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Herman Melville


Herman Melville (1819-1891), American author of such famed literary works as Typee (1846) and its sequel Omoo (1847) also wrote Moby Dick, or; The Whale (1851);

Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines.--Ch. 36

Herman Melville was born into an eminent family claiming war heroes and wealthy merchants on 1 August 1819 in New York City, New York State, son of Maria Gansevoort (1791-1872) and Allan Melville (1782-1832). As a successful import merchant, Allan afforded all the necessary comforts and more to his large family of eight sons and daughters. He loved to tell his children sea-faring tales of terror and adventure, and of places far away. After his death at the age of forty, his wife and children moved to the village of Lansingburg, on the banks of the Hudson River.

In 1835 Melville attended the Albany Classical School for a year, then moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to work at the farm of his uncle, gentleman farmer Thomas Melville. It was not long however that Melville travelled back to New York and secured his place as cabin boy on a ship bound for Liverpool, England. Upon return to New York he held various unsatisfying jobs until he next set sail on the whaling ship Acushnet in 1841. His stay in the Marquesas Islands (now French Polynesia) with his friend Richard Tobias Greene would provide much fodder for his future novels. First published in England, Typee and Omoo (1847) are based on Melville's sea-faring adventures and stays in Polynesia and Tahiti. His next novel Mardi: and A Voyage Thither (two volumes, 1849) is 'a romance of Polynesian adventure', again reflecting much of Melville's own life on ships and the South Seas. Another semi-autobiographical novel Redburn: His First Voyage was published in 1849.

On 4 August 1847 Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, with whom he would have four children: Malcolm (b.1849), Stanwix (b.1851), Elizabeth (b.1853), and Frances (b.1855). In 1850 the Melvilles moved to what would be their home for the next thirteen years, 'Arrowhead' (now designated a National Historic Landmark) in Pittsfield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts. It was here that Melville made the acquaintance of fellow New Englander Nathaniel Hawthorne--he would become a great friend to Melville, and to whom he dedicated Moby Dick. It was the beginning of a prolific period of writing for Melville. He wrote sketches for such journals as Putnam's Monthly including "The Piazza" and "I and My Chimney", and started on his masterpiece Moby Dick. The surrounding Berkshire Hills provided the necessary peace and quiet, but as Melville writes to Hawthorne in June of 1851, he was also busy with other projects--'Since you have been here I have been building some shanties of houses (connected with the old one), and likewise some shanties of chapters and essays. I have been ploughing and sowing and raising and printing and praying.

After the publication of Moby Dick in October of 1851, Melville was seeing positive reviews of his works in England and America, readers captivated by his authentic story telling of exotic adventures, although he struggled with self-doubt. While he wrote many other works including White Jacket (1850), The Encantadas; or, Enchanted Isles (novella, 1854), Israel Potter (1855), Piazza Tales (1856), and The Confidence Man (1857), it was with Moby Dick that Melville had reached his peak as writer and observer of human nature in all its strengths and weaknesses. Many of his works are steeped in metaphor and allegory, at times cynical, others satirical. In previous years he had travelled throughout Europe and the Holy Land; in 1857 he launched into a three year lecture tour of major North American cities where he spoke of his writings and travels.

In 1863 the Melvilles gave up country life and moved to New York City and the home of Herman's brother Allan at 104 East Twenty-Sixth Street. Melville soon obtained a position with the New York Custom House where he remained for the next twenty years. Almost ten years since his last published novel, Melville was now writing poetry; Battle Pieces (1866) was well-received. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876) was followed by his collection John Marr and Other Poems (1888), and Timoleon (1891). While they are appreciated now, by the time of Herman Melville's death he had slipped into obscurity as a writer. He died at his home on East 26th Street on 28 September 1891 and now rests beside his wife Elizabeth in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

"Oh, seems to me, there should be two ceaseless steeds for a bold man to ride,-- the Land and the Sea; and like circus-men we should never dismount, but only be steadied and rested by leaping from one to the other, while still, side by side, they both race round the sun."--Ch. 26, from Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852)

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

Forum Discussions on Herman Melville

Recent Forum Posts on Herman Melville

Annotated Melville?

