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Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Herman Melville is best known as the author of Moby-Dick, the epic story of Captain Ahab’s vengeful quest for the great White Whale.  However, he also wrote several other narratives in the years before the Civil War, including The Confidence-Man, a puzzling satire of a huckstering, spiritually bankrupt America set on a steamboat on the Mississippi River on April Fools Day.  Born in New York City in August 1819 to a family with patrician roots going back to the American Revolution, Melville first went to sea as a teenager on a Liverpool merchant ship after his father died unexpectedly, leaving the family destitute and the young would-be author desperate for a job.  After returning home and teaching school off and on for a few years, he signed on for his first whaling voyage on January 3, 1841, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the start of a three-and-a-half year stint in the Pacific Ocean.  A year or so into his service on the Acushnet, he and another sailor jumped ship at Nukuheva in the Marquesas Islands, an adventure that provided the storyline for his first sea romance, Typee, or a Peep at Polynesian Life, a popular narrative that launched Melville’s career as an author and made his reputation as a daring young “man who lived among cannibals.” 

Melville wrote several other narratives that met with mixed success before attempting his most ambitious work, Moby-Dick (1851), a book that was hailed by some in its own time, condemned by others as bombastic and irreverent, and otherwise failed to gain a wide reading audience until the 1920s and the “Melville revival.”  Melville himself admitted he had “written a wicked book” but said he felt “spotless as the lamb.”  His next novel, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, a love story that hinted at adultery and incest, was considered by contemporary reviewers to be even more problematic, the ravings of a madman.  By the time he published The Confidence-Man (1857), a strange, experimental work that stands as Melville’s comic masterpiece, and ended with the line, “Something further may follow of this masquerade,” the reviewers didn’t know what to say and assumed it was unfinished. 

In the years thereafter, Melville turned to writing poetry, and then, when war broke out and tore the country in two, he devoted his energies to writing an extensive collection of Civil War poems, titled Battle-Pieces, and Aspects of the War, published in 1866.  In 1864, while the war was still raging, he traveled to Washington, DC, to see the conflict first-hand and talk with Union forces, riding out into the Virginia countryside near the battlefields of Wilderness and Chancellorsville, near Culpeper, where he met with U. S. Grant, then head of the Army of the Potomac, and others.  In the years that followed, Melville wrote several more volumes of poetry, including a long pilgrimage poem, called Clarel, set in the Holy Land, while he worked as a customs inspector near the Battery in New York City.  When he died in 1891, he left a nearly finished manuscript of a novella that is now considered a classic, an allegorical “inside narrative” he titled Billy Budd, Sailor, which tells the story of the clash between an innocent sailor and the Laws of War and the Mutiny Act.  He also left a collection of more than 400 art prints as testimony to a life-long interest in the visual arts.  The father of four children, Melville was married to Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Lemuel Shaw, the controversial Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts who had ruled in favor of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.

Christopher Sten, Professor of English, George Washington University

Herman Melville
Herman Melville (1819-1891)