Hawthorne and His Mosses | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Herman Melville | Biography

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Early Life

Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. His father supported the family with seven children by working as a merchant in the city before moving to Albany, New York, in 1830 to work in the fur business. This was a difficult time for Melville's family because his father went bankrupt and then died within two years of moving to Albany. The seven Melville children then had to work to support the family, and Herman Melville often worked several jobs that ranged from farming to teaching. Although he had to leave school to work, Melville continued to read on his own, and he studied everything from the writings of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) to mythology.

Melville went on many exciting adventures in his early twenties. In 1839 he worked as a cabin boy on a ship and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. When he returned to the United States, he spent the next year exploring the Western part of the country. Later he joined a whaling ship and spent three years sailing. During that time he spent a month on an island after being captured by cannibals, was rescued by another ship, went to jail for committing mutiny, escaped from jail, and worked on a potato farm on an island called Eimeo. From there he eventually joined another whaling ship that sailed to Hawaii. After landing in Hawaii, Melville started working in a general store and joined the US Navy. After several years of adventure, Melville returned home in 1844. He planned to write about his travels and the experiences of others whose stories he heard while sailing.

Writing Career

Melville's first story drew from his experience of being captured by cannibals. The manuscript titled Typee was published in London in 1846 and the United States two years later. In 1847 and 1849 he published the two books Omoo and Mardi that were inspired by his sea voyages. He wrote the two novels Redburn and White-Jacket in 1849 and 1850. His early books varied in success but were mostly well-received.

After enjoying some success as an author, Melville began writing his most famous book which was Moby Dick. The book included highly detailed descriptions that Melville drew from his experiences working on whaling ships. Melville met fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) while writing Moby Dick. Hawthorne provided advice on the novel, and Melville later wrote the essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses" as a review of one of Hawthorne's publications. Unfortunately Moby Dick did not sell well after it was published in London in 1851 under the title The Whale. Melville struggled to produce profitable pieces of writing after being discouraged by the disappointment of the book.

Late Life and Legacy

Melville continued to write novels after Moby Dick but produced mainly short stories and poems during the latter part of his life. He spent some time touring Europe giving lectures in the late 1850s but eventually returned to New York to work as an inspector at the shipping docks. He held that role for twenty years while facing further disappointment in his writing career and personal tragedy with the suicide of his oldest son. Melville suffered from a heart attack and died on September 28, 1891.

Melville's Moby Dick and other works were rediscovered in the 20th century. Scholars began to appreciate Moby Dick for its commentary on American life in the 19th century. The book gained popularity in the 1920s and became regarded as one of the greatest pieces of American literature. It is now considered a classic novel even though the book was not widely recognized in Melville's lifetime.

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