Authors: Herman Melville

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist

August 1, 1819

New York, New York

September 28, 1891

New York, New York


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. {$I[AN]9810001447} {$I[A]Melville, Herman} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Melville, Herman} {$I[tim]1819;Melville, Herman}

Herman Melville

(Library of Congress)

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 that 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 readers found baffling, begins as a travel narrative but quickly becomes a fanciful mixture of allegory, satire, and extravaganza somewhat in the tradition of the imaginary voyage, such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). A new note of stark and somber realism is struck in Redburn, based on Melville’s voyage to Liverpool. The note of realism is maintained in White-Jacket, a book that benefits from Melville’s memories of his days as a common sailor aboard the USS United States, on which he had returned from the Pacific in 1844. The best of these early books is Typee, although parts of Redburn are moving and authentic, and certain scenes in White-Jacket rival Tobias Smollett’s work in their vivid impression of seagoing life.

Typee’s success turned out to be something of an evil fate for its author, as it had conditioned Melville’s audience to pleasurable travel romance. Unwilling and unable to continue in the same vein, Melville lost his audience and suffered more and more, as he grew older, from his increasing sense of alienation from the conventional life of his time. Even Moby Dick, which now is considered one of the great books of world literature, had no more than a scattered reputation until about 1920. Only since the 1940s has Melville been generally accepted as one of the greatest of American writers.

Moby Dick was written mostly in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where Melville, married and beginning to raise a family, had settled in 1850. Like the early novels, it mirrors actual experience; it is based in part on the author’s voyage on the Acushnet. The accepted view of Moby Dick is that as Melville first conceived it, it was to be merely a realistic narrative. As he wrote, however, the pursuit of the whale, which was to constitute the main plot, took on new meanings. This imaginative proliferation was the result of the natural unfolding of Melville’s genius but also of his reading, at the time, of William Shakespeare and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Besides being a magnificent account of the whaling enterprise, the book became, as Melville reconceived it, an epic romance.

Moby Dick has manifold meanings, but its complexity is often exaggerated. Much confusion can be avoided by considering that the white whale is not allegorical and therefore may not be explained as “standing for” this or that. The whale is a poetic symbol deliberately intended to reflect the ambiguity of nature, at once terrible and beautiful, threatening and beneficent. It is a part of Captain Ahab’s madness that he understands the whale allegorically, thinking of it (and thus thinking of nature itself) as representing Evil. Ahab is a man alienated from humankind by a fanatical will and intellect which have distorted all the genial emotions into a vindictive hatred of life itself. All the rich poetry of life, so memorably expressed by Melville, is unavailable to him. Whether Ahab is intended in a sinister way as the representative American individualist, it is certain that, in the manner of epics, Moby Dick copiously reflects the folkways of the culture that gave it birth.

Melville wrote several other interesting works at Pittsfield and later in New York, where he was a district inspector of customs from 1866 until 1885. Pierre is a powerful but incoherent melodrama of incest and struggling genius, murkily reflecting Melville’s own inner struggles. The Confidence Man is a dark comedy or masque, having for its central figure an elusive character representing the huckstering tendencies of American life as Melville saw them—from ordinary salesmanship to Emersonian Transcendentalism. Certain stories of the 1850s, such as “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Benito Cereno,” and “The Encantadas,” are next to perfect in their way, and Israel Potter is, though not great, a neglected piece of picaresque narrative. After the Civil War, Melville wrote poetry, but his poems, with certain notable exceptions, such as “The Portent,” “Shiloh,” and “The Maldive Shark,” are the work of a thoughtful amateur rather than a skillful poet.

Billy Budd, Foretopman was the product of Melville’s last years. In its concern with the inhumanity of martial law, it reminds one of White-Jacket, but in the hanging of the innocent Billy by Captain Vere, a good and honorable man, Melville found one of his most effective symbols for the inscrutable ambiguity of the universe and of the moral ideas humans derive from it. As befits the author’s last work, the tone is one of elegy and recompense. Billy Budd, Foretopman stands near the top of Melville’s achievements, a fitting last word of an author who was all but unknown at the time of his death in 1891 and was obscurely buried in a New York cemetery.

