Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York City. In Melville's early life, he contracted scarlet fever which left him with permanently impaired vision. Melville's family was quite prosperous due to his father's success as a merchant and importer. However, a failed business venture and the sudden death of Melville's father left his wealth in a severely dwindled state. Melville joined a few of his brothers as business partners in their father's business, also, Melville attended Albany Classical School, where he studied classic literature. During his enrollment, Melville began writing short stories and poems.
In 1837, the family business, once again, found their financial situation to be dire. After relocating to Lansingburgh, Melville enrolled in Lansingburgh Academy, in hopes of finding work on the Erie Canal project. After failing to gain this position, his eldest brother granted him a position working on the St. Lawrence, a merchant ship to sail from New York City to Liverpool. This experience greatly influenced his literary work, Redburn: His First Voyage.
In 1841, Melville embarked on his second sea voyage, this time on the Acushnet, a whaling vessel. This journey spurred his next novel, Typee. According to the novel, the crew of the Acushnet were captured and kept captive by cannibals until another whaling ship, the Lucy Ann, provided a way to escape.
Major Themes and Subject Matter
Appearing in most of Herman Melville's novels is the subject of sea voyages and whaling. This appear in Redburn: His First Voyage, Typee, Moby Dick, and a few others. However, another reappearing subject is cannibalism. Appearing in Typee and Moby Dick, Melville wrote of, in Moby Dick, crew members resorting to cannibalism in order to survive. Also, in Typee, Melville wrote of a cannibalistic tribe who kept the crew of the Acushnet captive for four months.
Regarding major themes, survival appears frequently as a very important theme. Many of his books, such as the famed Moby Dick. In many of Melville's novels, short stories, and poems, survival is the main goal of the main characters.
In Benito Cereno, Melville develops a theme of racism, shown by the addition of slaves to the story, and the mind of the captain of a slave ship believing that African-Americans would not revolt against the whites, even though they did end up revolting.
The story Bartleby develops a theme of discontent toward capitalism. This theme appears mainly to show Melville's dislike of the alienation and separation (between social classes) that it creates.
Melville's first novel, Typee, gained recognition world-wide. The story of Melville's own captivity, Typee's major plot line was the capturing of the crew of the whaling ship, the Acushnet, who were held for four months by a tribe of cannibals. At last, the crew was saved by a whaling ship by the name of the Lucy Ann.
Lastly, Bartleby, the Scriniver is a short story written by Melville. Its story is the one of Bartleby, who is a scriniver. Bartleby begins working very proficiently, but then slowly begins doing less and less work, and refusing to leave the building where he works. Eventually, he is thrown in jail after repeatedly using his famous phrase, "I would prefer not to" when asked to perform tasks. He dies in the jail, and the narrator soon learns that he had worked in a "dead letter" office, which is severely depressing. The narrator closes with the line, "Ah Bartleby, Ah humanity!". It is possible that Melville wrote this short story to reflect his own unwillingness to finish Moby Dick, as he hit a small writer's block during its drafting.