Throughout American history, very few authors have earned the right to be called “great.” Herman Melville is one of these few. His novels and poems have been enjoyed world wide for over a century, and he has earned his reputation as one of the finest American writers of all time. A man of towering talent, with intellectual and artistic brilliance, and a mind of deep insight into human motives and behavior, it is certainly a disgrace that his true greatness was not recognized until nearly a generation after his death.
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Born in the city of New York on August 1, 1819, Melville was the third child and second son of Allan Melvill(it wasn’t until Allan’s death in 1832 that the “e” at the end of Melville was added, in order to make a more obvious connection with the Scottish Melville clan), a wholesale merchant and importer then living in comfortable economic circumstances, and of Maria Gansevoort Melvill, only daughter of “the richest man in Albany,” the respected and wealthy General Peter Gansevoort, hero of the defense of Fort Stanwix during the American Revolution. In total, Allan and Maria had eight children. On his father’ s side, his ancestry, though not so prosperous as on his mother’s, was equally distinguished. Major Thomas Melvill, his grandfather, was one of the “Indians” in the Boston Tea Party during the events leading to the war and who had then served his country creditably throughout the hostilities. The Melvill family kept on their mantelpiece a bottle of tea drained out of Major Melvill’s clothes after the Tea Party as a momento of this occasion. Herman attended the New York Male High School from about the age of seven until 1830. By that time, Allan Melvill’s business had begun to fail, due to his credit being overextended. After futile attempts to re-establish himself, he eventually found it necessary to accept the management of a New York fur company back in Albany. The family moved there in the autumn of 1830, and during that time Herman attended, along with his brothers Gansevoort and Allan, the Albany Academy. Just as luck seemed to again be favoring the Melvills, Allan’s business affairs again suffered a setback. Excessive worry and overwork finally took their toll upon his health. By January, 1832, he was both physically and mentally very ill. On January 28, 1832, Allan Melvill died.
The shock of his father’s financial collapse and his tragic death only slightly more than a year later took its toll on Herman’s emotions. He was to draw upon this memory two decades later in his writing of Pierre. In order to support the family, Herman took a position as an assistant clerk at a local bank, and his brothers Gansevoort and Allan took over their late father’s fur business. Possibly because of his mother’s concern over his health, Herman left his position at the bank in the spring of 1834 and spent a season working for his Uncle Thomas’s farm near Pittsfield. During the winter months of early 1835, Herman left Pittsfield and joined his brothers in the fur business. Now fifteen and a half, he kept the books of the firm for the following two years. At some time during this period he enrolled as a student in the Albany Classical School. He also became am member in the Albany Young Men’s Association, a club for debating and reading, of which his brother was already a member. Such clubs, in absence of public libraries, were popular in many cities and served a most useful educational purpose. Within a year or two of education at the Albany Classical School, he had become qualified as a school teacher. He left his brothers at the now failing fur company and became a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse outside of Pittsfiesd. On his first day of the new job, the inexperienced teacher was confronted with thirty students of all ages and levels of skill. Some were his age, and a few utterly illiterate. In such extreme conditions Herman found it hard to maintain discipline, let alone teach. After six weeks, he gave up and returned to Albany. For a few months, Herman looked for work without success. His leisure hours, though, were filled with excitement. Early in 1838 he organized a debating club and promptly got into a dispute over the presidency of the club with a rival member, which he eventually won. Before long, Maria Melvill was forced to admit that she could no longer afford to live in Albany. Faced with the prospect of having to constantly ask her brother Peter for money, she finally decided to move her family to Lansingburgh, a village not far from Albany near the Hudson River. Herman was in a difficult and unhappy position. Although he was almost twenty years old, he was not contributing to the family’s income and felt ashamed. At the same time, he was unable to decide on a career or event settle down to a job. Perhaps because he remembered the stories of his uncle and two cousins who had gone to sea, Herman decided to try his own fate at sea. He asked his brother Gansevoort to look for a ship’s berth for him, and almost immediately, he was hired as a crewman aboard the St. Lawrence, a three masted ship that was preparing to cross the Atlantic from New York City to Liverpool, England. The St. Lawrence left New York on June 3, 1839. Herman could take pride in the fact that he was earning his own living at last.
Herman quickly learned humility. He was both better educated than most of his shipmates and older that many of the common, or unskilled seamen, yet he knew nothing at all about ships or sailing. He had to learn a whole new language, in which every rope, every task, and every part of the ship had its own special name. He learned too about the strict discipline of the sea, which required him to address the officers with respect and follow their orders unquestioningly. Furthermore, he had to endure the practical jokes, sarcasm, and often cruel humor of the more experienced crewmen, who traditionally made life difficult for “green” hands on their first voyage. At the time of Herman’s visit, Liverpool was growing fast. People straggled into the city from the famine-stricken farms of Ireland, the poor mining towns of Wales, and the English countryside, all seeking jobs in the city’s docks or factories. Wandering innocently into the slums, Herman was appalled at the sight of beggars, prostitutes, drunkards, and ragged children living in conditions worse that he had ever imagined. Years later, he would recall these scenes in his novel Redburn. His next voyage was on the whaling ship Acushnet, a brand new ship registered in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He departed from New Bedford on January 3, 1841, bound for the North Pacific. Although bound for the Pacific, the ship and her crew managed to capture several whales in the Atlantic. After two months of sailing, when the ship reached Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it had 150 barrels of oil in its hold. These were transferred to another New England ship to be sent home, and the Acushnet left Rio after only one day in the scenic port Melville called “the bay of all beauties.” As they approached Cape Horn, Melville heard many dire stories from his fellow crewmen about these wild southern waters. The men also told whaling tales, of course. Some of these tales concerned an unusual sperm whale called Mocha Dick.
