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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

southern waters.

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,

Moby Dick.

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

profitable voyage.

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

in 1846.

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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