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Herman Melville
Herman Melville brought to his work a vivid imagination and a philosophical skepticism, as well as a remarkable skill in handling the new American language.This image is a frontispiece to JOURNAL UP THE STRAITS, 1860.

Library of Congress
Herman Melville, (1819-1891), ranks among America's major authors. He wrote MOBY-DICK, one of the great novels in literature, and his reputation rests largely on this book. But many of his other works are literary creations of a high order -- blending fact, fiction, adventure, and symbolism. Melville's vast personal experience in faraway places was remarkable even in the footloose and exploring world of the 1800s. Melville brought to his extraordinary adventures a vivid imagination and a philosophical skepticism, as well as a remarkable skill in handling the new American language.

His early life. Melville was born in New York City on Aug. 1, 1819. The family name was Melvill, and he added the "e" to the name. His father was a merchant from New England. His mother came from an old, socially prominent New York Dutch family. Melville lived his first 11 years in New York City. In 1831, his father died after suffering a financial and mental breakdown, and the family soon moved to Albany, New York.

Inexperienced and now poor, Melville tried a variety of jobs between 1832 and 1841. He was a clerk in his brother's hat store in Albany, worked in his uncle's bank, taught school near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and, in 1837, sailed to Liverpool, England, as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. He described this trip in his novel REDBURN. Melville returned to America and signed on as a seaman on the newly built whaling ship ACUSHNET for a trip in the Pacific Ocean. From this trip came the basic experiences recorded in several of his books, and above all, the whaling knowledge he put into MOBY-DICK.

Melville sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts, on Jan. 3, 1841. He stayed on the ACUSHNET for 18 months. After the ship put in at Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, he and a shipmate deserted. The two men headed inland until they accidentally came to the lovely valley of the Typees, a Polynesian tribe with a reputation as fierce cannibals. But the natives turned out to be gentle, charming hosts. Melville described his experiences with them in TYPEE.

Melville lived in the valley for about a month. He then joined another whaling ship, but he soon deserted it with other sailors in a semimutiny at Tahiti. After a few days in a local jail, Melville and a new friend began roaming the beautiful and unspoiled islands of Tahiti and Moorea. Melville described his life during these wanderings in the novel OMOO.

After short service on a third whaling ship, Melville landed at Hawaii, where he lived by doing odd jobs. On Aug. 17, 1843, he enlisted as a seaman on the frigate "United States," flagship of the Navy's Pacific Squadron. He recounted his long voyage around Cape Horn in the novel WHITE-JACKET.

Melville arrived in Boston Harbor in October 1844. He was released from the Navy and headed home to Albany, his imagination overflowing with his adventures.

His literary career. Melville wrote about his experiences so attractively that he soon became one of the most popular writers of his time. The books that made his reputation were TYPEE (1846); OMOO (1847); MARDI (1849), a complex allegorical romance set in the South Seas; REDBURN (1849); and WHITE-JACKET (1850).

Melville then began MOBY-DICK, another "whaling voyage," as he called it, similar to his successful travel books. He had almost completed the book when he met Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne inspired him to radically revise the whaling documentary into a novel of both universal significance and literary complexity.

MOBY-DICK; or THE WHALE (1851), on one level, is the story of the hunt for Moby Dick, a fierce white whale supposedly known to sailors of Melville's time. Captain Ahab is the captain of the whaling ship "Pequod." He has lost a leg in an earlier battle with Moby Dick, and is determined to catch the whale. The novel brilliantly describes the dangerous and often violent life on a whaling ship, and contains information on the whaling industry and a discussion of the nature of whales. On another level MOBY-DICK is a deeply symbolic story. The whale symbolizes the mysterious and complex force of the universe, and Captain Ahab represents the heroic struggle against the limiting and crippling constrictions that confront an intelligent person.

Melville's popularity began to decline with the publication of his masterpiece. The novel, either ignored or misunderstood by critics and readers, damaged Melville's reputation as a writer. When Melville followed MOBY-DICK with the pessimistic and tragic novel PIERRE (1853), his readers began to desert him, calling him either eccentric or mad. The public was ready to accept unusual and exciting adventures, but they did not want ironic, frightening exposures of the terrible double meanings in life.

Melville turned to writing short stories. Two of them, "Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby the Scrivener," rank as classics. But the haunting and disturbing question of the meaning of life that hovered over the stories also displeased the public. In 1855, Melville published Israel Potter, a novel set during the Revolutionary War in America. After The Confidence-Man (1856), a bitter satire on humanity, Melville gave up writing.

His later life. To make a living, Melville worked as deputy inspector of customs in the Port of New York from 1866 to 1885. For private pleasure he wrote poetry, which he published at his own and his uncle's expense. He toured the Holy Land in 1856 and 1857. The trip resulted in a narrative poem, "Clarel" (1876). The poem presents a powerful picture of a man's struggle to find his faith in a skeptical, materialistic world.

Melville began writing prose again after his retirement. He died in New York City on Sept. 28, 1891. At his death, he left the manuscript of BILLY BUDD, SAILOR. This short novel, first published in 1924 and considered Melville's finest book after MOBY-DICK, is a symbolic story about the clash between innocence and evil, and between social forms and individual liberty.

The 1920s marked the start of a Melville revival among critics and readers. By the 1940s, Americans at last recognized his genius. His reputation has since spread throughout the world.

John Clendenning, Ph.D., Former Professor of English, California State University, Northridge.

From THE WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA © 2007 World Book, Inc. By permission of the publisher. Visit World Book Encyclopedia for more information on Herman Melville and related subjects.

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The American Novel