Born into an impoverished family of distinguished Dutch and English colonial descent, Melville was 12 when his father died. He left school at 15, worked at a variety of jobs, and in 1839 signed on as a cabin boy on a ship bound for Liverpool, an experience reflected in his romance Redburn. In 1841-42 he spent 18 months on a whaler, but intolerable hardships on board caused him and a companion to escape from the ship at the Marquesas Islands. The two were captured by a tribe of cannibals, by whom they were well treated. After being rescued by an Australian whaler, Melville spent some time in Tahiti and other Pacific islands before shipping home in 1844.
The immediate results of his experiences were Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), as well as Redburn (1849), all fresh, exuberant, and immensely popular romances. In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of Massachusetts. The popularity of his books brought him prosperity, business trips to Europe, and admission to literary circles in New York City. In 1850 he bought a farm near Pittsfield, Mass., and became friends with his neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne. The allegorical implications evident in his romances Mardi: and a Voyage Thither (1849) and White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850) reached full development in Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851).
The story of a deranged whaling captain's obsessive voyage to find and destroy the great white whale that had ripped off his leg, the novel is at once an exciting sea story, a sociological critique of various American class and racial prejudices, a repository of information about whales and whaling, and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of good and evil, of man and his fate. The novel is heavily symbolic, and many critical formulations have been made as to the meaning of its central symbol, the great white whale Moby-Dick himself. Moby-Dick is greatly enhanced by Melville's rhythmic, rhetorical prose style. Although it is now considered one of the greatest of all novels, Moby-Dick was misunderstood and ill-received in its time. Readers were confused by the book's symbolism, and they failed to grasp Melville's complex view of the world.
Like Moby-Dick, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), a psychological study of guilt and frustrated good, was disregarded by the public. Disheartened by debts, ill health, and the failure to win an audience, Melville became absorbed in mysticism. He was unable to accept the optimism of transcendentalism, for he was always able to see the cruel as well as the beautiful in nature. Although he searched for a faith that would satisfy his yearning for the Absolute, he never found one. Melville continued to produce important works in The Piazza Tales (1856), a collection which includes "Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby the Scrivener," and The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857), a pessimistic satire on materialism.
Melville was forced to sell his farm, and in 1866 he secured a poorly paying position in New York City as a district inspector of customs, a job he held for 19 years. His late works include the volumes of poetry Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) and John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and the long poem Clarel (1876). However, he wrote no more fiction until his last years when he composed the posthumously published novella Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924), the tragedy of an innocent. Melville died in poverty and obscurity. Although neglected for many years, he was rediscovered around 1920 and has been enthusiastically studied by critics and scholars ever since. Many of his unpublished works were issued posthumously, notably The Apple Tree Table (1922), a collection of magazine sketches; Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent (1948); and Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant (1955).
See the authoritative ed. of his writings (15 vol., ed. by H. M. Hayford et al., 1968-93); his letters (ed. by M. R. Davis and W. H. Gilman, 1960); biographies by N. Arvin (1950, repr. 1972, 2002), L. Howard (1981), G. Wolff (1987), H. Parker (2 vol., 1996-2002), L. Robertson-Lorant (1996), E. Hardwick (2000), and A. Delbanco (2005); studies by M. Rogin (1983), N. Tolchin (1988), and W. Dimock (1989).
(born Aug. 1, 1819, New York, N.Y., U.S.—died Sept. 28, 1891, New York City) U.S. writer. Born to a wealthy New York family that suffered great financial losses, Melville had little formal schooling and began a period of wanderings at sea in 1839. In 1841 he sailed on a whaler bound for the South Seas; the next year he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands. His adventures in Polynesia were the basis of his successful first novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). After his allegorical fantasy Mardi (1849) failed, he quickly wrote Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), about the rough life of sailors. Moby-Dick (1851), his masterpiece, is both an intense whaling narrative and a symbolic examination of the problems and possibilities of American democracy; it brought him neither acclaim nor reward when published. Increasingly reclusive and despairing, he wrote Pierre (1852), which, intended as a piece of domestic “ladies” fiction, became a parody of that popular genre, Israel Potter (1855), The Confidence-Man (1857), and magazine stories, including “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) and “Benito Cereno” (1855). After 1857 he wrote verse. In 1866 a customs-inspector position finally brought him a secure income. He returned to prose for his last work, the novel Billy Budd, Foretopman, which remained unpublished until 1924. Neglected for much of his career, Melville came to be regarded by modern critics as one of the greatest American writers.
Learn more about Melville, Herman with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist and poet. His first two books gained much attention, though they were not bestsellers, and his popularity declined precipitously after only a few years. By the time of his death he had been almost completely forgotten, but his longest novel, Moby-Dick — largely considered a failure during his lifetime, and most responsible for Melville's fall from favor with the reading public — was recognized in the 20th century as one of the chief literary masterpieces of both American and world literature.
Allan Melvill sent his sons to the New York Male School (Columbia Preparatory School). Overextended financially and emotionally unstable, Allan tried to recover from his setbacks by moving his family to Albany in 1830 and going into the fur business. The new venture, however, was unsuccessful: the War of 1812 had ruined businesses that tried to sell overseas and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He died shortly after, leaving his family penniless, when Herman was 12. Although Maria had well-off kin, they were concerned with protecting their own inheritances and taking advantage of investment opportunities rather than settling their mother's estate so Maria's family would be more secure.
