Benito Cereno: Biography: Herman Melville

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Born in 1819, Herman Melville went to sea as a young man to support himself, and his experiences as a sailor would forever mark his literary work. In 1841, for example, Melville, leaving behind a three-year career as a schoolteacher, sailed on the whaler Acushnet around Cape Horn—a trip that surely provided much first-hand material for Melville’s great masterpiece, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). In the early 1840s he also sailed aboard the frigate United States.

In addition to his classic story of Captain Ahab’s revenge upon the white whale, Melville penned such work as Typee (1846), based upon his time living in the Marquesas Islands, and at first rejected by publishers even though they compared it favorably with Robinson Crusoe; Billy Budd, Sailor, which would not see print in Melville’s lifetime (in 1924); and the present work, the controversial but undeniably significant novella, Benito Cereno.

Melville married Elizabeth Shaw in 1847; they would have four children. During his married life, Melville worked as a lecturer and a customs inspector. He also forged a friendship with another important American writer, both of the day and to posterity, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Although it is now regarded as one of the few, truly “great American novels,” Moby-Dick was not hailed as such upon its publication. In fact, Melville’s reputation as an author would not grow until the twentieth century, many years after Melville died in 1891.

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