Herman Melville[a] (born Melvill; August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet of the American Renaissance period. Among his best-known works are Typee (1846), a romantic account of his experiences of Polynesian life, and his magnum opus, Moby-Dick (1851).
Melville was born in New York City, the third child of a merchant. Typee, his first book, was followed by a sequel, Omoo (1847). Both were successful and gave him the financial basis to marry Elizabeth "Lizzie" Shaw, a daughter of a prominent Boston family. His first novel not based on his own experiences, Mardi (1849), was not well received. His next fictional work, Redburn (1849), and his non-fiction White-Jacket (1850) were given better reviews but did not provide financial security.
In 1867, his eldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land was published in 1876, a metaphysical epic. In 1886, his son Stanwix died of apparent tuberculosis, and Melville retired. During his last years, he privately published two volumes of poetry, left one volume unpublished, and returned to prose of the sea. The novella Billy Budd was left unfinished at his death but was published posthumously in 1924. Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891. The 1919 centennial of his birth became the starting point of the "Melville Revival" with critics rediscovering his work and his major novels starting to become recognized as world classics of prominent importance to contemporary world literature.
Herman Melville was born 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 in a family of Dutch extraction. His siblings, who played important roles in his career as well as in 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, Allan Melvill spent much time out of New York and in Europe as a commission merchant and an importer of French dry goods.
Both of 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 New York in 1777. Melville found satisfaction in his "double revolutionary descent". Major Melvill sent his son Allan (Herman's father) to France instead of college at the turn of the nineteenth century, where he spent two years in Paris and learned to speak and write French fluently. In 1814, Allan, who subscribed to his father's Unitarianism, married Maria Gansevoort, who was committed to the Dutch Reformed version of the Calvinist creed of her family. The severe Protestantism of the Gansevoort's tradition ensured she was well versed in her Bible in English as well as in Dutch,[b] the language she had grown up speaking with her parents.
On August 19, almost three weeks after his birth, Herman Melville was baptized at home by a minister 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. At four-year intervals, the family would move to more spacious and elegant quarters, finally settling on 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. Although 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" while her children were young. How well the parents managed to hide the truth from their children is "impossible to know", according to biographer Andrew Delbanco.
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 (equivalent to $471,000 in 2018). The felicity of Melville's early childhood, biographer Newton Arvin writes, depended not so much on wealth as on the "exceptionally tender and affectionate spirit in all the family relationships, especially in the immediate circle". Arvin describes Allan as "a man of real sensibility and a particularly warm and loving father," while Maria was "warmly maternal, simple, robust, and affectionately devoted to her husband and her brood".
Herman's education began when he was five, around the time the Melvills moved to a newly built house at 33 Bleecker Street in Manhattan. Herman and his older brother, Gansevoort, were sent to the New York Male High School. In 1826, the same year that Herman contracted scarlet fever, Allan Melvill described him as "very backwards in speech & somewhat slow in comprehension" at first, but his development increased its pace and Allan was surprised "that Herman proved the best Speaker in the introductory Department". In 1829, both Gansevoort and Herman were transferred to Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, and Herman enrolled in the English Department on September 28. "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 on paying the rent for the house on Broadway, Herman's father tried to recover from his setbacks by moving his family to Albany in 1830 and going into the fur business. Herman 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. Parker speculates that he left the Academy in October 1831 because "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, Herman's father returned from New York City by steamboat, but ice forced him to travel the last seventy miles over two days and two nights in an open horse carriage at −2 degrees Fahrenheit (−19 degrees Celsius), causing him become ill. In early January, he began to show "signs of delirium," and his situation grew worse until his wife felt his suffering deprived him of his intellect. Two months before reaching fifty, Allan Melvill died on January 28, 1832. As Herman was no longer attending school, he likely witnessed these scenes. Twenty years later he described a similar death in Pierre.
