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Herman Melville - Biography

Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American writer most famous for his novel Moby Dick although the fame from the novel came posthumously.  Melville did experience fame in his lifetime from Typee however, although in typical United States fashion, he first had to get the travelogue published overseas in London in 1846 before receiving wide acclaim stateside a year later for the sensational account of a tribe attributed to acts of cannibalism that had to be billed as a novel because few believed the truthfulness of his narrative.  His books written directly after Typee were initially released by his publishers with the intent of drawing as much popular acclaim but soon it was discovered that Herman Melville was not out to titillate the masses with exoticisms but had some depth in his questioning of human existence.  By the end of the 1850s, he was banished from popular fortune's attention and by 1876 all of his books were out of print.

Herman Melville's writing was greatly influenced from his travels at sea although it was the desire to “unfold” himself that drove him to a writing vocation.  Melville's seafaring began as a way to generate income as well as to distance himself from his gentlemanly upbringing.  His father, Allan Melvill (Melville's mother added the 'e' at the end of the family name after the senior Melville passed) was a successful importer of dry goods from France as well as a commission merchant.  The Melvill's were an established Boston family with many accreditations to the family's upstanding citizenry, Herman Melville's grandfather, Thomas Melvill for example, was a survivor of the Boston Tea Party (and subject of Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem “The Last Leaf” since Thomas would not change his garb to reflect the changing times but was perennially dressed in revolutionary era dress).  Melville's mother's side, the Gansevoorts, were also well known and established with military honors being bestowed upon at least one member, General Peter Gansevoort, for his participation in the Battle of Saratoga.  It is in Melville's story Pierre that his pride in a “double revolutionary descent” can be seen.

Herman Melville was afforded an education at the New York Male School although he also maintained a rich autodidact's voraciousness steeping himself in anything he could read from anthropology to history to Shakespeare.  At about twelve years of age, however, Melville's father entered into bankruptcy due to the results of limiting overseas trading in the wake of the Battle of 1812.  Soon after Allan Melvill passed away leaving the family destitute.  Melville's mother's family was tied up in protecting their own inheritances and could not afford to support the family and Maria (his mother) was forced to depend on Allan's younger brother, Thomas for support.  Melville had continued support as he did what he could to help out his mother and seven brothers and sisters, he continued school, joined The Yong Men's Association in Albany and worked as a schoolteacher beginning in 1837 while he began to feel our his chops as a writer.  The family moved to Lansingburg, New York and it is here that young Herman Melville tried his hand at publishing some of his works under the pseudonym L.A.V.

Feeling the pressures of not only finances but wanderlust, Herman Melville enlisted with a merchant ship on its way to Liverpool as well as made some small travels on the Mississippi before finally finding his way onto the whaling ship Acushnet in 1841 that would provide the experiences detailed in most of Melville's repertoire.  He would come to desert the Acushnet on Nuku Hiva where his time spent with the Taipi natives would later be recounted in his first book, Typee, then jump aboard an Australian whaler where refusing to work would get him imprisoned in Tahiti, and then finally shipping off to Hawaii where he would become a sailor on the frigate United States in the U.S. Navy.  In 1844 upon his return and retelling of the stories he had accumulated which garnered him support for publishing said stories, Melville began to work on his internal work of unfolding himself and the human experiences he had been witness to upon the seas and on dry land.

As mentioned previously, Typee was a hit although not immediately for upon submission to Harper and Brothers, a United States publishing house, the editors liked it because of its similarities to Robinson Crusoe but ultimately rejected it on the grounds that it had little value because there was no way that Herman Melville was recounting a true account.  The narrative includes Melville's experiences on Nuku Hiva and the time spent with the inhabitants of the island learning such distinctions as the one between savage and cannibal.  This educational experience afforded Melville not only with the way of life of another group of people but also that values are not concrete and shift depending on the context of the society and culture.  That meaning shifts along with these values and that no human is without the capacity for evil, regardless of lifestyle and seeming idyllic and peaceful contexts.  Herman Melville was able to get Typee published in London and subsequently sold about 6,000 copies in the United States and abroad in two years and gained him acclaim as a promising writer.

Herman Melville's following novels, Omoo in 1847 and Mardi and a Voyage Thither in 1849 were received with less enthusiasm due to the increasing emphasis not on the novelties and peculiarities of other peoples, but of the human condition as it applies across the board.  With Moby Dick, Melville lost the public's interest as the now famous novel sold only 3,000 in Melville's entire lifetime.  The characteristic interior Moby Dick was in part fueled by Nathaniel Hawthorne's insistence  that Melville make the story an allegory instead of a strict whaling adventure.  Herman Melville and Hawthorne met at “Arrowhead,” Melville and his wife's (Elizabeth Shaw who he married in 1847 and would have four children with) farm in Pittsfield, Berkshire Country, Massachusetts.  Hawthorne was very taken with Melville's ability to delve deep into the human psyche and find what lay there and was very supportive in Melville's continual unfolding and searching out “the great Art of Telling the Truth” which was a phrase Melville used in writing about Hawthorne in his essay Hawthorne and His Mosses.  Herman Melville writes:  “For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only  by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, – even though it be covertly, and by snatches.”

The truth that Herman Melville tells in Moby Dick, a story of the search for the great white whale, is available to any and all.  The allegory is of a man, Captain Ahab, and his quest find revenge against the whale that took his leg.  Ahab involves his entire crew which is eventually brought to destruction as Ahab drowns, being pulled down by the whale leaving only the narrator (“Call me Ishmael”) to be rescued by a passing ship.  The aim and claim of what this narrative is and does goes through shifts as the critical climate changes.  Whether or not Ahab is a hero or a foreshadowing of dictators to arise out of industrialized nations struggling with a capitalism/socialism/communism machine, this can be read in myriad of ways to unfold the plight of the Pequod.

Herman Melville continued to write in the face of his decline of fame and continued to produce incredible stories and novels including the highly regarded short stories “Bartleby, the Scrivener:  A Story of Wall Street,” “Benito Cereno,” the novel “The Confidence Man,” and the posthumously published Billy Budd.  Melville did a lecture tour after traveling Europe and the Holy Land in 1857 but still his impact on contemporaries remained in remission.  Elizabeth and himself relocated in 1863 to New York City where he spent the remaining years of his life working at a customs house and writing poetry that is still being recognized for its merits including the long poem Clarel (completely ignored in his time).  He died in obscurity in 1891 and is buried with his wife in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Herman Melville was was an American novelist. (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891).