105 Herman Melville (1819-1891) Biography

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Herman Melville was born Herman “Melvill” in 1819 to a distinguished New England family. His father, Allan, a merchant and importer, described him as “backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension . . . of a docile and amiable disposition.” In 1830, the business goes under and the family is forced to move. In 1832, Allan dies. His wife, Maria, changes the spelling of the surname to “Melville.” (Padilla)

In his young adult life, Melville worked on various ships to help support the family. In 1841, he boarded the Acushnet, which he and another crewmate decided to flee on 1842. Melville left the ship for the Marquesas Islands, but did not account for the rough terrain and almost died. From here, he was taken in by a Taipi cannibal tribe, known for being hostile towards non-natives, though he and his crewmate were treated kindly. Still, Herman fled from them and boarded the Lucy Ann little over a month after his encounter. He, among others, attempted a mutiny on the ship, was thrown in jail in Tahiti, and later escaped. (Hillway)

These encounters inspired Melville to write the south-seas romance adventure Typee (published 1846) based on his encounter with the Taipi tribe. In the book, Melville admires the tribe’s simple nature. The book gained Melville fame, but did not make him rich. Melville published Omoo the following year, as a follow-up to his first novel. He received harsh criticism for his unflattering portrayal of missionaries in native lands. In the fall, he married Elizabeth Shaw, another New England socialite. His marriage and life among family helped re-channel his creative interests, resulting in the publishing of ­Mardi in 1849, the third installment of south seas adventure-romance, which was more or less a failure. (Hillway)

The same year, financial burdens increase from the birth of his first son. The failures of his writing and financial burdens both put Melville in a depressed state. A friendship with author Nathaniel Hawthorne (Melville’s neighbor in 1850) helped to re-inspire Melville. In 1851, he published Moby Dick, which would later be his most successful, but at the time did not bring him merit or fortune. In 1853, his publisher in New York lost many of his books to a fire. The following years, Melville wrote a few short stories themed around human nature being materialistic and contemptuous, most notably “Bartleby the Scrivener” in 1853 and “Benito Cereno” in 1855. (Padilla)

Melville’s depressed state worsened as he was denied a government position, and also denied entry into the navy during the Civil War. In his later years, Melville turned to poetry, publishing his Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War in 1866. Melville witnessed the death of both of his sons, one accidentally shooting himself, and the other dying on a sailing excursion. Through this, Melville continued to write poetry and lectures. Melville died in 1891, without any attention from the media- his obituary was only published once. (Hillway) Melville did not receive success or acclaim during his lifetime, but his works became popular in the 1940’s and is now one of the classic American authors. (Padilla)


Hillway, Tyrus. Melville. Twayne, 1963.

Padilla, David. “Melville, Herman.” American Studies at the University of Virginia, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/bb/hm_bio.html


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