1832–1838: After his father's death
The death of Allan caused many major shifts in the family's material and spiritual circumstances. One result was the greater influence of his mother's religious beliefs. Maria sought consolation in her faith and in April was admitted as a member of the First Reformed Dutch Church. Herman's saturation in orthodox Calvinism is for Arvin "surely the most decisive intellectual and spiritual influence of his early life".
Two months after his father's death, Gansevoort entered the cap and fur business. Uncle Peter Gansevoort, a director of the New York State Bank, got Herman a job as clerk for $150 a year (equivalent to $3,800 in 2018). Biographers cite a passage from Redburn when trying to answer what Herman must have felt then: "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". Arvin argues Melville was forced to reckon with the "tormented psychology, of the decayed patrician".
When Melville's paternal grandfather died on September 16, 1832, Maria and her children discovered Allan had borrowed more than his share of his inheritance, meaning Maria received only $20 (equivalent to $500 in 2018). His paternal grandmother died almost exactly seven months later. Melville did his job well at the bank; though he was only fourteen in 1834, the bank considered him competent enough to be sent 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 employ nor afford. Instead he pulled Melville out of the bank to man the cap and fur store.
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 participated in debating societies, in an apparent effort to make up as much as he could for his missed years of schooling. In this period he read Shakespeare—at least Macbeth, whose witch scenes gave him the chance to teasingly scare his sisters. In March 1837, he was again withdrawn from Albany Academy.
Gansevoort served as a role model and support for Melville in many ways throughout his life, at this time particularly in forming a self-directed educational plan. In early 1834 Gansevoort had become a member of Albany's Young Men's Association for Mutual Improvement, and in January 1835 Melville joined. Gansevoort also had copies of John Todd's Index Rerum, a blank register for indexing 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 (Volume I in 1797, and Volume II in 1898) where the description could be found. The two surviving volumes of Gansevoort's are the best evidence for Melville's reading in this period. Gansevoort's entries include books Melville 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 The Red Rover, Saint-Saba.
The Panic of 1837 forced Gansevoort to file for bankruptcy in April. In June, Maria told the younger children they must leave Albany for somewhere cheaper. Gansevoort began studying law in New York City while Herman managed the farm before getting a teaching position at Sikes District School near Lenox, Massachusetts. He taught about 30 students of various ages, including some his own age.
The semester 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. In the Albany Microscope in March, Melville published two polemical letters about issues in vogue in the debating societies. Historians Leon Howard and Hershel Parker suggest the motive behind the letters was a youthful desire to have his rhetorical skills publicly recognized. In May, the Melvilles moved to a rented house in Lansingburgh, almost 12 miles north of Albany. Nothing is known about what Melville did or where he went for several months after he finished teaching at Sikes. On November 12, five days after arriving in Lansingburgh, Melville paid for a term at Lansingburgh Academy to study surveying and engineering. In an April 1839 letter recommending Herman for a job in the Engineer Department of the Erie Canal, Peter Gansevoort says his nephew "possesses the ambition to make himself useful in a business which he desires to make his profession," but no job resulted.
Just weeks after this failure, Melville's first known published essay appeared. Using the initials "L.A.V"., Herman contributed "Fragments from a Writing Desk" to the weekly newspaper Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser, which printed it in two installments, the first on May 4. According to Merton Sealts, his use of heavy-handed allusions reveals familiarity with the work of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Walter Scott, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Thomas Moore. Parker calls the piece "characteristic Melvillean mood-stuff" and considers its style "excessive enough [...] to indulge his extravagances and just enough overdone to allow him to deny that he was taking his style seriously". For Delbanco, the style is "overheated in the manner of Poe, with sexually charged echoes of Byron and The Arabian Nights".
