Biography of Herman Melville
Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick. His first three books gained much contemporary attention (the first, Typee, becoming a bestseller), and after a fast-blooming literary success in the late 1840s, his popularity declined precipitously in the mid-1850s and never recovered during his lifetime. When he died in 1891, he was almost completely forgotten. It was not until the "Melville Revival" in the early 20th century that his work won recognition, especially Moby-Dick, which was hailed as one of the literary masterpieces of both American and world literature. He was the first writer to have his works collected and published by the Library of America.
Early Life, Education, and Family
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, the third of eight children of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. After her husband Allan died (& between 1832 & 1834), Maria added an "e" to the family surname — seemingly at the behest of Melville's brother Gansevoort. Part of a well-established and colorful Boston family, Melville's father spent a good deal of time abroad as a commission merchant and an importer of French dry goods. The author's paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melvill, an honored participant of the Boston Tea Party who refused to change the style of his clothing or manners to fit the times, was depicted in Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem "The Last Leaf". Herman visited him in Boston, and his father turned to him in his frequent times of financial need.
The maternal side of Melville's family was Hudson Valley Dutch. His maternal grandfather was General Peter Gansevoort, a hero of the Battle of Saratoga; in his gold-laced uniform, the general sat for a portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart, which is described in Melville's 1852 novel, Pierre, for Melville wrote out of his familial as well as his nautical background. Like the titular character in Pierre, Melville found satisfaction in his "double revolutionary descent."
Allan Melvill sent his sons to the New York Male School (Columbia Preparatory School). Overextended financially and emotionally unstable, Allan tried to recover from his setbacks by moving his family to Albany in 1830 and going into the fur business. The new venture, however, was unsuccessful; the War of 1812 had ruined businesses that tried to sell overseas and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He died soon afterward, leaving his family penniless, when Herman was 12. Although Maria had well-off kin, they were concerned with protecting their own inheritances and taking advantage of investment opportunities rather than settling their mother's estate so Maria's family would be more secure with Herman's younger brother, Thomas Melville, who eventually became a governor of Sailors Snug Harbor.
Melville attended the Albany Academy from October 1830 to October 1831, and again from October 1836 to March 1837, where he studied the classics.
Early Working Life
Melville's roving disposition and a desire to support himself independently of family assistance led him to seek work as a surveyor on the Erie Canal. This effort failed, and his brother helped him get a job as a "boy" (a green hand) on a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage, and returned on the same ship. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) is partly based on his experiences of this journey.
The three years after Albany Academy (1837 to 1840) were mostly occupied with teaching school, except for the voyage to Liverpool in 1839. From 1838 to 1847, he resided at what is now known as the Herman Melville House in Lansingburgh, New York. Near the end of 1840 he once again decided to sign ship's articles. On January 3, 1841, he sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on the whaler Acushnet, which was bound for the Pacific Ocean. He was later to comment that his life began that day. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and traveled to the South Pacific. Melville left little direct information about the events of this 18-month cruise, although his whaling romance, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, probably gives many pictures of life on board the Acushnet. Melville deserted the Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842. For three weeks he lived among the Typee natives, who were called cannibals by the two other tribal groups on the island—though they treated Melville very well. Typee, Melville's first novel, describes a brief love affair with a beautiful native girl, Fayaway, who generally "wore the garb of Eden" and came to epitomize the guileless noble savage in the popular imagination.
Melville did not seem to be concerned about repercussions from his desertion from the Acushnet. He boarded an Australian whaleship, the Lucy Ann, bound for Tahiti; took part in a mutiny and was briefly jailed in the native "Calabooza Beretanee". After release he spent several months as beachcomber and island rover (Omoo in Tahitian) eventually crossing over to Moorea. He then signed articles on yet another whaler for a six-month cruise (November 1842 − April 1843) and left that ship in Honolulu. While in Hawaii he became a controversial figure for his vehement opposition to the activities of Christian missionaries seeking to convert the native population. After working as a clerk for four months, he joined the crew of the frigate USS United States, which reached Boston in October 1844. These experiences were described in Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket, which were published as novels mainly because few believed their veracity.
Melville completed Typee in the summer of 1845, though he had difficulty getting it published. It was eventually published in 1846 in London, where it became an overnight bestseller. The Boston publisher subsequently accepted Omoo sight unseen. Typee and Omoo gave Melville overnight notoriety as a writer and adventurer, and he often entertained by telling stories to his admirers. As writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis wrote, "With his cigar and his Spanish eyes, he talks Typee and Omoo, just as you find the flow of his delightful mind on paper". The novels, however, did not generate enough royalties for him to live on. Omoo was not as colorful as Typee, and readers began to realize Melville was not just producing adventure stories. Redburn and White-Jacket had no problem finding publishers. Mardi was a disappointment for readers who wanted another rollicking and exotic sea yarn.
