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Herman Melville

Imagine an author writing about himself, his own life, and his own experiences as a sailing man.  Imagine that author adding a bold dash of his own poetic license.  Then imagine him becoming one of the most popular writers of all time.  That was exactly what happened to Herman Melville when he first made his appearance upon the earth on August 1, 1819.  He turned out to be one of America's first true novelists. 

Along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom Melville enjoyed a lifelong running competition for the right to the title of best American author, popular novelist/short-story writer Herman Melville more than anyone else helped to define and elevate in stature the long form of literature commonly known today as the novel.

Born in New York City into a family of successful merchants, Melville was the third child of eight.  When he was twelve, his father went insane and died shortly thereafter.  His mother was left alone to raise all the children.  After a long battle with scarlet fever, Melville was left with permanently poor eyesight.  He nonetheless taught himself to read and was soon an avaricious book lover.  He read Shakespeare, as well as books of history, anthropology, and science. 

He attended Albany (N.Y.) Classical School in 1835, but he left at the age of 12 to work as a clerk, teacher, and farmhand.  In order to see more of the wide world that he knew lay just beyond his reach, he took a job as a cabin boy on the 359-ton whaling ship, Acushnet.  He was twenty-one.  Afterwards, he joined the Navy and sailed to the Atlantic and then on to the South Seas.

After leaving the Navy, Melville worked for a while as a clerk and a bookkeeper at a general store in Honolulu before leaving to live among the Typee cannibals in the Marquesas Islands, where he remained until a passing freighter stopped to pick him up and take him to Tahiti.  He returned home to live with his mother and to write about his adventures in his book, Typee (1846).  For the revised edition of the book, he was forced to edit out some of the "steamier" parts about the sexual habits of the Marquesan girls whom he and his shipmates had encountered. 

Typee was Melville's most popular book during his lifetime.  It sold some 6,000 copies in its first two years--a remarkable feat in that day.  Melville followed it with Omoo (1847), based upon his experiences in the Polynesian Islands.  It garnered nearly as much attention as his first book. 

In 1847, Melville married Elisabeth Shaw, the daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts.  After three years in New York, they bought a farm, which they called "Arrowhead."  It was near the Hawthorne home.  Melville and Hawthorne had met at a picnic with friends at Monument Mountain near Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Two days later, Melville visited Hawthorne at his little red farmhouse in Lenox.  Hawthorne gave him two bottles of champagne, and they took a walk to the lake.  That same day, Hawthorne wrote to a friend, "I met Melville, the other day, and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me before leaving these parts." 

 For a year and a half, the two friends lived six miles apart during the most productive time in their literary careers.  Their five greatest books —The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, Moby-Dick, The Blithedale Romance, and Pierre, or the Ambiguities— were in the process either of being written or published.  The Blithedale Romance and Pierre were written at the same time, and The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick were published a year apart. 

Each author had an influence on the other's works.  Melville had nearly completed what is today regarded as his greatest novel, Moby Dick (1851), when Hawthorne suggested that he change it from a story about whaling to an allegorical novel.  Moby Dick, the tale of a white sperm whale and one man's obsession to kill it, is filled with allegory, allusions, and sexual innuendo.  Melville dedicated the book to Hawthorne.  It begins with the words, "Call me Ishmael."  It continues, "Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.  It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation."

The novel, which was turned into a classic film starring Gregory Peck in 1956, centers around the mysterious Captain Ahab and his quest to hunt down and destroy the white whale, Moby Dick, which cost him his leg on a previous voyage.  Melville filled the book with symbolism and philosophy, as well as with Shakespearean rhetoric.  The public, expecting the more exotic fare of the author's South Seas' exploits, failed to understand and appreciate the tremendous amount of thought and insight that Melville put into the work, and it sold only 3,000 copies during his lifetime. 

"All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the less of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." - from Moby Dick

Herman Melville, in failing health and financial chaos, died on September 29, 1891, with a manuscript of the unfinished novel, Billy Budd, Foretopman, on his desk.

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