born: AUGUST 1, 1819
died: SEPTEMBER 28, 1891
movement: DARK ROMANTICISM
Herman Melville, born on August 1, 1819, in New York City, was a renowned American novelist, short story writer, and poet. Best known for his epic novel Moby-Dick, Melville was a significant figure in American literature, whose works explored themes of adventure, human nature, and morality. In this comprehensive article, we will delve into the life of Herman Melville, examine his most popular works, and reflect on his enduring literary legacy.
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Herman Melville was born to Allan Melvill, a merchant, and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. He grew up in a large family and had to contend with financial hardships following his father’s death in 1832. Despite these challenges, Melville’s love for literature was cultivated at an early age by his mother, who was an avid reader.
Melville’s education included a brief stint at the Albany Academy, where he excelled in the classics, particularly Shakespeare’s works. However, due to the family’s financial struggles, he was unable to pursue a formal education beyond his early teens.
MELVILLE’S ADVENTURES AT SEA AND LITERARY CAREER
Melville’s experiences at sea greatly influenced his writing. At the age of 20, he embarked on his first voyage aboard the whaler Acushnet, which inspired his later works. He spent several years traveling the world, including time spent living among the Typee natives in the Marquesas Islands, an experience that inspired his first novel, Typee (1846).
Melville’s early works were largely based on his adventures at sea and achieved moderate success. However, his career peaked with the publication of Moby-Dick (1851), a novel that was initially met with mixed reviews but has since become one of the greatest works in American literature.
TOP 10 BOOKS BY HERMAN MELVILLE
Melville’s first novel, based on his experiences living with the Typee natives, tells the story of a sailor who escapes a whaling ship and is taken in by a tribe on a remote island.
A sequel to Typee, Omoo continues the adventures of the protagonist as he navigates life in the South Pacific, exploring themes of colonialism and cultural misunderstandings.
In this allegorical novel, Melville abandons the straightforward narrative style of his previous works in favor of a more symbolic and philosophical exploration of human nature and society.
Drawing on his experiences as a cabin boy, Melville tells the story of Wellingborough Redburn and his journey from innocence to experience during a voyage from New York to Liverpool.
This novel, set aboard a US Navy ship, provides a critique of naval life and practices while exploring themes of authority, discipline, and the human capacity for cruelty.
Melville’s most famous work, Moby-Dick tells the story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for revenge against the titular white whale, exploring themes of obsession, fate, and the nature of evil.
In this dark, psychological novel, Melville examines the complexities of family dynamics, ambition, and morality through the story of Pierre Glendinning, a young man who becomes entangled in a web of secrets and deception.
Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853)
This short story, set in a Manhattan law office, tells the enigmatic tale of Bartleby, a quiet and inscrutable copyist who prefers not to follow the instructions of his employer, resulting in a thought-provoking exploration of human nature, societal expectations, and the power of passivity.
The Confidence-Man (1857)
Melville’s final novel is a satirical allegory that takes place aboard a Mississippi steamboat, where a mysterious stranger, known as the Confidence-Man, manipulates passengers through various disguises and deceptions.
Billy Budd, Sailor (1924, posthumous)
This novella, published posthumously, tells the tragic tale of Billy Budd, a young sailor who is falsely accused of mutiny and faces the harsh consequences of a rigid naval justice system.
- Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne were friends, and Hawthorne’s writings influenced Melville’s work. Moby-Dick is dedicated to Hawthorne.
- Melville’s later works, including Moby-Dick, did not receive the same acclaim during his lifetime as his earlier sea adventure novels, leading to financial difficulties.
- Melville worked as a customs inspector in New York City for nearly 20 years after his writing career waned.
- Melville’s marriage to Elizabeth Shaw was tumultuous, and the couple had four children together.
- Melville’s works, particularly Moby-Dick, experienced a resurgence in popularity during the early 20th century, which led to a reevaluation of his literary contributions.
MELVILLE’S INFLUENCE ON CONTEMPORARY WRITERS AND POPULAR CULTURE
Herman Melville’s impact on literature extends far beyond his lifetime, with his works continuing to inspire and influence contemporary authors and popular culture. Here are some notable examples of his enduring legacy:
- Moby-Dick’s themes of obsession and the struggle against nature have resonated with numerous writers, including Ernest Hemingway, who praised Melville’s storytelling in his own work Green Hills of Africa.
- Cormac McCarthy, the renowned author of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, has also drawn inspiration from Melville, particularly in his use of allegory and symbolism.
- Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener has been adapted into multiple films, stage productions, and even an opera, showcasing the timeless appeal of the story and its enigmatic protagonist.
- Moby-Dick has become a cultural touchstone, referenced in countless films, television shows, and books, including the acclaimed novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
- The character of Captain Ahab and his relentless pursuit of the white whale have become synonymous with obsession and monomania, influencing depictions of driven characters in various forms of media.
MELVILLE’S PRESERVING LEGACY
In order to celebrate and preserve Herman Melville’s literary legacy, several organizations and landmarks have been established:
- The Melville Society: This organization, founded in 1945, is dedicated to the study and appreciation of Melville’s life and works. The society sponsors conferences, publishes a scholarly journal, and provides resources for researchers and enthusiasts alike.
- Arrowhead: Melville’s former home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he wrote Moby-Dick, is now a museum operated by the Berkshire County Historical Society. Visitors can tour the house and learn about Melville’s life and works.
- The New Bedford Whaling Museum: Located in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a historic whaling port that inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick, this museum hosts an annual Moby-Dick Marathon, during which the entire novel is read aloud over a 25-hour period.
Through these and other efforts, the life, works, and enduring influence of Herman Melville continue to captivate readers and inspire new generations of authors, solidifying his status as a titan of American literature.
DEATH AND LEGACY
Herman Melville died on September 28, 1891, at the age of 72. Despite his relatively obscure status during his later years, Melville’s literary impact is now widely recognized. Moby-Dick, initially underappreciated, has become a cornerstone of American literature. His other works, such as Bartleby, the Scrivener and Billy Budd, Sailor, are also celebrated for their innovative narrative styles and complex themes. Melville’s influence can be seen in the works of countless writers, from Ernest Hemingway to Cormac McCarthy, solidifying his place in the pantheon of great American authors.