Portrait of Herman Melville


Lifetime: 1819 - 1891 Passed: ≈ 132 years ago


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


United States

Herman Melville

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. 

Books by Herman Melville

Moby Dick, or the Whale Cover image

Moby Dick, or the Whale

Adventure Action
hunt Whale Marine

Few things, even in literature, can really be said to be unique — but Moby Dick is truly unlike anything written before or since. The novel is nominally about the obsessive hunt by the crazed Captain Ahab of the book’s eponymous white whale. But inte...

Typee Cover image


Adventure Novel Travel
Marine Nautical Fictional Autobiography

Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is the first book by American writer Herman Melville, published in early part of 1846, when Melville was 26 years old. Considered a classic in travel and adventure literature, the narrative is based on the author's ac...

Bartleby the Scrivener Cover image

Bartleby the Scrivener

Short Story Isolation Resistance

"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" is a short story by the American writer Herman Melville, first serialized anonymously in two parts in the November and December 1853 issues of Putnam's Magazine and later reprinted with minor textual...

Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas Cover image

Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

Fiction Travel
Marine Culture Heritage

Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas is the second book by American writer Herman Melville, first published in London in 1847, and a sequel to his first South Sea narrative Typee, also based on the author's experiences in the South Pacif...

Redburn: His First Voyage  Cover image

Redburn: His First Voyage

Adventure Biography
Marine Sea Sailor Autobiography Travel Nautical Class Race America United States

The book is semi-autobiographical and recounts the adventures of a refined youth among coarse and brutal sailors and the seedier areas of Liverpool. Melville wrote Redburn in less than ten weeks. While one scholar describes it as "arguably his funnie...

Benito Cereno  Cover image

Benito Cereno

Adventure Fiction
Marine Action Ship Sea Nautical Literary Fiction

Benito Cereno takes place in 1799. The captain of a sealing ship Bachelor’s Delight, Captain Amasa Delano, spots another ship drifting listlessly towards the bay of Santa Maria. Wondering if the ship may be in distress, Delano boards his whale-boat a...

Billy Budd Cover image

Billy Budd

Adventure Novel
Innocence Death Action Court Sea Nautical Discovery

Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) is a novella by American writer Herman Melville, left unfinished at his death in 1891. Acclaimed by critics as a masterpiece when a hastily transcribed version was finally published in 1924, it quickly took it...

Mardi Vol. 1 Cover image

Mardi Vol. 1

Adventure Fiction Novel
Young Tolerance Religion Travels Action Island Journey Life Universe

Have you ever wondered what lies beyond the veil of reality? In Herman Melville's classic novel, Mardi, a young man named Taji embarks on an epic journey to discover the truth about the universe. Along the way, he encounters a cast of strange and ex...

Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street. Cover image

Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street.

"Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" is a short story by Herman Melville. The story first appeared, anonymously, in Putnam's Magazine in two parts. The first part appeared in November 1853, with the conclusion published in December 1853....

Confidence-Man: His Masquerade Cover image

Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade was the last major novel by Herman Melville, the American writer and author of Moby-Dick. Published on April 1, 1857 (presumably the exact day of the novel's setting), The Confidence-Man was Melville's tenth major w...

White Jacket, or The World in a Man-of-War Cover image

White Jacket, or The World in a Man-of-War

This is a tale based on Melville's experiences aboard the USS United States from 1843 to 1844. It comments on the harsh and brutal realities of service in the US Navy at that time, but beyond this the narrator has created for the reader graphic symbo...

Encantadas or Enchanted Isles Cover image

Encantadas or Enchanted Isles

The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles is a novella by American author Herman Melville. First published in Putnam's Magazine in 1854, it consists of ten philosophical "Sketches" on the Encantadas, or Galápagos Islands. It was collected in The Piazza Tales...

Selections from Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War Cover image

Selections from Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

Published in 1866, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War is a collection of poems about the Civil War by Herman Melville. Many of the poems are inspired by second- and third-hand accounts from print news sources (especially the Rebellion Record) and f...

Mardi Vol. 2 Cover image

Mardi Vol. 2

Mardi is Melville's first purely fictional work. In it he contemplates man's beliefs, and questions whether or not one faith has value over another--or is it all simply a sham? Mardi is a poetically existential analysis of religious truths as told th...

Pierre, or The Ambiguities Cover image

Pierre, or The Ambiguities

The life of a young heir, Pierre is altered when he meets a mysterious woman who claims to be his sister.

Piazza Tales Cover image

Piazza Tales

A collection of six short stories by American writer Herman Melville, published in May 1856. Except for the newly written title story, "The Piazza," all of the stories had appeared in Putnam's Monthly between 1853 and 1855. The collection includes wh...

Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War Cover image

Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

tba - Summary by Alan Mapstone

Clarel Cover image


An epic poem, the eponymous pilgrim's journey to the Holy Land. - Summary by Matthew Muñoz