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Born to a New York City merchant in 1819, Melville fought for a greatness that would not be realized during his lifetime.

Melville’s father supported his seven children importing French dry goods, but in 1830 he decided to try his luck in the fur business in Albany, NY. Within two years, the family was bankrupt and Herman’s father died suddenly. Melville and his siblings left school to work in the family fur and cap business.

Despite these difficulties, Herman Melville read extensively on his own, consuming mythology, anthropology, and history.

He was fascinated with Shakespeare’s poetic devices and their ability to capture an audience. He was also raised hearing the thrilling story of the whaleship Essex, which was attacked by a whale and sunk when Melville was just a year old. Melville’s captivation with the terrifying grandeur of whales, the audacity of whalers, and the relationship between the two would be a motivating factor behind his writing.

In 1839, at the age of 20, Melville took his first voyage across the Atlantic sea as a cabin boy on the merchant ship the St. Lawrence. After this expedition and a year exploring the West, Melville joined the crew of the whaling ship Acushnet in January of 1841.

The thrilling adventure that occurred during the next three years would satiate his desire for excitement and provide him with the material for his first three novels.

After a year and a half aboard the Acushnet, Melville and a fellow seaman deserted the ship, only to be captured by cannibals in the Marquesas Islands, the Typee. Although Melville was treated well, he sought rescue on the Australia whale ship Lucy Ann when it arrived on the Marquesas a month after his capture.

In October 1844, Melville returned to his mother’s house determined to write about his adventures. His subsequent writings borrowed from his own experiences as well as other peoples’ fantastic stories that he heard during his travels.

Because of his extensive experience as a seaman and a whaler, his descriptions of life out at sea were comprehensive and unflinchingly accurate. Melville was also able to communicate the fear and terror of a whale hunt, a feat that would make his greatest work, Moby Dick, a literary tribute to the whaling industry.

His first manuscript, a tale in which the narrator, Tommo, is captured by Typee cannibals, was initially rejected in the United States because publishers refused to believe the validity of the story. The story was finally accepted in London, where Melville’s older brother, Gansevoort, was working for the American Legation. Typee was published in Britain in February of 1846 to favorable reviews.

Lauded for its ethnographic focus exploring the relationship between a New Englander and a foreign culture, Melville’s story gained even more popularity after one of Herman’s former crewmates came forward to validate its factual base. This new based-on-a-true-story status coupled with Americans’ high interest in maritime adventures, helped Typee sell over 6,000 copies in two years when it was published in the U.S.

In the midst of his initial years as a profitable author, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts and a close family friend. The chief justice, Lemuel Shaw, would later support Melville in the late 1850s during his financial struggles.

With his new bride, Melville moved to New York City to live with his younger brother, mother, and four sisters in late 1847. Despite these crowded quarters, Melville was able to continue writing, and he finished two more novels within two years.

Melville moved on to his most prolific endeavor yet — a story about one man’s need to conquer and kill a great white whale. Melville had first thought of the idea after reading a 1839 article by Jeremiah N. Renolds entitled “Mocha Dick: Or, the White Whale of the Pacific.”

While he drafted what would become the novel Moby Dick, Melville met and befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had recently published the literary masterpiece The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne provided Melville with precious feedback on his manuscript, and encouraged him to change his current draft, a detailed account of whaling, into an allegorical novel.

In October 1851, The Whale, printed later as Moby Dick, was published in London. The allegorical undertones that Melville cultivated throughout the novel picked up on the link between whaling and a mid-19th century emerging American identity.

The story centers around the narrator Ishmael, a sailor on the whaleship Pequod. The ship captain, Ahab, has lost his leg to Moby Dick on a previous expedition, and he is motivated to the point of derangement by revenge for the whale’s life. Powered by this plot, Melville’s Moby Dick spun the parable of the hunt for the great white whale as an emblem of the human condition and the reckless expansion of the American republic.

Despite Melville’s high expectations for Moby Dick, literary critics largely disregarded the novel. Many critics were impressed with the detailed account of whaling voyages, but during Melville’s entire lifetime, the book sold only 3,000 copies.

Interest in maritime adventures was dwindling as Americans were setting their imaginations towards the potential in the West.

After the disappointment of Moby Dick‘s reception, Melville faced a battle against obscurity and financial ruin for the remainder of his life. In 1852, he wrote Pierre, a psychological romance based on his own childhood, but a negative critical reception and a poor sales performance cost him a significant amount of his savings. He turned to short pieces and poetry, publishing several pieces in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine from 1853 to 1854.

The general public ignored his short novel Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855), and Melville entered a period of darkness and depression.

A trip to Europe to visit his friend Hawthorne in October 1856 did little to lighten his melancholy over a lost dream of literary fame.

He toured the country from 1857 to 1860, giving lectures on various topics such as “Statues in Rome,” “The South Seas,” and the vague subject of “Traveling.” In 1863, Melville moved back to New York City where he later found a job as a customs inspector on the New York docks.

Melville was working on the manuscript of Billy Budd, Foretopman, a story about a sailor falsely accused of involvement in mutiny, when he died of a heart attack on September 28, 1891.

Moby Dick is a staple of many high school curriculum reading lists, and a 1956 film version by John Huston introduced the story into popular culture.

In Moby Dick and his other works, Melville was able to incorporate stories of adventure with examinations of many inherently American themes: religion versus science, human limitations and emerging technology, and truth versus American myth.

The ramifications that Americans can take from reading Melville center around the immoral manifestation of the democratic ideal that Americans were facing during the height of the whaling industry.

 

Name

Herman Melville

Born

August 1, 1819

Died

September 28, 1891 (aged 72)