Born Herman Melvill in New York City on August 1, 1819, to Allan Melvill (1782–1832) and Maria Gansevoort Melvill (1791–1872), Herman was the third of eight children born between 1815 and 1830. His siblings, who played important roles in his career as well as his emotional life, were Gansevoort (1815–1846), Helen Maria (1817–1888), Augusta (1821–1876), Allan (1823–1872), Catherine (1825–1905), Frances Priscilla (1827–1885), and Thomas (1830–1884), who eventually became a governor of Sailors Snug Harbor. Part of a well-established and colorful Boston family, Melville's father, Allan, spent a good deal of time abroad as a commission merchant and an importer of French dry goods.
Both Melville's grandfathers were heroes of the Revolutionary War. Major Thomas Melvill (1751–1832) had taken part in the Boston Tea Party, and his maternal grandfather, General Peter Gansevoort (1749–1812), was famous for having commanded the defense of Fort Stanwix in 1777. Melville found satisfaction in his "double revolutionary descent". Major Melvill sent Allan not to college but to France at the turn of the century, where he spent two years in Paris and learned to speak and write French fluently. He subscribed to his own father's Unitarianism. The wife he married in 1814, Maria Gansevoort Melvill, was committed to the Dutch Reformed version of the Calvinist creed that had ruled in her family. The severe Protestantism of the Gansevoort's tradition ensured that she knew her Bible well, in English as well as Dutch,[b] the language she had grown up speaking with her parents.
Almost three weeks after his birth, on August 19, Melville was baptized at home by a Reverend of the South Reformed Dutch Church. During the 1820s Melville lived a privileged, opulent life, in a household with three or more servants at a time. Once in every four years the family moved to more spacious and prestigious quarters, all the way to Broadway in 1828. Allan Melvill lived beyond his means and on large sums he borrowed from both his father and his wife's widowed mother. His wife's opinion of his financial conduct is unknown. Biographer Hershel Parker suggests Maria "thought her mother's money was infinite and that she was entitled to much of her portion now, while she had small children." How well, biographer Delbanco adds, the parents managed to hide the truth from their children is "impossible to know." In 1830 Maria's family finally lost patience and their support came to a halt, at which point Allan's total debt to both families exceeded $20,000.
Melville's education began when he was five years old, around the time the Melvills moved to a newly built house at 33 Bleecker Street. In 1826, the same year that Melville contracted scarlet fever, Allan Melvill, who sent both Gansevoort and Herman to the New York Male High School, described Melville in a letter to Peter Gansevoort Jr. as "very backwards in speech & somewhat slow in comprehension". His older brother Gansevoort appeared to be the brightest of the children, but soon Melville's development increased its pace. "You will be as much surprised as myself to know," Allan wrote Peter Gansevoort Jr., "that Herman proved the best Speaker in the introductory Department, at the examination of the High School, he has made rapid progress during the 2 last quarters." In 1829 both Gansevoort and Herman were transferred to Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, with Herman enrolling in the English Department on 28 September. "Herman I think is making more progress than formerly," Allan wrote in May 1830 to Major Melvill, "& without being a bright Scholar, he maintains a respectable standing, & would proceed further, if he could only be induced to study more – being a most amiable & innocent child, I cannot find it in my heart to coerce him."
Emotionally unstable and behind with paying the rent for the house on Broadway, Allan tried to recover from his setbacks by moving his family to Albany in 1830 and going into the fur business. In Albany, Melville attended the Albany Academy from October 1830 to October 1831, where he took the standard preparatory course, studying reading and spelling; penmanship; arithmetic; English grammar; geography; natural history; universal, Greek, Roman and English history; classical biography; and Jewish antiquities. It is unknown why he left the Academy in October 1831'Parker suggests that by then "even the tiny tuition fee seemed too much to pay." His brothers Gansevoort and Allan continued their attendance a few months longer, Gansevoort until March the next year. "The ubiquitous classical references in Melville's published writings," as Melville scholar Merton Sealts observed, "suggest that his study of ancient history, biography, and literature during his school days left a lasting impression on both his thought and his art, as did his almost encyclopedic knowledge of both the Old and the New Testaments".
In December Melville's father Allan returned from New York City by steamboat, but ice forced him to travel the last seventy miles for two days and two nights in an open horse carriage at two degrees below zero, with the result that he developed a cold. In early January he began to show "signs of delirium" and his situation grew worse until he – in the words of his wife – "by reason of severe suffering was deprive'd of his Intellect." Two months before reaching fifty, Allan Melvill died on 28 January 1832. Since Melville was no longer attending school, he must have witnessed these scenes: twenty years later he described such a death of Pierre's father in Pierre (bk. 4 ch. 2).