1839–1844: Years at sea
On May 31, 1839, Gansevoort, then living in New York City, wrote that he was sure Herman could get a job on a whaler or merchant vessel. The next day, he signed aboard the merchant ship St. Lawrence as a "boy" (a green hand), which cruised from New York to Liverpool; he arrived back in New York October 1.Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) draws on his experiences in this journey. Melville resumed teaching, now at Greenbush, New York, but left after one term because he had not been paid. In the summer of 1840 he and his friend James Murdock Fly went to Galena, Illinois to see if his Uncle Thomas could help them find work. Unsuccessful, he and his friend returned home in autumn, very likely by way of St. Louis and up the Ohio River.
Herman Melville, c. 1846–47. Oil painting by Asa Weston Twitchell
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. Built in 1840, the ship measured some 104 feet in length, almost 28 feet in breadth, and almost 14 feet in depth. She measured slightly less than 360 tons, had two decks and three masts, but no galleries. Melville signed a contract on Christmas Day with the ship's agent as a "green hand" for 1/175th of whatever profits the voyage would yield. On Sunday the 27th the brothers heard the Reverend Enoch Mudge preach at the Seamen's Bethel on Johnny-Cake Hill, where white marble cenotaphs on the walls memorialized local sailors who had died at sea, often in battle with whales. When he signed the crew list the next day he was advanced $84.
On January 3, 1841, the Acushnet set sail.[c] Melville slept with some twenty others in the forecastle; Captain Valentine Pease, the mates, and the skilled men slept aft. Whales were found near The Bahamas, and in March 150 barrels of oil were sent home from Rio de Janeiro. Cutting in and trying-out (boiling) a single whale took about three days, and a whale yielded approximately one barrel of oil per foot of length and per ton of weight (the average whale weighed 40 to 60 tons). The oil was kept on deck for a day to cool off, and was then stowed down; scrubbing the deck completed the labor. An average voyage meant that some forty whales were killed to yield some 1600 barrels of oil.
On April 15, the Acushnet sailed around Cape Horn, and traveled to the South Pacific, where the crew sighted whales without catching any. Then up the coast of Chile to the region of Selkirk Island and on 7 May, near Juan Fernández Islands, she had 160 barrels. On June 23 the ship anchored for the first time since Rio, in Santa Harbor. The cruising grounds the Acushnet was sailing attracted much traffic, and Captain Pease not only paused to visit other whalers, but at times hunted in company with them. From July 23 into August the Acushnet regularly gammed with the Lima from Nantucket, and Melville met William Henry Chase, the son of Owen Chase, who gave him a copy of his father's account of his adventures aboard the Essex. Ten years later Melville wrote in his other copy of the book: "The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me".
On September 25 the ship reported 600 barrels of oil to another whaler, and in October 700 barrels.[d] On October 24 the Acushnet crossed the equator to the north, and six or seven days later arrived at the Galápagos Islands. This short visit would be the basis for The Encantadas. On November 2, the Acushnet and three other American whalers were hunting together near the Galápagos Islands; Melville later exaggerated that number in Sketch Fourth of The Encantadas. From November 19 to 25 the ship anchored at Chatham's Isle, and on December 2 reached the coast of Peru and anchored at Tombez near Paita, with 570 barrels of oil on board. On December 27 the Acushnet sighted Cape Blanco, off Ecuador, Point St. Elena was sighted the next day, and on January 6, 1842 the ship approached the Galápagos Islands from the southeast. From February 13 to 7 May, seven sightings of sperm whales were recorded but none killed. From early May to early June the Acushnet gammed several times with the Columbus of New Bedford, which also took letters from Melville's ship; the two ships were in the same area just south of the Equator. On June 16 she carried 750 barrels, and sent home 200 on the Herald the Second. On June 23, the Acushnet reached the Marquesas Islands, and anchored at Nuku Hiva.
