Herman Melville Biography

Herman Melville (1819-1891), American writer whose novel Moby Dick is one of the towering literary achievements in the history of fiction. Based on a detailed knowledge of the sea, ships, and whaling, Moby Dick reveals Melville's profound insight into human nature and his preoccupation with human fate in the universe. It also contains one of the most fascinating characters in fiction, the obsessed, tormented Captain Ahab. Melville is also known for the short novel Billy Budd, in which he explores the tragic conflict between good and evil and the limitations of human justice.


Melville was born in New York City. Both his mother and father were descended from prominent colonial families. One grandfather had participated in the Boston Tea Party, and the other had been a general in the colonial army during the American Revolution (1775-1783). However, the family’s fortunes had declined by Melville’s time. His father’s importing business failed in 1830, and the family moved to Albany, New York.

After his father’s death in 1832, when Melville was 12, he worked for a time as a bank clerk, a helper on his uncle’s farm, and an assistant in his older brother’s fur factory. That business collapsed during the depression of 1837. Melville, having studied briefly at the Albany Classical School, then tried school teaching for a few weeks near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He returned to his family’s home after some difficulties about salary and studied surveying in anticipation of gaining a position on the Erie Canal project.


With Moby Dick Melville reached his highest achievement as a writer. During Melville’s lifetime, however, only a handful of readers recognized its greatness. Ostensibly an adventure story of the whaling industry, the novel has an action-filled plot, chapters on whales and the business of whaling, powerful descriptions of the wild sea and its inhabitants, character sketches of the seamen aboard a whaling vessel, and a considerable amount of philosophical musing.

The central story of Moby Dick is the conflict between Captain Ahab, the master of the whaler Pequod, and Moby Dick, a vicious white whale that once tore off one of Ahab’s legs at the knee. The narrator of the story is Ishmael, a seaman aboard the Pequod, who finds Ahab mysterious and frightening. During the voyage Ahab reveals to his crew that he seeks revenge upon Moby Dick. From this point the voyage becomes a pursuit: Ahab drives himself and his crew over the seas in a desperate search for his enemy. When the whale is at last sighted and attacked, it rams the ship, killing Ahab and all of the crew except Ishmael.

The body of the book is written in a wholly original, narrative style, which, in certain sections of the work, Melville varied with great success. The most impressive of these sections include a magnificent sermon before the ship sails and soliloquies of the ship’s mates; lengthy passages conveying non-narrative material, usually of a technical nature, such as the chapter about whales; and more purely ornamental passages, such as the tale of the ship Tally-Ho. These sections can stand by themselves as short stories of merit. The work is invested with Ishmael’s sense of profound wonder at his story, but it nonetheless conveys full awareness that Ahab’s quest can have but one end: destruction.

As Ahab makes very clear to Starbuck, his first mate, he envisions in the whale the visible form of a malicious Fate that governs humanity thoughtlessly and is oblivious to human suffering. Ahab sees in himself a superior soul protesting against universal injustice. “In each event,” he explains to Starbuck, “some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask....That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent or be the white whale principle, I will wreak that hate upon him.”

Ishmael is instructed by characters who represent polar opposites. Ahab is the destructive, defiant tragic hero who refuses to bow to his fate, ignores the charts he has been given, and sets off on his own course to strike back at the forces of the universe that have damaged him. While Ahab is all ego, Queequeg, a South Seas harpooner with whom Ishmael makes a pact of brotherhood, is the humanist, giving to others simply because, as Ishmael supposes, he senses that humans have to stick together. Unlike Ahab the destroyer, Queequeg is the savior, as at the end Ishmael stays afloat by clinging to the coffin Queequeg has carved for himself.


Melville’s writings after 1847 seem to reflect the influence of American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and New England transcendentalism, but Melville took pains to show his growing contempt for transcendental optimism. He also disagreed with transcendental attitudes toward nature. Instead of blandly praising nature for its beauty and benevolence to human beings in the fashion of the romantic writers, Melville repeatedly pointed out the signs of nature’s vulturism. In such sketches as “The Encantadas,” about the Galápagos Islands, there is more than a hint of the theories of British scientist Charles Darwin, especially the theory of the survival of the fittest. (Encantadas is another name for the Galápagos, which Darwin explored.) Melville’s readers admired him when he romanticized the life of the South Sea Islander into a dreamy experience, but they refused to remain loyal when he sighted the eternal predatory shark that lurks beneath nature’s enchanting surface.

Melville’s next novel, Pierre: or the Ambiguities (1852), was a darkly allegorical exploration of the nature of evil. It reveals a mood of deepening bitterness, possibly brought on in part by the lack of popular understanding and appreciation of his literary output after Omoo. The hero of Pierre is a young man who tries to lead a life of perfect virtue only to discover that society’s moral standards are too frequently ambiguous. In the end his idealism brings disaster upon himself and those he loves. Pierre in its construction faintly resembles a tragedy by William Shakespeare: It opens with a balcony scene and closes with the dead bodies of its main characters lying in a heap upon the floor.

Pierre seemingly began as a romance intended to capture the audience for romantic novels. But it became instead a dark and shocking parody, a nose-thumbing insult to the very audience Melville had originally set out to woo. Its overtly drawn brother-sister incest and bohemianism alienated even those who had been most supportive of Melville’s work. In one respect it foreshadowed the literary future, for it may be called one of the first American psychological novels.

The volume of tales and sketches that Melville entitled The Piazza Tales contains most of his best shorter works of prose, including such moving and thought-provoking pieces as “Benito Cereno,” “The Encantadas,” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” “Benito Cereno” concerns the rescue of a Spanish nobleman from a slave ship that has been captured by the rebellious slaves. “The Encantadas” relates a series of incidents occurring on the barren Galápagos Islands. “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” with its subtitle, “A Story of Wall Street,” dramatizes 19th-century society’s destruction of humanity—especially the creative spirit—in a religiously sanctioned, frantic pursuit of wealth.

The Confidence-Man (1857), the last of the novels published during Melville’s lifetime, comes closer than any of his other works to pure allegory. Set on a steamboat on the Mississippi River, it presents many characters and events that illustrate Melville’s view that human statements and human actions are often diametrically opposed. The principal character in the story is a mysterious confidence man who preaches mutual trust while shamelessly cheating the other passengers.

The poetry that Melville began to produce relatively late in his career has never been as widely admired as his prose. However, it has gained increasing respect over time. Some of his poems, particularly those about the Civil War found in Battle-Pieces, are frequently reprinted in anthologies. The book-length poem Clarel relates the experiences and conversations of a group of pilgrims touring the Holy Land.

The novella Billy Budd, Foretopman, found among Melville’s papers after his death, was not published until 1924. Critics now rank it second only to Moby Dick among Melville’s major works. Billy Budd is the story of a young sailor, personifying innocence, who is doomed by the malevolent hatred of a ship’s officer, personifying evil. He is hanged for the accidental murder of the evil officer. The sacrifice of the lamblike youth to the cruel demands of civilized warfare is made to resemble the crucifixion of Christ. The work was adapted as an opera in 1951 by English composer Benjamin Britten in collaboration with the English novelist E. M. Forster.


During his lifetime Melville was appreciated primarily as a spinner of adventure yarns. By his death his works were almost forgotten and remained so until the 1920s. At that time his genius was finally recognized and he became valued for his great moral and psychological insight. Over the next decades, more critical research was done on Melville than on any other American author. Interest in Melville continued undiminished throughout the 20th century. His fame today rests mainly on his great narrative power, his ability to create absorbing characters, and his penetrating, tragic vision of life.

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