1832–1838: After father's death
Two months after his father's death, Gansevoort entered the cap and fur business. Maria sought consolation in her faith and in April was admitted as a member of the First Reformed Dutch Church. Uncle Peter Gansevoort, who was one of the directors of the New York State Bank, got Herman a job as clerk for $150 a year. The issue of his emotional response to all the drama in his young life is a question biographers answer by citing from Redburn: "I had learned to think much and bitterly before my time," the narrator remarks, adding "I must not think of those delightful days, before my father became a bankrupt...and we removed from the city; for when I think of those days, something rises up in my throat and almost strangles me."
When Melville's grandfather Melvill died at on 16 September 1832, it turned out that Allan had borrowed more than his share of the inheritance. He left Maria Melvill only $20. The widowed grandmother died on 12 April 1833. Melville did his job well at the bank; though he was only fourteen in 1834, the bank considered him competent enough to be sent over to Schenectady on an errand. Not much else is known from this period, except that he was very fond of drawing. The visual arts became a lifelong interest.
Around May 1834 the Melvilles moved to another house in Albany, a three-story brick house. That same month a fire destroyed Gansevoort's skin-preparing factory, which left him with personnel he could neither use nor afford. Instead he pulled Melville out of the bank to man the cap and fur store. (Biographer Andrew Delbanco says that Gansevoort was doing so well he could hire his younger brother until a fire broke out in 1835, destroying both factory and the store.) In any case, his older brother Gansevoort served as a role model for Melville in various ways. In early 1834 Gansevoort had become a member of the Albany's Young Men's Association for Mutual Improvement, and in January 1835 Melville himself became a member as well.
In 1835, while still working in the store, Melville enrolled in Albany Classical School, perhaps using Maria's part of the proceeds from the sale of the estate of his maternal grandmother in March 1835. In September of the following year Herman was back in Albany Academy, in the Latin course. He also joined debating societies, in an apparent effort to make up as much as he could for his missed years of schooling. In this period he also became acquainted with Shakespeare's Macbeth at least, and teased his sisters with a passage from the witch scenes.
In March 1837 he was again withdrawn from Albany Academy. Gansevoort's copies of John Todd's Index Rerum, a blank book, more of a register, in which one could index remarkable passages from books one had read, for easy retrieval. Among the sample entries was "Pequot, beautiful description of the war with" with a short title reference to the place in Benjamin Trumbull's A Complete History of Connecticut (1797 or 1818) the description could be found. The two surviving volumes are the best evidence for Melville's reading in this period, because there is little doubt that Gansevoort's reading served him as a guide. The entries include books that Melville later used for Moby-Dick and Clarel, such as "Parsees—of India—an excellent description of their character, & religion & an account of their descent—East India Sketch Book p. 21." Other entries are on Panther, the pirate's cabin and storm at sea from James Fenimore Cooper's Red Rover, Saint-Saba.
That April the nationwide economic panic forced Gansevoort to file for bankruptcy and Uncle Thomas Jr. secretly planned to leave Pittsfield, where he had not paid taxes on the farm. On June 5 Maria informed the younger children that they had to move to some village where the rent was cheaper than in Albany. Gansevoort became a Law student in New York City and Herman took care of the farm while his Uncle settled in Galena, Illinois. That summer he decided to become a schoolteacher. He got a position at Sikes District School near Lenox, where he taught some thirty students of various ages, including his own.
His term over he returned to his mother in 1838. In February he was elected president of the Philo Logos Society, which Peter Gansevoort invited to move into Stanwix Hall for no rent. Many chambers were vacant as a result of the economic crisis. In March 1838 Melville published in the Albany Microscope two polemical letters about issues in the debating societies he was engaged in, but it is not entirely clear what the polemic was about. Biographers Leon Howard and Hershel Parker suggest that the real issue was the youthful desire to exercise his rhetoric skills in public, and the first appearance in print would have been an exciting experience for all young men involved.
In May the Melvilles moved to Lansingburgh, almost a dozen miles north of Albany, into a rented house on the river in what is now Troy, at River Street and 114th. The family's retreat was now complete: from the metropolis to a provincial city to a village. What Melville was doing after his term at Sikes ended until November, or if he even had a job after that, remains a mystery. Apparently he courted a local Lansingburgh girl sometime during the summer, but nothing else is known.
