Born on August 1, 1819, into a once-prominent New York family, Herman Melville was raised in an atmosphere of financial instability and genteel pretense. After his father’s death, Melville attempted to support his family by working various jobs, from banking to teaching school. However, it was his adventures as a seaman in 1845 that inspired Melville to write. On one voyage, he was captured and held for several months by the Typees; when he returned unscathed, friends encouraged Melville to write the escapade down. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life became his first literary success; the continuation of his adventures appeared in his second book, Omoo.
After ending his seafaring career, Melville’s concern over his sporadic education inspired him to read voraciously. In 1847, he married Elizabeth Shaw and moved first to New York and then the Berkshires. There he lived near the reclusive writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was to become a close friend and confidant. Intoxicated by metaphysics, Melville penned Mardi and a Voyage Thither, a philosophical allegory. The book failed, and though discouraged, Melville dashed off Redburn, a comedy. Although the book proved a financial success, Melville immediately returned to the symbolic in his next novel, White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War. In 1851, he completed his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, or the Whale. Considered by modern scholars to be one of the great American novels, the book was dismissed by Melville’s contemporaries and he made little money from the effort. The other two novels that today form the core of the Melville canon—Pierre; or the Ambiguities and The Confidence Man—met with a similar fate.
During the 1850s, Melville supported his family by farming and writing stories for magazines. He later traveled to Europe, where he saw his friend Hawthorne for the last time. During that visit in 1856, it was clear to Melville that his novel-writing career was finished. In 1857, after returning to New York still unnoticed by the literary public, he stopped writing fiction. He became a customs inspector, a job he held for twenty years. And he began to write poetry.
The Civil War made a deep impression on Melville and became the principal subject of his verse. With so many family members participating in various aspects of the war, Melville found himself intimately connected to events, and also sought out conflict for himself. He observed the Senate debating secession during a visit to Washington D.C. in 1861, and made a remarkable trip to the front with his brother in 1864. Melville’s first published book of poems was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), a meditation. The volume is regarded by many critics as a work as ambitious and rich as any of his novels. Unfortunately, Melville’s remains relatively unrecognized as a poet.
Herman Melville died of a heart attack on September 28, 1891, at the age of 72. At that time, he was almost completely forgotten by all but a few admirers. During the week of his death, The New York Times wrote: “There has died and been buried in this city…a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines.” It wasn’t until the 1920s that the literary public began to recognize Melville as one of America’s greatest writers.
- Battle-Pieces and Aspectsof the War: Civil War Poems (1866)
- Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage (1876)
- John Marr and Other Sailors (1888)
- Timoleon (1891)
- Billy Budd, Sailor (1924)
- Israel Potter (1855)
- Mardi (1849)
- Moby-Dick, or the Whale (1851)
- Omoo (1847)
- Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852)
- Redburn (1849)
- The Confidence-Man (1857)
- The Piazza Tales Israel Potter (1856)
- Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846)
- White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War (1850)
The House-top. (2015, July 27). Retrieved January 10, 2019, from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/herman-melville