Herman Melville Biography

Herman Melville (1819 – 1891) was a novelist, short story writer and essayist. It is said to have been the American Renaissance period during the time he wrote and published. However, Melville remained mostly unappreciated and neglected for most of his career.

Herman Melville

Childhood and youth

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York City. His father, Allan Melville, was a merchant, and his mother was Maria Melville. He was the third of their eight children. Allan Melville spent much of his time out of New York and in Europe, as a commission merchant and an importer of French dry goods.

Both of Melville’s grandfathers fought in the Revolutionary War, and Melville took pride in the fact. It was a well established and colourful family, which facilitated Allen Melville to spend beyond his means.

Melville’s education began in 1824. He was sent to New York Male High School, along with his brother Gansevroot. His father described him as “very backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension” at first, but he went to make remarkable improvement soon.

In 1829, he was transferred to Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, and Herman enrolled in the English department.

He then went to the Albany Academy from October 1830 to October 1831 where he studied a wide a range of subjects, from spelling, penmanship, arithmetic and English grammar to natural history, Greek, Roman, English history Classical biography and Jewish antiquities.

As Melville scholar Merton Sealts observes that his study of ancient history, biography and literature during his school days had a lasting impression on his thoughts and art. He had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of both the Old and New Testaments. The minute classical references in his writings were based on his study of these subjects in his school days.

However, owing to the spendthrift nature of Allen Melville, even paying the nominal school fee became difficult and once more, Herman had to leave his school. Melville’s father died in 1832, and Melville likely witnessed his death as he was no longer attending school. Scholars opine that he described a similar death, years later, in his book Pierre.

Melville was fond of drawing and visual arts stayed as a lifelong interest for him. He was put into the family fur business by his uncle Gansevroot at age fourteen. In 1835, while still working in the fur store, Melville enrolled back in Albany Classical School. In 1937, he was once again withdrawn.

An illustration of Typee

Literary Career

Herman Melville published his first essay in 1839. Using the initials “L.A.V” he contributed “Fragments from a Writing Desk” to the weekly newspaper Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser, which printed it in two installments.

His writing was heavily inspired by the styles of writers such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, Walter Scott, Richard Sheridan etc. He completed Typee, his first book in summer 1845.

It was published in February 1846 by John Murray in London and soon became a bestseller. The book was inspired by Melville’s life at the sea for the most part of it, although, it was published as a fictional and not as an autobiographical account.

He did, however, incorporate materials from the source books he had collected and made certain changes like, extend the period of time his protagonist spends at the sea.

An unsigned review in the Salem Advertiser written by Nathaniel Hawthorn read,

“This book is lightly but vigorously written; and we are acquainted with no work that gives a freer and more effective picture of barbarian life, in that unadulterated state of which there are now so few specimens remaining. The gentleness of disposition that seems akin to the delicious climate, is shown in contrast with the traits of savage fierceness … He has that freedom of view—it would be too harsh to call it laxity of principle—which renders him tolerant of codes of morals that may be little in accordance with our own, a spirit proper enough to a young and adventurous sailor, and which makes his book the more wholesome to our staid landsmen.”

In March 1847, Omoo, a sequel to Typee was published by Murray in London and by Harper in New York. Melville became a successful and renowned writer overnight by virtue of Typee and Omoo.

In 1848, Melville published Mardi, a travelogue turning into rich romance and evolving into a philosophical quest. Nathaniel Hawthorne thought it was well written novel with “depths here and there that compels a man to swim for his life.”

Moby Dick

Illustration of Moby Dick

Moby Dick; or, the Whale was published in 1851. The book is sailor Ishmael’s narrative of the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of Piquod – the whaling ship, of the giant sperm whale.

The whale bit off Ahab’s leg during the previous voyage of Piquod. Ahab makes it the goal of his life to avenge his loos by killing the whale, and eventually calls it his destiny to keep chasing the whale until either of them die.

The book’s genre classification range from Romantic to Symbolist. It was a commercial failure and received mixed reviews. It remained out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891. Moby Dick’s popularity grew in the 20th century, and its reputation as a “Great American Novel” developed with authors like William Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence calling it one of the best novel ever written.

Faulkner said he wished he had written the book himself. Lawrence called it “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world.”

Melville began writing Moby Dick in February 1850 and completed it a year later. His writing was interrupted by his meeting with Nathaniel Hawthorne, and creation of an essay titled “Moses from an Old Manse” as a result of their friendship. Melville also dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne saying “in token of my admiration for his genius.”

The novel found its base in Melville’s four-year experience as a sailor on a whaling vessel. It also draws on whaling literature. The detailed and realistic descriptions of whale hunting and extracting oil from whales are remarkably mixed with life in the ship among a culturally diverse crew.

It addresses issues of class conflict and social status, question on the existence of God and the fine line between good and evil.

Melville used literary devices like songs and poetry and soliloquies and asides on the style of Shakespeare.

Melville’s misfortune as a writer continued with his book Pierre: or, the Ambiguities in 1851. It was a difficult novel with psychological elements mixed with romance. Melville had high hopes for the book but was not well received. The critics lashed out at him calling him crazy author.

Pierre was followed by Israel Potter which was followed by some stories written for the Piazza magazine. It included stories like Bartleby, the Scrivener and Benito Cereno. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street is considered one of the best works by Melville, and also American fiction.

It explores the theme of isolation in American life through actual physical and mental loneliness. It is considered to be an attack on the commercial hub of New York – the Wall Street, which pushes people towards extreme materiality and away from human interaction.

His subsequent to visit to the Holy Land inspired his epic poem Clarel. In 1857, Melville published his last full length novel, The Confidence Man. It has achieved general acclaim in modern times as a complex novel exploring a diverse range of issues, however, at the time of its publication, it was once again received poorly by critics as well as readers.

Melville's house in New York
Melville’s house in New York

Herman Melville’s Death

Melville somewhat regained his popularity in England in the late nineteenth century as readers rediscovered his novels. He also wrote a series of poems about his life at the sea, with prose head-notes.

Melville died in 1891. His death certificate showed “cardiac dilation” as the cause. He was buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City.

Herman Melville quotes

  • To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.
  • Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.
  • We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibres connect us with our fellow men.
  • A smile is the chosen vehicle of all ambiguities.
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