Herman Melville: A Biography And AnalysisThroughout American history, very few authors have earned the right tobe called great.
Herman Melville is one of these few. His novels and poemshave been enjoyed world wide for over a century, and he has earned hisreputation as one of the finest American writers of all time. A man of toweringtalent, with intellectual and artistic brilliance, and a mind of deep insightinto human motives and behavior, it is certainly a disgrace that his truegreatness was not recognized until nearly a generation after his death.Born in the city of New York on August 1, 1819, Melville was the thirdchild and second son of Allan Melvill(it wasn’t until Allan’s death in 1832 thatthe e at the end of Melville was added, in order to make a more obviousconnection with the Scottish Melville clan), a wholesale merchant and importerthen living in comfortable economic circumstances, and of Maria GansevoortMelvill, only daughter of the richest man in Albany, the respected andwealthy General Peter Gansevoort, hero of the defense of Fort Stanwix during theAmerican 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 equallydistinguished. Major Thomas Melvill, his grandfather, was one of the Indiansin the Boston Tea Party during the events leading to the war and who had thenserved his country creditably throughout the hostilities.
The Melvill familykept on their mantelpiece a bottle of tea drained out of Major Melvill’s clothesafter the Tea Party as a momento of this occasion.Herman attended the New York Male High School from about the age ofseven until 1830. By that time, Allan Melvill’s business had begun to fail, dueto his credit being overextended. After futile attempts to re-establish himself,he eventually found it necessary to accept the management of a New York furcompany back in Albany. The family moved there in the autumn of 1830, and duringthat time Herman attended, along with his brothers Gansevoort and Allan, theAlbany Academy. Just as luck seemed to again be favoring the Melvills, Allan’sbusiness affairs again suffered a setback.
Excessive worry and overwork finallytook their toll upon his health. By January, 1832, he was both physically andmentally very ill. On January 28, 1832, Allan Melvill died. The shock of hisfather’s financial collapse and his tragic death only slightly more than a yearlater took its toll on Herman’s emotions.
He was to draw upon this memory twodecades later in his writing of Pierre.In order to support the family, Herman took a position as an assistantclerk at a local bank, and his brothers Gansevoort and Allan took over theirlate father’s fur business. Possibly because of his mother’s concern over hishealth, Herman left his position at the bank in the spring of 1834 and spent aseason working for his Uncle Thomas’s farm near Pittsfield.During the winter months of early 1835, Herman left Pittsfield andjoined his brothers in the fur business. Now fifteen and a half, he kept thebooks of the firm for the following two years.
At some time during this periodhe enrolled as a student in the Albany Classical School. He also became ammember 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 publiclibraries, were popular in many cities and served a most useful educationalpurpose.Within a year or two of education at the Albany Classical School, hehad become qualified as a school teacher. He left his brothers at the nowfailing fur company and became a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse outside ofPittsfiesd. On his first day of the new job, the inexperienced teacher wasconfronted with thirty students of all ages and levels of skill.
Some were hisage, and a few utterly illiterate. In such extreme conditions Herman found ithard to maintain discipline, let alone teach. After six weeks, he gave up andreturned to Albany.For a few months, Herman looked for work without success. His leisurehours, though, were filled with excitement. Early in 1838 he organized adebating club and promptly got into a dispute over the presidency of the clubwith a rival member, which he eventually won.Before long, Maria Melvill was forced to admit that she could no longerafford to live in Albany.
Faced with the prospect of having to constantly askher brother Peter for money, she finally decided to move her family toLansingburgh, a village not far from Albany near the Hudson River.Herman was in a difficult and unhappy position. Although he was almosttwenty years old, he was not contributing to the family’s income and feltashamed. At the same time, he was unable to decide on a career or event settledown to a job. Perhaps because he remembered the stories of his uncle and twocousins who had gone to sea, Herman decided to try his own fate at sea. He askedhis brother Gansevoort to look for a ship’s berth for him, and almostimmediately, he was hired as a crewman aboard the St. Lawerence, a three mastedship that was preparing to cross the Atlantic from New York City to Liverpool,England.
The St. Lawerence left New York on June 3, 1839. Herman could takepride in the fact that he was earning his own living at last.
Herman quickly learned humility. He was both better educated than mostof his shipmates and older that many of the common, or unskilled seamen, yet heknew 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 specialname.
He learned too about the strict discipline of the sea, which required himto address the officers with respect and follow their orders unquestioningly.Furthermore, he had to endure the practical jokes, sarcasm, and often cruelhumor of the more experienced crewmen, who traditionally made life difficult forgreen hands on their first voyage.At the time of Herman’s visit, Leverpool was growing fast. Peoplestraggled into the city from the famine-stricken farms of Ireland, the poormining towns of Wales, and the English countryside, all seeking jobs in the city’s docks or factories. Wandering innocently into the slums, Herman was appalledat the sight of beggars, prostitutes, drunkards, and ragged children living inconditions worse that he head ever imagined.
Years later, he would recall thesescenes in his novel Redburn.His next voyage was on the whaling ship Acushnet, a brand new shipregistered in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He departed from New Bedford onJanuary 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. Aftertwo months of sailing, when the ship reached Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it had 150barrels of oil in its hold. These were transferred to another New England shipto be sent home, and the Acushnet left Rio after only one day ion the scenicport Melville called the bay of all beauties.
