Herman Melville: A Biography And Analysis Essay, Research Paper
Herman Melville: A Biography And Analysis
Throughout American history, very few authors have earned the right to
be called ?great.? Herman Melville is one of these few. His novels and poems
have been enjoyed world wide for over a century, and he has earned his
reputation as one of the finest American writers of all time. A man of towering
talent, with intellectual and artistic brilliance, and a mind of deep insight
into human motives and behavior, it is certainly a disgrace that his true
greatness was not recognized until nearly a generation after his death.
Born in the city of New York on August 1, 1819, Melville was the third
child and second son of Allan Melvill(it wasn’t until Allan’s death in 1832 that
the ?e? at the end of Melville was added, in order to make a more obvious
connection with the Scottish Melville clan), a wholesale merchant and importer
then living in comfortable economic circumstances, and of Maria Gansevoort
Melvill, only daughter of ?the richest man in Albany,? the respected and
wealthy General Peter Gansevoort, hero of the defense of Fort Stanwix during the
American Revolution. In total, Allan and Maria had eight children. On his father’
s side, his ancestry, though not so prosperous as on his mother’s, was equally
distinguished. Major Thomas Melvill, his grandfather, was one of the ?Indians?
in the Boston Tea Party during the events leading to the war and who had then
served his country creditably throughout the hostilities. The Melvill family
kept on their mantelpiece a bottle of tea drained out of Major Melvill’s clothes
after the Tea Party as a momento of this occasion.
Herman attended the New York Male High School from about the age of
seven until 1830. By that time, Allan Melvill’s business had begun to fail, due
to his credit being overextended. After futile attempts to re-establish himself,
he eventually found it necessary to accept the management of a New York fur
company back in Albany. The family moved there in the autumn of 1830, and during
that time Herman attended, along with his brothers Gansevoort and Allan, the
Albany Academy. Just as luck seemed to again be favoring the Melvills, Allan’s
business affairs again suffered a setback. Excessive worry and overwork finally
took their toll upon his health. By January, 1832, he was both physically and
mentally very ill. On January 28, 1832, Allan Melvill died. The shock of his
father’s financial collapse and his tragic death only slightly more than a year
later took its toll on Herman’s emotions. He was to draw upon this memory two
decades later in his writing of Pierre.
In order to support the family, Herman took a position as an assistant
clerk at a local bank, and his brothers Gansevoort and Allan took over their
late father’s fur business. Possibly because of his mother’s concern over his
health, Herman left his position at the bank in the spring of 1834 and spent a
season working for his Uncle Thomas’s farm near Pittsfield.
During the winter months of early 1835, Herman left Pittsfield and
joined his brothers in the fur business. Now fifteen and a half, he kept the
books of the firm for the following two years. At some time during this period
he enrolled as a student in the Albany Classical School. He also became am
member in the Albany Young Men’s Association, a club for debating and reading,
of which his brother was already a member. Such clubs, in absence of public
libraries, were popular in many cities and served a most useful educational
Within a year or two of education at the Albany Classical School, he
had become qualified as a school teacher. He left his brothers at the now
failing fur company and became a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse outside of
Pittsfiesd. On his first day of the new job, the inexperienced teacher was
confronted with thirty students of all ages and levels of skill. Some were his
age, and a few utterly illiterate. In such extreme conditions Herman found it
hard to maintain discipline, let alone teach. After six weeks, he gave up and
returned to Albany.
For a few months, Herman looked for work without success. His leisure
hours, though, were filled with excitement. Early in 1838 he organized a
debating club and promptly got into a dispute over the presidency of the club
with a rival member, which he eventually won.
Before long, Maria Melvill was forced to admit that she could no longer
afford to live in Albany. Faced with the prospect of having to constantly ask
her brother Peter for money, she finally decided to move her family to
Lansingburgh, a village not far from Albany near the Hudson River.
