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Herman Melville | Biography


Herman Melville, the third of eight children, was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. His father, Allan Melvill, operated a business in European finery, but it fared very poorly. In 1830, Allan fled New York City with his family to Albany, deeply in debt and seeking loans and aid from Melville's grandfather. Allan Melvill died two years later in 1832, which also meant the end of Herman Melville's formal education, as his mother could not afford to keep him in school. Upon his father's death, his mother altered the spelling of the family's last name.

At age 13 Melville went to work as an errand boy at an Albany bank, and then for his older brother's cap and fur business, but this business failed as well. He also worked briefly as a teacher and studied to become a surveyor for the Erie Canal, which was then being constructed. In the late 1830s, he began writing and submitting letters and short fiction to local newspapers.

In 1839, with his prospects in Albany dim, Melville found a job as a cabin boy on a merchant ship traveling from New York City to Liverpool (this experience would later form the basis for his novel Redburn). Afterward, he returned to a teaching position near Albany, but by 1841 he had signed onto service aboard a whaling ship, not returning to America until 1844. His adventures, which included jumping ship and being captured by cannibals, were the basis of a number of his works, including his first novel, published in 1846, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. This first novel would be Melville's greatest financial success. In 1847, Melville married the New York native Elizabeth Shaw, and the couple eventually had four children.

Melville's second novel, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, was published in 1847 as a sequel to the 1846 novel Typee and was well received. His third novel, Mardi, and a Voyage Thither, took a much more philosophical turn than his previous work. Published in 1849, it was widely rejected by critics. Subsequently, Melville returned to the seafaring tales that had won some critical acclaim.

In 1851 he published his sixth novel and signature classic Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, but it was a critical and commercial failure. He turned instead to publishing serializations and short fiction in Harper's and Putnam's monthly magazines, and it was during this period in 1853 that he published "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" in two installments in Putnam's. The story of an alienated office worker who refuses to work might have represented Melville's difficulty in maintaining success as a writer. The story was later collected in The Piazza Tales (1856). He published his last novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, in 1857.

In 1866, unable to support his family by writing, Melville took a position as an inspector with the U.S. Customs Service, working on the docks in New York City, a position he would hold for nearly 20 years. During this time he focused on writing poetry, though at the time of his death on September 28, 1891, he left behind the short novel Billy Budd, Sailor, still in manuscript form. His writing had fallen largely into obscurity, but later reprints of his works brought much acclaim and secured his reputation as one of the greatest American novelists.

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