On 7 November Melville arrived in Lansingburgh. Where he had come from is unknown. Five days later he paid for a term at Lansingburgh Academy where he took a course in surveying and engineering. In April 1839 Peter Gansevoort wrote a letter to get Herman a job in the Engineer Department of the Canal saying that his nephew "possesses the ambition to make himself useful in a business which he desires to make his profession," but no job resulted.
Melville's first known published essay came only weeks after he failed to find a job as an engineer. Using the unexplained initials L.A.V. Herman contributed "Fragments from a Writing Desk" to the Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser, a weekly newspaper, which printed the piece in two installments, the first on 4 May. According to scholar Sealts, the heavy-handed allusions reveal his early familiarity with the writings of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Walter Scott, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Thomas Moore, which Gansevoort had kept around the house. Biographer Parker calls the piece "characteristic Melvillean mood-stuff," and considers its prose style "excessive enough to allow him to indulge his extravagances and just enough overdone to allow him to deny that he was taking his style seriously." Biographer Delbanco finds the prose "overheated in the manner of Poe, with sexually charged echoes of Byron and The Arabian Nights."
1839–1844: Years at sea
On 31 May 1839 Gansevoort, then living in New York City, wrote that he was sure Melville could get a job on a whaler or merchant vessel if he would come to Manhattan. On June 2 Melville arrived from Albany by boat. He signed aboard the merchant ship St. Lawrence as a "boy" (a green hand) for a cruise from New York to Liverpool.
He returned on the same ship on the first of October, after five weeks in England. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) is partly based on his experiences of this journey. At least two of the nine guide-books listed in chapter 30 had been part of Allan Melvill's library. Melville resumed teaching, now at Greenbush, New York, but left after one term because he was not paid. In the summer of 1840 he and a friend went to Galena, Illinois, to find out if a his Uncle Thomas could help them find work. On this trip it is possible that Herman went up the Mississippi, and he may well have witnessed scenes of frontier life he later used in his books. Unsuccessful, he and his friend returned home in autumn, very likely by way of St. Louis and up the Ohio River.
Probably inspired by his reading of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s new book Two Years Before the Mast, and by Jeremiah N. Reynolds's account in the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker magazine of the hunt for a great white sperm whale named Mocha Dick, Melville and Gansevoort traveled to New Bedford, where Melville signed up for a whaling voyage aboard a new ship, the Acushnet. At less than 360 tons, this ship with two decks and three masts was smaller than the average whaler. The contract he signed on Christmas Day with the ship's agent shows that he signed up as a "green hand," for the 1/175th of whatever profits the voyage would yield. On Sunday the 27th the brothers heard the Reverend Enoch Mudge during a church service at the Seamen's Bethel on Johnny-Cake Hill, renowned for, in biographer Parker's description, "white marble cenotaphs on the walls eloquently memorializing local men who had died at sea, often in battle with whales."
On January 3, 1841, he sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on the whaler Acushnet, which was bound for the Pacific Ocean. He was later to comment that his life began that day. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and traveled to the South Pacific. Melville left few direct accounts of the events of this 18-month voyage, although his whaling romance, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, probably describes many aspects of life on board the Acushnet. Melville deserted the Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842.
For three weeks he lived among the Typee natives, who were called cannibals by the two other tribal groups on the island—though they treated Melville very well. Typee, Melville's first book, describes a brief love affair with a beautiful native girl, Fayaway, who generally "wore the garb of Eden" and came to epitomize the guileless noble savage in the popular imagination.
Melville did not seem to be concerned about the consequences of leaving the Acushnet. He boarded an Australian whale ship, the Lucy Ann, bound for Tahiti; took part in a mutiny and was briefly jailed in the native Calabooza Beretanee. After release, he spent several months as beachcomber and island rover ('omoo' in Tahitian), eventually crossing over to Moorea. He signed articles on yet another whaler for a six-month cruise (November 1842 − April 1843), which terminated in Honolulu. After working as a clerk for four months, he joined the crew of the frigate USS United States, which reached Boston in October 1844. He drew from these experiences in his books Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket.
The encounter with the wide ocean, seemingly abandoned by God, led Melville to experience a "metaphysical estrangement," Milder believes, and his social thought was influenced in two ways by his specific adventures in the Pacific. First, by birth and breeding Melville belonged to the genteel classes, but found himself not only placed among but also sympathizing with the "disinherited commons." Second, his acquaintance with the cultures of Polynesia enabled him to view the West from an outsider's perspective.
