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date: 09 December 2023

Melville, Herman

The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History
Neal Tolchin

Melville, Herman (1819–1891), author. 

Born in New York City, Herman Melville was descended from Revolutionary War heroes on both sides of his family. His family plunged from affluence into genteel poverty in 1832 when his father died shortly after the failure of his import business. Melville shipped out to Liverpool in 1839 and in 1841 went on a whaling voyage to the South Seas. He returned in 1844 after serving in the U.S. Navy. In 1847 he married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Lemuel Shaw, a friend of his father; they had four children. Melville began working as a customs inspector for the Port of New York in 1866. In 1867 his eldest son Malcolm died at eighteen, probably a suicide. In that same year Melville's wife, suspecting his sanity, seriously considered leaving him to escape his emotional abuse.

Melville's popular early novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), although published as travel narratives, actually fictionalized his adventures as a sailor in the South Seas. Typee embellished his sojourn with a cannibal tribe in the Marquesas Islands. With Mardi (1849), Melville's wide-ranging reading in literature and philosophy led him to imagine an archipelago of islands, each symbolizing specific ethical, social, and political problems. Its risk-taking allegorical approach damaged his literary reputation. Melville's deepening power as a social critic became evident in his next two novels. Redburn (1849), based on his first voyage, vividly portrayed Liverpool's poverty. White-Jacket (1850), drawn from Melville's experiences in the Navy, compellingly condemned the practice of flogging and may have influenced its outlawing.

These early novels give hints of the rich symbolism, stylistic range, and depth of human insight that make Moby-Dick (1851) a masterpiece of world literature. A first serious reading of Shakespeare and the impact of a new friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne caused Melville to transform his novel about whaling into a richly comic, darkly tragic tour de force. After Moby-Dick's critical and commercial failure, Melville's literary vision darkened.

Pierre (1852) parodied the sentimental fiction of the period, poking fun at Melville's literary friends and, according to some controversial biographical evidence, may explore the possibility that Melville's father sired an illegitimate daughter. After Pierre's disastrous reception by readers and critics, Melville claimed he was “prevented” from publishing his next novel, The Isle of the Cross (1853), about a Nantucket widow. The manuscript has not survived.

Turning to the short story genre, Melville produced such masterpieces as Bartleby, the Scrivener and Benito Cereno, collected in The Piazza Tales (1856). The historical novel Israel Potter (1855) is set in the Revolutionary period and includes Ethan Allen, John Paul Jones, and Benjamin Franklin among the characters. Melville's last novel, The Confidence Man (1857), is a dark, allegorical work that grimly critiques the lack of trust pervading American culture.

Under family pressure and showing signs of psychological stress, Melville turned to poetry. His Civil War verse, collected in Battle-Pieces (1866), was his last commercial publication. Clarel (1876), portraying a religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land, dramatizes Melville's unresolved spiritual yearnings. John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891) were printed in twenty-five-copy editions. The great novella Billy Budd, Sailor, discovered in unfinished form after Melville's death, was first published in 1924. Melville's literary reputation began to revive in 1919, the centennial of his birth, and grew steadily in the decades that followed.

[See also Hawthorne, Nathaniel; Literature; New York City; and Poetry.]


Parker, Herschel. Herman Melville: A Biography, volume 1, 1819–1851. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Herman Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1996.Find this resource:

Neal Tolchin