He was a faithful letter writer and established a reputation as a mesmerizing teller of tales. He gave full range to his imagination, as demonstrated by his comment about the writing of Moby-Dick: “I have a sort of sea-feeling. My room seems a ship’s cabin; and at nights when I wake up and hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, and I had better go on the roof and rig in the chimney.” Yet, as he grew older, he drew into himself, in part a reaction to personal troubles and literary anonymity.
Born August 1, 1819, on Pearl Street in New York City near the Battery, Melville was the third child of eight children, four boys and four girls, and a descendant of respectable Scotch, Irish, and Dutch colonial settlers. He was the grandson of two Revolutionary War leaders, one of whom participated in the Boston Tea Party. His father, Allan Melvill (as the name was originally spelled), a snobbish, shallow man, was an importer of French luxury items, including fine silks, hats, and gloves. He suffered a mental breakdown, caught pneumonia, and died broke in 1832, owing nearly $25,000 and leaving destitute his wife, Maria Gansevoort Melville. An aristocratic, imperious, unsympathetic woman, she moved in with her well-to-do parents, who helped educate and support her brood.
For two years, young Melville attended the Albany Classical School, which specialized in preparing pupils for the business world. He displayed no particular scholarliness or literary promise, but did join a literary and debate society as well as submit letters to the editor of the Albany Microscope. From a boyhood of relative affluence, he underwent a rapid fall in social prominence as his family accustomed itself to genteel poverty. Ultimately, Herman and his brother Gansevoort had to drop out of school to help support the family.
Melville enrolled at Lansingburgh Academy in 1838 and, with ambitions of helping to construct the Erie Canal, studied engineering and surveying. He graduated the next year and worked briefly as a bank clerk and salesman, as a laborer on his Uncle Thomas’ farm, clerk in his brother’s fur and hat store, and as an elementary school teacher. During this period, he also dabbled in writing and contributed articles to the local newspaper.
Life at Sea
In Melville’s late teens, his mother’s worsening financial position and his own inability to find suitable work forced him to leave home. In 1839, he signed on as cabin boy of the packet St. Lawrence. His four-month voyage to Liverpool established his kinship with the sea. It also introduced him to the shabbier side of England as well as of humanity, for the captain bilked him of his wages.
A deep reader of Shakespeare, French and American classics, and the Bible, he returned to New York and tried his hand as schoolmaster at Pittsfield and East Albany. Again disappointed in his quest for a life’s work and stymied by a hopeless love triangle, he returned to the sea on January 3, 1841, on the whaler Acushnet’s maiden voyage from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the South Seas. This eighteen-month voyage served as the basis for Moby-Dick.
In July 1842, at Nukuheva in the Marquesas Islands, he and shipmate Richard Tobias “Toby” Greene deserted ship to avoid intolerable conditions and a meager diet of hardtack and occasional fruit. They lived for a month under benign house arrest among the cannibalistic Typees. With his Polynesian mistress, Melville enjoyed a few carefree months as a beach bum. During this sojourn, he distanced himself from the Western world’s philosophies as well as nineteenth-century faith in “progress.”
Melville escaped the Typees aboard the Lucy Ann, an Australian whaler not much better than his former berth. He became embroiled in a mutiny, was jailed for a few weeks in a British prison, and deserted ship a second time in September 1842 at Papeete, Tahiti, along with the ship’s doctor, Long Ghost. For a time, he worked as a field laborer and enjoyed the relaxed island lifestyle.
Leaving Tahiti, he sailed on the Charles and Henry, a whaler, off the shores of Japan, then on to Lahaina, Maui, and Honolulu, Hawaii. To earn his passage home, he worked as a store bookkeeper and a pinsetter in a bowling alley. He was so poor that he could not afford a peacoat to shield himself from the cold gales of Cape Horn. In desperation, he fashioned a coat from white duck and earned for himself the nickname “White Jacket.”
The events of the final leg of the journey tell much of the young man’s spirit. At one point he was in danger of a flogging for deserting his post until a brave seaman intervened. In a second episode, Captain Claret ordered him to shave his beard. When Melville bridled at the order, he was flogged and manacled. Crowning his last days at sea was an impromptu baptism when he fell from a yardarm into the water off the coast of Virginia.