Marriage and Later Working Life
Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Lemuel Shaw, on August 4, 1847; the couple honeymooned in Canada. They had four children: two sons and two daughters. In 1850 they purchased Arrowhead, a farm house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, now a museum. Here Melville lived for 13 years, occupied with his writing and managing his farm. While living at Arrowhead, he befriended the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in nearby Lenox. Melville was tremendously inspired and encouraged by his new relationship with Hawthorne during the period that he was writing Moby-Dick (dedicating it to Hawthorne), though their friendship was on the wane only a short time later, when he wrote Pierre there. However, these works did not achieve the popular and critical success of his earlier books. Indeed, The New York Day Book on September 8, 1852, published a venomous attack on Melville and his writings headlined HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY. The item, offered as a news story, reported, "A critical friend, who read Melville's last book, 'Ambiguities," between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman. We were somewhat startled at the remark, but still more at learning, a few days after, that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink." Following this and other scathing reviews of Pierre by critics, publishers became wary of Melville's work. His publisher, Harper & Brothers, rejected his next manuscript, Isle of the Cross, which has been lost. On April 1, 1857, Melville published his last full-length novel, The Confidence-Man. This novel, subtitled "His Masquerade", has won general acclaim in modern times as a complex and mysterious exploration of issues of fraud and honesty, identity and masquerade, but when it was published, it received reviews ranging from the bewildered to the denunciatory.
To repair his faltering finances, Melville listened to the advice of friends and decided to enter what was for others the lucrative field of lecturing. From 1857 to 1860, he spoke at lyceums, chiefly on Roman statuary and sightseeing in Rome. Turning to poetry, he gathered a collection of verse that failed to interest a publisher. In 1863, he and his wife resettled, with their four children, in New York City. After the end of the American Civil War, he published Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, (1866) a collection of over 70 poems that generally was ignored by the critics, though a few gave him patronizingly favorable reviews. In 1866, Melville's wife and her relatives used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York (a humble but adequately paying appointment), and he held the post for 19 years. In a notoriously corrupt institution, Melville soon won the reputation of being the only honest employee of the customs house. But from 1866, his professional writing career can be said to have come to an end.
Melville spent years writing a 16,000-line epic poem, Clarel, inspired by his earlier trip to the Holy Land. His uncle, Peter Gansevoort, by a bequest, paid for the publication of the massive epic in 1876. But the publication failed miserably, and the unsold copies were burned when Melville was unable to afford to buy them at cost.
As his professional fortunes waned, Melville's marriage was unhappy. Elizabeth's relatives repeatedly urged her to leave him, and offered to have him committed as insane, but she refused. In 1867, his oldest son, Malcolm, shot himself, perhaps accidentally. While Melville worked, his wife managed to wean him off alcohol, and he no longer showed signs of agitation or insanity. But recurring depression was added to by the death of his second son, Stanwix, in San Francisco early in 1886. Melville retired in 1886, after several of his wife's relatives died and left the couple legacies that Mrs. Melville administered with skill and good fortune.
As English readers, pursuing the vogue for sea stories represented by such writers as G. A. Henty, rediscovered Melville's novels, he experienced a modest revival of popularity in England, though not in the United States. Once more he took up his pen, writing a series of poems with prose head notes inspired by his early experiences at sea. He published them in two collections, each issued in a tiny edition of 25 copies for his relatives and friends: John Marr (1888) and Timoleon (1891).
One of these poems further intrigued him, and he began to rework the headnote to turn it into first a short story and then a novella. He worked on it on and off for several years, but when he died in September 1891, he left the piece unfinished, and not until the literary scholar Raymond Weaver published it in 1924 did the book – which is now known as Billy Budd, Sailor – come to light.
Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891, age 72. The doctor listed "cardiac dilation" on the death certificate. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. A common story says that his New York Times obituary called him "Henry Melville", implying that he was unknown and unappreciated at his time of death, but the story is not true. A later retrospective article did appear on October 6 in the same paper referring to him as "the late Hiram Melville", but this appears to have been a typesetting error.
From about age 35, Melville ceased to be popular with a broad audience because of his increasingly philosophical, political and experimental tendencies. His novella Billy Budd, Sailor, unpublished until 33 years after the author's death, was later turned into a play, an opera by Benjamin Britten and a film by Peter Ustinov.
