Herman Melville (August 1 1819 - September 28 1891) was a U.S novelist, essayist, and poet. During his own lifetime his early novels, South Seas adventures, were quite popular, but his audience declined later in his life. By the time of his death he had nearly been forgotten, but his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, was "rediscovered" in following years and he is now widely esteemed one of the most important figures in American literature.
In spite of being poorly received when first published, Moby-Dick is one of the canonical novels in the English language. It tells the story of Captain Ahab, a Quaker sea captain obsessed with killing a legendary white whale that cost him one of his legs. It is narrated by a crew-member who calls himself Ishmael and who, like Melville himself, has a rich litererary background that he brings to bear on his shipmates and their adventure. The other crew-members of Ahab's ship, the Pequod, are carefully drawn stylizations of humans types and habits; critics have often described them as a "self-enclosed universe." Descriptions of the methods of whale-hunting, the adventure, and the narrator's reflections interweave the story's themes with huge swath of Western literature, history, mythology, philosophy, and science. The prose is intricate and imaginative, and Melville is among the finest prose stylists America has produced--his peers might include William Faulkner, Henry James, and Thomas Pynchon.
Melville was a friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and was influenced by the latter's writing; Moby-Dick is dedicated to Hawthorne. In his later life, his works no longer accessible to a broad audience, he was not able to make money from writing. He depended on his wife's family for money, and later became a New York City Customs agent. His short novel Billy Budd, an unpublished manuscript at the time of his death, was later published successfully and was turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten.
Melville also wrote White-Jacket, Typee, Omoo, Pierre, The Confidence Man and many short stories and works of various genres. His short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" is among his most important pieces, and has been considered a precursor to Existentialist and Absurdist literature. Rarely among poets, he did not write any substantial poetry until late in his life; after the Civil War, he published Battle-Pieces, which sold well. But once again tending to outrun the tastes of his readers, Melville's poetic masterpiece, the epic length verse-narrative Clarel, about a student's pilgrimmage to the Holy Land, was also quiteunknown in his own time.
Paraphrased from the introduction written by Arthur Stedman to the 1892 edition of Melville's Typee:
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, and received his early education in that city. He says he gained his first love of adventure listening to his father Allan, who was an extensive traveller for his time, telling tales of the monstrous waves at sea, mountain high, of the masts bending like twigs, and all about Le Havre and Liverpool. After the death of his father the family (eight brothers and sisters) moved to the village of Lansingburg, on the Hudson River. There Herman remained until 1835, when he attended the Albany Classical School for some months.
Herman's roving disposition, and a desire to support himself independently of family assistance, soon led him to ship as cabin boy in a New York vessel bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage, visited London, and returned in the same ship. 'Redburn: His First Voyage,' published in 1849, is partly founded on the experiences of this trip.
A good part of the succeeding three years, from 1837 to 1840, was occupied with school-teaching.
I fancy that it was the reading of Richard Henry Dana's 'Two Years Before the Mast' which revived the spirit of adventure in Melville's breast. That book was published in 1840, and was at once talked of everywhere. Melville must have read it at the time, mindful of his own experience as a sailor. At any rate, he once more signed a ship's articles, and on January 1, 1841, sailed from New Bedford harbour in the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific Ocean and the sperm fishery. He has left very little direct information as to the events of this eighteen months' cruise, although his whaling romance, 'Moby Dick; or, the Whale,' probably gives many pictures of life on board the Acushnet. Melville decided to abandon the vessel on reaching the Marquesas Islands; and the narrative of 'Typee' and its sequel, 'Omoo,' tell this tale.
After a sojourn at the Society Islands, Melville shipped for Honolulu. There he remained for four months, employed as a clerk. He joined the crew of the American frigate United States, which reached Boston, stopping on the way at one of the Peruvian ports, in October of 1844. Once more was a narrative of his experiences to be preserved in 'White Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War.' Thus, of Melville's four most important books, three, 'Typee,' 'Omoo,' and 'White-Jacket,' are directly auto biographical, and 'Moby Dick' is partially so; while the less important 'Redburn' is between the two classes in this respect.
Melville married Miss Elizabeth Shaw on August 4, 1847, in Boston, whereupon his nautical wanderings were brought to a conclusion. Mr. and Mrs. Melville resided in New York City until 1850, when they purchased a farmhouse at Pittsfield. Here Melville remained for thirteen years, occupied with his writing, and managing his farm. An article in Putnam's Monthly entitled 'I and My Chimney,' another called 'October Mountain,' and the introduction to the 'Piazza Tales,' present faithful pictures of Arrow Head and its surroundings.
While at Pittsfield, Mr. Melville was induced to enter the lecture field. From 1857 to 1860 he filled many engagements in the lyceums, chiefly speaking of his adventures in the South Seas.
After an illness that lasted a number of months, Herman Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.