1845–1850: Successful writer
Melville completed Typee in the summer of 1845, while living in Troy, New York. Though based upon his own adventures, the book is not a strict autobiography, if only because Melville's later experiences in Tahiti and the Sandwich Islands are worked into the narrative as well. Neither is it a fictional romance. Instead, scholar Robert Milder calls Typee "an appealing mixture of adventure, anecdote, ethnography, and social criticism presented with a genial latitudinarianism that gave novelty to a South Sea idyll at once erotically suggestive and romantically chaste." After some difficulty in arranging publication, he saw it first published in 1846 in London, where it became an overnight bestseller. The Boston publisher subsequently accepted Omoo sight unseen. Omoo is "a slighter but more professional book." Typee and Omoo gave Melville overnight renown as a writer and adventurer, and he often entertained by telling stories to his admirers. As the writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis wrote, "With his cigar and his Spanish eyes, he talks Typee and Omoo, just as you find the flow of his delightful mind on paper". These did not generate enough royalties to support him financially, however.
On August 4, 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Lemuel Shaw, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The couple honeymooned in Canada and then moved into a house on Fourth avenue in New York City. Melville wrote a long, philosophical work Mardi, an allegorical narrative that proved a disappointment for readers who wanted another rollicking and exotic sea yarn. Actually the book began as another South Sea story, but as he wrote Melville left that genre behind, first in favor of "a romance of the narrator Taji and the lost maiden Yillah" and then "to an allegorical voyage of the philosopher Babbalanja and his companions through the imaginary archipelago of Mardi."
On 16 February the Melvilles' first child, Malcolm, was born, which may have stirred memories of his own father. The bankruptcy and death of Allan Melville, and Melville's own youthful humiliations surface in Redburn (1849), "a story of outward adaptation and inner impairment." Melville based the book on his first sea voyage, of 1839 to Liverpool, just as he drawn on his experiences of 1844 aboard the warship United States for White-Jacket (1850).
In 1850, the Melvilles moved to Massachusetts. They had four children: two sons and two daughters.
1850–1851: Hawthorne and Moby-Dick
At first Moby-Dick moved swiftly. In early May 1850 he wrote to Richard Henry Dana, also a sea author, saying he was already "half way" done. In June he described the book to his English publisher as "a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries," and promised it would be done by the fall. Since the manuscript for the book has not survived, it is impossible to know for sure its state at this critical juncture. Over the next several months, Melville's plan for the book underwent a radical transformation into what has been described as "the most ambitious book ever conceived by an American writer".
In September 1850 the Melvilles purchased Arrowhead, a farm house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (It is now preserved as a house museum and has been designated a National Historic Landmark). Here Melville and Elizabeth lived for 13 years. While living at Arrowhead, Melville befriended the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in nearby Lenox. Melville wrote ten letters to Hawthorne, "all of them effusive, profound, deeply affectionate". Melville was inspired and encouraged by his new relationship with Hawthorne during the period that he was writing Moby-Dick. He dedicated this new novel to Hawthorne, though their friendship was to wane only a short time later.
On 18 October The Whale was published in Britain in three volumes, and on 14 November Moby-Dick appeared in the United States as a single volume. In between these dates, on 22 October, the Melvilles' second child, Stanwix, was born.
1852–1857: Unsuccessful writer
Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, a novel partly autobiographical and difficult in style, was not well received. The New York Day Book on September 8, 1852, published a venomous attack headlined "HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY". The item, offered as a news story, reported,
A critical friend, who read Melville's last book, Ambiguities, between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman. We were somewhat startled at the remark, but still more at learning, a few days after, that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.
On 22 May 1853 Elizabeth (Bessie) was born, the Melvilles' third child and first daughter, and on or about that day Herman finished work on Isle of the Cross—one relative wrote that 'The Isle of the Cross' is almost a twin sister of the little one...." Herman traveled to New York, but later wrote that publisher, Harper & Brothers, was "prevented" from publishing his manuscript, presumed to be Isle of the Cross, which has been lost.
Between 1853 and 1856, Melville published fourteen tales and sketches in Putnams and Harpers magazines. In 1856 a selection of the short fiction, including Bartleby, the Scrivener and Benito Cereno, was published as The Piazza Tales. The title story was especially written for the collection as an introductory story. One of the magazine pieces was a serialized book, Israel Potter, the narrative of a Revolutionary War veteran.
On 2 March 1855 Frances (Fanny) was born, the Melvilles' fourth child. In this period Israel Potter appeared as a book.
