The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 19th Century
Herman Melville

his adventures became popular books

Herman Melville

Herman Melvill was born to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill in New York City, New York, on August 1, 1819, the third of eight children. His father was a well-to-do merchant from New England, and his mother was from an old, socially prominent New York Dutch family. The family lived a very comfortable life, but Allan Melvill tended to pay for that comfort with loans instead of earned cash. After Allan died in 1832 it was discovered that he had borrowed far more than his estate was worth, and his widow and minor children moved to Albany, New York, where Herman's older brother Gansevoort opened a hat store. It was at this time that Herman and his siblings added the "e" to the family name. In order to help his family pay its bills, Herman worked a variety of jobs between 1832 and 1841, including stints in his brother's store and an uncle's bank.

Adventures at Sea

Melville first went to sea in 1837, when he sailed to Liverpool, England, as a cabin boy aboard the merchant ship St. Lawrence. He stayed in Liverpool for about five weeks, and then returned to New York on the St. Lawrence.

On January 3, 1841, Melville sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts, aboard the whaling ship Acushnet, which was bound for the South Pacific. When the ship put in at Nukahiva in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842, Melville and friend Richard Tobias Greene jumped ship and headed inland. The men ended up in a valley inhabited by natives known as Typees. Although the Typees were described as cannibals by other natives, Melville and Greene found them to be friendly, and they ended up spending almost a month with them.

What ultimately happened to Greene is unknown, but Melville ended up signing on with the Australian whaler Lucy Ann in August. He and several other crewmen deserted at Tahiti after a failed mutiny and were briefly jailed, after which Melville spent several months wandering Tahiti and nearby Moorea Island. He then signed on with yet another whaler, the Charles & Henry, which he left at the Sandwich Islands after six months. On August 17, 1844, he enlisted on the frigate United States, the flagship of the U. S. Navy's Pacific Squadron, which sailed around Cape Horn and reached Boston, Massachusetts, in October. He was released from his enlistment soon after, and returned to Albany.

Literary Career

Melville began his literary career with the novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, which was loosely based on his experiences in the Marquesas Islands. Published in London in 1846, the book was an overnight bestseller. A Boston publisher accepted Melville's next novel sight unseen, and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, loosely based on his wanderings in Tahiti, was published in 1847. Typee and Omoo gave Melville overnight renown as a writer and adventurer, and he often entertained by telling stories to his admirers.

On August 4, 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The couple originally settled in New York City, but moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1850. They eventually had four children -- Malcolm, Stanwix, Elizabeth, and Frances.

While Mardi, and a Voyage Thither, published in 1849, began as a South Seas adventure similar to Melville's first two novels, the story turned into one based on romance and philosophical journeys. Melville's readers were disappointed at his departure from his "autobiographical tales," and Mardi was both a critical and financial failure. He regained some of his audience with Redburn, His First Voyage (1849), which drew upon his voyages as a cabin boy. His popularity increased again with White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War (1850), which drew upon his experiences in the Navy.

Prior to moving to Massachusetts Melville told his publisher that he was working on "a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries." How much of the book he had already written at that point is unknown, but it is known that he expanded the book's focus and sped up his pace after meeting fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in nearby Lenox. Melville drew inspiration from Hawthorne, and dedicated the novel to him. By the time Moby Dick, or The Whale was published in 1851, it was much more than an adventure story. In addition to the story about Captain Ahab's hunt for the whale which had cost him a leg, Moby Dick includes an in-depth account of the whaling industry, and about whales in general. Melville also turned the novel into a complex allegory, with the whale representing the mysterious and complex force of the universe and Ahab the heroic struggle against the constrictions that confront an intelligent non-passive person. Although Moby Dick is considered a literary classic today, the work was either ignored or misunderstood by critics and readers of Melville's day, and his popularity declined dramatically.

After the pessimistic and tragic Pierre; or the Ambiguities (1853) led many readers and critics to consider him either eccentric or mad, Melville turned to writing short stories for Putnams and Harpers magazines. A collection of those stories was published as The Piazza Tales in 1856, but neither it nor any of the individual stories were well received. Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, a novel set in American Revolution, was published to mediocre reviews in 1855. His last full-length novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, was published in 1857. A bitter satire on humanity in general, the novel received reviews ranging from the bewildered to the denunciatory.

Later Career

No longer able to make a living as a writer, Melville worked the lecture circuit from 1857 to 1860. His lectures, which focused primarily on Roman statuary and sightseeing in Rome, were generally panned by audiences. Turning to poetry, he submitted a collection of verse to a publisher in 1860, but it was not accepted. In 1863, he, Elizabeth, and their four children moved to New York City. In 1866, Elizabeth's family managed to get Herman a position as deputy inspector of customs in the Port of New York, and he continued in that position until 1885.

Once again earning a steady income, Melville took to writing poetry on the side. His first published book of poems was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War: Civil War Poems (1866), which was inspired by having many family members involved in the Civil War (in various aspects) and a visit to the front with his brother in 1864. The collection was largely ignored by reviewers and readers alike.

In 1867, Melville's oldest son Malcolm accidently shot himself, a day after a quarrel between father and son. From that time on Melville concentrated primarily on his customs job, and won the reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution. Although his professional writing career all but ended, Melville never completely gave up on trying to revive his literary career. In 1876 he used a bequest from an uncle to publish Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimmage, an 18,000-line-long narrative poem inspired by an 1856-57 trip to the Holy Land. Very poorly received at the time of its publication, Clarel remains one of Melville's least popular works to this day.

Melville's second son, Stanwix, who had gone to sea in 1869, died in a San Francisco, California, hospital in 1886 after a long illness. The loss of Stanwix left Melville depressed, but his spirits were lifted somewhat upon learning that his novels were enjoying a modest resurgence in popularity in England. Attempting to capitalize on that popularity, he self-published two collections of poetry inspired by his life at sea -- John Marr, and Other Sailors; With Some Sea-Pieces (1888) and Timoleon (1891). He was working on the novel Billy Budd, Sailor when he died at his home on September 28, 1891. He was interred in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx. Finally finished and published by biographer Raymond Walker in 1924, Billy Budd was a critical success in both England and the United States.

Academy of American Poets
Literature Network

Civil War

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 19th Century

This page was last updated on 06/28/2018.