Biography of Herman Melville, American Novelist

Herman Melville
Herman Melville (1819-1891) american writer, c. 1870, painting by Joseph Eaton.

 Apic / Getty Images

Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American writer. A consummate adventurer, Melville wrote about ocean voyages with rigorous detail. His most famous work, Moby-Dick, was unappreciated during his lifetime, but has since come to the fore as one of America’s greatest novels.

Fast Facts: Herman Melville

  • Known For: Author of Moby-Dick and several adventurous travel novels
  • Born: August 1, 1819 in Manhattan, New York
  • Parents: Maria Gansevoort and Allan Melvill
  • Died: September 28, 1891 in Manhattan, New York
  • Selected Works: Moby-Dick, Clarel, Billy Budd
  • Spouse: Elizabeth Shaw Melville
  • Children: Malcolm (1849), Stanwix (1851), Elizabeth (1853), Frances (1855)
  • Notable Quote: “Taking a book off the brain is akin to the ticklish and dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety—and even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.”

Early Life and Family

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 as the third child of Maria Gansevoort and Allan Melvill, descendants of Albany Dutch and American revolutionary families, respectively. While they’re relations were lustrous, the family struggled to adapt to changing economic conditions following the War of 1812. Living in New York City, Allan imported European dress goods, and Maria ran the household, giving birth to eight children between 1815-1830. Shortly after the youngest, Thomas, was born, the family was forced to flee mounting debt and move to Albany. When Allan died of a fever in 1832, Maria turned to her wealthy Gansevoort relations for help. Also after Allan’s death, the family added the last “e” to “Melville,” giving the author the name he is known by today. Young Herman was given work at the Gansevoort fur store in 1835 before relocating to the Berkshires to teach at Sikes District School. 

Herman and his eldest brother Gansevoort both attended Albany Classical School and Albany Academy, but Gansevoort was always considered the more polished and smarter student. 

Herman Melville 's home - The Gansevoort House
Herman Melville 's childhood home - The Gansevoort House. Culture Club / Getty Images

In 1838, the family moved nearby to Lansingburgh, New York, and Melville began studying engineering and surveying, and also joined a debate society. He began writing, and published two fragments in 1839 titled “Fragments from a Writing-Desk” in the Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser. Unable to get a surveying job on the Erie Canal, Melville got a four-month job on a ship bound for Liverpool, which gave him a taste for adventure. When he returned, he taught again and visited relatives in Illinois, travelling rough with his friend E. J. M. Fly on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He returned home after his trip to New York City and decided to try his hand at whaling. Early in 1841, he boarded the whale ship Acushnet and worked for three years at sea, having many adventures along the way, which he used as material for his early works.

Early Work and Moby-Dick (1846-1852)

  • Typee (1846)
  • Omoo (1847)
  • Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1949)
  • Redburn (1949)
  • Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)
  • Pierre (1852)

Typee, a cannibalistic travelogue novel, was based on Melville’s own experiences while whaling. American publishers rejected the manuscript as too fanciful, but through Gansevoort Melville’s connections, it found a home with British publishers in 1846. After crewmembers corroborated Melville’s account as based on a true story, it began selling well. However, Gansevoort died during the book’s launch. During this period of financial success Melville married family friend Elizabeth Shaw in 1847, and returned to New York. He followed the Typee model with Omoo in 1847, based on his experiences in Tahiti, to similar success. 

Mardi, published early in 1849, was based on the Mexican-American war and firsthand accounts of the Gold Rush, which Melville believed fantastical. However, the book marked a departure from Typee and Omoo in that it chronicled intellectual growth and characters’ understanding of their place in history as well as adventure. Melville had begun to worry that maritime writing and his own experiences might constrain him and wanted new sources of inspiration. However, the book did poorly in America and England. To help with cash flow problems, Melville wrote Redburn, an autobiographical novel based on his childhood and family, in two months and quickly published it in 1949. This book returned Melville to success and wider audiences, giving him the momentum he needed to write Moby-Dick. 

Book Illustration from Moby Dick by Isaac Walton Taber
Book Illustration from Moby Dick by Isaac Walton Taber. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

After the birth of his son Malcolm in 1849, he moved his young family to the Arrowhead farm in the Berkshires in 1850. The homestead was near the vibrant intellectual scene led by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick. At this point, Melville had already written a substantial quantity of what would become Moby-Dick, but spending time with Hawthorne made him change course from another travel thriller to seek out his true aspirations for literary genius. Elizabeth was often ill, but Melville claimed to have no time to help her with the children. He wrote for six hours a day and gave the pages to his sister Augusta to copy and neaten. She had poetic aspirations of her own, but they were subsumed by Melville’s delirious ambition. 

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale was based on the sinking of the whaleship Essex when Melville was a boy, the novel touched upon everything from biology to superstition to camaraderie to morality. Published on November 14, 1851, the work was dedicated to Hawthorne and initially received a mixed reception, as a stark pivot from his earlier adventure works. During Melville’s lifetime, with the advent of National Parks like Yosemite, the American imagination turned away from the sea and towards California and the West; during his lifetime, Moby-Dick only sold 3,000 copies. Melville quickly wrote Pierre in 1952 to try and recover, but the thriller was an even bigger blow to his savings.