A time of some emotional turbulence for Melville ensued over the next summer months. On July 9, 1842, Melville and his shipmate Richard Tobias Greene jumped ship at Nukahiva Bay and ventured into the mountains to avoid capture. Melville's first book, Typee (1845), is loosely based on his stay in or near the Taipi Valley. Scholarly research starting in the 1930s and extending into the twenty-first century has increasingly shown that much if not all of this account was either taken from Melville's readings or exaggerated to dramatize a contrast between idyllic native culture and Western civilization.  On August 9, Melville boarded the Australian whaler Lucy Ann, bound for Tahiti, where on arrival he took part in a mutiny and was briefly jailed in the native Calabooza Beretanee. In October, he and crew mate John B. Troy escaped Tahiti for Eimeo. He then spent a month as beachcomber and island rover ("omoo" in Tahitian), eventually crossing over to Moorea. He drew on these experiences for Omoo, the sequel to Typee In November, he signed articles on the Nantucket whaler Charles & Henry for a six-month cruise (November 1842 − April 1843), and was discharged at Lahaina, Maui in the Hawaiian Islands in May 1843.
After four months of working several jobs, including as a clerk, he joined the US Navy initially as one of the crew of the frigateUSS United States as an ordinary seaman on August 20. During the next year, the homeward bound ship visited the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, and Valparaiso, and then, from summer to fall 1844, Mazatlan, Lima, and Rio de Janeiro, before reaching Boston on October 3. Melville was discharged on October 14. This navy experience is used in White-Jacket (1850) Melville's fifth book. Melville's wander-years created what biographer Arvin calls "a settled hatred of external authority, a lust for personal freedom" and a "growing and intensifying sense of his own exceptionalness as a person," along with "the resentful sense that circumstance and mankind together had already imposed their will upon him in a series of injurious ways". Scholar Robert Milder believes the encounter with the wide ocean, where he was seemingly abandoned by God, led Melville to experience a "metaphysical estrangement" and influenced his social views in two ways: first that he belonged to the genteel classes but sympathized with the "disinherited commons" he had been placed among; second that experiencing the cultures of Polynesia let him view the West from an outsider's perspective.
1845–1850: Successful writer
Richard Tobias Greene, who jumped ship with Melville in the Marquesas Islands and is Toby in Typee, pictured in 1846
Upon his return, Melville regaled his family and friends with his adventurous tales and romantic experiences, and they urged him to put them into writing. Melville completed Typee, his first book, in the summer of 1845 while living in Troy. His brother Gansevoort found a publisher for it in London, where it was published in February 1846 by John Murray and became an overnight bestseller, then in New York on March 17 by Wiley & Putnam. Inspired by his adventures in the Marquesas, the book was far from a reliable autobiographical account.
Melville extended the period his narrator spent on the island by three months, made it appear he understood the native language, and incorporated material from source books he had assembled. 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".
An unsigned review in the Salem Advertiser written by Nathaniel Hawthorne called the book a "skilfully managed" narrative by an author with "that freedom of view ... which renders him tolerant of codes of morals that may be little in accordance with our own". Hawthorne stated:
This book is lightly but vigorously written; and we are acquainted with no work that gives a freer and more effective picture of barbarian life, in that unadulterated state of which there are now so few specimens remaining. The gentleness of disposition that seems akin to the delicious climate, is shown in contrast with the traits of savage fierceness ... He has that freedom of view—it would be too harsh to call it laxity of principle—which renders him tolerant of codes of morals that may be little in accordance with our own, a spirit proper enough to a young and adventurous sailor, and which makes his book the more wholesome to our staid landsmen.
The depictions of the "native girls are voluptuously colored, yet not more so than the exigencies of the subject appear to require". At about the same time, prior to Melville being introduced to Hawthorne, Melville wrote a review of Hawthorne's "Power of Blackness" stating:
Whether Hawthorne has simply availed himself of this mystical blackness as a means to the wondrous effects he makes it to produce in his lights and shades; or whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom—this, I cannot altogether tell. Certain it is, however, that this power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or another, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly freed.
