Author Spotlight: Herman Melville

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Two hundred years ago, the brilliant mind who crafted Moby Dick was born. Herman Melville was a writer and poet of the American Renaissance; his work centered around stories of the sea, likely derived from his several years spent traveling through coastal communities. For his 200th birthday, we’re shining the spotlight on Melville and the contributions his work made to 18th century America.

Trying His Hand at Writing

Born in 1819 in New York City, Melville was the third of eight children in a well-off family. However, all throughout Melville’s upbringing, his father borrowed money heavily from both his father and his mother-in-law. In 1830, both families cut him off, placing the family in $20,000 debt (over $522,000 in today’s money). Despite their sudden financial woes, the Melville family prospered because of the warmth and devotion to each other. 
 
Melville began school when he was five at an all-boys institute, where he quickly rose to the top of his class. But due to emotional instability and financial struggles, his father moved the family to Albany in 1830, where Melville started at Albany Academy. He studied basic courses and proved a fluent student. Family life was pleasant until tragedy struck in December 1831, when Melville’s father fell ill while on a steamboat voyage to New York City. He died shortly thereafter, marking a major shift for the family. Without the financial support of their father Melville and his siblings were forced to begin working for miniscule yearly sums. 
 
During this time, Melville began writing and drawing. He had always had an interest in visual arts, but the written word was new. His first essay was not published until 1839, but it received him some mild acclaim from other local writers.  

A Career Moves Forward

In May of 1839, Melville set out on what would be the first of his many excursions at sea. By 1841, he was signed onto the crew of the Acushnet, and set sail for the Bahamas, where the men collected oil from whales in the region. From the Bahamas, the crew sailed around Cape Horn and along the coast of Chile. Here, Melville met William Henry Chase, who gifted Melville a copy of his own father’s account on board the Essex. The personal stories had a profound impact on Melville and his work.

Herman Melville.
When Melville finally returned to the States in 1845, he began telling of his adventurous tales to friends and family, and they urged him to write them into stories. His first book, Typee, was published in 1846, and fictionalizes his travels on Nuku Hiva in the South Pacific. In 1847, Melville published Omoo as a sequel to Typee. By this point, Melville was considered one of the leading writers of the day, thrilling his readers with tales of suspense and adventure. 
 
In 1851, Melville finally published Moby-Dick. It was by far his most ambitious work, taking several years of writing before the final manuscript was complete. However, during its first years in the hands of the public, the novel was an utter disappointment. It wasn’t even considered one of Melville’s best works at the time. Not until the 1920s was Moby-Dick heralded as a literary masterpiece. Despite this mediocre reception, Melville was by all accounts a successful writer. However, his follow-up book to Moby-Dick, a psychological romance that strayed from his previous style, was not well-regarded by critics or readers. With the two books that followed, Melville’s finances struggled. Later on, he tried his hand at poetry, but was only moderately successful. 

Melville’s Downward Slide

In the 1860s, Melville began acting erratically. Today, critics believe this could have been due to the stress of his failing writing career after years of dedication to the craft. He bullied his wife, children, and servants. This continued so long that Melville’s brother-in-law encouraged his sister to leave with the children, seeking a divorce by the reason of her husband’s insanity. However, by 1884, Melville seemed to have recovered from his emotional distress and returned to society, becoming a member of the New York Society Library.
 
On an early morning in 1891, Melville died of a heart attack. He was buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. Throughout his career, Melville’s writing style varied - defining him as one type of writer is difficult. Today, two hundred years after he was born, Melville is still considered one of the greatest writers in American history.