Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick. His first three books gained much contemporary attention (the first, Typee, becoming a bestseller), and after a fast-blooming literary success in the late 1840s, his popularity declined.
"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."
"No doubt there are important philosophical meanings in <i>Moby Dick</i> which are cloaked in mythico-mystical form; but they should not be permitted to obscure the important distinction that the books is fundamentally a realistic story which as overtones and upper levels rising naturally from it, rather than a full-feathered allegory which came to roost on a yardarm of the <i>Pequod</i>."
"Melville's exploration of cosmic evil in <i>Moby-Dick</i> reveals new depth and subtlety when the theological materials which he employs are understood. These materials are of two kinds. First, Melville makes extensive use of typical themes and motifs of Calvinist theology, the theology of the Dutch Reformed Church in which he was reared."
In 1866, Melville won appointment as a customs inspector in New York, which brought him a stable income. He published several volumes of poetry. He continued to write until his death in 1891, and his last novel, <i>Billy Budd</i>, was not published until 1924.
In October 1851, <i>The Whale</i>, printed later as <i>Moby Dick</i>, was published in London. The allegorical undertones that Melville cultivated throughout the novel picked up on the link between whaling and a mid-19th century emerging American identity.
In 1847 Melville married Elisabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts. After three years in New York, he bought a farm, "Arrowhead", near Nathaniel Hawthorne's home at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the two authors became friends. Melville had almost completed <i>Moby-Dick</i> when Hawthorne encouraged him to change it from a mere whaling story into an allegorical novel.
In 1846, he published his first novel, <i>Typee</i>, based on his Polynesian adventures. His second book, <i>Omoo</i> (1847), also dealt with the region. The two novels were popular successes, although his third, <i>Mardi</i> (1849), more experimental in nature, failed to catch on with the public. In 1851, Harper & Brothers published <i>Moby-Dick</i>. The book flopped and was not recognized as a classic for many years.
In 1839, at the age of 20, Melville took his first voyage across the Atlantic sea as a cabin boy on the merchant ship the <i>St. Lawrence</i>. After this expedition and a year exploring the West, Melville joined the crew of the whaling ship <i>Acushnet</i> in January of 1841. The thrilling adventure that occurred during the next three years would satiate his desire for excitement and provide him with his material for his first three novels.
He worked as a clerk in a bank and in his brother’s fur store, as a laborer on his uncle’s farm, as a district schoolteacher in rural Massachusetts and New York, where he boarded with the families of his pupils and found himself defrauded of his salary on his second stint. He studied surveying and engineering, in the vain hope of procuring employment with the Erie Canal’s engineering department. Finally, having exhausted all other options, he went to sea.
When Herman Melville was twelve years old, his merchant father died bankrupt. The tragedy plunged young Herman from the comfortable, patrician world of his Melvill and Gansevoort ancestors into the precarious, drudging world of the sailors, clerks, farm laborers, factory workers, paupers, and slaves who would subsequently people his fiction. Melville’s unique perspective on his society derives from his experience of living at the intersection of these opposing worlds.