Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American novelist, essayist and poet. During his lifetime, his early novels were popular, but his popularity declined later in his life. By the time of his death he had nearly been forgotten, but his masterpiece, Moby-Dick (which during his life was largely considered a failure, and responsible for Melville's drop in popularity at the time), was "rediscovered" in the 20th century.
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, as the third child to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill (Maria would later add an 'e' to the surname), and received his early education in that city. One of his grandfathers, Major Thomas Melvill, participated in the Boston Tea Party. Another was General Peter Gansevoort, who was acquainted with James Fenimore Cooper and defended Fort Stanwix in 1777.
His father had described the young Melville as being somewhat slow as a child and Melville was also weakened by the scarlet fever, which permanently affected his eyesight. The family importing business went bankrupt in 1830, and the family moved to Albany, New York, with Herman entering The Albany Academy. Prior to that year, he attended Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Manhattan. After the death of his father in 1832, the family (with eight children) moved to the village of Lansingburgh on the Hudson River. Herman and his brother Gansevoort were forced to work to help support the family. Herman remained there until 1835, when he attended the Albany Classical School for some months.
Melville's roving disposition and a desire to support himself independently of family assistance led him to seek work as a surveyor on the Erie Canal. This effort failed, and his brother helped him get a job as a cabin boy in a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage, visited London, and returned on the same ship. Redburn: His First Voyage, published in 1849, is partly founded on his experiences of this trip.
A good part of the succeeding three years, from 1837 to 1840, was occupied with school-teaching. At any rate, he once more signed ship's articles and on January 1, 1841, sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific Ocean. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and traveled to the South Pacific. Melville left very little direct information about the events of this 18 months' cruise, although his whaling romance, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, probably gives many pictures of life on board the Acushnet. Melville decided to abandon the vessel on reaching the Marquesas Islands. He lived among the natives of the island for several weeks and the narrative of Typee and its sequel, Omoo, tell this tale. After a sojourn to the Society Islands, Melville shipped for Honolulu. He remained there four months, working as a clerk. He joined the crew of the American frigate United States, which reached Boston, stopping on the way at one of the Peruvian ports, in October of 1844. Upon his return, he recorded his experiences in the books, Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, and White-Jacket, published seriatim in the following six years. Melville married Elizabeth Shaw (daughter of noted jurist, Lemuel Shaw) on August 4, 1847. The Melvilles resided in New York City until 1850, when they purchased Arrowhead, a farm house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts (which is today a museum). Here Melville remained for thirteen years, occupied with his writing, and managing his farm. There he befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in the area. He wrote Moby-Dick and Pierre there, works that did not achieve the same popular and critical success of his earlier books. Following scathing reviews of Pierre by critics, publishers became wary of Melville's work. His publisher, Harper's, rejected his next manuscript, The Isle of the Cross, which has been lost.
While in Pittsfield, because of financial reasons, Melville was persuaded to enter the lucrative lecture field. From 1857 to 1860, he spoke at lyceums, chiefly recounting his adventures in the South Seas. He also became a customs inspector for the City of New York, a post he held for 19 years.
After an illness that lasted several months, Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891, age 72, in virtual obscurity. The New York Times listed his name in an obituary as "Henry Melville." He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.
In his later life, his works were no longer popular with a broad audience; he was not able to make money from writing. He depended on his wife's family for money, along with his own attempts at employment. His short novel Billy Budd, an unpublished manuscript at the time of his death (it had remained in a tin can for 30 years), was published in 1924 and later turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten, a play, and a film by Peter Ustinov.
In Herman Melville's Religious Journey, Walter Donald Kring detailed his discovery of an old document listing Melville as a former member of the Unitarian Church of All Souls. Until the advent of this revelation, little had been known of his religious leanings.
Moby-Dick has become Melville's most famous work and is often considered one of the greatest American novels. It was dedicated to Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. It did not, however, make Melville rich. The book never sold its initial printing of 3,000 copies in his lifetime and total earnings from the American edition amounted to just $556.37 from his publisher, Harper's. Melville also wrote White-Jacket, Typee, Omoo, Pierre, The Confidence-Man and many short stories and works of various genres. His short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" is among his most important pieces, and has been considered a precursor to Existentialist and Absurdist literature.
Melville's short stories The Tartarus of Maids and The Paradise of Bachelors, as well as his posthumous novella Billy Budd have been seen by some contemporary critics as anticipating key issues in the fields of gender studies and queer studies. For example, the critic Eve Sedgewick has made notable contributions to the understanding of gender and sexuality in Melville's fiction.
Likewise, Melville's 1855 short story Benito Cereno is one of the few works of 19th century American literature to confront the African Diaspora and the violent history of race relations in America.
Melville is less well known as a poet and did not publish poetry until late in life; after the Civil War, he published Battle-Pieces, which sold well. But again tending to outrun the tastes of his readers, Melville's epic length verse-narrative Clarel, about a student's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was also quite obscure, even in his own time. This may be the longest single poem in American literature. The poem, published in 1876, had an initial printing of only 350 copies. The critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of the poem in the New York Public Library in 1925 "with its pages uncut." Essentially, it had sat there unread for 50 years.
His poetry is not as highly critically esteemed as his fiction, although some critics place him as the first modernist poet in the United States.
The Melville Revival
After the success of stories and travelogues based on voyages to the South Seas during his youth, Melville's popularity declined. In the later years of his life and during the years after his death he was recognized as only a minor figure in American literature. The publication in 1924 of Billy Budd, Raymond Weaver's biography Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic (1921), D H Lawrence's essays in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) and Lewis Mumford's biography Herman Melville: A study of His Life and Vision (1929) began a revival in critical studies of Melville's work. This work was followed by a string of important criticism and biography, including Jay Leyda's The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891 (1951), Leon Howard's Herman Melville: A Biography (1951) and, most notably perhaps, winner of the 1950 National Book Award for non-fiction, Herman Melville by Newton Arvin. Due to these works and the subsequent profusion of research on Melville's work he has become universally recognized as a major canonical figure. In recent years, a number of major biographies, Laurie Robertson-Lorant's Melville: A Biography (1996), Hershel Parker's Herman Melville: A Biography (1996) and most recently, Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work (2005), have corroborated Melville's status as representative figure in American literature. Today, he may be the most written-about American author.
Melville Family Foundation
Recent celebrities have helped maintain the Melville Family Foundation for disabled children in the greater New York area. Celebrities such as Alex Trebeck, Kiefer Sutherland, Sean Connery, and Mel Brooks are generous benefactors to the Melville Family Foundation (MFF). The MFF has donated an estimated four million dollars to benefit disabled children in the past ten years.