Moby Dick: Biography: Herman Melville


Biography

Herman Melville was the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill, born in New York City on August 1, 1819. (The family later added an “e” to Melvill.) The Melvilles were a well-known Boston family, and the Gansevoorts, an old Hudson Valley family. Melville’s father died when he was still young and left the family in poverty. Herman had a classical education until the age of twelve, and then like little Pip in Moby Dick, he became a cabin boy, on a ship to Liverpool. Thus began his seafaring career, which was the fertile material for much of his writing. Redburn (1849) was based on this first voyage.

Just as Ishmael did, Melville taught school for several years, then shipped aboard a whaler, the Acushnet, in 1841. Because of harsh conditions, Melville left the whaler in the Pacific and lived in the Marquesas among the natives, thus gathering experience for his best-selling first novels, Typee and Omoo about life with cannibals. In Honolulu, he joined the U.S. Navy, but began to trade the sea life for writing once he had his first overnight success with Typee in 1846. What followed were mostly sea adventure stories: Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), White Jacket (1850). His popularity waned as his style changed and became more literary in the 1850s.

Melville was greatly influenced by his mentor, Hawthorne, who encouraged Moby Dick (1851) to be more allegorical, like Hawthorne’s writing. It was a flop with readers, who wanted straight adventure, and Moby Dick was never considered a masterpiece until the twentieth century. Melville continued to write but was forgotten and had to work as a customs official in New York to support his wife, Elizabeth Shaw, and their four children. His other works became ever more difficult for readers to understand and include Pierre (1852), The Confidence Man (1857), and the short stories, The Piazza Tales (1856), including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Benito Cereno” and others, which criticize human hypocrisy and greed.

After 1857, he wrote only poetry: Battle Pieces (1865)  John Marr (1888), the long epic, Clarel (1876) and Timoleon (1891). Billy Budd, a short novel discovered in manuscript when Melville died, was not published until1924; it is Melville’s most read work besides the short stories and Moby Dick.

Melville died in 1891 at the age of 72, never having received the fame he longed for, but now is considered one of America’s great authors.

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