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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Much literary criticism has been written about Herman Melville in the twentieth century. Though he was considered a very obscure writer at the time of his death in 1891, he is now considered one of major voices in 19th century American literature.
Born in New York City on August 1, 1819, Herman was one of eight children. Although the family had come from old Dutch and English stock that was once prosperous, by the time of Herman's childhood, his parents had little money. In 1832, Herman's father had to declare bankruptcy. Herman's mother was unhappy about her lot in life and lived in a dream world of aristocratic pretensions. She was cold and unsympathetic to her children, and Herman's childhood was unhappy. As a result, he left home permanently when he was a teenager and never pursued further education.
Herman worked as a clerk, a teacher, and very briefly as a farmer, but his real interest was the sea. In 1839, he became a cabin boy on a ship bound for England, a trip that he later described in Redburn. His most famous novel, Moby Dick (1851) was based on his trip in 1841 on the whaling ship, "Achushnet", bound for the South Seas. Other adventures at sea were the material for Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and White Jacket (1850). Melville proved that his education in the world of ships was as useful as a college education.
Melville's first novel, Typee, was published in 1846 and met with some critical acclaim. In the next five years, he published four more seafaring novels, the last being Moby Dick. Melville always researched his writing material completely and gave many factual details in his fiction. When Moby Dick was published, most critics claimed that it was too long-winded and formless.
In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of rich, old family friends, and the couple settled in New York. Although the Melvilles had four children, two boys and two girls, their marriage was never happy. In 1850, the Melvilles moved to Massachusetts and lived near Nathaniel Hawthorne, who influenced Melville's writing. In fact, Hawthorne inspired the young author to change his basic format in Moby Dick from a documentary into a novel. The novel, which is a whaling tale, is now recognized as one of the greatest novels in American literature.
Melville's popularity as a novelist began to wane in the 1850's, and he turned his talents to novella and short story writing. "Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby the Scrivener" are the most well-known of these tales. By 1856, Melville had largely turned away from writing, feeling his fiction was misunderstood and too critically judged. To make a living, Melville worked as a customs-house official at the Port of New York from 1866 to 1885. For private pleasure, he wrote some poetry.
After his retirement, Melville again tried his hand at writing prose; but nothing was published form this period during his lifetime. On his death in 1891, Billy Budd was left unfinished and in manuscript form. It was not published until 1924 during a time when Melville's writing was again becoming popular in America.
Because of personal financial difficulty, Melville was forced to produce a series of tales for publication in Putnam's Weekly, a popular magazine; many of them were later published in 1856 as a collection under the title Piazza Tales (1856). Although most of the stories appearing in Putnam's are not well written or characteristic of Melville, Benito Cereno is an exception; it is considered today to be one of Melville's masterpieces. It is a brilliant and technically exact tale of the sea. Its unusual format, a narrative followed by a "deposition," has set it apart from most sea stories.
It is often remarked that Melville had an almost Shakespearean feel for human tragedy. Captain Delano's inability to see the truth of what was happening on the Spanish ship is truly tragic, much like King Lear's blindness. Also, like Shakespeare, Melville gleaned his ideas from history. The idea of Benito Cereno came from Captain Amasa Delano's A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). Melville has also been compared to Joseph Conrad, largely because both authors had a mysterious sense of evil and foreboding in their writing.