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...
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Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Nathaniel Hawthorne “in admiration for his genius.” The two met in 1850 when Melville moved from New York to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For a time, Melville and his family lived on a 160-acre farm called Arrowhead, where he finished the writing of Moby-Dick in 1851.
Moby-Dick, like many of Melville’s other sea stories, is based on life experience. In 1819, Melville was born in New York City to Allan Melvill (the final “e” was added to the name later) and Maria Gansevoort. When the family business failed and Allan Melvill died in 1832, Herman left the Albany Academy and joined his older brother in a futile attempt to restore the family fortune. In 1839, Melville signed onto a British ship, the St. Lawrence, which was sailing to Liverpool.
Two years later he signed aboard the Achushnet, a whaler bound for the South Seas. Misery and brutality drove Melville and a companion to desert the ship in the Marquesas Islands. In June of 1842, the two sailors lived with the Typees for a short time. Fearing that the Typees were cannibals, Melville escaped to the Lucy Ann, another whaler, but it proved even worse than the Acushnet. He abandoned this ship in Tahiti. His one...
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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 greatness.
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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, he joined the U.S. Navy and returned home in 1844.
Out of these early sea adventures came Melville’s two successful early novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847). His experiences aboard the whaling ships led to a novel that was not to be successful in his lifetime, Moby Dick. The failure of Moby Dick and Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (1852) left Melville financially and morally drained, but he would continue to produce fiction for a while, including the short stories that were guardedly constructed to seem unruffling to the sensibilities of the time but carried submerged patterns and disturbing undertones.
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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 pursuit.
The prosperity that the Melvilles enjoyed from before the young Melville’s birth came to an end in the economic panic of 1830. Unable to meet creditors’ demands, despite the financial aid of his family, Melville’s father lost his business and was forced into bankruptcy. After attempts to save the business, he moved the family to Albany and assumed the management of a fur company’s branch office. The move seemed to settle the Melvilles’ financial problems until the cycle repeated itself in 1831. Melville’s father again suffered a financial reversal, went into physical and mental decline, and died on January 28, 1832.
After his father’s death, Melville became, successively, a bank clerk and...
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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 contemplated leaving him because of his alleged insanity. Now, long after his death, Melville has achieved an appreciative audience, and his “insanity” may well be judged the by-product of restive genius.
Following his father’s death, Melville worked at numerous odd jobs, such as bank clerk, teacher, and, of course, ordinary seaman. His first tenure at sea occurred in 1839 when he shipped aboard the St. Lawrence, a merchant ship sailing between New York and Liverpool. Two years later, he embarked on his South Sea island adventures, joining the crew of the Acushnet, a whaling vessel bound for the South Seas out of the harbor of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He returned home in 1844 and began writing about...
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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 first voyage, as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool. In 1841 he sailed from New Bedford on the whaleboat Acushnet, beginning a series of adventures in the Pacific which lasted until 1844. After returning to New York, he began to write of his experiences. Melville’s first five books are based in part on the varied experiences of his youth.
His first book, Typee, was a popular success, and this exciting narrative, part memoir, part romance, which describes the hero’s sojourn among the cannibals of the Marquesas Islands, remained for many decades the author’s most widely known work. Omoo, a sequel to Typee, was followed by Mardi, and a Voyage Thither. This book, which...
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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.”
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Herman Melville's reputation seesawed from popularity to obscurity and back again over much of his lifetime and beyond, but now his position is secure as one of America's greatest authors. Best known now for his masterpiece novel Moby-Dick (1851), Melville first became popular as a writer in the 1840s for his novels of adventure in the South Seas: Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). Born in New York City in 1819, Melville had been attracted to the sea and ships at a young age, and his first two novels, fictional romances inspired by his own seagoing adventures, were warmly received by readers.
After his early success with Typee and Omoo, Melville disappointed his audience with his third novel, Mardi (1849), which took a philosophical and metaphysical turn away from his previous narratives. More conventional sea novels Redburn (1849) and White Jacket (1850)—his attempts to win his audience back—briefly appeased his readers, but then with the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851 followed by Pierre in 1852, Melville had lost his audience altogether. Moby-Dick, a novel ostensibly about whaling but actually about the human condition, had found a small but appreciative critical audience, but Pierre, a dark, somewhat autobiographical novel, was a critical as well as popular failure. The public who had loved his South Seas novels thought that Melville had gone mad.
(The entire section is 499 words.)
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 Albany, New York. Two years later he died, leaving his eldest son, Gansevoort, to support Maria and the seven younger children. When Gansevoort’s fur business failed during the Panic of 1837, Herman Melville abandoned any hope for further formal education and began a frustrating search for steady employment. He worked as a bank clerk, a farm laborer, and a schoolteacher. He briefly studied surveying in the hope of being employed on the Erie Canal. When this prospect failed, Melville signed on as “boy” aboard the merchant ship St. Lawrence for a voyage to Liverpool, England.
After returning from Liverpool, Melville traveled to Illinois in another unsuccessful effort to find employment and once again tried teaching. On...
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Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. He was the son of Allan Melville, a successful merchant, and Maria Gansevoort Melville, who came from an old New York family of distinction and wealth. Although their family name was well respected, the Melvilles went bankrupt in 1830. Allan Melville tried to reestablish his business in Albany, New York, but his financial burdens drove him to a mental and physical breakdown. In 1832, when Herman was twelve, his father died, leaving the Melville family heavily burdened by debt. The experience of his father's financial ruin and mental collapse left a deep impression on the young Melville, who later explored issues of sanity and the pressures of capitalism in such stories as "Bartleby the Scrivener."
After his father's death, Melville left school and worked odd jobs. Melville briefly considered becoming a legal scrivener but was unable to secure a job. In 1839 he signed on as a sailor and spent the next five years at sea. In 1842 he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific during a whaling voyage and spent several months living among a tribe of cannibals in the Taipi Valley. While traveling en route to Tahiti after being picked up by an Australian whaler, Melville was imprisoned by the British Consul for refusing duty on the ship. He then escaped from Tahiti and made his way on various whaling ships to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was mustered into the United States Naval Service. In...
(The entire section is 512 words.)