In Herman Melville's Religious Journey, Walter Donald Kring detailed his discovery of letters indicating that Melville had been a member of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. Until this revelation, little had been known of his religious affiliation. Hershel Parker in the second volume of his biography makes it clear that Melville became a nominal member only to placate his wife. Melville despised Unitarianism and its associated "ism", Utilitarianism. (The great English Unitarians were Utilitarians.) See the 2006 Norton Critical Edition of The Confidence-Man for more detail on Melville and religion than in Parker's 2002 volume.
Publications and Contemporary Reactions
Most of Melville's novels were published first in the United Kingdom and then in the U.S. Sometimes the editions contain substantial differences with Melville acceding to his different publishers' requirements for different audiences.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale has become Melville's most famous work and is often considered one of the greatest literary works of all time. It was dedicated to Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. It did not, however, make Melville rich. The book never sold its initial printing of 3,000 copies in his lifetime, and total earnings from the American edition amounted to just $556.37 from his publisher, Harper & Brothers. Melville also wrote Billy Budd, White-Jacket, Israel Potter, Redburn, Typee, Omoo, Pierre, The Confidence-Man and many short stories, including "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" and "Benito Cereno," and works of various genres.
Melville is less well known as a poet and did not publish poetry until later in life. After the Civil War, he published Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, which did not sell well; of the Harper & Bros. printing of 1200 copies, only 525 had been sold ten years later. Again tending to outrun the tastes of his readers, Melville's epic length verse-narrative Clarel, about a student's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was also quite obscure, even in his own time. Among the longest single poems in American literature, Clarel, published in 1876, had an initial printing of only 350 copies. The critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of the poem in the New York Public Library in 1925 "with its pages uncut"—in other words, it had sat there unread for 50 years.
His poetry is not as highly critically esteemed as his fiction, although some critics place him as the first modernist poet in the United States; others would assert that his work more strongly suggest what today would be a postmodern view. A leading champion of Melville's claims as a great American poet was the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, who issued a selection of Melville's poetry prefaced by an admiring and acute critical essay. According to Melville scholar Elizabeth Renker "a sea change in the reception of the poems is incipient." In reference to the poem Clarel, poetry critic Helen Vendler remarked: "What it cost Melville to write this poem makes us pause, reading it. Alone, it is enough to win him, as a poet, what he called 'the belated funeral flower of fame'".
Melville was not financially successful as a writer, having earned just over $10,000 for his writing during his lifetime. After the success of travelogues based on voyages to the South Seas and stories based on misadventures in the merchant marine and navy, Melville's popularity declined dramatically. By 1876, all of his books were out of print. In the later years of his life and during the years after his death he was recognized, if at all, as only a minor figure in American literature.
A confluence of publishing events in the 1920s brought about a reassessment now commonly called "the Melville Revival". The two books generally considered most important to the Revival were Raymond Weaver's 1921 biography Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic and his 1924 edition of Melville's last great but never quite finished manuscript, Billy Budd, which Melville's granddaughter gave to Weaver when he visited her for research on the biography. The other works that helped fan the Revival flames were Carl Van Doren's The American Novel (1921), D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), Carl Van Vechten's essay in The Double Dealer (1922), and Lewis Mumford's biography, Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision (1929). In 1945, the Melville Society was formed as a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating Melville’s literary legacy. Jay Leyda, better known for his work in film, spent more than a decade gathering documents and records for the day by day Melville Log (1951). In the same year Newton Arvin published the critical biography Herman Melville, which won the nonfiction National Book Award.
In the 1960s, Northwestern University Press, in alliance with the Newberry Library and the Modern Language Association, established ongoing publication runs of Melville's various titles. This alliance sought to create a "definitive" edition of Melville's works. Titles republished under the Northwestern-Newberry Library include Typee, Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, Omoo, Israel Potter, Pierre or the Ambiguities, Confidence-Man, White Jacket or the World in a Man-of-War, Moby Dick, Mardi and a Voyage Thither, Redburn, Clarel, as well as several volumes of Melville's poems, journals, and correspondence.
