Herman Melville

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Melville, Herman

Melville, Herman, 1819–91, American author, b. New York City, considered one of the great American writers and a major figure in world literature.

Early Life and Works

Born into an impoverished family of distinguished Dutch and English colonial descent, Melville was 12 when his father died. He left school at 15, worked at a variety of jobs, and in 1839 signed on as a cabin boy on a ship bound for Liverpool, an experience reflected in his romance Redburn. In 1841–42 he spent 18 months on a whaler, but intolerable hardships on board caused him and a companion to escape from the ship at the Marquesas Islands. The two were captured by a tribe of cannibals, by whom they were well treated. After being rescued by an Australian whaler, Melville spent some time in Tahiti and other Pacific islands before shipping home in 1844.

The immediate results of his experiences were Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), as well as Redburn (1849), all fresh, exuberant, and immensely popular romances. In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of Massachusetts. The popularity of his books brought him prosperity, business trips to Europe, and admission to literary circles in New York City. In 1850 he bought a farm near Pittsfield, Mass., and became friends with his neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne. The allegorical implications evident in his romances Mardi: and a Voyage Thither (1849) and White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850) reached full development in Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851).


The story of a deranged whaling captain's obsessive voyage to find and destroy the great white whale that had ripped off his leg, the novel is at once an exciting sea story, a sociological critique of various American class and racial prejudices, a repository of information about whales and whaling, and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of good and evil, of man and his fate. The novel is heavily symbolic, and many critical formulations have been made as to the meaning of its central symbol, the great white whale Moby-Dick himself. Moby-Dick is greatly enhanced by Melville's rhythmic, rhetorical prose style. Although it is now considered one of the greatest of all novels, Moby-Dick was misunderstood and ill-received in its time. Readers were confused by the book's symbolism, and they failed to grasp Melville's complex view of the world.

Later Works and Life

Like Moby-Dick, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), a psychological study of guilt and frustrated good, was disregarded by the public. Disheartened by debts, ill health, and the failure to win an audience, Melville became absorbed in mysticism. He was unable to accept the optimism of transcendentalism, for he was always able to see the cruel as well as the beautiful in nature. Although he searched for a faith that would satisfy his yearning for the Absolute, he never found one. Melville continued to produce important works in The Piazza Tales (1856), a collection which includes “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857), a pessimistic satire on materialism.

Melville was forced to sell his farm, and in 1866 he secured a poorly paying position in New York City as a district inspector of customs, a job he held for 19 years. His late works include the volumes of poetry Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) and John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and the long poem Clarel (1876). However, he wrote no more fiction until his last years when he composed the posthumously published novella Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924), the tragedy of an innocent. Melville died in poverty and obscurity. Although neglected for many years, he was rediscovered around 1920 and has been enthusiastically studied by critics and scholars ever since. Many of his unpublished works were issued posthumously, notably The Apple Tree Table (1922), a collection of magazine sketches; Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent (1948); and Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant (1955).


See the authoritative ed. of his writings (15 vol., ed. by H. M. Hayford et al., 1968–93); his letters (ed. by M. R. Davis and W. H. Gilman, 1960); biographies by N. Arvin (1950, repr. 1972, 2002), L. Howard (1981), G. Wolff (1987), H. Parker (2 vol., 1996–2002), L. Robertson-Lorant (1996), E. Hardwick (2000), and A. Delbanco (2005); studies by M. Rogin (1983), N. Tolchin (1988), W. Dimock (1989), and N. Philbrick (2011).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Melville, Herman


Born Aug. 1, 1819, in New York; died there Sept. 28, 1891. American writer.

The son of a merchant, Melville served as a sailor on whalers and other American ships between 1839 and 1844. In the short novels Typee (1846; Russian translation, 1958) and Omoo (1847; Russian translation, 1960), Melville shows the destructive influence of bourgeois civilization on the inhabitants of Polynesia. In 1849 he published the autobiographical novel of the sea Redburn and the satirical allegory Mardi. In White-Jacket (1850), Melville exposes the inhuman treatment of sailors on US warships.