I'm looking for recommendations on solid "critical" or scholarly editions of Melville's major works (Typee, Mardi, Redburn, Israel Potter, Billy Bud, etc. Pretty much everything of significance.) that would contain notes on the text informing me of literary allusions, bits and pieces of historical info I may not know, so on and so forth. I'm pretty sure you all know the drill: Notes that provide context. A series (ideally packaged in a few separate multi-novel anthologies, la Library of America) would be wonderful, but I'll pick and choose from different publishing houses if necessary. Normally I would rely on Library of America for this type of task, but their limited notes and insis...

Please help me with a paragraph from Moby Dick

It was not in nature that these things should fail in latently engendering an element in him, which, under suitable circumstances, would break out from its confinement, and burn all his courage up. Chapter 26(Knights and Squires) - page 126 Can someone please help me understand what this means? I have read this over and over and I still don't get it. I guess it's just his writing style, but I want to understand exactly what he is saying. Please help....

Source of Melville Quote

Hello all, I'm new to the site and I look forward to joining the exchanges here on a regular basis. I'm looking for the original source of this Melville quote - "One often hears of writers that rise and swell within their subject though it may seem but an ordinary one. To produce a mighty book, you must chose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea though many there be who have tried it." I haven't been able to find anything on it even using Google. Any help would be greatly appreciated....

Melville's views on nature

I have read a couple of his stories now, and it seems he does pay a very close attention to detail when dicussing nature, and paints very vivid scenes upon the subject. Paritcuarly reading The Enchanted Isle, which seemed to give a detailed account of the Islands around the Galaopgos, and a discussion of the kind of life which might be found there. I could not help but to be currious to Melville's views and beleifs regaurding nature, and I could not help but to wonder, was he a naturalist?...

The Piazza

I just finnished reading this story, and I found it quite interesting. It is the first thing I have read by Melville thus far. I thought the beginning half of the story, he did over do it a bit with the mythology metaphors and references. After a while it just got to be a bit much. Though I really enjoyed the discriptions which were given of the four different directions, while he was trying to decide where to have his piazza constcututed, and he dicussed the view each side would offer before he made his choice. He did paint some very beautiful images of the enviroment and the scenery. Though sometimes it did get a bit overhwealming at times. The first half of the story was written a...

Herman Melville

I'd place him, without hesitation, in the company of Shakespeare, Homer, Goethe, Flaubert, Joyce. I recently reread his shorter works and began rereading Moby Dick last night. Such a formidable, sprawling and complex novel....

help with Benito Cereno!!

hi everyone, I'm pretty sure what I'll say is redundant to all of you but!!! Enough i'll say it 'i am new and Ineed your HELP'. I will sit for an exam soon. it will be on either Melville's "Benito Cereno" or Shakespeare's Othello or Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, or wordsworth's poetry. how lucky I am!! I would be extremely grateful if the ones who studied these works would so kind to post me the titles or links where I can find useful and rich critics, essays, ... on these works. especially that of Melville thanks a lot...

Bartleby Question-help!

Maybe this is a stupid question, but what exactly is the Dead Letter Office??...

Melville research paper help

Hi everyone, I am doing a research paper on Herman Melville, and I am having some trouble finding some of the NCLC (nineteenth century literary criticism) essays on his works. Does anyone know how to find them online? PS: my teacher does not allow .com Thanks! Happy Thanksgiving! :D God bless!...

Moby Dick vs. 100 years of solitude

I have to write a comparative analytical essay of moby dick adn 100 years of solitude. I know fate is a major theme in both books, but what are other themes I could discuss in my essay? thanks!...

For a long time something about Moby Dick has troubled me

I read that Moby Dick is generally considered one of the greatest American novels, along with Huck Finn. I read it and wasn't too thrilled. Sure, I appriciated the richness and excellency of the prose; Melville is certainly a great writer. But I couldn't and can't understand why Moby Dick is as famous as it is. I'm new here, and I really want to know what it is about this book that I don't get: what is it that makes Moby Dick the greatest? I'm not attacking the book; I genuinly want to know. And perhaps I could come to have a deeper appriciation for it....

Moby Dick as a representative American novel

Hi everybody, I need to know how Moby Dick can be treated as an representation of American Frontier, Dream and Democracy. Can anyone help me ?...

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