Portrait of Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Novelist, Short Story Writer, Teacher, Sailor, Lecturer, Poet, Customs Inspector

Country:United States

Lifetime: 1819 - 1891 Passed: ≈ 129 years ago

Melville's growing literary ambition showed in Moby-Dick (1851), which took nearly a year and a half to write, but it did not find an audience and critics scorned his psychological novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852). From 1853 to 1856, Melville published short fiction in magazines, including "Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby, the Scrivener". In 1857, he traveled to England, toured the Near East, and published his last work of prose, The Confidence-Man (1857). He moved to New York in 1863 to take a position as customs inspector.

 

Melville was born in New York City, the third child of a prosperous merchant whose death in 1832 left the family in financial straits. He took to sea in 1839 as a common sailor on a merchant ship and then on the whaler Acushnet but he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands. Typee, his first book, and its sequel, Omoo (1847), were travel-adventures based on his encounters with the peoples of the island. Their success gave him the financial security to marry Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of a prominent Boston family. Mardi (1849), a romance-adventure and his first book not based on his own experience, was not well received. Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), both tales based on his experience as a well-born young man at sea, were given respectable reviews but did not sell well enough to support his expanding family.

 

Melville's writing style shows both consistencies and enormous changes throughout the years. His development "had been abnormally postponed, and when it came, it came with a rush and a force that had the menace of quick exhaustion in it". As early as "Fragments from a Writing Desk", written when Melville was 20, scholar Sealts sees "a number of elements that anticipate Melville's later writing, especially his characteristic habit of abundant literary allusion". Typee and Omoo were documentary adventures that called for a division of the narrative in short chapters. Such compact organization bears the risk of fragmentation when applied to a lengthy work such as Mardi, but with Redburn and White Jacket, Melville turned the short chapter into a concentrated narrative.

Melville's work often touched on themes of communicative expression and the pursuit of the absolute among illusions. 

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Books by Herman Melville