Article abstract: With great power and insight into man’s ambiguous nature, Melville helped prove that American literature could equal that of England.
Herman Melville was born August 1, 1819, in New York City, the second son of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. (The final e was added after Allan’s death in 1832, perhaps to indicate the family’s connection with the aristocratic Melville clan of Scotland.) He grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Gansevoort, for whom the family had high expectations. In contrast, his mother found seven-year-old Herman “very backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension.” The Melvills wanted all of their children to excel because of the family’s prominence. Maria’s father was considered the richest man in Albany, New York, a Revolutionary War hero after whom a New York City street was named, and Allan’s father participated in the Boston Tea Party. Allan Melvill did his best to keep up the appearance of prosperous respectability, moving several times to larger and more comfortable houses in better Manhattan neighborhoods, yet this surface prosperity belied his problems with his business, importing fine French dry goods. In 1830, he closed his shop and moved the family to Albany, leaving unpaid bills behind.
Allan’s worries about his new Albany business drove him mad just before he died in January, 1832, and his two oldest sons had to go to work. (Maria was left with four sons and four daughters.) While sixteen-year-old Gansevoort took over his father’s fur store and factory, Herman became a bank clerk. He wanted more than a career in commerce, however, and quit the bank in 1835 to work in the family store while attending the Albany Classical School. In 1837, he qualified to be a teacher and was in charge of a one-room school near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for one term.
After his family moved to Lansingburgh, New York, in 1838, Melville studied engineering and surveying at the Lansingburgh Academy. After failing to obtain a job on the Erie Canal, he, like many restless young men from families with financial problems, went to sea, sailing on the St. Lawrence with a cargo of cotton to Liverpool in June, 1839. Despite presenting this trip as a miserable experience in Redburn: His First Voyage (1849), Melville thrived on the freedom from family responsibilities. The only negative aspect of the journey was his horror at the poverty of the Liverpool slums. He returned home that fall to teach at the Greenbush Academy near Lansingburgh and contributed a gothic horror sketch to the local newspaper. He made another important trip in the summer of 1840 along the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
Unable to secure a profitable or interesting position on land, Melville sailed for the Pacific on the whaler Acushnet in January, 1841. Life on this ship was unpleasant, so Melville and a shipmate ran away in the Marquesas and spent twenty-six days in the valley of the Typees, who were alleged to be cannibals. He then signed on the Lucy Ann, an Australian whaler, in August, 1842. This time, conditions were even worse than those on the Acushnet, and Melville was put ashore in Tahiti and briefly held as a mutineer. He joined another whaler, the Charles and Henry, that November. Discharged in Hawaii, he worked as a clerk and bookkeeper at a Honolulu general store.
Throughout these travels, Melville was appalled at the way supposed civilization was being imposed upon the natives, primarily by missionaries. Having seen enough of the exotic and of the depravities of his fellow white men, he enlisted in the navy in August, 1843, so that he could sail to Boston on the United States. His cynicism about civilized behavior was further hardened on this voyage as he saw 163 seamen and apprentices flogged.
Back home, because travel literature, especially that about the South Seas, was in vogue, Melville began writing a book. Realizing that he could not rely completely upon his memory and untested descriptive skills, he read numerous books about voyages to the Pacific. Such researches into factual material to support his stories continued throughout his career.
The result of Melville’s labors was Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846). He combined his experiences and his reading with his imagination to produce a romantic adventure which was rejected by the first publisher to whom it was submitted because it could not possibly be true. Gansevoort, in London as secretary to the American legation, showed his brother’s manuscript to John Murray, who agreed to publish it, and an American publisher was also soon found. Gansevoort became ill and died a few months later, creating an additional pressure on Melville to succeed.
Typee received praise from both American and British critics, including, in unsigned reviews, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a then-unknown Walt Whitman. The American edition sold an impressive 5,753 copies in its first year. Melville based his second book, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), on his Lucy Ann and Tahiti experiences, again borrowing material from other sources. Omoo sold as well as Typee, but both were attacked in religious journals for their unflattering view of missionaries.
During this time, Melville had met and fallen in love with a Boston friend of his sister Helen. Elizabeth Shaw was the daughter of Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of Massachusetts and a boyhood friend of Melville’s father. Elizabeth may have been attracted to Melville, who stood five feet, nine and a half inches, had a stocky build, oversized ears, small blue eyes—and later a big black beard—because his experiences and prospects as an artist seemed romantic to someone who had led a relatively tame existence. They were married August 4, 1847, and began sharing a Manhattan house with his mother, sisters, and brother Allan and his new wife.
Melville started his third novel intending simply to repeat his formula of blending his seagoing experiences and his research, but his reading of German romances and the poetry of George Gordon, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, together with his affection for his young wife, turned Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849) into a whimsical Polynesian romance. He injected philosophy and political commentary in Mardi as well, presenting a theory of history in which American freedoms are not the products of the country’s institutions but are made possible by the geographical fact of a constantly diminishing frontier. Melville also wanted the United States to refrain from meddling in European affairs and from imperialism in its own hemisphere. Throughout his career, he criticized the ways in which American society fell short of the ideals it professed.
Melville had hoped Mardi would be a popular success, but reviewers were unfriendly, one calling it “a transcendental Gulliver, or Robinson Crusoe run mad.” Because his first child, Malcolm, had just been born, he felt compelled to delay the more ambitious work he wanted to do. Since something commercial was called for, he planned “a plain, straightforward, amusing narrative of personal experience—the son of a gentleman on his first...
(The entire section is 3058 words.)