Herman Melville

Author, Poet, Mariner

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Melville lived from 1819-1891. He began writing in the mid-1830s. In 1839, when he was 20, he embarked on his first of many sea travels. His experiences as a mariner would later greatly influence much of his works. During his second voyage, he abandoned ship and spent a few weeks among the possibly cannibalistic Typee natives of Polynesia. This inspired his first novel that launched his career. In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw. They had two daughters and two sons together. When Melville published Moby Dick, it was very unsuccessful, and it marked the decline of his writing career. Melville's decent back into unpopular obscurity landed him into financial difficulties again. Every novel, short story, or epic poem he published failed. In 1866, he got a job at a NY Customs House, where he worked for twenty more years. Melville was often depressed, and it was rumored he was alcoholic, insane, and a wife beater, although it's unlikely he was abusive and insane. His oldest son died in 1867 and his second son died in 1886. Herman Melville himself died in New York, 1891, of a heart attack. It would take until the 1920s for Melville to be recognized as a great writer.
herman Melville Documentary

Major Works

Herman Melville's Works

  • Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life
  • Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas
  • Mardi
  • Redburn
  • White-Jacket
  • Moby-Dick: The Whale
  • Pierre
  • Israel Potter
  • 15 short stories published in various magazines
  • The Confidence Man
  • Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (poetry)
  • Clarel (poetry)
  • Billy Budd: Sailor

Moby-Dick is by far Melville's most famous work, and considered to be a greater literary masterpiece than any other of his writings. Typee was also famous in its time, and vital in establishing Melville as a writer. Billy Budd: Sailor was finished before Melville died but published posthumously. It helped to reestablish interest and praise for Melville.

Common Themes and Subject Matter

As a life long mariner, ships, sailing, and the Polynesian islands he visited influenced or were featured in many of Melville's novels. Many of Melville's writings are tales of adventures, although, in his later works after and including Moby Dick, Melville tended to incorporate difficult to understand philosophy and metaphysical and experimental elements. This is possibly a contributing factor to Melville's declining popularity, as it turns out that people back then also often did not appreciate difficult to understand experimental things getting in the way of a good adventure novel.
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