Herman Melville


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.


Early life, education, and family

Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, as the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. (After Allan died, Maria added an "e" to the surname.) Part of a well-established - if colorful - Boston family, Melville's father spent a good deal of time abroad doing business deals as a commission merchant and an importer of French dry goods. His paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melvill, an honored survivor of the Boston Tea Party who refused to change the style of his clothing or manners to fit the times, was depicted in Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem "The Last Leaf". Herman visited him in Boston, and his father turned to him in his frequent times of financial need. The maternal side of Melville's family was Hudson Valley Dutch. His maternal grandfather was General Peter Gansevoort, a hero of the battle of Saratoga; in his gold-laced uniform, the general sat for a portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart. The portrait appeared in Melville's later novel, Pierre, for Melville wrote out of his familial as well as his nautical background. Like the titular character in Pierre, Melville found satisfaction in his "double revolutionary descent.

Herman's younger brother, Thomas Melville, was a governor of Sailors Snug Harbor.

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.

Melville attended the Albany Academy from October 1830 to October 1831, and again from October 1836 to March 1837, where he studied the classics.

Early working life

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.

Marriage and later working life

Melville married Elizabeth Shaw (daughter of noted Massachusetts jurist Lemuel Shaw) on August 4, 1847; the couple honeymooned in Canada. They had four children, two sons and two daughters. In 1850 they purchased Arrowhead, a farm house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts that is today a museum. Here Melville remained for thirteen years, occupied with his writing and managing his farm. There he befriended the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in nearby Lenox. Melville, something of an intellectual loner for most of his life, was tremendously inspired and encouraged by his new relationship with Hawthorne during the very period that he was writing one of the greatest works in the English language, Moby-Dick (dedicating it to Hawthorne), though their friendship was on the wane only a short time later, when he wrote Pierre there. However, these works did not achieve the popular and critical success of his earlier books. Following scathing reviews of Pierre by critics, publishers became wary of Melville's work. His publisher, Harper & Brothers, rejected his next manuscript, Isle of the Cross which has been lost.

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.

Publications and contemporary reactions

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.

Critical response

Contemporary criticism

After the success of travelogues based on voyages to the South Seas and stories based on misadventures in the merchant marine and navy, Melville's popularity declined dramatically. By 1876, all of his books were out of print. In the later years of his life and during the years after his death he was recognized, if at all, as only a minor figure in American literature.

Melville Revival

A confluence of publishing events in the 1920s brought about a reassessment now commonly called the Melville Revival. The two books generally considered most important to the Revival were both brought forth by Raymond Weaver: his 1921 biography Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic and his 1924 version of Melville's last great but never quite finished or properly organized work, Billy Budd, which Melville's granddaughter gave to Weaver when he visited her for research on the biography. The other works that helped fan the Revival flames were Carl Van Doren's The American Novel (1921), D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), and Lewis Mumford's biography, Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Work (1929).

Themes of Gender and Sexuality

More recently, there has been an emerging interest in the role of gender and sexuality in some of Melville's writings. Some critics, particularly those interested in gender and sexuality, have examined possible homosocial or homoerotic overtones in some of Melville's works. A common example of the latter from Moby Dick is the interpretation of male bonding from the "marriage bed" episode involving Ishmael and Queequeg, as well as the "Squeeze of the Hand" chapter describing the camaraderie of sailors extracting spermaceti from a dead whale. Some critics have speculated that perceived themes of sexuality in his writings may be reflective of his own personal beliefs, despite the fact that there is no hard evidence to support this claim.



Short stories



Uncollected or unpublished poems

  • "Epistle to Daniel Shepherd"
  • "Inscription for the Slain at Fredericksburgh" [sic]
  • "The Admiral of the White"
  • "To Tom"
  • "Suggested by the Ruins of a Mountain-temple in Arcadia"
  • "Puzzlement"
  • "The Continents"
  • "The Dust-Layers"
  • "A Rail Road Cutting near Alexandria in 1855"
  • "A Reasonable Constitution"
  • "Rammon"
  • "A Ditty of Aristippus"
  • "In a Nutshell"
  • "Adieu"


The following essays were uncollected during Melville's lifetime:

  • "Fragments from a Writing Desk, No. 1" (Democratic Press, and Lansingburgh Advertiser, May 4, 1839)
  • "Fragments from a Writing Desk, No. 2" (Democratic Press, and Lansingburgh Advertiser, May 18, 1839)
  • "Etchings of a Whaling Cruise" (New York Literary World, March 6, 1847)
  • "Authentic Anecdotes of 'Old Zack'" (Yankee Doodle, II, excerpted September 4, published in full weekly from July 24 to September 11, 1847)
  • "Mr Parkman's Tour" (New York Literary World, March 31, 1849)
  • "Cooper's New Novel" (New York Literary World, April 28, 1849)
  • "A Thought on Book-Binding" (New York Literary World, March 16, 1850)
  • "Hawthorne and His Mosses" (New York Literary World, August 17 and August 24, 1850)


  • Correspondence, Ed. Lynn Horth. Evanston, IL and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library (1993). ISBN 0-8101-0995-6
  • Journals, Ed. Howard C. Horsford with Lynn Horth. Evanston, IL and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Pr. and The Newberry Library (1989). ISBN 0-8101-0823-2


Further reading

  • Adler, Joyce Sparer. War in Melville's Imagination. New York: New York University Press, 1981. ISBN 0-8147-0575-8
  • Bryant, John, ed. A Companion to Melville Studies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986. ISBN 031323874X
  • Bryant, John. Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0195077822
  • Beaulieu, Victor-Levy. Monsieur Melville. Toronto: Coach House, 1978, tr. 1985. ISBN 0-88910-239-2
  • Garner, Stanton. The Civil War World of Herman Melville. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1993. ISBN 0-7006-0602-5
  • Goldner, Loren. Herman Melville: Between Charlemagne and the Antemosaic Cosmic Man. Race, Class and the Crisis of Bourgeois Ideology in an American Renaissance Writer. New York: Queequeg Publications, 2006. ISBN 0-9700-308-2-7.
  • Gretchko, John M. J. "Melvillean Ambiguities" Cleveland, Falk & Bright, 1990.
  • Hayford, Harrison. "Melville's Prisoners." Foreword by Hershel Parker. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8101-1973-0.
  • Levine, Robert S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Cambridge, UK & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-521-55571-X
  • Martin, Robert K. Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville.
  • Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography (Volume 1, 1819-1851). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Paperback edition, 2005: ISBN 0-8018-8185-4
  • Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography (Volume 2, 1851-1891). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Paperback edition, 2005: ISBN 0-8018-8186-2
  • Renker, Elizabeth. Strike Through the Mask: Herman Melville and the Scene of Writing. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Reprint (paperback) edition, 1997: ISBN 0-8018-5875-5
  • Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1996. ISBN 0-517-59314-9
  • Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. New York: Knopf, 1983. ISBN 0-394-50609-X

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