Melville, Herman, 1819-1891

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1819-08-01
Death 1891-09-28
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

Herman Melville (b. Aug. 1, 1819, NY, NY–d. Sept. 28, 1891, NY, NY) was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet of the American Renaissance period. His best known works include Typee (1846) and his whaling novel Moby-Dick (1851). His writing draws on his experience at sea as a common sailor, exploration of literature and philosophy, and engagement in the contradictions of American society in a period of rapid change. He developed a complex, baroque style; the vocabulary is rich and original, a strong sense of rhythm infuses the elaborate sentences, the imagery is often mystical or ironic, and the abundance of allusion extends to biblical scripture, myth, philosophy, literature, and the visual arts.

Melville was born in New York City, the third child of a merchant in French dry goods and his wife. He briefly became a schoolteacher before he took to sea in 1839 as a sailor on a merchant ship. In 1840, he signed aboard the whaler Acushnet for his first whaling voyage but jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands. He returned to Boston in 1844 after further adventures. His first book was Typee (1846), a highly romanticized account of his life among Polynesians. It became such a best-seller that he wrote the sequel Omoo (1847). These successes gave him the financial basis to marry Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of a prominent Boston family, but the success proved hard to sustain. His first novel that was not based on his own experiences was Mardi (1849), a sea narrative that develops into a philosophical allegory—but it was not well received. He received warmer reviews for Redburn (1849), a story of life on a merchant ship, and his 1850 description of the harsh life aboard a man-of-war in White-Jacket, but they did not provide financial security.

In August 1850, Melville moved his growing family to Arrowhead, a farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he established a profound but short-lived friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated Moby-Dick. This novel was another commercial failure, published to mixed reviews. Melville's career as a popular author effectively ended with the cool reception of Pierre (1852), in part a satirical portrait of the literary culture at the time. His Revolutionary War novel Israel Potter appeared in 1855. From 1853 to 1856, Melville published short fiction in magazines, most notably "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853), "The Encantadas" (1854), and "Benito Cereno" (1855). These and three other stories were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales. The Confidence-Man (1857) was the last prose work that he published. He moved to New York to take a position as Customs Inspector and turned to poetry. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) was his poetic reflection on the moral questions of the American Civil War.

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Subjects:

  • Manuscripts, American
  • Presidents--Election--1844
  • Ocean travel
  • Publishers and Publishing
  • Wine--commerce
  • American poetry--19th century
  • Voyages and travels
  • American literature--19th century
  • Copyright--Royalties
  • Authors and publishers
  • Television scripts

Occupations:

  • Novelists
  • Customs inspectors
  • Lecturers
  • Poets
  • Teachers
  • Sailors
  • Publisher
  • Authors

Places:

  • New York, NY, US
  • New York, NY, US