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Herman Melville

Herman Melville Herman Melville[2†]

Herman Melville, born on August 1, 1819, in New York City, was an American novelist, short-story writer, and poet, best known for his novels of the sea, including his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851)[1†][2†]. His works are considered a significant part of the American Renaissance period[1†][2†]. Melville’s heritage and youthful experiences were perhaps crucial in forming the conflicts underlying his artistic vision[1†]. He was the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill, in a family that was to grow to four boys and four girls[1†]. His forebears had been among the Scottish and Dutch settlers of New York and had taken leading roles in the American Revolution and in the fiercely competitive commercial and political life of the new country[1†].

One of his grandfathers, Maj. Thomas Melvill, was a member of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and was subsequently a New York importer[1†]. The other, Gen. Peter Gansevoort, was a friend of James Fenimore Cooper and famous for leading the defense of Fort Stanwix, in upstate New York, against the British[1†]. In 1826 Allan Melvill wrote of his son as being “backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension . . . of a docile and amiable disposition.” In that same year, scarlet fever left the boy with permanently weakened eyesight, but he attended Male High School[1†]. When the family import business collapsed in 1830, the family returned to Albany, where Herman enrolled briefly in Albany Academy[1†]. Allan Melvill died in 1832, leaving his family in desperate straits[1†].

Melville’s adventures as a seaman in 1845 inspired him to write[1†][3†]. His first book, Typee (1846), was a romanticized account of his experiences in Polynesia[1†][2†]. Despite the initial success of Typee and its sequel, Omoo (1847), Melville’s later works, including Moby Dick, were not well received during his lifetime[1†][2†]. However, the 1919 centennial of his birth marked the beginning of a Melville revival, and Moby-Dick is now considered one of the great American novels[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York City[1†][2†]. He was the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill, in a family that was to grow to four boys and four girls[1†]. His forebears had been among the Scottish and Dutch settlers of New York and had taken leading roles in the American Revolution and in the fiercely competitive commercial and political life of the new country[1†]. One of his grandfathers, Maj. Thomas Melvill, was a member of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and was subsequently a New York importer[1†]. The other, Gen. Peter Gansevoort, was a friend of James Fenimore Cooper and famous for leading the defense of Fort Stanwix, in upstate New York, against the British[1†].

In 1826, Allan Melvill wrote of his son as being “backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension . . . of a docile and amiable disposition”[1†]. In that same year, scarlet fever left the boy with permanently weakened eyesight, but he attended Male High School[1†]. When the family import business collapsed in 1830, the family returned to Albany, where Herman enrolled briefly in Albany Academy[1†]. Allan Melvill died in 1832, leaving his family in desperate straits[1†]. The eldest son, Gansevoort, assumed responsibility for the family and took over his father’s felt and fur business[1†]. Herman joined him after two years as a bank clerk and some months working on the farm of his uncle, Thomas Melvill, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts[1†].

After his father’s death in 1832, the family was left in poverty[1†][4†]. It was around this time that they changed the spelling of their last name[1†][4†]. From the age of 12, Melville worked a number of jobs, including bank clerk, farmer, and teacher[1†][4†].

Career Development and Achievements

Herman Melville’s career began at a very young age, with much of his writings being the outcomes of his extensive voyages[5†]. He took to sea in 1839 as a common sailor on a merchant ship and then on the whaler Acushnet, but he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands[5†][2†]. His adventures at sea inspired him to write, and his first book, Typee (1846), was a romanticized account of his experiences in Polynesia[5†][2†][5†]. The success of Typee and its sequel, Omoo (1847), gave him the financial security to marry Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of the Boston jurist Lemuel Shaw[5†][2†].

However, Melville’s later works, including his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851), did not find an audience during his lifetime[5†][2†]. Moby-Dick, which took nearly a year and a half to write, was scorned by critics, as was his psychological novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852)[5†][2†]. From 1853 to 1856, Melville published short fiction in magazines, including “Benito Cereno” and "Bartleby, the Scrivener"[5†][2†].

In 1857, he traveled to England, toured the Near East, and published his last work of prose, The Confidence-Man[5†][2†]. He moved to New York in 1863, eventually taking a position as a United States customs inspector[5†][2†]. From that point, Melville focused his creative powers on poetry. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) was his poetic reflection on the moral questions of the American Civil War[5†][2†]. His metaphysical epic Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land was published in 1876[5†][2†].