Herman 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 on a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage, and returned on the same ship. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) is partly based on his experiences of this journey.
The three years after Albany Academy (1837 to 1840) were mostly occupied with school-teaching, except for the voyage to Liverpool in 1839. Near the end of 1840 he once again decided to sign ship's articles. On January 3, 1841, he sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts on the whaler Acushnet, which was bound for the Pacific Ocean. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and traveled to the South Pacific. Melville left very little direct information about the events of this 18 months' cruise, although his whaling romance, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, probably gives many pictures of life onboard the Acushnet. Melville deserted the Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842. For three weeks he lived among the Typee natives, who were called cannibals by the two other tribal groups on the island though they treated Melville very well. His book Typee describes a brief love affair with a beautiful native girl, Fayaway, who generally "wore the garb of Eden" and came to epitomize the guileless noble savage in the popular imagination, but we have no evidence of Melville's actual activities among the islanders.
Melville did not seem to be concerned about repercussions from his desertion of the Acushnet. He boarded another whaler bound for Hawaii and left that ship in Honolulu. After working as a clerk for four months he joined the crew of the frigate USS United States, which reached Boston in October 1844. These experiences were described in Typee, Omoo, and White Jacket, which were published as novels mainly because few believed their veracity.
Melville completed Typee in the summer of 1845 though he had difficulty getting it published. It was eventually published in 1846 in London, where it became an overnight bestseller. The Boston publisher subsequently accepted Omoo sight unseen. Typee and Omoo gave Melville overnight notoriety as a writer and adventurer and he often entertained by telling stories to his admirers. As writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis wrote, "With his cigar and his Spanish eyes, he talks Typee and Omoo, just as you find the flow of his delightful mind on paper". The novels, however, did not generate enough royalties for him to live on. Omoo was not as colorful as Typee, and readers began to realize Melville was not just producing adventure stories. Redburn and White-Jacket had no problem finding publishers. Mardi was a disappointment for readers who wanted another rollicking and exotic sea yarn.
For financial reasons, Melville was persuaded while in Pittsfield to enter what was for others the lucrative field of lecturing. From 1857 to 1860, he spoke at lyceums, chiefly on the South Seas. Turning to poetry, he gathered a collection of verse that failed to interest a publisher. In 1863, he and his wife resettled, with their four children, in New York City. After the end of the American Civil War, he published Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), a collection of over seventy poems that was generally panned by critics. His professional writing career was at an end and his marriage was unhappy when in 1867 his oldest son, Malcolm, shot himself, perhaps accidentally. Pulling his life together, Melville used his influence to obtain a position as customs inspector for the City of New York (a humble but adequately-paying appointment), and held the post for 19 years. (The customs house was ironically on Gansevoort St., which was named after his mother's prosperous family.) In 1876 his uncle Peter Gansevoort, by a bequest, paid for the publication of the massive epic poem, Clarel. Two volumes of poetry followed: John Marr (1888) and Timoleon (1891).
Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891, age 72. The doctor listed "cardiac dilation" on the death certificate. His New York Times obituary called him "Henry Melville". He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.
From about age thirty-three, Melville ceased to be popular with a broad audience because of his increasingly philosophical, political and experimental tendencies. His novella Billy Budd, Sailor, unpublished at the time of his death, was published in 1924. Later it was turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten, a play, and a film by Peter Ustinov.
In Herman Melville's Religious Journey, Walter Donald Kring detailed his discovery of letters indicating that Melville had been a member of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. Until this revelation, little had been known of his religious affiliation. Parker in the second volume of his biography makes it clear that Melville became a nominal member only to placate his wife. He despised Unitarianism and its associated "ism", Utilitarianism. (The great English Unitarians were Utilitarians.) See the 2006 Norton Critical Edition of The Confidence-Man for more detail on Melville and religion than in Parker's 2002 volume.
Most of Melville's novels were published first in the United Kingdom and then in the U.S. Sometimes the editions contain substantial differences; at other times different printings were either bowdlerized or restored to their pre-bowdlerized state. (For specifics on different publication dates, editions, printings, etc., please see entries for individual novels.)
Moby-Dick has become Melville's most famous work and is often considered one of the greatest literary works of all time. It was dedicated to Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. It did not, however, make Melville rich. The book never sold its initial printing of 3,000 copies in his lifetime, and total earnings from the American edition amounted to just $556.37 from his publisher, Harper & Brothers. Melville also wrote Billy Budd, White-Jacket, Typee, Omoo, Pierre, The Confidence-Man and many short stories and works of various genres.
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 and Aspects of the War, which did not sell well; of the Harper & Bros. printing of 1200 copies, only 525 had been sold ten years later. 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 obscure, even in his own time. This may be the longest single poem in American literature. The poem, published in 1876, had an initial printing of only 350 copies. The critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of the poem in the New York Public Library in 1925 "with its pages uncut". In other words, it had sat there unread for 50 years.
His poetry is not as highly critically esteemed as his fiction, although some critics place him as the first modernist poet in the United States; others would assert that his work more strongly suggest what today would be a postmodern view. Clarel has won the admiration of no less a critic than Helen Vendler, who read it in preparation for the 1976 Pittsfield Centennial Celebration.
Uncollected or unpublished poems