Themes of Gender and Sexuality
Although not the primary focus of Melville scholarship, there has been an emerging interest in the role of gender and sexuality in some of Melville's writings. Some critics, particularly those interested in gender studies, have explored the existence of male-dominant social structures in Melville's fiction. For example, Alvin Sandberg claimed that the short story "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" offers "an exploration of impotency, a portrayal of a man retreating to an all-male childhood to avoid confrontation with sexual manhood" from which the narrator engages in "congenial" digressions in heterogeneity. In line with this view Warren Rosenberg argues the homosocial "Paradise of Bachelors" is shown to be "superficial and sterile." David Harley Serlin observes in the second half of Melville's diptych, "The Tartarus of Maids," the narrator gives voice to the oppressed women he observes: "As other scholars have noted, the "slave" image here has two clear connotations. One describes the exploitation of the women's physical labor, and the other describes the exploitation of the women's reproductive organs. Of course, as models of women's oppression, the two are clearly intertwined." In the end the narrator is never fully able to come to terms with the contrasting masculine and feminine modalities. Issues of sexuality have been observed in other works as well. Rosenberg notes Taji, in "Mardi", and the protagonist in "Pierre" "think they are saving young "maidens in distress" (Yillah and Isabel) out of the purest of reasons but both are also conscious of a lurking sexual motive." When Taji kills the old priest holding Yillah captive, he states "remorse smote me hard; and like lightning I asked myself whether the death deed I had done was sprung of virtuous motive, the rescuing of a captive from thrall, or whether beneath the pretense I had engaged in this fatal affray for some other selfish purpose, the companionship of a beautiful maid." In "Pierre" the motive for his self-sacrifice for Isabel is admitted: "womanly beauty and not womanly ugliness invited him to champion the right."Rosenberg argues "This awareness of a double motive haunts both books and ultimately destroys their protagonists who would not fully acknowledge the dark underside of their idealism. The epistemological quest and the transcendental quest for love and belief are consequently sullied by the erotic."
Melville fully explores the theme of sexuality in his major poetical work "Clarel." When the narrator is separated from Ruth, with whom he has fallen in love, he is free to explore other sexual (and religious) possibilities before deciding at the end of the poem to participate in the ritualistic order marriage represents. In the course of the poem "he considers every form of sexual orientation - celibacy, homosexuality, hedonism, and heterosexuality - raising the same kinds of questions as when he considers Islam or Democracy."
Some passages and sections of Melville's works demonstrate his willingness to address all forms of sexuality, including the homoerotic, in his works. Commonly given examples from Moby Dick are the interpretation of male bonding from what is termed the "marriage bed" episode involving Ishmael and Queequeg, and the "Squeeze of the Hand" chapter describing the camaraderie of sailors extracting spermaceti from a dead whale. Billy Budd's physical attractiveness is described in quasi-feminine terms: "As the Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd's position aboard the seventy-four was something analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the highborn dames of the court." Some critics argue that "Ahab's pursuit of the whale, which they suggest can be associated with the feminine in its shape, mystery, and in its naturalness, represents the ultimate fusion of the epistemological and sexual quest."
Law and Literature
In recent years, Billy Budd has become a central text in the field of legal scholarship known as law and literature. In the novel, Billy, a handsome and popular young sailor impressed from the merchant vessel Rights of Man to serve aboard H.M.S. Bellipotent in the late 1790s, during the war between Revolutionary France and Great Britain and her monarchic allies, excites the enmity and hatred of the ship's master-at-arms, John Claggart. Claggart devises phony charges of mutiny and other crimes to level against Billy, and Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere institutes an informal inquiry, at which Billy convulsively strikes Claggart because his stammer prevents him from speaking. Vere immediately convenes a drumhead court-martial, at which, after serving as sole witness and as Billy's de facto counsel, Vere then urges the court to convict and sentence Billy to death. The trial is recounted in chapter 21, the longest chapter in the book, and that trial has become the focus of scholarly controversy: was Captain Vere a good man trapped by bad law, or did he deliberately distort and misrepresent the applicable law to condemn Billy to death?
On May 12, 1985, the New York City Herman Melville Society gathered at 104 East 26th Street to dedicate the intersection of Park Avenue south and 26th Street as Herman Melville Square. This is the street where Melville lived from 1863 to 1891 and where, among other works, he wrote Billy Budd.
In 2010 it was announced that a new species of extinct giant sperm whale, Livyatan melvillei was named in honor of Melville. The paleontologists who discovered the fossil are all fans of Moby-Dick and wanted to dedicate their discovery to Melville
Herman Melville's Works:
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846)
Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847)
Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (1849)
Redburn: His First Voyage (1849)
White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850)
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)
Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852)
"Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853) (short story)
"The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" (1854) (novella, possibly incorporating a short rewrite of the lost Isle of the Cross)
"Benito Cereno" (1855)
Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855)
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857)
Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) (poetry collection)
Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876) (epic poem)
John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) (poetry collection)
Timoleon (1891) (poetry collection)
Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) (unfinished, 1891) [Published Posthumously] (1924)
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Where the wings of a sunny Dome expand
I saw a Banner in gladsome air-
Starry, like Berenice's Hair-
Afloat in broadened bravery there;
With undulating long-drawn flow,
As rolled Brazilian billows go
Voluminously o'er the Line.