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HERMAN MELVILLE (1819 - 1891)

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American novelist, short story writer, and poet.

Melville, a major American literary figure of the nineteenth century, is best known as the author of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), a complex metaphysical novel that is considered a classic of world literature. Virtually unrecognized at the time of his death, Melville is now praised for his rich, rhythmical prose and complex symbolism. A master of both realistic and allegorical narrative, Melville was also an incisive social critic and philosopher who sought to understand the ambiguities of life and to define the individual's relation to society and the universe. Though Melville is not ordinarily categorized as a Gothic writer, his relationship to this literary tradition has nevertheless been identified by numerous contemporary scholars who point to the frequent adapted use of Gothic conventions in his works. Principally, critics have noted Melville's exploitation of isolated shipboard settings for the purposes of evoking psychological terror, his use of naïve narrators who witness mysterious, unexplainable events and relate the exploits of menacing antiheroes, and his literary depiction of a cosmic struggle of Manichean polarities in an ambiguous world devoid of the sense that good will ultimately triumph and vanquish evil. For modern critics, all of these devices are pivotal to Moby-Dick, while elements therein have also been studied in conjunction with his shorter works of prose fiction.


Born in New York City, Melville enjoyed a relatively comfortable childhood until his father's business failure and early death. Melville ended his formal education at age twelve to help support his family. He worked in the family fur business and as a bank clerk and taught at various schools until, in 1839, he sailed as a cabin boy aboard a merchant ship bound for Liverpool, England. This experience, shocking in its revelation of squalor and human cruelty, subsequently inspired his fourth novel, Redburn: His First Voyage (1849). Melville's later journey to the South Seas, begun aboard the whaling ship Acushnet, provided the background for his most highly regarded works. Finding conditions unbearable aboard the Acushnet, Melville deserted the ship in the Marquesas and spent several months in captivity among a tribe of cannibalistic Polynesians. He finally escaped aboard a passing whaling vessel. Again appalled by the conditions at sea, Melville joined in a mutiny and was briefly imprisoned in Tahiti. He then moved on to Hawaii and later returned to New York aboard a U.S. naval vessel. Melville had never contemplated a literary career, but with no prospects for a career on his return to the U.S., he was encouraged by family and friends to write about his remarkable journeys. His first novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and its sequel, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), are fictionalized versions of his experiences in the Pacific. Generally praised for their excitement, romance, and splendid descriptions of the South Seas region, these novels were immediately successful and made Melville famous as the "man who lived among the cannibals"—a reputation he was never able to overcome and that interfered with the appreciation of his later works. Melville's mature literary voice began to emerge in Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (1849). At the time he wrote this work he was growing restless with the adventure narrative and was increasingly drawn to philosophical and metaphysical questions in his novels. Mardi represents an important step in Melville's artistic development, yet its publication marked the beginning of the decline in his popularity. Discouraged by the novel's poor reception and in need of money, Melville temporarily returned to the travel narrative and produced Redburn and White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850)....

(The entire section contains 20493 words.)

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