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Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Herman Melville | Biography


Early Life

Herman Melville, the third of eight children, was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. His father, Allan Melvill (spelling changed to Melville after his death), operated an importing business, but it fared very poorly. In 1830 Allan moved from New York City with his family to Albany. He was deeply in debt and sought loans and aid from his family. Allan Melvill died two years later in 1832.

At age 13 Melville went to work as a clerk at an Albany bank, and then he worked for his older brother's cap and fur business, which failed. He also worked briefly as a teacher and studied to become a surveyor for the Erie Canal, which was then being constructed.

Experiences at Sea

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, England. This experience would later form the basis for his novel Redburn (1849). 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, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, published in 1846. This first novel would be Melville's greatest financial success. In 1847 Melville married New York native Elizabeth Shaw, and the couple eventually had four children.

Success and Failure as a Novelist

Melville's second novel, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, was published in 1847 as a sequel to Typee, and it too 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 him some critical acclaim.

In 1851 Melville published his sixth novel and signature classic Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, but it was a critical and commercial failure. He then turned instead to publishing serializations and short fiction in Harper's and Putnam's monthly magazines. It was in 1853, during this period, that he published "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" in two installments in Putnam's. The tale 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.

Impoverished Old Age

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.

Posthumous Publication

At the time of his death on September 28, 1891, Melville left behind the short novel Billy Budd, Sailor, still in manuscript form and possibly unfinished by the author. It is believed that Melville worked on Billy Budd during the period between 1886 and 1891. The first edition was published in 1924, but the definitive edition came out in 1962. By the time of his death Melville's writing had fallen largely into obscurity, but later reprints of his works brought much acclaim and secured his reputation as one of America's greatest novelists.

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