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Herman Melville | Biography

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Early Life

Herman Melville was born the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melville on August 1, 1819. His father was an import merchant in New York City, and his grandfather was involved in the famous Boston Tea Party in 1773 (political protest against British taxation of the American colonies). Melville's father moved the family to Albany in 1830 to work in the fur business, but after two unsuccessful years, he died suddenly and left the family with no money. At this point, Melville had seven brothers and sisters, and everyone who could work left school to support the family.

Melville was able to return to school in 1835, and then he began working as a teacher to help the family's finances. He hated the teaching post, though, and returned to Albany to help his brother Gansevoort with the family business. Eventually, Gansevoort also went bankrupt and the family had to move to Lansingburgh. By this time, Melville had begun to try his hand at writing, but the family financial situation was so bad that he was forced to focus mainly on finding employment. When Melville was unable to find any permanent work, his brother got him a job as a cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing for England, but no other work came out of the voyage.

Adventures at Sea

In early 1841, when Melville was 21 years old, he took a job as a crewman on the whaling ship Acushnet, which sailed to the Marquesas Islands. The American whaling industry at that time was flourishing. 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 had been sunk by a sperm whale, and its crew resorted to cannibalism in order to survive until their rescue. Melville was fascinated by this story, which probably played a part in his choice to sign on to the Acushnet.

The journey and the month he spent in the islands after deserting the Acushnet became the inspiration for his novel Typee. Though the book was greatly embellished and fictionalized, it certainly contains some depictions of his actual experiences and observations living among the Tai Pi people. The Acushnet is recorded as having arrived in the Marquesas in June of 1842, which is around the time when Melville would have left the ship to live on the island. Ship logs show that he registered that August on the Australian whaler the Lucy Ann. However, he was quickly involved in a mutiny against the ship's captain in Tahiti. His second book, Omoo (1847), was based on his adventures in Tahiti.

Following the mutiny, Melville did a brief stint as a farm worker in Eimeo, a coastal town in Queensland, Australia, before signing on to work as a harpooner on yet another whaling ship, the Charles and Henry. The Charles and Henry docked in Maui, Hawaii, five months later, and Melville worked in a general store in nearby Honolulu as a clerk and bookkeeper. In 1843 he enlisted in the navy and served for about a year aboard the navy vessel United States, which sailed through the Pacific.

Writing Career and Later Years

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 novels Typee, Omoo, and Moby-Dick (1851). Typee and Omoo brought Melville acclaim and changed his family's financial situation for the better. However, responses to these first two novels were a mix of excitement and outrage, as Melville did not depict colonialism or missionary work in positive lights, and often sympathized with the native people of the islands.

Melville saw the decline of his career begin at age 33, with the lukewarm reception of Moby-Dick. However, he persevered with his writing through many difficulties, including loss of many of his manuscripts in a fire and the deaths of both of his sons. Melville died in his native New York City on September 28, 1891. While he enjoyed popularity in the 1840s, his career never recovered in his lifetime, and he died in relative obscurity. In the early 20th century, however, his novels experienced a revival and are viewed as classics of the American canon.
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