Despite the initial lack of recognition, the 1919 centennial of his birth marked the beginning of a Melville revival, and Moby-Dick is now considered one of the great American novels[5†][2†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Herman Melville’s literary career was marked by several notable works, many of which were not fully appreciated until after his death[2†][1†]. Here are some of his main works:

Each of these works represents a significant contribution to American and world literature, reflecting Melville’s unique style, deep insight, and the breadth of his experiences[2†][1†][6†][5†][7†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Herman Melville’s work is characterized by his deep exploration of the human condition and the complexity of the world[8†]. His fascination with the forces that lie beneath the surface of his contemporary American culture often disturbed readers, leading to his work being underappreciated during his lifetime[8†]. Melville’s tendency to view outward appearances as “pasteboard masks” that concealed a truer, darker reality is a recurring theme in his work[8†].

Melville’s work, particularly his most famous novel, Moby-Dick, is often seen as symbolic, inviting readers to find deeper meanings[8†]. For instance, the character of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick is memorable and complex, and the white whale in the novel has been widely analyzed for its symbolic significance[8†].

In his short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Melville explores the characteristics of modern Manhattan and presents a critique of the lack of imagination in society[8†]. Similarly, in “Benito Cereno,” Melville uses the setting of the southernmost extreme of the known world to dramatize racial tensions[8†][9†].

Melville’s later works, such as The Confidence Man and Billy Budd, Foretopman, continue to explore these themes, offering a bleak view of faith and probing beyond the level of mundane appearances[8†]. His novella, Billy Budd, Foretopman, was not discovered until the 1920s, long after Melville’s death[8†].

Despite the initial lack of recognition, Melville’s work has had a significant impact on future literature[8†][5†]. His exploration of the tragic sense of life and human nature has proven to be universal, resonating with readers around the world[8†][5†].

Personal Life

Herman Melville married Elizabeth Shaw in 1847[3†][6†]. After their marriage, they moved first to New York and then to the Berkshires[3†]. He lived near writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became a close friend and confidant[3†].

Melville faced several personal tragedies later in life. In 1867, his eldest child, Malcolm, died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot[3†][2†]. In 1886, his other son, Stanwix, died of apparent tuberculosis[3†][2†].

Despite these hardships, Melville continued to write and work. He eventually took a position as a United States customs inspector[3†][2†], a role he held for many years. From that point, Melville focused his creative powers on poetry[3†][2†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Herman Melville passed away on September 28, 1891[2†]. Despite the initial lack of recognition for his work, the centennial of his birth in 1919 marked the beginning of a Melville revival[2†]. His novel, Moby-Dick, is now considered one of the great American novels[2†].

Melville’s writings, particularly Moby-Dick, offer a profound exploration of the human condition, the nature of good and evil, and the ways in which the pursuit of knowledge can lead to disaster[2†][1†][2†]. His work has had a significant impact on literature worldwide[2†].

In addition to his novels, Melville’s poetry also reflects his deep and abiding concerns about the issues of his time[2†]. His poetic reflection on the moral questions of the American Civil War, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), is a notable example[2†].

Melville’s legacy is not just in his contributions to literature, but also in the critical perspective he brought to bear on American society. His writings challenged the ideals of capitalistic America, including hard work and respect for authority[2†][10†]. Through characters like Bartleby, Melville highlighted the ways in which the American system could fail individuals[2†][10†].

Today, Herman Melville is remembered as a masterful writer whose work continues to resonate with readers and scholars alike[2†][1†][2†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Britannica - Herman Melville: American author [website] - link
  2. Wikipedia (English) - Herman Melville [website] - link
  3. Academy of American Poets - About Herman Melville [website] - link
  4. Britannica Kids - Herman Melville [website] - link
  5. Literary Devices - Herman Melville [website] - link
  6. Lit and the City - [website] - link
  7. Library of America - Herman Melville - [website] - link
  8. eNotes - Herman Melville Analysis [website] - link
  9. eNotes - Benito Cereno Analysis [website] - link
  10. University of Alabama College of Arts & Sciences - Literary Landscapes - Herman Melville [website] - link
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