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.
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.
While still in the limelight of his early success, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of a Massachusetts chief justice. They were to have four children; three died in young adulthood and the eldest son committed suicide in his eighteenth year (1867).
Melville was continually plagued by doubt, unrest, and marital problems. His later years were spent trying to adjust to his decline in status and seeking a comfortable living. In 1856, his father-in-law subsidized Melville’s travels to the Mediterranean, the Holy Land, and England, where he visited Nathaniel Hawthorne. Unable to secure a naval commission during the Civil War, Melville sold his estate in Massachusetts and settled in New York. Finally, in 1866, he became an inspector in the New York Customs House until, some twenty years later, an inheritance enabled him to retire. He died September 28, 1891, at the age of seventy-two.
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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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