Author Works Long Fiction: Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, 1846 Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, 1847 Mardi, and a Voyage Thither, 1849 Redburn: His First Voyage, 1849 White-Jacket: Or, The World in a Man-of-War, 1850 Moby Dick: Or, The Whale, 1851 Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities, 1852 Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, 1855 The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, 1857 Billy Budd, Foretopman, 1924 Short Fiction: The Piazza Tales, 1856 The Apple-Tree Table, and Other Sketches, 1922 Great Short Works of Herman Melville, 1969 (Warner Berthoff, editor) Poetry: Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, 1866 Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, 1876 John Marr and Other Sailors, 1888 Timoleon, 1891 The Works of Herman Melville, 1922–24 (volumes 15 and 16) The Poems of Herman Melville, 1976, revised 2000 Nonfiction: Journal up the Straits, 1935 Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent, 1948 The Letters of Herman Melville, 1960 (Merrill R. Davis and William H. Gilman, editors) Miscellaneous: Tales, Poems, and Other Writings, 2001 (John Bryant, editor) Bibliography Argersinger, Jana L., and Leland S. Person, eds. Hawthorne and Melville: Writing a Relationship. Athens: Georgia University, 2008. Fourteen essays that focus on the relationship that the two authors shared during the time that Melville was writing Moby Dick. The essays also discuss how each writer affected the other’s work. Essential for anyone interested in either writer. Bloom, Harold, ed. Herman Melville: Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Bloom discusses the importance of the thirteen articles presented. Major critics interpret Melville’s themes, forms, symbolism, and comedy in Moby Dick, the tales, Billy Budd, Foretopman, and other works. Includes a useful chronology, a bibliography, and an index. Bryant, John, ed. A Companion to Melville Studies. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Articles contributed by various scholars compose this thorough volume, which includes a biography, and discussions of the short stories and other works. Some articles give insight into Melville’s thought on religion and philosophy and discuss his impact on modern culture. Burkholder, Robert B., ed. Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. Includes a few early reviews and sixteen previously published articles on Melville’s novella, as well as three new articles written especially for this volume. Essays range from Newton Arvin’s claim that the work is an artistic failure to more contemporary historicist critiques debating whether the work presents African Americans in a positive or a negative light. Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work. New York: Knopf, 2005. This biography places Melville in his time and discusses the significance of his works, then and now. Dillingham, William B. Melville’s Short Fiction 1853–1856. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977. Dillingham provides footnoted, readable explications of the stories, with moderate allusion to possible sources and other works. Fisher, Marvin. Going Under: Melville’s Short Fiction and the American 1850’s. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977. Explores the short fiction works with Melville’s cultural milieu of the 1850’s as a backdrop. Fisher discusses “The Fiddler,” “The Lightning Rod Man,” and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” among other short works. Hardwick, Elizabeth. Herman Melville. New York: Viking Press, 2000. A short biographical study that hits all the high points and some low ones in Melville’s life, from his early seagoing expeditions to his settling down in middle age and finally his languishing in his job as a New York customs inspector. Higgins, Brian, and Hershel Parker, eds. Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. A comprehensive selection of contemporary reviews, later essays on individual works, Melville’s themes and techniques, discussions of literary influences and affinities, specific studies of Ahab and Ishmael, and new essays exploring Melville in the context of antebellum culture and of his learning. Kirby, David. Herman Melville. New York: Ungar, 1993. A short yet comprehensive guide to Melville’s career, including chapters on his life, his early novels, Moby Dick, the later novels, and the tales and poems. Includes a chronology and a bibliography. Levine, Robert S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. An indispensable tool for the student of Melville. With bibliographical references and an index. Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819–1891. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951. This compilation of documents (letters, diary entries, and other materials) is carefully prepared chronologically with pages headed by year. It is published in two volumes and includes biographical sketches of Melville’s associates. McCall, Dan. The Silence of Bartleby. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. An extensive survey and analysis of criticism on “Bartleby.” Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Newman includes “The Encantadas.” Each chapter is divided into sections: publication history, circumstances of composition, relationship to other works, profile of interpretive criticism, and bibliography. Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography. Vol. 1, 1819–1851, Vol. 2, 1851–1891. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997–2002. This two-volume biography of Melville by the most distinguished authority on his life and art covers his life from birth in 1819, to the publication of Moby Dick in 1851, to his death in 1891. Especially helpful on the early life of Melville and the controversies that arose from his early novel’s being labeled obscene and blasphemous. Parker, Hershel. Melville: The Making of the Poet. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, 2007. A detailed examination of Melville’s transition from prose writing to poetry writing. Parker discusses Melville’s upbringing and his early experiences as a reader and writer of poetry. He also cites instances throughout Melville’ career in which he infused his prose with poetry. Parker, Hershel. Reading “Billy Bud”. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991. Renker, Elizabeth. Strike Through the Mask: Herman Melville and the Scene of Writing. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Argues that Melville was obsessed with the difficulties of the material act of writing, as reflected in his repeated themes and leitmotifs, such as the face or mask. His depression, violent nature, and wife abuse are reflected in his writing. Notes, list of works cited, index. Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1996. This biography includes personal, psychological, social, and intellectual aspects of Herman Melville’s life, as well as his travels and adventures in the South Seas and Europe. Rollyson, Carl E., and Lisa Paddock. Herman Melville A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. A comprehensive and encyclopedic coverage of Melville’s life, works, and times in 675 detailed entries. Updike, John. “The Appetite for Truth: On Melville’s Shorter Fiction.” The Yale Review 85 (October, 1997): 24–47. Discusses Melville’s magazine short fictions of the mid-1850s, which Updike finds to be stiffer than Melville’s earlier novels; claims that as a novelist he was exalted by Shakespearean possibilities, but as a short-story writer he saw failure everywhere.

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