially, that he had a future as a professional writer. For a short time, contemporaries thought of him as one of the bright young novelists of America. These first two books are based on the author's experiences in the South Seas — Typee on his life with the cannibals and Omoo on his experiences in Tahiti. They purport to be fairly factual adventure stories allowing the audience an unusual view of Polynesian life, and each was a modest critical success.

Mardi (1849) was not. It opens with apparent realism as the narrator deserts his whaling ship, but it develops into a fantasy that readers rejected. Even Melville called it a "chartless voyage." Melville returned to the approach of his first two books in Redburn (1849), a partly autobiographical story of the reminiscences of a "Son-of-a-Gentleman" in the merchant service. Much of White Jacket (1850) is a fictional account of Melville's experiences aboard the U. S. frigate United States. The narrator exposes the tyranny and injustice of life aboard a warship, from the point of view of an enlisted man. Melville claimed that he wrote these two novels strictly for money, and they did have limited success.

Melville produced his finest book, Moby-Dick, in 1851. Only a few critics recognized the genius of the work, and Melville had serious doubts about his future career. Pierre (1852) was too ambiguous and complex for Melville's audience. The story, somewhat autobiographical, deals with a young writer who seeks strict honesty but finds only disaster for himself and those around him. Israel Potter (1855), somewhat more successful, was first published as a magazine serial. It is a rewrite of a story about an American Revolutionary veteran who returns to America after fifty years of adventures abroad, having learned to be a survivor through the application of good sense. The Piazza Tales (1856) contains some of Melville's finest writing, shorter works such as "Bartleby, the Scrivener," a consideration of the values of Wall Street; the dark "Benito Cereno"; and a work that has grown in respect over the years, "The Encantadas," a philosophical look into the Galapagos Islands. The Confidence-Man (1857), an enigmatic consideration of identity and self-deception taking place on a Mississippi River steamboat, was the last work of fiction that Melville published in his lifetime. These last works, especially The Piazza Tales, found some small audience, but Melville was terribly discouraged and withdrew from his efforts to support himself and his family through writing.

Despite his disappointment, Melville did continue to write part-time. During the final days of the Civil War, he created some moving poetry that he eventually published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine and in a volume titled Battle-Pieces (1866). A prose "Supplement" calls for decency on the part of the victorious North during the reconstruction period, a position that Abraham Lincoln espoused but did not live to bring into effect. Again, contemporary reviews were tepid.

Melville published three more books in his declining years, all at his own or a sponsor's expense. Clarel (1876) is a long poem based on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While ambitious, it does not attract many readers even today. John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) is a collection of poems based on Melville's life as a seaman. Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse (1891) is a collection of poetry partly based on his travels. These last two were handsome little private editions of only twenty-five copies each.

Melville left a few unpublished poems and, most notably, the fine novella Billy Budd, Foretopman, which was finally published in 1924. Although Melville was thought to be one of the finer young writers in America at the end of the 1840s, by his death he was nearly forgotten. Only one obituary noted his passing on September 28, 1891.