Herman Melville biography
Herman Melville was an American author born on August 1, 1819 in New York, New York. The author penned many books and later in life wrote poetry. Best known for his novel Moby Dick, Melville was only heralded as one of America’s greatest writers after his death on September 28, 1891. The Library of Congress honored him as its first writer to collect and publish.
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill (Maria added the "e" to the family name following her husband's death in 1832). In the mid-1820s, young Herman fell ill to scarlet fever, and though he regained his health not long after, his vision was left permanently impaired by the illness. Melville's family had enjoyed a prosperous life for many years due to Allan Melvill's success as a high-end importer and merchant. However, when Allan made a failed attempt to branch into the fur trade in 1830, the family's fortune took a big hit. When Allan died suddenly soon after, in 1832, finances dwindled significantly.
Allan's oldest son, Gansevoort, took control of the family's fur and cap business in New York following his father's death. Melville later joined his brother as a business partner, followed by some of his other siblings (there were eight children in all). Around the same time, in the mid-1830s, Melville enrolled at the Albany Classical School, where he studied classic literature and began taking part in student debates. He had also begun writing by this time—including poems, essays and short stories. He left Albany for a teaching job in Massachusetts, but soon found the work to be unfulfilling and left the position after only three months, returning to New York.
Sea Voyages and Early Novels
In 1837, Gansevoort's fur and cap business folded, putting Melville's family back into a dire financial situation. The family relocated to Lansingburgh soon after, and many of Melville's siblings took odd jobs; Melville enrolled at Lansingburgh Academy, where he studied surveying in hopes of gaining employment with the newly initiated Erie Canal project.
He never received that position, however, and in 1839, Gansevoort arranged for Melville to work as a crew member of a merchant ship called the St. Lawrence, which was scheduled to travel from New York City to Liverpool. Melville, always interested in sea travel, gladly accepted the position and his subsequent stint on the St. Lawrence—his first sea voyage—would prove valuable to his later literary work: Redburn: His First Voyage, written several years after the St. Lawrence voyage, is said to be largely based on Melville's life as a crew member of the vessel. Redburn, an embellished, romanticized version of Melville's real-life experiences—much like his other novels—was published in 1849.
In 1841, Melville embarked on his second sea voyage: He was hired to work aboard the Acushnet, a whaling ship. His subsequent journey would last nearly three years and spur the creation of his first novel, Typee.
According to the book, in 1842, the Acushnet arrived at the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia, where Melville and a crewmate deserted the ship and, soon after, were captured by local cannibals. The two spent nearly four months as captives before escaping and boarding another whaling ship, the Lucy Ann, working as part of its crew, according to Melville's literary account.
It was much later in life that Melville wrote his most popular work, Moby-Dick (initially titled The Whale), which was first published in 1851. Moby-Dick, categorized as American Romanticism, is based on both Melville's years of experience aboard whaleships and the real-life sinking of the Essex whaleship: Traveling from Nantucket, Massachusetts, to South America—a two-and-a-half-year journey at the time—the Essex reportedly met its doom in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in November 1820, when a sperm whale turned on the ship, attacking it and causing it to sink. The ship's crew, adrift in their small whaleboats, faced storms, thirst, illness and starvation, and were even reduced to cannibalism for survival. However, succeeding in one of the great open-boat journeys of all time, the few survivors were picked up off South America. Their story, spread widely in America in the 19th century, eventually provided inspiration for Melville's Moby-Dick.
Moby-Dick has received commercial and critical acclaim for nearly a century. However, Melville didn't live to witness that success. In fact, the book didn't bring him any wealth or respect during his lifetime. Early critics were unimpressed by the novel; an 1851 article in the Illustrated London News called it "Herman Melville's last and best and most wildly imaginative story," and a testament to his "reckless imaginative power." The article went on to note Melville's "great aptitude for quaint and original philosophical speculation, degenerating, however, too often into rhapsody and purposeless extravagance."
Readers weren't enamored either, according to book sales: Only about 500 copies of Moby-Dick were reportedly sold in the United Kingdom following its release—nearly 25 percent less than Melville's Typee.
Death and Legacy
On September 28, 1891, Melville died of a heart attack in New York City. Several years after his death, many of his books were reprinted, including Moby-Dick, and his name began slowly gaining traction in the literary world. By the early 1920s, Melville had become a well-known figure among readers and critics alike. Today, Herman Melville is regarded as one of America's greatest writers, and Moby-Dick is considered not only a classic American novel, but a literary masterpiece.