Pleased but slightly bemused by the adulation of his new public, years later Melville expressed concern that he would "go down to posterity ... as a ‘man who lived among the cannibals'!" The book brought Melville back into contact with his friend Greene, Toby in the book, who wrote confirmed Melville's account in newspapers. The two corresponded until 1863, and sustained a bond for life: in his final years Melville "traced and successfully located his old friend". In March 1847, Omoo, a sequel to Typee, was published by Murray in London, and in May by Harper in New York.Omoo is "a slighter but more professional book," according to Milder.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". In 1847 Melville tried unsuccessfully to find a "government job" in Washington.
In June 1847, Melville and Elizabeth "Lizzie" Knapp Shaw were engaged, after knowing each other for approximately three months. Melville had first asked her father, Lemuel Shaw, for her hand in March, but was turned down at the time. Lizzie's father had been a close friend of Melville's father and aunt Nancy, and his friendship with the Melvilles continued after Allan's death. Lizze was raised by her grandmother and an Irish nurse. Arvin suggests that Melville's interest in Lizzie may have been stimulated by "his need of Judge Shaw's paternal presence". They were married on August 4, 1847. Lizzie described their marriage as "very unexpected, and scarcely thought of until about two months before it actually took place". She wanted to be married in church, but they had a private wedding ceremony at home to avoid possible crowds hoping to see the celebrity. The couple honeymooned in Canada, and traveled to Montreal. They settled in a house on Fourth Avenue in New York City (now called Park Avenue).
According to scholars Joyce Deveau Kennedy and Frederick James Kennedy, Lizzie brought the following qualities to their marriage: a sense of religious obligation in marriage, an intent to make a home with Melville regardless of place, a willingness to please her husband by performing such "tasks of drudgery" as mending stockings, an ability to hide her agitation, and a desire "to shield Melville from unpleasantness". The Kennedys conclude their assessment with:
If the ensuing years did bring regrets to Melville's life, it is impossible to believe he would have regretted marrying Elizabeth. In fact he must have realized that he could not have borne the weight of those years unaided—that without her loyalty, intelligence, and affection, his own wild imagination would have had no "port or haven".
Biographer Robertson-Lorant's cites "Lizzie's adventurous spirit and abundant energy," and she suggests that "her pluck and good humor might have been what attracted Melville to her, and vice versa". An example of such good humor appears in a letter about her not yet used to being married: "It seems sometimes exactly as if I were here for a visit. The illusion is quite dispelled however when Herman stalks into my room without even the ceremony of knocking, bringing me perhaps a button to sew on, or some equally romantic occupation". On February 16, 1849, the Melvilles' first child, Malcolm, was born.
In March 1848, Mardi was published by Richard Bentley in London, and in April by Harper in New York. Nathaniel Hawthorne thought it a rich book "with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life". According to Milder, 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,"
In October 1849, Redburn was published by Bentley in London, and in November by Harper in New York. The bankruptcy and death of Allan Melville, and Melville's own youthful humiliations surface in this "story of outward adaptation and inner impairment". Biographer Robertson-Lorant regards the work as a deliberate attempt for popular appeal: "Melville modeled each episode almost systematically on every genre that was popular with some group of antebellum readers," combining elements of "the picaresque novel, the travelogue, the nautical adventure, the sentimental novel, the sensational French romance, the gothic thriller, temperance tracts, urban reform literature, and the English pastoral". His next novel, White-Jacket, was published by Bentley in London in January 1850, and in March by Harper in New York.
1850–1851: Hawthorne and Moby-Dick
The earliest surviving mention of Moby-Dick is from early May 1850, when Melville told fellow sea author Richard Henry Dana Jr. it was "half way" written. 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. The original manuscript has not survived, but over the next several months Melville radically transformed his initial plan, conceiving what Delbanco has described as "the most ambitious book ever conceived by an American writer".
