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.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3058

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, 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.

Life’s Work

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 sea as a sailor—no metaphysics, no conic-sections, nothing but cakes and ale.” Redburn was written to this prescription, quickly followed by a similar novel, White-Jacket: Or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850), based on his duty on the United States (White-Jacket is said to have contributed to ending flogging in the United States Navy). His expectations for the novels were rewarded when both were well received by critics and the public.

Melville believed that these five books had exhausted the interesting incidents in his life, so he went to Europe in the autumn of 1849 hoping to collect material he could use in new books. Returning to America, he planned to write about an American exile in Europe, but Richard Henry Dana, Jr., suggested that he do for the whaling industry what he had done for the navy in White-Jacket and what Dana had done for the merchant marine in Two Years Before the Mast (1840). Melville agreed and promised Dana “a strange sort of book,” though not as strange as Mardi.

Feeling cramped living with his relatives in New York, Melville moved his wife and son in 1850 to a 145-acre farm near Pittsfield, where he met Hawthorne at a gathering of leading literary figures. Melville spoke to his fellow writers of the potential greatness of American literature, and in reading Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) soon afterward, he found confirmation of American genius. Melville interrupted his work on Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851) to write “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” in which he argued that the literature of America could rival that of England, that an American writer with the intellectual capacity of Hawthorne could create art on Shakespearean levels. Melville deliberately tried for this kind of greatness in Moby Dick, his ambition matching Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale.

Although some reviewers perceived the originality and power of Moby Dick, many misunderstood and attacked it. United States Magazine and Democratic Review found it full of “bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English.” Southern Quarterly Review considered the parts not dealing with the white whale “sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous.” Even Melville’s close friend and staunchest supporter, Evert Duyckinck, a prominent editor and critic, disliked the novel.

Acknowledging that the reading public was predominantly female, Melville decided to direct his next book toward feminine tastes. He was further motivated by having received an average of only twelve hundred dollars for his books and by being in debt to Harper’s, his American publisher. In attempting to create a gothic romance in the manner of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851), however, Melville became recklessly carried away as he had with Mardi ignoring his commercial judgment in his effort to “find out the heart of a man.”

Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (1852), a story of love, murder, and suicide, with overtones of incest, was rejected by Melville’s English publisher and almost unanimously vilified by reviewers for its “impurity.” When only 283 copies were sold during the first eight months after publication, Melville finally began to be discouraged by his prospects as a writer. His family thought there was a danger of his work affecting his mental health and set out to find for him a more profitable and less demanding occupation, such as a foreign consulship. Melville was hardly ready to abandon his writing and turned much of his attention to well-paying magazine stories, the best of which are “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) and “Benito Cereno” (1855). He was encouraged enough by this success to write his long-planned American-exile novel, Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855), keeping what he had learned about the interests of magazine readers constantly in mind. This satirical look at the Revolutionary War and its aftermath sold well and brought Melville, who had four children by then, closer to financial security than he had ever been.

His next book, however, The Piazza Tales (1856), a collection of stories, was unsuccessful, and his family believed that the writing of The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857) was ruining his health. They decided that he needed a vacation, and Judge Shaw paid for him to go to Europe and the Holy Land. Melville hoped to have some sort of simple religious faith restored on this trip but found the Holy Land more unattractive and uncomfortable than inspiring.

He returned home to find The Confidence Man, a satirical allegory based upon his Mississippi River trip years before, a critical and commercial failure. His brother-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, Jr., felt it belonged to “that horribly uninteresting class of nonsensical books he is given to writing,” the view of most of his relatives of most of his work. Melville chose not to write any further, since doing so would upset his family.

Instead of writing, Melville took to the lecture circuit, speaking on statuary in Rome and the South Seas throughout the Northeast and Midwest in 1857-1859, but these lectures were only moderately successful. He next turned to poetry, but he had no illusions about popular success, creating his art simply to satisfy himself, especially since no publishers were interested in his poems.

After failing to obtain a consulship, Melville traded his farm for the Manhattan house of his brother Allan. He also began writing Civil War poems based upon newspaper accounts and one visit to the front lines. He paid for the publication of Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) and lost four hundred dollars on the venture.

In 1867, he submitted to his family’s wishes and became a deputy customs inspector in New York for four dollars a day, later reduced to $3.60. He continued writing poetry, and Peter Gansevoort, his uncle, gave him twelve hundred dollars to publish Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), his most significant poetry. After its publication, he settled into a daily routine of work, family obligations, and the frequent illnesses associated with age.

