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Herman Melville

Herman Melville

After sailing around the world, living on an island inhabited by cannibals, and taking part in a mutiny at sea, it's hardly surprising that Herman Melville had some stories to tell. He became an overnight sensation for his first two books, which related to his high adventures. Though several of his other works were also well-liked during his lifetime, it was only around 100 years after his birth that Herman Melville became recognized as one of the great American authors.

Herman Melville: Biography and Fascinating Facts

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York City. His father, Allan, was a well-off naval merchant. Melville began school at the New York Male High School in 1824 at the age of five and soon moved to the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School. In his early years at school, Herman Melville did not perform well; however, as time passed, his academic skills improved, and he would eventually become a devoted scholar. In fact, he was recognized as a good student by the city of Albany, New York, in 1831 after the family moved there and he transferred to the Albany Academy.

Both of Herman Melville's grandfathers were heroes in the American Civil War. Melville was proud to be related to them and drew inspiration from them in some of his writing.

Though Melville’s childhood and his relationship with his parents were happy, his father Allan had a habit of overspending and borrowing money he could not repay. It was due to his debt that Melville’s family frequently moved house and that Melville's education was broken up at different schools. By October 1831, Allan’s debts were so bad that Herman Melville dropped out of school to cut the cost of his tuition. Allan’s health and mental state began to deteriorate, and in 1832 he died, leaving his family deeply in debt.

Herman Melville, the capital building in Albany, New York, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Herman Melville spent many of his formative years living in Albany, New York.

Herman Melville took a job at a bank in Albany for several years, but in 1834 he switched to a position at his brother’s fur store. The next year, having funds for tuition once again, he enrolled in the Albany Classical School and then switched again in 1836 to the Albany Academy, only to drop out again in 1837 due to financial stress. When his brother's fur company went bankrupt in 1837, Melville taught at Sikes District School for a semester. Following this, he spent a term studying engineering at the Lansingburgh Academy; in 1839, Herman Melville sought an engineering career but got nowhere with it.

Despite his patchwork education, Herman Melville’s writing shows that he had read and studied such authors as William Shakespeare, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron. His writing style tends to be thick with allusions and other references to their works.

After these turbulent years, Herman Melville published his first essay, “Fragments from a Writing Desk,” in an 1839 issue of Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser, a local newspaper. This instance helped Melville develop a taste for publishing his writing. Despite this, Melville’s first book would not come for several more years.

In 1839, Herman Melville joined the crew of a merchant ship and sailed from New York to Liverpool. He soon set sail again, this time on a whaling ship in 1841. The ship reached the Marquesas Islands in the summer of 1842; there, Melville and a shipmate left their crew and spent about a month living on the island of Nuku Hiva. This experience would inspire Melville’s first book, Typee (1846). His continued adventures after leaving Nuku Hiva—which include further sailing, a mutiny, and time spent on various other islands—inspired a sequel that followed Typee named Omoo (1847).

Herman Melville, Nuku Hiva, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Herman Melville's writing career launched successfully due to the inspiration of his time living in Nuku Hiva.

Following these exploits, Herman Melville served on another whaling ship, lived in Hawaii for several months, then briefly joined the US Navy. He then returned home to New York state and wrote his first two books. Both books were hugely popular and brought Melville swift success as a writer. The income from these books put Melville in a good place financially, and on August 4, 1847, after only a three-month-long engagement, he married Elizabeth Knapp Shaw. The two moved to the area of New York City, now known as Park Avenue.

Herman Melville continued to write; his next publications were Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), and White-Jacket (1850). Melville’s next work would be the one that is most famous today, though, during his lifetime, he was best known for Typee. Melville published the book under two names: The Whale in Britain, and Moby-Dick in the US, both released in 1851. Though in later decades this novel would be considered a classic of American Literature, it did not bring in the money that Melville hoped for.