As they approached Cape Horn,Melville heard many dire stories from his fellow crewmen about these wildsouthern waters.The men also told whaling tales, of course. Some of these talesconcerned an unusual sperm whale called Mocha Dick.
Unusually pale, almost white,Mocha Dick was said to live in the Pacific and was aggressive, unlike ordinarysperm 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 extremelyscarce, and the survivors were becoming wary. Overhunting had taken its toll.Between January and May, the Acushnet sighted nine groups of whales but was onlyable 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 lookedas though it would take years to fill the 2,800 barrels they needed to make aprofitable voyage.
The run of bad luck soured the captain’s disposition. Not only was heannoyed at the lack of whales, he was also suffering from poor health. This wasto have been his last voyage, and he was to retire on its profits.
With everypassing week, this plan seemed more and more distant. He became snappish, strictand quarrelsome, so much that both his first and third mates deserted. Stressbegan to appear amongst the rest of the crew as well, as men began to fall illfrom 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 asthe captain took the Acushnet to the Marquesas Islands to stock up on fresh foodand water, Melville began making plans to depart both ship and captain.Accompanying Melville was another crewman by the name of Tobias Greene, or Tobyas Melville called him. The pair escaped into the wilderness of the islandshortly before the ship’s departure, and a brief hunt for them by the remainingcrew 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 quitehospitable to the deserters. Even so, they were eager to depart, and Toby wassent 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 thatinspired 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 captiveby the Taipi, and being short of crew, they embarked on a rescue mission, andtook Melville as a member of their crew in August 1842.
Ironically, the voyage on the Lucy Ann proved to be even more miserablethat that of the Acushnet. When the ship docked in Tahiti, Melville managedanother daring escape. That same day he boarded the Charles and Henry as amember of her crew, and they set sail for Hawaii, then called the SandwichIslands. 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 Lansingburghwhere his mother still resided.
His family was fascinated with his glorioustales of his journeys at sea; so much so that Herman’s brother Thomas set sailhimself. Unfortunately, Herman was in the same situation in which he was beforethese 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 beanswered – he would become a writer.
As he sat in his mother’s house to write his first novel, Melvilleturned to the part of his South Seas adventure about which everyone was mostcurious: his stay among the cannibals. The story was his own, certainly, butin writing Typee, Melville established a habit that would follow throughout hiscareer. Hi used his own experiences as the skeleton of the book and fleshed outthe details with his own imagination. In Typee, he wrote about his escape from awhaling vessel with Toby, and renamed the ship the Dolly rather than theAcushnet.
He also changed their departure, which in reality he was never in anyreal danger, to one of great heroics as they escaped from a horrible fate. Inaddition, he lengthened their stay on the island from four weeks to a gruelingfour months. He did find a publisher, and Typee, his first book, was publishedin 1846.The following year, Melville met and fell in love with a woman namedElizabeth Shaw, and they were married on August 4, 1847. They bought a home inNew York City, where they would remain for the rest of their lives. Togetherthey would have two sons, Malcolm and Stanwix, born in 1849 and 1851,respectively. Also born to them were two daughters, Elizabeth and Frances, in1853 and 1855.
In 1851, the same year as the birth of his second son, Melville has hismost famous work published, Moby Dick, or, The Whale. Between the release ofTypee 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 timespent in Liverpool, and White Jacket (1850).Moby Dick, as most people know, is the story of Captain Ahab and hisquest, which eventually becomes and obsessive monomania, to kill the great whitewhale Moby Dick.
Today, Moby Dick is universally recognized as both Melville’scrowning achievement and a towering classic of American literature. The verything that bothered so many people when it was published – the fact that itbroke the rules of writing and did so with such gusto – is now seen as thesource of its power. Today, writers who mix genres or who create unique voicesand styles are admired. Thus Moby Dick is now regarded, not as a failed searomance 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’sHuckleberry Fin and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick is considered acandidate for the greatest American novel. However, as aforementioned, hisgreatness was not recognized at this time.Melville’s later works, Pierre (1852), The Piazza Tales (1856), TheConfidence Man (1857), the poem Clarel (1876), and the post-mortumouslypublished Billy Bud (1924), went almost completely unnoticed until the early1920’s, when a student of literature named Raymond Weaver approached theMelville family and was given permission to examine the papers Herman leftbehind in a tin box after his death. It was here Billy Bud was first discoveredand later published, which introduced a whole new generation to Melville’s work.Soon critics, students, and the general public were reading his novels andstories, and greeting some of them as masterpieces. In 1927, American novelistWilliam Faulkner declared that Moby Dick was the book he most wished he hadwritten.
Knowing the quality of his work, one can not help but feel sympatheticto Melville’s passing. He died on September 28, 1891 in his home in New YorkCity, still unknown by the general public. If any writer deserved to berecognized and praised during their lives, Melville is that writer. Althoughunfortunate that his passing went almost unnoticed by the public, he is now andjustly so, an immortal in the annals of American literature, and his work willbe looked upon with both admiration and envy for many years to come.APPENDICESAny appendices should appear after the text of your term paper.
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