Contrary to legend, Melville’s novels were not completely forgotten. They sold about one hundred copies yearly during 1876-1880 and twice that many in 1881-1884, and W. Clark Russell, the popular English writer of sea stories, praised him as “the greatest genius” America had produced. At sixty-five, Melville found himself without financial worries for the first time, primarily because of money his wife inherited from her parents, and he retired from the customhouse in December, 1885.

Melville privately published two collections of poems during this time of leisure: John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891). In 1888, after neglecting fiction for thirty years, he started a long-planned project based upon a famous case in which a sailor was perhaps unjustifiably hanged at sea. (A cousin of Melville presided over the court-martial.) He may also have been exploring his feelings about the apparent suicide of his son Malcolm in 1867 and the death in 1886 of his other son, the unhappy, wandering Stanwix. He completed Billy Budd, Foretopman before dying of enlargement of the heart of September 28, 1891. This short novel was not published until 1924 after biographer Raymond M. Weaver discovered it in 1919, concealed in a tin breadbox.

Summary

New editions of Typee, Omoo, White-Jacket, and Moby Dick were published in 1892 and, surprisingly, found a market, going through forty-four editions in the United States and Great Britain by 1919, when Melville’s work began to be widely rediscovered and reassessed. The Melville revival exploded in the 1920’s with several books and articles, led by Weaver’s 1921 biography. By this time, readers were more accustomed to symbolism and psychological fiction and recognized the originality and power of Melville’s writing, with many proclaiming Moby Dick the Great American Novel for its insight into the contradictory motives underlying so much of American experience. Equally important is what D. H. Lawrence describes as “the peculiar, lurid, glamorous style which is natural to the great Americans” and which stems “from the violence native to the American Continent, where force is more powerful than consciousness.” Moby Dick is, in Alfred Kazin’s words, “a hymn to the unequalled thrust that lifted America to the first rank.”

Melville’s famous skepticism and cynicism resulted from a very American restlessness of the intellect and the spirit. As Hawthorne wrote of his friend, “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.” Melville was more bitter about not making money as a writer than about not receiving the recognition he deserved. He would have been content, as he was in his last years, simply to write for himself. He even described himself as “a happy failure.”

Melville had integrity as an artist, an inherent inability to be satisfied with giving superficial readers what they wanted. Moby Dick is a masterpiece because its author dared to attempt so much. As he wrote Evert Duyckinck in 1849, “I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more.” More than anything, Melville stands for the courage to risk failure.

Bibliography

Anderson, Charles R. Melville in the South Seas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939. Lengthy, detailed account of the most important period of Melville’s life, with analysis of how he used these experiences in his art. Attempts to separate fact from fiction.

Arvin, Newton. Herman Melville. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950. Combines a biography with a psychoanalytical view of Melville’s personality. Presents the writer in conflict with himself.

Gilman, William H. Melville’s Early Life and “Redburn.” New York: New York University Press, 1951. Most detailed account of Melville’s life from 1819 to 1841, with the emphasis on his voyage to Liverpool.

Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951. Standard Melville biography, based upon material assembled by Jay Leyda. Attempts to understand Melville as a product of his times.

Kazin, Alfred. An American Procession. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. Study of American literature from 1830 to 1932 places Melville’s work in the context of a literary tradition and offers a good, brief sketch of Melville as writer and man.

Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1951. Amazingly complete document based on letters to, from, and about Melville, journals, publishers’ files, newspaper articles, Melville’s marginalia in the books he read, and similar sources. Arranged in a day-by-day chronology. Supplemented in 1969.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Melville. New York: George Braziller, 1975. Psychoanalytical biography offers the most complete view of the Melville-Hawthorne friendship.

Mumford, Lewis. Herman Melville. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1929. Interpretation of Melville’s life based on his writings, including letters and notebooks. Concerned more with the writer’s view of his world than with the details of his life.

Sealts, Merton M., Jr., comp. The Early Lives of Melville: Nineteenth-Century Biographical Sketches and Their Authors. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974. Compiles biographical material by those who knew Melville, including his wife and granddaughters. Reveals how he was perceived in his time.

Weaver, Raymond M. Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1921. First book-length biography of Melville by the scholar who virtually discovered him. Weakened by treating Melville’s fiction as fact and by saying very little about the last thirty years of his life.

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