Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, the third of eight children of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. After her husband Allan died (& between 1832 & 1834), Maria added an “e” to the family surname — seemingly at the behest of Melville’s brother Gansevoort. Part of a well-established and colorful Boston family, Melville’s father spent a good deal of time abroad as a commission merchant and an importer of French dry goods. The author’s paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melvill, an honored participant of the Boston Tea Party who refused to change the style of his clothing or manners to fit the times, was depicted in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem “The Last Leaf”. Herman visited him in Boston, and his father turned to him in his frequent times of financial need.
The maternal side of Melville’s family was Hudson Valley Dutch. His maternal grandfather was General Peter Gansevoort, a hero of the Battle of Saratoga; in his gold-laced uniform, the general sat for a portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart, which is described in Melville’s 1852 novel, Pierre, for Melville wrote out of his familial as well as his nautical background. Like the titular character in Pierre, Melville found satisfaction in his “double revolutionary descent.”
Allan Melvill sent his sons to the New York Male School (Columbia Preparatory School). Overextended financially and emotionally unstable, Allan tried to recover from his setbacks by moving his family to Albany in 1830 and going into the fur business. The new venture, however, was unsuccessful; the War of 1812 had ruined businesses that tried to sell overseas and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He died soon afterward, leaving his family penniless, when Herman was 12. Although Maria had well-off kin, they were concerned with protecting their own inheritances and taking advantage of investment opportunities rather than settling their mother’s estate so Maria’s family would be more secure with Herman’s younger brother, Thomas Melville, who eventually became a governor of Sailors Snug Harbor.
Melville attended the Albany Academy from October 1830 to October 1831, and again from October 1836 to March 1837, where he studied the classics.
Melville’s roving disposition and a desire to support himself independently of family assistance led him to seek work as a surveyor on the Erie Canal. This effort failed, and his brother helped him get a job as a “boy” (a green hand) on a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage, and returned on the same ship. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) is partly based on his experiences of this journey.
The three years after Albany Academy (1837 to 1840) were mostly occupied with teaching school, except for the voyage to Liverpool in 1839. From 1838 to 1847, he resided at what is now known as the Herman Melville House in Lansingburgh, New York. Near the end of 1840 he once again decided to sign ship’s articles. On January 3, 1841, he sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on the whaler Acushnet, which was bound for the Pacific Ocean. He was later to comment that his life began that day. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and traveled to the South Pacific. Melville left little direct information about the events of this 18-month cruise, although his whaling romance, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, probably gives many pictures of life on board the Acushnet. Melville deserted the Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842. For three weeks he lived among the Typee natives, who were called cannibals by the two other tribal groups on the island—though they treated Melville very well. Typee, Melville’s first novel, describes a brief love affair with a beautiful native girl, Fayaway, who generally “wore the garb of Eden” and came to epitomize the guileless noble savage in the popular imagination.
Melville did not seem to be concerned about repercussions from his desertion from the Acushnet. He boarded an Australian whaleship, the Lucy Ann, bound for Tahiti; took part in a mutiny and was briefly jailed in the native “Calabooza Beretanee”. After release he spent several months as beachcomber and island rover (Omoo in Tahitian) eventually crossing over to Moorea. He then signed articles on yet another whaler for a six-month cruise (November 1842 − April 1843) and left that ship in Honolulu. While in Hawaii he became a controversial figure for his vehement opposition to the activities of Christian missionaries seeking to convert the native population. After working as a clerk for four months, he joined the crew of the frigate USS United States, which reached Boston in October 1844. These experiences were described in Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket, which were published as novels mainly because few believed their veracity.
Melville completed Typee in the summer of 1845, though he had difficulty getting it published. It was eventually published in 1846 in London, where it became an overnight bestseller. The Boston publisher subsequently accepted Omoo sight unseen. Typee and Omoo gave Melville overnight notoriety as a writer and adventurer, and he often entertained by telling stories to his admirers. As writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis wrote, “With his cigar and his Spanish eyes, he talks Typee and Omoo, just as you find the flow of his delightful mind on paper”. The novels, however, did not generate enough royalties for him to live on. Omoo was not as colorful as Typee, and readers began to realize Melville was not just producing adventure stories. Redburn and White-Jacket had no problem finding publishers. Mardi was a disappointment for readers who wanted another rollicking and exotic sea yarn.
Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Lemuel Shaw, on August 4, 1847; the couple honeymooned in Canada. They had four children: two sons and two daughters. In 1850 they purchased Arrowhead, a farm house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, now a museum. Here Melville lived for 13 years, occupied with his writing and managing his farm. While living at Arrowhead, he befriended the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in nearby Lenox. Melville was tremendously inspired and encouraged by his new relationship with Hawthorne during the period that he was writing Moby-Dick (dedicating it to Hawthorne), though their friendship was on the wane only a short time later, when he wrote Pierre there. However, these works did not achieve the popular and critical success of his earlier books. Indeed, The New York Day Book on September 8, 1852, published a venomous attack on Melville and his writings headlined HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY. The item, offered as a news story, reported, “A critical friend, who read Melville’s last book, ‘Ambiguities,” between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman. We were somewhat startled at the remark, but still more at learning, a few days after, that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.” Following this and other scathing reviews of Pierre by critics, publishers became wary of Melville’s work. His publisher, Harper & Brothers, rejected his next manuscript, Isle of the Cross, which has been lost. On April 1, 1857, Melville published his last full-length novel, The Confidence-Man. This novel, subtitled “His Masquerade”, has won general acclaim in modern times as a complex and mysterious exploration of issues of fraud and honesty, identity and masquerade, but when it was published, it received reviews ranging from the bewildered to the denunciatory.
To repair his faltering finances, Melville listened to the advice of friends and decided to enter what was for others the lucrative field of lecturing. From 1857 to 1860, he spoke at lyceums, chiefly on Roman statuary and sightseeing in Rome. Turning to poetry, he gathered a collection of verse that failed to interest a publisher. In 1863, he and his wife resettled, with their four children, in New York City. After the end of the American Civil War, he published Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, (1866) a collection of over 70 poems that generally was ignored by the critics, though a few gave him patronizingly favorable reviews. In 1866, Melville’s wife and her relatives used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York (a humble but adequately paying appointment), and he held the post for 19 years. In a notoriously corrupt institution, Melville soon won the reputation of being the only honest employee of the customs house. But from 1866, his professional writing career can be said to have come to an end.
Melville spent years writing a 16,000-line epic poem, Clarel, inspired by his earlier trip to the Holy Land. His uncle, Peter Gansevoort, by a bequest, paid for the publication of the massive epic in 1876. But the publication failed miserably, and the unsold copies were burned when Melville was unable to afford to buy them at cost.
As his professional fortunes waned, Melville’s marriage was unhappy. Elizabeth’s relatives repeatedly urged her to leave him, and offered to have him committed as insane, but she refused. In 1867, his oldest son, Malcolm, shot himself, perhaps accidentally. While Melville worked, his wife managed to wean him off alcohol, and he no longer showed signs of agitation or insanity. But recurring depression was added to by the death of his second son, Stanwix, in San Francisco early in 1886. Melville retired in 1886, after several of his wife’s relatives died and left the couple legacies that Mrs. Melville administered with skill and good fortune.
As English readers, pursuing the vogue for sea stories represented by such writers as G. A. Henty, rediscovered Melville’s novels, he experienced a modest revival of popularity in England, though not in the United States. Once more he took up his pen, writing a series of poems with prose head notes inspired by his early experiences at sea. He published them in two collections, each issued in a tiny edition of 25 copies for his relatives and friends: John Marr (1888) and Timoleon (1891).
One of these poems further intrigued him, and he began to rework the headnote to turn it into first a short story and then a novella. He worked on it on and off for several years, but when he died in September 1891, he left the piece unfinished, and not until the literary scholar Raymond Weaver published it in 1924 did the book – which is now known as Billy Budd, Sailor – come to light.
Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891, age 72. The doctor listed “cardiac dilation” on the death certificate. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. A common story says that his New York Times obituary called him “Henry Melville”, implying that he was unknown and unappreciated at his time of death, but the story is not true. A later retrospective article did appear on October 6 in the same paper referring to him as “the late Hiram Melville”, but this appears to have been a typesetting error.
From about age 35, Melville ceased to be popular with a broad audience because of his increasingly philosophical, political and experimental tendencies. His novella Billy Budd, Sailor, unpublished until 33 years after the author’s death, was later turned into a play, an opera by Benjamin Britten and a film by Peter Ustinov.