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Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Herman Melville | Biography


Born in New York City on August 1, 1819, Herman Melville grew up at a time when the American whaling industry was flourishing. Whale oil was in demand as a fuel and lubricant; whalebone was used in dressmaking; and ambergris was used in perfumes. Evidence of the whaling industry was everywhere, and stories of danger encountered by sailors on whaling ships engaged the American imagination. In 1820, when young Melville was just a year old, the whaling vessel Essex was sunk by a sperm whale, and its crew resorted to cannibalism in order to survive until their rescue.

Melville certainly knew this story, and it was likely in the back of his mind as he signed on as a crewman aboard the whaling ship Acushnet when he was 21 years old. After a year and a half on board, he deserted and was soon taken captive by cannibals. Rescued by another whaling ship, the Lucy Ann, he was quickly involved in a mutiny against the ship's captain. After a brief stint as a farm worker, Melville signed on to work as a harpooner on yet another whaling ship, the Charles and Henry. In 1843, he enlisted in the navy and served for about a year aboard the navy vessel United States.

Melville's own adventures as well as the stories he heard other sailors tell on his many travels provided characters and real-life detail for his writing, including his novel Moby-Dick, an ambitious and complex novel loaded with symbolism. While Melville's earlier writing had been fairly well received, Moby-Dick's reception was lukewarm, and in subsequent years Melville's popularity declined.

Melville died in his native New York City on September 28, 1891, without seeing his novel rise from relative obscurity. In the early 20th century, however, Moby-Dick experienced a revival, viewed as an important American novel with themes that address the American identity and experience. Today it is considered a classic.

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