In late 1856 he made a six-month Grand Tour of the British Isles and the Mediterranean. While in England, he spent three days with Hawthorne, who had taken an embassy position there. At the seaside village of Southport, amid the sand dunes where they had stopped to smoke cigars, they had a conversation which Hawthorne later described in his journal:
Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he 'pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated'; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.
Melville's subsequent visit to the Holy Land inspired his epic poem Clarel.
On April 1, 1857, Melville published his last full-length novel, The Confidence-Man. This novel, subtitled His Masquerade, has won general acclaim in modern times as a complex and mysterious exploration of issues of fraud and honesty, identity and masquerade. But, when it was published, it received reviews ranging from the bewildered to the denunciatory.
To repair his faltering finances, Melville was advised by friends to enter what was, for others, the lucrative field of lecturing. From 1857 to 1860, he spoke at lyceums, chiefly on Roman statuary and sightseeing in Rome. Melville's lectures, which mocked the pseudo-intellectualism of lyceum culture, were panned by contemporary audiences.
Turning to poetry, he submitted a collection of verse to a publisher in 1860, but it was not accepted. In 1863 he and his wife resettled in New York City with their four children. As his professional fortunes waned, Melville had difficulties at home. Elizabeth's relatives repeatedly urged her to leave him under the belief that he may have been insane, but she refused.
After the end of the American Civil War, he published Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), a collection of over 70 poems that has been described as "a polyphonic verse journal of the conflict." It was generally ignored by reviewers, who gave him at best patronizingly favorable reviews. The volume did not sell well; of the Harper & Bros. printing of 1200 copies, only 525 had been sold ten years later. Uneven as a collection of individual poems, "its achievement lies in the interplay of voices and moods throughout which Melville patterns a shared historical experience into formative myth."
In 1866 Melville's wife and her relatives used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York (a humble but adequately paying appointment). He held the post for 19 years and won the reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution. In 1867 his oldest son Malcolm shot himself, perhaps accidentally, and died at home.
But from 1866, his professional writing career can be said to have come to an end yet he remained dedicated to his writing. Melville devoted years to "his autumnal masterpiece," an 18,000-line epic poem titled Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage, inspired by his 1856 trip to the Holy Land. His uncle, Peter Gansevoort, by a bequest, paid for the publication of the massive epic in 1876. The epic-length verse-narrative about a student's spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was considered quite obscure, even in his own time. Among the longest single poems in American literature, the book had an initial printing of 350 copies, but sales failed miserably, and the unsold copies were burned when Melville was unable to afford to buy them at cost. The critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of the poem in the New York Public Library in 1925 "with its pages uncut"—in other words, it had sat there unread for 50 years.
Clarel is a narrative in 18,000 verse lines, featuring a young American student of divinity as the title character. He travels to Jerusalem to renew his faith. One of the central characters, Rolfe, is similar to Melville in his younger days, a seeker and adventurer. Scholars also agree that the reclusive Vine is based on Hawthorne, who had died twelve years before.
1877–1891: Final years
While Melville had his steady customs job, he no longer showed signs of depression, which recurred after the death of his second son. On 23 February 1886, Stanwix Melville died in San Francisco. Melville retired in 1886, after several of his wife's relatives died and left the couple legacies which Mrs. Melville administered with skill and good fortune.
As English readers, pursuing the vogue for sea stories represented by such writers as G. A. Henty, rediscovered Melville's novels in the late nineteenth century, the author had a modest revival of popularity in England, though not in the United States. He wrote a series of poems, with prose head notes, inspired by his early experiences at sea. He published them in two collections, each issued in a tiny edition of 25 copies for his relatives and friends. Of these, scholar Robert Milder calls John Marr and Other Poems (1888), "the finest of his late verse collections," the other privately printed volume is Timoleon (1891).
Intrigued by one of these poems, he began to rework the headnote, expanding it first as a short story and eventually as a novella. He worked on it on and off for several years, but when he died in September 1891, the piece was unfinished. His widow Elizabeth added notes and edited it, but the manuscript was not discovered until 1919, by Raymond Weaver, his first biographer. He worked at transcribing and editing a full text, which he published in 1924 as Billy Budd, Sailor. It was an immediate critical success in England and soon one in the United States. The authoritative version was published in 1962, after two scholars studied the papers for several years.
Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891, at age 72. The doctor listed "cardiac dilation" on the death certificate. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. A common story recounts that his New York Times obituary called him "Henry Melville," implying that he was unknown and unappreciated at his time of death, but the story is not true. A later article was published on October 6 in the same paper, referring to him as "the late Hiram Melville," but this appears to have been a typesetting error.