Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. His father was a merchant from New England and his mother belonged to an influential Dutch family from New York. At the age of 12, Herman Melville lost his father after he had suffered mental breakdown in 1831 due to financial strains. To support his family, young Melville worked at various jobs. After working as a clerk in his brother’s hat store and later trying his hand at teaching in a school, he joined a merchant ship in 1837 as a cabin boy. This voyage, which took Melville to Liverpool, England, is described in his novel Redburn.
Later, he signed onto a whaling ship called the 'Acushnet' that journeyed to the Pacific. The ship sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts in January 1841. Melville stayed on the ‘Acushnet’ for 18 months and helped to catch and cut whales. However, while docked in an island in the South Pacific, Melville and a friend jumped ship and fled to the interior of the island where they lived for a while among cannibals. His friend escaped while Melville remained with the tribe until he eventually left, escaping on an Australian whaling ship. He landed in Tahiti and again remained with the native inhabitants until once again leaving on another ship for Hawaii. This trip became the basis for many of his literary works such as Typee and Moby Dick.
In August 1844, he enlisted as a seaman on the ‘United States’ - a frigate under the U.S. navy’s Pacific Squadron. His experience on the frigate, which cruised around the Cape Horn before returning to the U.S., is captured in his novel - White Jacket.
Most of Melville’s works give a vivid description of his adventures on these long sea voyages. His racy style and dramatic account of sea adventures made him the most popular writer of his times. Novels such as Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849) and White Jacket (1849) brought him great fame and success as a writer.
When Herman Melville began Moby Dick, he was writing yet another book depicting his experience on the whaling ships. However, while completing his novel, he met the American intellectual and writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville was deeply influenced by Hawthorne and his writing depicted this influence. Melville’s novel, Moby Dickwas transformed from a adventure story of his voyage on a whaling ship into a tragic symbolic story, having more depth and meaning.
Strangely the public did not receive this literary masterpiece Moby Dick (1850) very well. In fact, Melville’s popularity declined after the publication of this novel. The author's tragic novel, Pierre (1853) followed Moby Dick. Again, the public did not express interest in it. Melville now decided to experiment with short stories. Two of his short stories, Benito Cereno and Bartleby the Scrivener, are considered to be classics today. His other novels include The Confidence Man and Israel Potter.
After The Confidence Man, Melville gave up writing and took up a job as a deputy inspector of customs at New York port to make a living. After retirement, Melville wrote some poems for his own pleasure.
In 1891, Herman Melville one of Americans finest writers died in obscurity. Years after his death, the manuscript of his novel Bill Budd was discovered and published in 1924. This short novel is considered to be the writer’s best book after Moby Dick