As an ordinary seaman on the man-of-war United States, Melville returned to Boston in October 1844, where he resumed civilian life. Still, his imagination continued to seek refuge on the waves under a restless sky. In 1846, from his experience among the cannibals, he composed Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, the first of four semi-autobiographical novels. The book opened the world of the South Seas to readers and went into its fifth printing that same year, yet earned only $2,000. Although it had no erotic passages, his work met with negative criticism from religious reviewers who attacked another element — his description of the greed of missionaries to the South Pacific.
The favorable reaction of readers, on the other hand, encouraged Melville to produce more blends of personal experience and fiction: Omoo (1847), which is based on his adventures in Tahiti; Redburn (1848), which describes his first voyage to England; and White-Jacket (1850), which led to an act of Congress banning the practice of flogging in the U.S. Navy. One of his fans, Robert Louis Stevenson, was so intrigued by these and other seagoing romances that he followed Melville’s example and sailed to Samoa.
On August 4, 1847, Melville married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Shaw, daughter of Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, to whom Typee is dedicated. The Melvilles honeymooned in Canada and settled in New York City on what is now Park Avenue South, where they spent the happiest years of their marriage and enjoyed intellectual company, including William Cullen Bryant, Richard Henry Dana, and Washington Irving. Their first child, Malcolm, was born in 1849. A second son, Stanwix, was born in 1851, followed by two daughters, Elizabeth in 1853 and Frances in 1855. In 1850, the Melville family moved to “Arrowhead,” a large, two-story frame house on a heavily wooded 160-acre farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Among his New England peers, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Maria Sedgwick, Melville established a reputation for honesty, courage, persistence, seriousness of expression and purpose and was, for a time, numbered among the Transcendentalists.
By the late 1840s, Melville, well established as a notable author of travel romances and a contributor of comic pieces to Yankee Doodle magazine, became known as “the man who had lived among the cannibals.” However, the public’s reaction to his experimentation with satire, symbol, and allegory in Mardi (1849) gave him a hint of the fickleness of literary fame. Victorian readers turned from his cynical philosophy and dark moods in favor of more uplifting authors. His own wife, who lacked her husband’s philosophical bent, confessed that the book was unclear to her. After the reading public’s rejection, he voiced his dilemma: “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, — it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”
On an outing in the Berkshire Mountains, Melville made a major literary contact. He met and formed a close relationship with his neighbor and mentor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work he had reviewed in an essay for Literary World. Their friendship, as recorded in Melville’s letters, provided Melville with a sounding board and bulwark throughout his literary career. As a token of his warm feelings, he dedicated Moby-Dick (1851), his fourth and most challenging novel, to Hawthorne.
Melville attempted to support not only his own family but also his mother and sisters, who moved in with the Melvilles ostensibly to teach Lizzie how to keep house. In a letter to Hawthorne, Melville complains, “Dollars damn me.” He owed Harper’s for advances on his work. The financial strain, plus immobilizing attacks of rheumatism in his back, failing eyesight, sciatica, and the psychological stress of writing Moby-Dick, led to a nervous breakdown in 1856. The experience with Mardi had proved prophetic. Moby-Dick , now considered his major work and a milestone in American literature, suffered severe critical disfavor. He followed with Pierre (1852), Israel Potter (1855), The Piazza Tales (1856), and The Confidence Man (1857), but never regained the readership he had enjoyed with his first four novels.
Shunned by readers as uncouth, formless, irrelevant, verbose, and emotional, Moby-Dick was the nadir of his career. Alarmed by the author’s physical and emotional collapse, his family summoned Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes to attend him. They borrowed money from Lizzie’s father to send Melville on a recuperative trek to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East; however, his health remained tenuous.
Depressed, Melville traveled to San Francisco aboard a clipper ship captained by his youngest brother, Tom, lectured about the South Seas and his European travels, wrote poetry, and in vain sought a consulship in the Pacific, Italy, or Belgium to stabilize his failing finances. With deep-felt patriotism, he tried to join the Navy at the outbreak of the Civil War, but was turned down.