In an attempt to write something that would be a sure hit and bring in enough money to cover his growing debts, Melville released Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852). However, the book was not well-liked by readers or critics and was the first in a string of disappointing releases for Melville.

More than just a disappointing reception, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities earned Herman Melville harsh words from critics. One news story released in Day Book on September 8, 1852, attacked Melville’s writing and sanity. The headline for the article read “Herman Melville Crazy.”

Between Fall 1856 and Spring 1857, Herman Melville toured Europe and the Mediterranean. In April 1857, Melville published his last finished novel, The Confidence-Man, which was not liked at the time but is now well-regarded. Over the next decade, Melville both worked as a lecturer and published poetry, though his works continued to receive lukewarm reviews.

Herman Melville took a job as a customs inspector in New York City starting in 1866; he held the position for 19 years. He deteriorated with time, treating his wife unusually poorly and growing weak in both mind and body. He no longer attempted to make a career of his literary works, though he was still dedicated to writing. Melville retired from his customs job on December 31, 1885, then lived a quiet life until he died of heart failure at 72 on September 28, 1891.

Herman Melville: Writing Style and Literary Movement

Now widely studied and regarded as one of the greatest American authors, Herman Melville’s writing tends to utilize loose sentence structures and numerous allusions and allegories. Having studied the works of Shakespeare during his education, Melville also developed a unique expressiveness in his works that was inspired by the Bard; he plays with words and phrases in unconventional ways that give his writing additional depth. Melville also incorporates many biblical references throughout his stories.

Melville’s works—with their focus on human flaws and psychology—are considered some of the greatest examples of Dark Romanticism, which was popular in the US around the time he lived.

Dark Romanticism (1840s-1870s): a literary movement focused on themes such as human flaws, guilt, punishment, and the psychological effects these can have.

Herman Melville: Books

Though Moby Dick is by far the book for which Herman Melville is best remembered, he also produced many other works. Two of the other most well-loved books Melville created are Billy Bud, Sailor (1924) and Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846).

Moby Dick; or, The Whale (1851)

Revenge is a major theme in Moby Dick; or, The Whale. The story follows a sailor named Ishmael who joins the crew of a whaling ship captained by a man named Ahab. Captain Ahab is consumed by his goal to kill the huge whale that bit off his leg and leads the crew of his whaling ship on a dangerous hunt that ends in tragedy.

Herman Melville, Sperm Whale Tale, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Captain Ahab is hunting a sperm whale.

Billy Bud, Sailor (1924)

Interestingly, when Herman Melville started working on Billy Bud, Sailor, he had not written any works of prose for around thirty years—only poetry. He worked on this return to the novel during the last five years of his life. It was unfinished when Melville died, and the writing he left behind at his death was very messy, with many corrections, cuts, and additions made on the papers. The state of the piece, as well as not having Melville himself there to clarify his notes, made it a daunting task to clean up and publish the work in a way that honored the author's intentions.

The process was not easy, and several versions have been published. A version from 1962 is considered the closest to Melville's intention and is now viewed as one of Herman Melville’s best works. The story is about Billy Bud, a sailor who is falsely accused of a crime. He hits his mad accuser, accidentally killing him, and is sentenced to hang.

Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846)

The first book that Herman Melville wrote, Typee, is an exploration of the Polynesian Marquesas Islands and the people who lived there. Melville lived on the island Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas in 1842 and regaled his experiences in this book. Melville was best known during his lifetime for this work; he was particularly famous for having lived among people on the islands who were cannibals. The book itself sheds a favorable light on the islanders and calls into question the religious missions and attempts at colonization that were a common threat to the island culture at the time.

However, the accuracy of Melville's depictions of the location and culture have been questioned since the book was first published—as well as the truthfulness of Melville's personal story of his time on the island. Though scholars have confirmed many of the major claims, including that Melville truly did spend time on Nuku Hiva in 1842, he is believed to have stretched details such as the length of time he lived there.

