Herman Melville

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Herman Melville
Herman Melville

Herman Melville (August 1, 1819September 28, 1891) was an American novelist, essayist, and poet. During his lifetime his early novels were quite popular, but his audience declined later in his life. By the time of his death he had nearly been forgotten, but his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, was "rediscovered".



Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819 as the third child to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melville, and received his early education in that city. One of his grandfathers, Major Thomas Melville, participated in the Boston Tea Party. Another was General Peter Gansevoort who was acquainted with James Fenimore Cooper and defended Fort Stanwix in 1777. His father had described the young Melville as being somewhat slow as a child and Melville was also weakened by the scarlet fever, permanently affecting his eyesight. The family importing business went bankrupt in 1830, and the family went to Albany, New York, with Herman entering Albany Academy. Prior to that year, he attended Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Manhattan. After the death of his father in 1832, the family (with eight children) moved to the village of Lansingburgh on the Hudson River. Herman and his brother Gansevoort were forced to work to help support the family. There Herman remained until 1835, when he attended the Albany Classical School for some months.

Melville's roving disposition, and a desire to support himself independently of family assistance, led him to seek work as a surveyor on the Erie Canal. This effort failed, and his brother helped him get a job as a cabin boy in a New York vessel bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage, visited London, and returned in the same ship. Redburn: His First Voyage, published in 1849, is partly founded on the experiences of this trip. A good part of the succeeding three years, from 1837 to 1840, was occupied with school-teaching. At any rate, he once more signed a ship's articles, and on January 1, 1841, sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts harbour in the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific Ocean and the sperm fishery. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and travelled to the South Pacific. He has left very little direct information as to the events of this eighteen months' cruise, although his whaling romance, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, probably gives many pictures of life on board the Acushnet. Melville decided to abandon the vessel on reaching the Marquesas Islands. He lived among the natives of the island for several weeks and the narrative of Typee and its sequel, Omoo, tell this tale. After a sojourn at the Society Islands, Melville shipped for Honolulu. There he remained for four months, employed as a clerk. He joined the crew of the American frigate United States, which reached Boston, stopping on the way at one of the Peruvian ports, in October of 1844. Upon his return, he recorded his experiences in the books, Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, and White-Jacket, published in the following six years.

Melville married Miss Elizabeth Shaw (daughter of noted jurist, Lemuel Shaw) on August 4, 1847. The Melvilles resided in New York City until 1850, when they purchased Arrowhead, a farm house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts (which is today a museum). Here Melville remained for thirteen years, occupied with his writing, and managing his farm. There he befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne who lived in the area. There he wrote Moby Dick and Pierre, works that did not achieve the same popular and critical success as his earlier books.

While at Pittsfield, because of financial reasons, Melville was induced to enter the lecture field. From 1857 to 1860 he spoke at lyceums, chiefly speaking of his adventures in the South Seas. He also became a customs inspector for the City of New York, a post he held for 19 years. After an illness that lasted a number of months, Herman Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. In his later life, his works no longer accessible to a broad audience, he was not able to make money from writing. He depended on his wife's family for money along with his other attempts at employment. His short novel Billy Budd, an unpublished manuscript at the time of his death (only written three months before), was published successfully in 1924 and was turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten and a film.


Moby Dick has become Melville's most famous work and is often considered one of the greatest American novels. It was dedicated to Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville also wrote White-Jacket, Typee, Omoo, Pierre, The Confidence-Man and many short stories and works of various genres. His short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" is among his most important pieces, and has been considered a precursor to Existentialist and Absurdist literature. Melville is less well known as a poet and did not publish poetry until late in life; after the Civil War, he published Battle-Pieces, which sold well. But again tending to outrun the tastes of his readers, Melville's epic length verse-narrative Clarel, about a student's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was also quite unknown in his own time. His poetry is not as highly critically esteemed as his fiction.



Short Stories


  • Battle Pieces: And Aspects of the War (1866)
  • Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (poems) (1876)
  • John Marr and Other Sailors (1888)
  • Timoleon (1891)


  • Fragments from a Writing Desk, No. 1 (Published in Democratic Press, and Lansingburgh Advertiser, May 4 1839)
  • Fragments from a Writing Desk, No. 2 (Published in Democratic Press, and Lansingburgh Advertiser, May 18 1839)
  • Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (Published in New York Literary World, March 6 1847)
  • Authentic Anecdotes of "Old Zack" (Published in Yankee Doodle, II, weekly (September 4 excepted) from July 24 to September 11 1847)
  • Mr Parkman's Tour (Published in New York Literary World, March 31 1849)
  • Cooper's New Novel (Published in New York Literary World, April 28 1849)
  • A Thought on Book-Binding (Published in New York Literary World, March 16 1850)
  • Hawthorne and His Mosses (Published in New York Literary World, August 17 and August 24 1850)
  • Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! (Published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, December 1853)
  • Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs (Published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June 1854)
  • The Happy Failure (Published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1854)
  • The Fiddler (Published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, September 1854)
  • The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids (Published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, April 1855)
  • Jimmy Rose (Published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1855)
  • The 'Gees (Published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, March 1856)
  • I and My Chimney (Published in Putnam's Monthly Magazine, March 1856)
  • The Apple-Tree Table (Published in Putnam's Monthly Magazine, May 1856)
  • Uncollected Prose (1856)
  • The Two Temples (unpublished in Melville's lifetime)

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