In addition to writing many sea novels, Herman Melville is the best known author of the highly acclaimed American novel, Moby Dick (1851). It is quite unfortunate how the masterpiece was given due recognition 30 years after the death of its author. However, during his lifetime, Herman Melville became popular for writing a fictional travel narrative, Type (1846).
Herman Melville was born in New York on August 1, 1819 to a rich mercantile family which declined due to great losses in business. Herman was the third child of his parents who had 8. His father, Allan Melville was an importer of French dry goods who died after going bankrupt when Melville was 12 years old. Herman’s mother Maria Gansevoort Melville then raised her children with a little occasional help from some rich relatives. A short episode of scarlet fever affected Melville’s eyesight permanently in 1826. In 1835 he went to school at Albany Classical School (NY). After leaving school at the age of 12, Herman worked at several jobs as a clerk, teacher and farmhand. He also studied Shakespeare and other technical, historical and anthropological works despite his bad eyesight.
Melville was thirsty for adventure and in 1839 he set out to sea. In 1841, Herman sailed on a whaler bound. His adventures continued and in 1842 he was on a ship in the Marquesas Islands. His Polynesian adventures produced his early successful novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). However, his upcoming novel, Mardi (1849) did not do well. In the same year he wrote Redburn (1849) followed by White-Jacket (1850), a book depicting the tough life of sailors, in the next year. Shortly after White-Jacket, came Moby Dick (1851), his distinguished contribution to American literature. Moby Dick, a whaling fictional narrative symbolically touched the tribulations of American democracy. Sadly, Moby Dick did not prove to be rewarding for Melville at the time of its publication and instead put him in despair at not receiving any acclamation.
He wrote Pierre in 1852 hoping to advance his career and earn better but the Gothic romantic fiction brought him noting except disaster both financially and critically. During the next few years Herman wrote Israel Potter (1855) and The Confidence-Man (1857). Melville also wrote magazine stories in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine which revolved around the hypocritical and materialistic nature of man. Some of these stories include Scrivener (1853), The Encantadas (1854) and Benito Cereno (1855). By 1857, Melville had turned his attention towards writing poetry. Since his writing was not supporting him much financially, Herman took a job as a customs inspector in 1866. He spent the last days of his literary career writing prose and his last work Billy Budd, Foretopman was not published until after his death. Some other last works of Melville include Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1856), John Marr and other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891).
Elisabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts had married Melville in 1847 and they had four children. Herman Melville died in New York on September 28, 1891. Considered an ordinary writer during his lifetime, Herman Melville’s name now enjoys a place of paramount importance in the American literature.