Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
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 voyage to...
(The entire section is 3061 words.)
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
As perfumes were made from the ambergris formed in the intestines of whales, so Melville transformed his gritty experience as a sailor into a body of fiction that addresses the most difficult questions of human existence. Thus, Moby Dick, a lengthy and often obscure story about the anachronistic business of hunting whales, transcends its limitations to stand as one of America’s proudest contributions to world literature.
Melville’s determination to explore the meaning of existence through his fiction, his ability to transform the objects and events he describes into resonant symbols of profound metaphysical significance, and his unbiased examination of the social questions of his time compose his...
(The entire section is 110 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Herman Melville withdrew from school at the age of twelve after the death of his father. He worked in various jobs—in a fur and cap store (with his brother), in a bank, on a farm, and as a teacher in country schools. He made two early sea voyages, one on a merchant ship to Liverpool in 1839, and one to the South Seas aboard the whaler Acushnet, in 1841. After about eighteen months, Melville and a friend deserted the whaler, and Melville spent a month in the Taipi Valley on the island of Nuku Hiva. Melville escaped the island aboard an Australian whaler but was imprisoned when he and ten other crewmen refused service. Again, he escaped, spent some time on the island of Mooréa, then several months in Hawaii. Eventually,...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Herman Melville was born in New York City, August 1, 1819, the third child of a modestly wealthy family. His father, a successful merchant, traced his lineage back to Major Thomas Melville, one of the “Indians” at the Boston Tea Party. His mother, Maria Gansevoort Melville, was the only daughter of General Peter Gansevoort, also a revolutionary war hero. Melville had a happy childhood in a home where there was affluence and love. He had access to the arts and books, and he was educated in some of the city’s finest private institutions. His father, however, considered young Melville to be somewhat backward, despite his early penchant for public speaking, and marked him for a trade rather than law or a similar professional...
(The entire section is 977 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, into a family of some affluence. His father, Allan Melville, was a prosperous importer, and his mother, Maria Gansevoort, was of the wealthy and distinguished Albany Gansevoorts. When Herman was eleven, however, his father’s business failed and the family entered a period of irreversible decline; Allan Melville died two years later, hopelessly mad. Several of Melville’s biographers maintain that the younger Melville carried the stigma of his father’s predicament with him the rest of his life, always fearing that either failure or inherited madness would overtake him. Certainly he failed many times to appeal as a writer to a popular audience, and his wife at one time...
(The entire section is 763 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. His family was of English, Scots, and Dutch ancestry and had some claims to eminence on both sides. Both the Presbyterianism of his father and the Dutch Reformed views of his mother gave Melville the partly Calvinistic concern with good and evil that appears in his writings, most notably in Moby Dick. Melville’s father, a prosperous merchant until 1826, failed financially in that year of depression and died in 1832, leaving the family close to poverty.
After a number of years in Albany as a student and a clerk, Melville embarked in 1837 on his...
(The entire section is 1008 words.)
IntroductionNo one can say that the author of Moby Dick lacked an active imagination, but many of the bawdy, swashbuckling stories that Herman Melville created actually did stem from his own experiences. Born into a respected colonial family that had come upon hard times, Melville timidly began his adult life as a schoolteacher, but he quickly found that occupation too stifling. Following a dream, he set off to sea, experiencing firsthand the harsh, brutal reality of life on ocean vessels, and he even lived for a time among island cannibals. Upon his return, he embarked on a career as a writer, coloring works such as Billy Budd with details from his adventures. Often unappreciated during his lifetime, Melville is now recognized as one of America’s greatest authors.
- Melville sailed on at least five different ships—the Saint Lawrence, the Acushnet, the Lucy Ann, the Charles and Henry, and the United States. He ended his service on two of them by deserting.
- Although Melville enjoyed some success as an author during his life, early novels such as Typee and Omoo were regarded simply as interesting travelogues, not the work of a serious writer.
- Along with eleven books of fiction, Melville also wrote and published poetry. In fact, his Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land is considered the longest poem in American literature. Some current editions of Clarel are over 900 pages!
- Melville’s most celebrated work remains Moby Dick, but early readers of the novel about the giant whale were not very kind. Here is what one critic had to say in 1852: “If there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English, we will take the liberty of recommending to them this precious volume of Mr. Melville’s.”
- Fame was indeed a fickle mistress to Herman Melville. When he died in 1891, the New York Times obituaries listed his name as “Henry Melville.”
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Herman Melvill, who did not add the final e to his name until after his father’s death, was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, to Allan and Maria Melvill. His father, a relatively prosperous merchant and importer, was an open-minded, optimistic man whose Unitarian beliefs contrasted with his wife’s sterner Calvinism. Melville’s grandfathers were both Revolutionary War heroes: Thomas Melvill had participated in the Boston Tea Party, and Peter Gansevoort had led the forces that defended Fort Stanwix.
In 1830, Allan Melvill went bankrupt and was forced to move his family up the Hudson River to...
(The entire section is 920 words.)