Unusually pale, almost white, Mocha Dick was said to live in the Pacific and was aggressive, unlike ordinary sperm whales. These tales undoubtedly influenced Melville’s most famous of tales, Moby Dick. Although the voyage initially seemed promising, most of the crew, including Melville, didn’t realize that the sperm whale was growing extremely scarce, and the survivors were becoming wary. Overhunting had taken its toll. Between January and May, the Acushnet sighted nine groups of whales but was only able to make two or three kills, adding a mere 150 barrels of oil to its cargo. In June the men killed another whale; another 50 barrels of oil. It now looked as though it would take years to fill the 2,800 barrels they needed to make a profitable voyage. The run of bad luck soured the captain’s disposition. Not only was he annoyed at the lack of whales, he was also suffering from poor health. This was to have been his last voyage, and he was to retire on its profits. With every passing week, this plan seemed more and more distant. He became snappish, strict and quarrelsome, so much that both his first and third mates deserted. Stress began to appear amongst the rest of the crew as well, as men began to fall ill from scurvy and other nutrition-lacking ailments. Fights and feuds broke out, and Melville no longer rejoiced in the high quality of his shipmates. As soon as the captain took the Acushnet to the Marquesas Islands to stock up on fresh food and water, Melville began making plans to depart both ship and captain. Accompanying Melville was another crewman by the name of Tobias Greene, or “Toby” as Melville called him. The pair escaped into the wilderness of the island shortly before the ship’s departure, and a brief hunt for them by the remaining crew was unsuccessful. Melville and Toby remained on the island for four weeks, taken in by the Taipi Indians. Thought to be cannibals, they proved to be quite hospitable to the deserters. Even so, they were eager to depart, and Toby was sent to see if he could sight any ships off the coast. He never returned, thought by Melville to be captured by another tribe. It was this experience that inspired Melville’s first novel, Typee.
It was here they remained until another whaling ship, the Lucy Ann, arrived at the island. The ship heard rumors of a white man being held captive by the Taipi, and being short of crew, they embarked on a “rescue mission,” and took Melville as a member of their crew in August 1842. Ironically, the voyage on the Lucy Ann proved to be even more miserable that that of the Acushnet. When the ship docked in Tahiti, Melville managed another daring escape. That same day he boarded the Charles and Henry as a member of her crew, and they set sail for Hawaii, then called the Sandwich Islands. This was the final destination of the ship, and in November of 1842, the crew was disbanded. Melville, eager to see the family he missed so, returned to Lansingburgh where his mother still resided. His family was fascinated with his glorious tales of his journeys at sea; so much so that Herman’s brother Thomas set sail himself. Unfortunately, Herman was in the same situation in which he was before these adventures – unemployed. He believed that if he put his stories on paper, he would find a publisher, and the vexing question of his career would be answered – he would become a writer. As he sat in his mother’s house to write his first novel, Melville turned to the part of his South Seas adventure about which everyone was most curious: his “stay among the cannibals.” The story was his own, certainly, but in writing Typee, Melville established a habit that would follow throughout his career. Hi used his own experiences as the skeleton of the book and fleshed out the details with his own imagination. In Typee, he wrote about his escape from a whaling vessel with Toby, and renamed the ship the Dolly rather than the Acushnet. He also changed their departure, which in reality he was never in any real danger, to one of great heroics as they escaped from a horrible fate. In addition, he lengthened their stay on the island from four weeks to a grueling four months. He did find a publisher, and Typee, his first book, was published in 1846. The following year, Melville met and fell in love with a woman named Elizabeth Shaw, and they were married on August 4, 1847. They bought a home in New York City, where they would remain for the rest of their lives. Together they would have two sons, Malcolm and Stanwix, born in 1849 and 1851, respectively. Also born to them were two daughters, Elizabeth and Frances, in 1853 and 1855.
In 1851, the same year as the birth of his second son, Melville has his most famous work published, Moby Dick, or, The Whale. Between the release of Typee and Moby Dick, Melville wrote other books of lesser notoriety. Omoo (1847), a book about his stay in Tahiti; Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), about his time spent in Liverpool, and White Jacket (1850). Moby Dick, as most people know, is the story of Captain Ahab and his quest, which eventually becomes an obsessive monomania, to kill the great white whale Moby Dick. Today, Moby Dick is universally recognized as both Melville’s crowning achievement and a towering classic of American literature. The very thing that bothered so many people when it was published – the fact that it broke the “rules” of writing and did so with such gusto – is now seen as the source of its power. Today, writers who mix genres or who create unique voices and styles are admired. Thus Moby Dick is now regarded, not as a failed sea romance or mixed up adventure story, but as a triumph of creative imagination, an example of how vast and all-embracing a book can be. Along with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Fin and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick is considered a candidate for the greatest American novel. However, as aforementioned, his greatness was not recognized at this time. Melville’s later works, Pierre (1852), The Piazza Tales (1856), The Confidence Man (1857), the poem Clarel (1876), and the post-mortumously published Billy Bud (1924), went almost completely unnoticed until the early 1920’s, when a student of literature named Raymond Weaver approached the Melville family and was given permission to examine the papers Herman left behind in a tin box after his death. It was here Billy Bud was first discovered and later published, which introduced a whole new generation to Melville’s work. Soon critics, students, and the general public were reading his novels and stories, and greeting some of them as masterpieces. In 1927, American novelist William Faulkner declared that Moby Dick was the book he most wished he had written. Knowing the quality of his work, one cannot help but feel sympathetic to Melville’s passing. He died on September 28, 1891 in his home in New York City, still unknown by the general public.