Happy birthday Herman Melville!



Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American writer. He is best known for his novel Moby Dick (1851). His literature chronicled his experiences aboard various ships and on scattered islands in the South Pacific. His popularity peaked during his lifetime in the 1840s, following the release of his first novel, Typee. It wasn't until long after his death that he came to be known as one of America's greatest writers.



Melville was born in New York City to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill (the "e" at the end of "Melville" was added after Allan Melvill's death. Herman Melville's father, Allan, was a high end dry goods merchant, bringing substantial wealth into the family. But the family's finances took a hit when Allan attempted to get involved in the fur and cap business. Not long after descending into bankruptcy, Allan died.

Melville's family was deeply entrenched in United States history. His paternal grandfather was a participant in the Boston Tea Party, and his mother's family had been Dutch settlers in present-day New York State.

In 1826, Melville contracted scarlet fever, and though he recovered, his sight was permanently damaged.


Wanting to become financially independent, he sought a job as a surveyor on the Eerie Canal, but was turned down. Instead, he got hired as a "boy" on a ship to England. He made the trip there and back on the same ship, forming the basis for his work, Redburn: His First Voyage (1849).

Following that first trip, he was hired aboard the Acushnet, a whaling ship. He worked on the ship for nearly three years, and his experiences would later be lent to his first novel, Typee (1846). During his voyage, he abandoned the Acushnet only to be held captive on the Marquesas Islands by a tribe of Typee natives who were called cannibals by other tribes. His novel depicting the experience describes a love affair with a native girl.

Eventually, he boarded another ship called the Lucy Ann, took part in a mutiny, and landed in jail briefly, and then ended up on a ship destined for Honolulu Hawaii. Once in Hawaii, he became a point of controversy for opposing the Christian missionaries who were seeking to convert Hawaiin natives. After briefly working as a clerk, he found passage on the USS United States back to Boston.



In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw. They had two sons and two daughters. They purchased Arrowhead, a Massachusetts farmhouse, in 1850. The building is now a museum and national historic landmark.



After the success of his books Typee and another novel depicting his experiences, Omoo, he completed the novels Mardi (1849), Redburn and White-Jacket (1850). Soon, he began work on what was to become his greatest work, Moby Dick. The story is based on the true story of the sinking of the Essex whaleship. The ship, traveling from Nantucket, Massachusetts to South America, sank when a sperm whale attacked. Its crew were sent adrift with few supplies in small lifeboats and were later picked up in South America.Moby_Dick_p510_illustration


The book was not initially a hit. In fact, it sold 25% fewer copies in the United Kingdom than its predecessor, Typee. The novel only became as popularly and critically acclaimed as it is today long after Melville's death when it was reprinted. By the 1920s, Melville began to be regarded as one of the greatest American writers.

Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Friday, 01 August 2014
Read 5737 times