In 1851, Melville wrote his sociophilosophical novel Moby Dick, or the White Whale, centered on a semifantastic pursuit of a white whale, symbolizing the titanic struggle of good and evil. Romantic symbolism and epic descriptions of the sea are mingled with realistic themes.

Melville’s later works include the psychological novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), Israel Potter (1855; Russian translation, 1966), a historical tale about the Revolutionary War period, the collection of short stories The Piazza Tales (1856), and the satirical novel The Confidence-Man (1857). His meager literary earnings compelled Melville to take a post in the New York customhouse in 1866. He subsequently wrote several poetic works: Battle-Pieces (1866), poems about the American Civil War; Clarel (1876), a novel in verse; and the collections John Marr (1888) and Timoleon (1891). The sea tale Billy Budd was published posthumously in 1924.

Unappreciated and forgotten by his contemporaries, Melville was recognized in the 1920’s as a classic American writer. R. Kent’s illustrations for Moby Dick are famous. B. Britten’s opera Billy Budd (1951) was based on Melville’s novel.


The Works of Herman Melville, vols. 1-16. London, 1922-24.
Letters. Edited by M. R. Davis and W. H. Oilman. New Haven, 1960.
In Russian translation:
“Pisets Bartl’bi.”In the collection Amerikanskaia novella XIX v. , vol. 1. Moscow, 1958.
MobiDik, iliBelyikit. [With an introduction by A. I. Startsev.] Moscow, 1961.


Istoriia amerikanskoi literatury, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947.
Kovalev, lu. V. German Melvill i amerikanskii romantizm. Leningrad, 1972.
Matthiessen, F. O. Otvetstvennost’ kritiki. Moscow, 1972.
Arvin, N. H. Melville. London, 1950.
Leyda, J. The Melville Log, vols. 1-2. New York, 1951.
Sedgwick, W. E. Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind. New York, 1962.
Bowen, M. The Long Encounter: Self and Experience in the Writings of Herman Melville. Chicago-London, 1963.
Dryden, E. A. Melville’s The ma tics of Form: The Great Art of Telling the Truth. Baltimore, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Melville, Herman

(1819–91) writer; born in New York City. He left school when he was 15 and worked as a bank clerk (1834), farmhand, and schoolteacher. In 1837 he served as a cabinboy on a ship bound for Liverpool. In 1841 he set sail on the whaler, Acushnet, for the South Pacific; he deserted at the Marquesas Islands with a friend and lived for a short time with the Typee cannibals; he escaped to Tahiti and enjoyed an idyllic period there before he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and returned to Boston (1844). The publication of Typee (1846), based on his Marquesas Islands adventure, and Omoo (1847), derived from his stay in Tahiti, made him famous; Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), and White-Jacket (1850), also based on his sea travels, were not quite as successful. He married Elizabeth Shaw (1847), moved to New York City, and traveled to England and Paris (1849). He settled in Pittsfield, Mass., and while writing Moby Dick there he became a friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, dedicating his epic to him. Moby Dick (1851) is considered a masterpiece of American literature, but it was not well received by either readers or critics, who found it difficult and unsettling. The autobiographical Pierre (1852) also failed to win over the public. Discouraged, Melville traveled to the Holy Land in search of inspiration (1856–57). Such works as Israel Potter (1855), The Piazza Tales (1856), and The Confidence Man (1857) also found few readers, while his poetry would prove even more elusive. Withdrawing from the quest for literary recognition, in 1863 he moved to New York City again and worked there as a customs inspector (1866–85). His last significant work, Billy Bud, Foretopman, finished just before his death, was not published until 1924. He died poor and in obscurity; it was the 1920s before Americans recognized his achievements and elevated him to his rank as one of the greatest of all American creative artists.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
References in periodicals archive ?
Billy Budd Britten, Benjamin Melville, Herman musikale karakterisering musikale narratief
Melville, Herman. "The Apple-Tree Table." Piazza Tales 378-97.
Melville, Herman. "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles." In The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860.