From August 4 to 12, 1850, the Melvilles, Sarah Morewood, Evert Duyckinck, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and other literary figures from New York and Boston came to Pittsfield to enjoy a period of parties, picnics, dinners, and the like. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his publisher James T. Fields joined the group while Hawthorne's wife stayed at home to look after the children. Hawthorne and Melville had a deep, private conversation about Hawthorne's short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse. Hawthorne invited Melville to stay for a few days, which was unusual because Hawthorne typically felt overnight guests prevented him from working. The following days, Melville wrote the essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses," a review of Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse that appeared in two installments, on August 17 and 24, in The Literary World. Melville wrote that these stories revealed a dark side to Hawthorne, "shrouded in blackness, ten times black". Later that summer, Duyckinck sent Hawthorne copies of Melville's three latest books. Hawthorne read them, as he wrote to Duyckinck on August 29, "with a progressive appreciation of their author". He thought Melville in Redburn and White-Jacket put the reality "more unflinchingly" before his reader than any writer, and he thought Mardi was "a rich book, with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life. It is so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded long over it, so as to make it a great deal better".
In September 1850, Melville borrowed three thousand dollars from his father-in-law Lemuel Shaw to buy a 160-acre farm in Pittsfield. Melville called his new home Arrowhead because of the arrowheads that were dug up around the property during planting season. That winter, Melville paid Hawthorne an unexpected visit, only to discover he was working and "not in the mood for company". Hawthorne's wife Sophia gave him copies of Twice-Told Tales and, for Malcolm, The Grandfather's Chair. Melville invited them to visit Arrowhead soon, hoping to "[discuss] the Universe with a bottle of brandy & cigars" with Hawthorne, but Hawthorne would not stop working on his new book for more than one day and they did not come. After a second visit from Melville, Hawthorne surprised him by arriving at Arrowhead with his daughter Una. According to Robertson-Lorant, "The handsome Hawthorne made quite an impression on the Melville women, especially Augusta, who was a great fan of his books". They spent the day mostly "smoking and talking metaphysics".
In Robertson-Lorant's assessment of the friendship, Melville was "infatuated with Hawthorne's intellect, captivated by his artistry, and charmed by his elusive personality," and though the two writers were "drawn together in an undeniable sympathy of soul and intellect, the friendship meant something different to each of them," with Hawthorne offering Melville "the kind of intellectual stimulation he needed". They may have been "natural allies and friends," yet they were also "fifteen years apart in age and temperamentally quite different" and Hawthorne "found Melville's manic intensity exhausting at times". 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. Melville dedicated the work to Hawthorne: "In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne".
On October 18, 1851, The Whale was published in Britain in three volumes, and on November 14 Moby-Dick appeared in the United States as a single volume. In between these dates, on October 22, 1851, the Melvilles' second child, Stanwix, was born. In December, Hawthorne told Duyckinck, "What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones." In early December 1852, Melville visited the Hawthornes in Concord and discussed the idea of the "Agatha" story he had pitched to Hawthorne. This was the last known contact between the two writers before Melville visited Hawthorne in Liverpool four years later.
1852–1857: Unsuccessful writer
Melville had high hopes that his next book would please the public and restore his finances. In April 1851 he told his British publisher, Richard Bentley, that his new book had "unquestionable novelty" and was calculated to have wide appeal with elements of romance and mystery. In fact, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities was heavily psychological, though drawing on the conventions of the romance, and difficult in style. It was not well received. The New York Day Book published a venomous attack on September 8, 1852, 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 May 22, 1853, Melville's third child and first daughter Elizabeth (Bessie) was born, and on or about that day Herman finished work on the Agatha story, Isle of the Cross. Melville traveled to New York to discuss a book, presumably Isle of the Cross, with his publisher, but later wrote that Harper & Brothers was "prevented" from publishing his manuscript because it was lost.
After the commercial and critical failure of Pierre, Melville had difficulty finding a publisher for his follow-up novel, Israel Potter. Instead, this narrative of a Revolutionary War veteran was serialized in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in 1853. From November 1853 to 1856, Melville published fourteen tales and sketches in Putnam's and Harper's magazines. In December 1855 he proposed to Dix & Edwards, the new owners of Putnam's, that they publish a selective collection of the short fiction. The collection, The Piazza Tales, was named after a new introductory story Melville wrote for it, "The Piazza". It also contained five previously published stories, including "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno". On March 2, 1855, the Melvilles' fourth child, Frances (Fanny), was born. In this period his book Israel Potter was published.