He returned to New York City in 1863 and for four dollars a day served at the Gansevoort Street wharf for twenty years (from 1866–86) as deputy inspector of customs, a job he characterized as “a most inglorious one; indeed, worse than driving geese to water.” The move was heralded by a carriage accident, which further diminished Melville’s health. He grew more morose and inward after his son Malcolm shot himself in 1866 following a quarrel over Malcolm’s late hours. His second son, Stanwix, went to sea in 1869, never established himself in a profession, and died of tuberculosis in a San Francisco hospital in February 1886.
Melville mellowed in his later years. A relative’s legacy to Lizzie enabled him to retire. He took pleasure in his grandchildren, daily contact with the sea, and occasional visits to the Berkshires. When the New York Authors Club invited him to join, he declined. He became more reclusive as he composed his final manuscript, Billy Budd, a short novel about arbitrary justice, which he completed five months before his death. It was dedicated to John J. “Jack” Chase, fellow sailor, lover of poetry, and father figure. Melville died of a heart attack on September 28, 1891, without reestablishing himself in the literary community. He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the north Bronx; his obituary occupied only three lines in the New York Post.
Billy Budd, the unfinished text which some critics classify as containing his most incisive characterization, remained unpublished until 1924. This novel, along with his journals and letters, a few magazine sketches, and Raymond M. Weaver’s biography, revived interest in Melville’s writings. Melville’s manuscripts are currently housed in the Harvard collection.
A Melville Timeline
1819 Herman Melville is born in New York City on August 1, the third child and second son of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melville.
1830 The Melville family moves to Albany.
1832 Allan Melville dies. Maria and her eight children move to Albany to be closer to the Gansevoorts.
1838 Melville enrolls at Lansingburgh Academy to study engineering and surveying.
1839 Melville sails for Liverpool aboard the St. Lawrence and returns four months later.
1841 Melville sails from New Bedford, Massachusetts, aboard the whaler Acushnet on January 3.
1842 Melville and Richard Tobias Greene jump ship in the Marquesas Islands. In July, Melville sails aboard the whaler Lucy Ann for Tahiti and is involved in a crew rebellion. In September, he jumps ship in Papeete, Tahiti.
1843 Melville does odd jobs in Honolulu before enlisting in the U.S. Navy aboard the frigate United States.
1844 Melville is discharged from the Navy in Boston in October.
1846 Melville publishes Typee.
1847 Melville publishes Omoo. He marries Elizabeth Shaw and settles in New York City.
1848 Melville publishes Redburn. He journeys to Europe.
1849 Melville publishes Mardi. His son Malcolm is born.
1850 Melville publishes White-Jacket. He purchases “Arrowhead,” a farm outside Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and forms a friendship with his neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne.
1851 Melville publishes The Whale, then reissues it under the title Moby-Dick. Melville’s second son, Stanwix, is born.
1852 Melville publishes Pierre.
1853 Melville’s first daughter, Elizabeth, is born.
1855 Melville publishes Israel Potter. Frances, his second daughter and last child, is born.
1856 Melville publishes The Piazza Tales, a collection of short stories. At the point of mental and physical collapse, he travels in Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Lands.
1857 Melville’s The Confidence Man is published while he is out of the country. He launches a three-year stint as a lecturer.
1863 Melville sells Arrowhead and returns to New York City.
1866 Melville publishes Battle Pieces, the first of his poetic works, and accepts a job as customs inspector for the Port of New York. Malcolm dies of a self-inflicted pistol wound.
1869 Stanwix goes to sea.
1876 Melville publishes Clarel.
1886 Stanwix Melville dies of tuberculosis in San Francisco.
1888 Melville publishes John Marr and Other Sailors and begins writing Billy Budd on November 16.
1891 Melville publishes Timoleon, then completes the manuscript for Billy Budd on April 19 and dies of a heart attack on September 28.
1924 Raymond Weaver is instrumental in the publication of Billy Budd.