Herman was in a difficult and unhappy position. Although he was almost
twenty years old, he was not contributing to the family’s income and felt
ashamed. At the same time, he was unable to decide on a career or event settle
down to a job. Perhaps because he remembered the stories of his uncle and two
cousins who had gone to sea, Herman decided to try his own fate at sea. He asked
his brother Gansevoort to look for a ship’s berth for him, and almost
immediately, he was hired as a crewman aboard the St. Lawerence, a three masted
ship that was preparing to cross the Atlantic from New York City to Liverpool,
The St. Lawerence left New York on June 3, 1839. Herman could take
pride in the fact that he was earning his own living at last.
Herman quickly learned humility. He was both better educated than most
of his shipmates and older that many of the common, or unskilled seamen, yet he
knew nothing at all about ships or sailing. He had to learn a whole new language,
in which every rope, every task, and every part of the ship had its own special
name. He learned too about the strict discipline of the sea, which required him
to address the officers with respect and follow their orders unquestioningly.
Furthermore, he had to endure the practical jokes, sarcasm, and often cruel
humor of the more experienced crewmen, who traditionally made life difficult for
?green? hands on their first voyage.
At the time of Herman’s visit, Leverpool was growing fast. People
straggled into the city from the famine-stricken farms of Ireland, the poor
mining towns of Wales, and the English countryside, all seeking jobs in the city’
s docks or factories. Wandering innocently into the slums, Herman was appalled
at the sight of beggars, prostitutes, drunkards, and ragged children living in
conditions worse that he head ever imagined. Years later, he would recall these
scenes in his novel Redburn.
His next voyage was on the whaling ship Acushnet, a brand new ship
registered in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He departed from New Bedford on
January 3, 1841, bound for the North Pacific. Although bound for the Pacific,
the ship and her crew managed to capture several whales in the Atlantic. After
two months of sailing, when the ship reached Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it had 150
barrels of oil in its hold. These were transferred to another New England ship
to be sent home, and the Acushnet left Rio after only one day ion the scenic
port Melville called ?the bay of all beauties.? As they approached Cape Horn,
Melville heard many dire stories from his fellow crewmen about these wild
The men also told whaling tales, of course. Some of these tales
concerned an unusual sperm whale called Mocha Dick. Unusually pale, almost white,
Mocha Dick was said to live in the Pacific and was aggressive, unlike ordinary
sperm whales. These tales undoubtedly influenced Melville’s most famous of tales,
Although the voyage initially seemed promising, most of the crew,
including Melville, didn’t realize that the sperm whale was growing extremely
scarce, and the survivors were becoming wary. Overhunting had taken its toll.
Between January and May, the Acushnet sighted nine groups of whales but was only
able to make two or three kills, adding a mere 150 barrels of oil to its cargo.
In June the men killed another whale; another 50 barrels of oil. It now looked
as though it would take years to fill the 2,800 barrels they needed to make a
The run of bad luck soured the captain’s disposition. Not only was he
annoyed at the lack of whales, he was also suffering from poor health. This was
to have been his last voyage, and he was to retire on its profits. With every
passing week, this plan seemed more and more distant. He became snappish, strict
and quarrelsome, so much that both his first and third mates deserted. Stress
began to appear amongst the rest of the crew as well, as men began to fall ill
from scurvy and other nutrition-lacking ailments. Fights and feuds broke out,
and Melville no longer rejoiced in the high quality of his shipmates. As soon as
the captain took the Acushnet to the Marquesas Islands to stock up on fresh food
and water, Melville began making plans to depart both ship and captain.
Accompanying Melville was another crewman by the name of Tobias Greene, or ?Toby?
as Melville called him. The pair escaped into the wilderness of the island
shortly before the ship’s departure, and a brief hunt for them by the remaining
crew was unsuccessful. Melville and Toby remained on the island for four weeks,
taken in by the Taipi Indians. Thought to be cannibals, they proved to be quite
hospitable to the deserters. Even so, they were eager to depart, and Toby was
sent to see if he could sight any ships off the coast. He never returned,
thought by Melville to be captured by another tribe. It was this experience that
inspired Melville’s first novel, Typee.
It was here they remained until another whaling ship, the Lucy Ann,
arrived at the island. The ship heard rumors of a white man being held captive
by the Taipi, and being short of crew, they embarked on a ?rescue mission,? and
took Melville as a member of their crew in August 1842.