Later Work and Clarel (1853-1891)

  • The Piazza Tales (1856)
  • Israel Potter (1855)
  • The Confidence Man (1857).
  • Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866)
  • Clarel: A Poem and A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1876)

The strain of completing Moby-Dick and Pierre in addition to the financial and emotional stress of several new members of the Melville family—Stanwix in 1851, Elizabeth in 1853, and Frances in 1855—resulted in Melville taking a six-month trip to recuperate his health. He visited Hawthorne in England, in addition to exploring Egypt, Greece, Italy, and Jerusalem. On his return to the United States, Melville began touring on the lecture circuit, a popular form of public education at the time. He talked about statuary he’d seen in Rome, travel, and the oceans, but received few favorable reviews and ever fewer funds. He published a collection of stories on his return, The Piazza Tales, in 1856, including the later lauded tales “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby, The Scrivenor.” However, the stories did not initially sell well.

Melville also tried to write poems, both before and after the onset of the Civil War, but could not find reputable publishers, so could not follow the footsteps of his friend and mentor Hawthorne. In 1863, following a carriage accident, Melville could no longer continue farming and relocated the entire family, including his mother and sisters, back to New York City. In an attempt to curry favor with Lincoln and attain a civil service job, Melville visited Washington D.C. and Virginian battlefields in 1864. He published a collection of poems based on his experience, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, in 1866 and began civil work as the District Inspector of Customs for Manhattan that same year. 

Despite the stable employment, life in the Melville household was not harmonious. In 1867, Elizabeth threatened to stage a kidnapping to escape Melville’s depressive episodes and serious drinking problems, but she did not go through with the plan. Later that year, Malcolm Melville committed suicide in his bedroom. Either because of or in spite of these traumatic events, Melville began writing Clarel: A Poem and A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The long epic swept across political, moral, and religious themes, in addition to exploring ancient religions. The poem received a small printing after being published by Melville’s uncle in 1876. While Clarel was not successful at publication, it has since found ardent readers who enjoy its examination of the role of doubt in lived faith.

In 1885, Melville retired from the Customs Office, but continued writing despite declining health after a lifetime of drinking and accidents.

American Novelist Herman Melville
Tintype of the American Novelist Herman Melville. Bettmann / Getty Images 

Literary Style and Themes

Melville did not have much formal schooling, but undertook great self-improvement efforts and read widely. His early works were influenced by the hyper-stylization of Poe, but later he gravitated towards Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare.

While his works were mostly rooted in his lived experiences, much of his writing focuses on a man’s place in the world and how he can understand his own agency against the actions of God or fate. His work operates on as grand an introspective scale as an external one; the stakes are always high. Melville’s novels are considered by many modern readers to feature racism and misogyny, which Melvillean scholars dismiss as a sign of the characters’ viewpoint. 

Death

After retirement, Melville mostly kept to his home in New York. He began work on Billy Budd, a story about an honorable sailor. However, he did not complete the text before dying of a heart attack on September 28, 1891. At the time of his death, many of Melville’s works were out of print, and he lived in relative anonymity. He received a death notice, but not an obituary, in The New York Times. Critics believed his influence had ended long ago: “forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event.” 

Legacy

While Melville was not a particularly popular author during his lifetime, he has posthumously become one of America’s most influential authors. In the 1920s, the so-called Melville revival occurred. The manuscript for Billy Budd was discovered and published shortly before the first Melville biography was written by Raymond Carver. Melville’s collected works were published in 1924, to great fanfare. Academics sought a national epic to accompany the American Renaissance exemplified by the works of Dickinson, Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau, and found it in Moby-Dick. Melville’s biographers, including Hershel Parker and Andrew Delbanco, often described him as a man-against-nature, and subsequently he became a figurehead of a traditional masculinity; his family and domesticity were seen as obstacles to his genius, rather than the inspiration and fodder for many of his tales.

In the 1930s and 40s, scholars and writers began re-examining more of his shorter works and the imperialistic ramifications of his early novels. In 1930, a new illustrated Moby-Dick was published with graphics by Rockwell Kent. 

Melville’s work has influenced many 20th century writers and continues to hold sway today. Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Zadie Smith, Tony Kushner, and Ocean Vuong are among the many authors influenced by Melville’s work.

As Melville’s best known tale, Moby-Dick has entered the zeitgeist and has been the subject of countless dramatic and film adaptations, literary analysis, and artistic renderings. In 1971, Starbucks chose its name from the coffee-loving first mate in Moby-Dick. In 2010, a crowd-sourced translation of the text into emojis, called Emoji Dick was published, although it is not very legible. 

Sources

  • Barnes, Henry. “Zadie Smith to Co-Write Space Adventure with French Director Claire Denis.” The Guardian, 29 June 2015, www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jun/29/zadie-smith-claire-denis-co-write-space-adventure.
  • Benenson, Fred. “Emoji Dick;” Emoji Dick, www.emojidick.com/.
  • Bloom, Harold, editor. Herman Melville. Blooms Literary Criticism, 2008.
  • “Company Information.” Starbucks Coffee Company, www.starbucks.com/about-us/company-information.
  • Herman Melville's Obituary Notices. www.melville.org/hmobit.htm.
  • Jordan, Tina. “'Abnormal, as Most Geniuses Are': Celebrating 200 Years of Herman Melville.” The New York Times, 1 Aug. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/08/01/books/herman-melville-moby-dick.html.
  • Kelley, Wyn. Herman Melville. Wiley, 2008.
  • Lepore, Jill. “Herman Melville at Home.” The New Yorker, 23 July 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/07/29/herman-melville-at-home.
  • Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: 1851-1891. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
  • “The Life of Herman Melville.” PBS, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/whaling-biography-herman-melville/.
  • Weiss, Philip. “Herman-Neutics.” The New York Times, 15 Dec. 1996, www.nytimes.com/1996/12/15/magazine/herman-neutics.html.