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Much has been written in this century on Herman Melville, and though he was considered a very obscure writer at the time of his death in 1891, he is now considered of one the U.S.'s major voices in the nineteenth century.
Born in New York City on August 1, 1819, Herman was one of eight children who became fatherless early in life. Although the family had come from old Dutch and English stock that was once prosperous, by the time of Herman's childhood, the family had little money, and his father died bankrupt in 1832. Apparently, Melville's mother was not very pleased with 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 popularity as a novelist began to wane in the 1850's, and he turned to short story writing. "Benito Cereno" and " Bartleby the Scrivener" are the most well known stories. By 1856, he 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 from 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.