Ironically, the voyage on the Lucy Ann proved to be even more miserable
that that of the Acushnet. When the ship docked in Tahiti, Melville managed
another daring escape. That same day he boarded the Charles and Henry as a
member of her crew, and they set sail for Hawaii, then called the Sandwich
Islands. This was the final destination of the ship, and in November of 1842,
the crew was disbanded.
Melville, eager to see the family he missed so, returned to Lansingburgh
where his mother still resided. His family was fascinated with his glorious
tales of his journeys at sea; so much so that Herman’s brother Thomas set sail
himself. Unfortunately, Herman was in the same situation in which he was before
these adventures – unemployed. He believed that if he put his stories on paper,
he would find a publisher, and the vexing question of his career would be
answered – he would become a writer.
As he sat in his mother’s house to write his first novel, Melville
turned to the part of his South Seas adventure about which everyone was most
curious: his ?stay among the cannibals.? The story was his own, certainly, but
in writing Typee, Melville established a habit that would follow throughout his
career. Hi used his own experiences as the skeleton of the book and fleshed out
the details with his own imagination. In Typee, he wrote about his escape from a
whaling vessel with Toby, and renamed the ship the Dolly rather than the
Acushnet. He also changed their departure, which in reality he was never in any
real danger, to one of great heroics as they escaped from a horrible fate. In
addition, he lengthened their stay on the island from four weeks to a grueling
four months. He did find a publisher, and Typee, his first book, was published
The following year, Melville met and fell in love with a woman named
Elizabeth Shaw, and they were married on August 4, 1847. They bought a home in
New York City, where they would remain for the rest of their lives. Together
they would have two sons, Malcolm and Stanwix, born in 1849 and 1851,
respectively. Also born to them were two daughters, Elizabeth and Frances, in
1853 and 1855.
In 1851, the same year as the birth of his second son, Melville has his
most famous work published, Moby Dick, or, The Whale. Between the release of
Typee and Moby Dick, Melville wrote other books of lesser notoriety. Omoo (1847),
a book about his stay in Tahiti; Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), about his time
spent in Liverpool, and White Jacket (1850).
Moby Dick, as most people know, is the story of Captain Ahab and his
quest, which eventually becomes and obsessive monomania, to kill the great white
whale Moby Dick. Today, Moby Dick is universally recognized as both Melville’s
crowning achievement and a towering classic of American literature. The very
thing that bothered so many people when it was published – the fact that it
broke the ?rules? of writing and did so with such gusto – is now seen as the
source of its power. Today, writers who mix genres or who create unique voices
and styles are admired. Thus Moby Dick is now regarded, not as a failed sea
romance or mixed up adventure story, but as a triumph of creative imagination,
an example of how vast and all-embracing a book can be. Along with Mark Twain’s
Huckleberry Fin and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick is considered a
candidate for the greatest American novel. However, as aforementioned, his
greatness was not recognized at this time.
Melville’s later works, Pierre (1852), The Piazza Tales (1856), The
Confidence Man (1857), the poem Clarel (1876), and the post-mortumously
published Billy Bud (1924), went almost completely unnoticed until the early
1920’s, when a student of literature named Raymond Weaver approached the
Melville family and was given permission to examine the papers Herman left
behind in a tin box after his death. It was here Billy Bud was first discovered
and later published, which introduced a whole new generation to Melville’s work.
Soon critics, students, and the general public were reading his novels and
stories, and greeting some of them as masterpieces. In 1927, American novelist
William Faulkner declared that Moby Dick was the book he most wished he had
Knowing the quality of his work, one can not help but feel sympathetic
to Melville’s passing. He died on September 28, 1891 in his home in New York
City, still unknown by the general public. If any writer deserved to be
recognized and praised during their lives, Melville is that writer. Although
unfortunate that his passing went almost unnoticed by the public, he is now and
justly so, an immortal in the annals of American literature, and his work will
be looked upon with both admiration and envy for many years to come.
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