Additional books by Melville include 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), Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855), and The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857).

Herman Melville: Quotes

The quote below is from Moby Dick; or, The Whale. It describes the pull that the ocean has for the speaker, Ishmael. Ishmael is an experienced sailor with a love for the ocean—it is this love that leads him to join Captain Ahab's crew and witness first-hand their crazed mission to kill the giant whale.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” (Moby Dick, ch 1)

The following quote from Billy Budd, Sailor, is part of the buildup to Billy Budd accidentally killing a man. The quote describes the unstable mental state of Claggart, the man who falsely accused Billy Budd. This leads to Billy Budd striking Claggart and then facing the consequences of his actions—even though the rest of the crew members are relieved that the insane Claggart is gone.

“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.” (Billy Budd, Sailor, ch 21)

The quote below is from Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. It gives a glimpse into Herman Melville's feelings about the prejudice held against the Marquesan Islanders during his lifetime. Having spent time living on their islands, Melville wrote about his impressions of the people he met. As seen in this quote, Melville felt that the island inhabitants were not the “savages” that many considered them to be—in fact, he believed that their values would be good for the Americans of the time to learn.

“The term 'Savage' is, I conceive, often misapplied, and indeed, when I consider the vices, cruelties, and enormities of every kind that spring up in the tainted atmosphere of a feverish civilization, I am inclined to think that so far as the relative wickedness of the parties is concerned, four or five Marquesan Islanders sent to the United States as Missionaries might be quite as useful as an equal number of Americans despatched to the Islands in a similar capacity.” (Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, ch 17)

Herman Melville - Key takeaways

  • Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York City.
  • Melville is considered a highly influential American author and poet.
  • His writing is part of the Dark Romanticism literary movement.
  • Today, Melville is best remembered for the novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851).
  • Herman Melville died at the age of 72 on September 28, 1891

Frequently Asked Questions about Herman Melville

Herman Melville was an American Dark Romanticism writer who lived between 1819-1891. He is best known for his novel Moby Dick (1851). 

Herman Melville is best known for his novel Moby Dick (1851). 

Herman Melville is famous for his novel Moby Dick (1851). 

Herman Melville's writing impacted American literature by providing a unique American voice to great works of Dark Romanticism.

Herman Melville was a Romantic writer. More specifically, he wrote Dark Romanticism—a subgenre of Romanticism that took a more pessimistic view of human psychology.

Final Herman Melville Quiz

Question

In what year was Herman Melville born?

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1819

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Where was Herman Melville born?

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New York City

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During his lifetime, what book was Herman Melville most famous for?

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Typee (1846)

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Which of the following is NOT a major influence on Melville's writing?

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William Shakespeare

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For what book is Herman Melville most famous today?

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Answer

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)

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What literary movement is Herman Melville considered part of?

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Answer

Dark Romanticism

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True or false: Herman Melville never sailed on a whaling ship.

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True

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Did Herman Melville ever get married?

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Yes; he married Elizabeth Knapp Shaw.

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True or false: all the works that Herman Melville published were critically acclaimed during his lifetime.

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True

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In what year did Herman Melville die?

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1891

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Which narrative view does Herman Melville use in Billy Budd?

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First-person 

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Which character accuses Billy of mutiny? 

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Claggart

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Herman Melville describes Billy's physical and personal beauty, however, he has one flaw. What is that flaw?

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Stutter

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Billy is able to coherently defend himself during his trial. 

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False

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Because of his beauty and innocence, Billy is often compared to which Biblical figure? 

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Adam

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At the beginning of the novel, Billy is happily stationed on a ship called the ____________. 

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Rights-of-Man

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What are Billy Budd's last words?

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"God bless Captain Vere!" 


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Which Biblical figure is Claggart most associated with? 

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Satan

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The novel is set during a period when England was at war with ________. 

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France

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Where does Captain Vere die? 

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Gibraltar 

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