Herman Melville

Dennis Berthold

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Herman Melville


Herman Melville (b. 1819–d. 1891) was born in New York City into a proud and prosperous family. In 1830, however, his father’s importing business failed, and the family moved upstate to Albany to be near his mother’s relatives. Melville attended school in Albany, but after his father’s death in 1832 he had to balance education with work to help support the family. In 1839 he took a four-month trading voyage to Liverpool, and two years later he signed onto the Acushnet, a whaler bound for the Pacific Ocean. He jumped ship in the Marquesas and began four years of beachcombing, working in Tahiti and Hawaii, and sailing aboard various ships in the South Pacific. He joined the US Navy in 1843 and returned home in 1844 on the United States, a warship. These experiences fueled six lengthy novels published between 1846 and 1851 and earned him considerable fame and modest commercial success. But Moby-Dick (1851) was greeted with scorn, and reviewers begged him to return to writing pleasing travel narratives of the South Seas like Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) or realistic accounts of shipboard life like Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850). Instead, he gave them Pierre (1852), a lurid tale of sexual obsession that destroyed his reputation as a novelist for good. He turned to magazine fiction from 1853 to 1856 and produced a serialized novel and several superb tales such as “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno” and collected five of them as The Piazza Tales (1856). Reviewers hardly noticed his last published novel, The Confidence-Man (1857), a dark satire set on a Mississippi riverboat. He took a life-changing journey alone to Italy and the eastern Mediterranean from 1856 to 1857 and never published fiction again. He tried lecturing for three years and tried to publish a book of poetry in 1860, but both attempts failed. He continued to write poetry and in 1866 published Battle-Pieces, verses inspired by the Civil War. The same year he landed a job as customs inspector on the New York docks working for $5 per week, and in 1876 he privately published Clarel, an epic poem based on his 1857 trip to the Holy Land. After his retirement in 1885, he published two additional volumes of poetry and at his death left behind manuscripts of many poems and his searching novella, Billy Budd. The “Melville Revival” of the 1920s began the long resuscitation of his reputation, and today the white whale of Moby-Dick is an internationally recognizable literary icon. Melville’s works have inspired creative artists in every medium from film and drama to novels and operas, and only William Shakespeare attracts more scholarly attention. Once regarded as a failure, Melville has become a writer for the world.

Article.  15739 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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