Herman Melville Biography

Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, certainly didn't lack for an active imagination, but many of the bawdy, swashbuckling stories that he 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.

Facts and Trivia

  • 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 nine hundred 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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Article abstract: With great power and insight into man’s ambiguous nature, Melville helped prove that American literature could equal that of England.

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Early Life

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,...

(The entire section contains 4501 words.)

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