The writing of The Confidence-Man put great strain on Melville, leading Sam Shaw, a nephew of Lizzie, to write to his uncle Lemuel Shaw, "Herman I hope has had no more of those ugly attacks"—a reference to what Robertson-Lorant calls "the bouts of rheumatism and sciatica that plagued Melville". Melville's father-in-law apparently shared his daughter's "great anxiety about him" when he wrote a letter to a cousin, in which he described Melville's working habits: "When he is deeply engaged in one of his literary works, he confines him[self] to hard study many hours in the day, with little or no exercise, & this specially in winter for a great many days together. He probably thus overworks himself & brings on severe nervous affections". Shaw advanced Melville $1,500 from Lizzie's inheritance to travel four or five months in Europe and the Holy Land.
From October 11, 1856, to May 20, 1857, Melville made a six-month Grand Tour of the British Isles and the Mediterranean. While in England, in November 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.
Herman Melville, 1861
To repair his faltering finances, Melville took up public lecturing from late 1857 to 1860. He embarked upon three lecture tours and 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. On May 30, 1860, Melville boarded the clipperMeteor for California, with his brother Thomas at the helm. After a shaky trip around Cape Horn, Melville returned to New York alone via Panama in November. Later that year, he submitted a poetry collection to a publisher but it was not accepted. In 1863, he bought his brother's house at 104 East 26th Street in New York City and moved there.
In 1864, Melville visited the Virginia battlefields of the American Civil War. After the war, he published Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), a collection of 72 poems that has been described as "a polyphonic verse journal of the conflict". Only 525 copies were sold over the next ten years out of a print run of 1200, and it was generally ignored by reviewers.
In 1866, Melville became a customs inspector for New York City. He held the post for 19 years and had a reputation for honest in a notoriously corrupt institution. Unbeknownst to him, his position was sometimes protected by Chester A. Arthur, at that time a customs official who admired Melville's writing but never spoke to him. During this time, Melville was short-tempered because of nervous exhaustion, physical pain, and drinking. He would sometimes mistreat his family and servants in his unpredictable mood swings. Robertson-Lorant compared Melville's behavior to the "tyrannical captains he had portrayed in his novels".
In 1867, his oldest son died at home at the age of 18 from a self-inflicted gun shot. Historians and psychologists disagree on if it was intentional or accidental. In May 1867, Lizzie's brother plotted to help her leave Melville without suffering the consequences divorce carried at the time, particularly the loss of all claim to her children. His plan was for Lizzie to visit Boston, and friends would inform Melville she would not come back. To get a divorce, she would then have to bring charges against Melville, believing her husband to be insane.
Though Melville's professional writing career had ended, he remained dedicated to his writing. He spent years on what Milder called "his autumnal masterpiece" Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage, an 18,000-line epic poem inspired by his 1856 trip to the Holy Land. It is among the longest single poems in American literature. The title character is a young American student of divinity who 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, while the reclusive Vine is loosely based on Hawthorne, who had died twelve years before. Publication of 350 copies was funded with a bequest from his uncle in 1876, but sales failed miserably and the unsold copies were burned when Melville was unable to buy them at cost. Critic Lewis Mumford found an unread copy in the New York Public Library in 1925 "with its pages uncut".
1877–1891: Final years
The last known image of Melville, 1885. Cabinet card by Rockwood
Elizabeth "Lizzie" Shaw Melville in 1885
In 1884, a legacy received by Lizzie enabled Melville to spend $25 (equivalent to $697 in 2018) on books and prints each month. Melville retired on December 31, 1885, after several of his wife's relatives left the couple more legacies. On February 22, 1886, Stanwix Melville died in San Francisco at age 36, apparently from tuberculosis. In 1889 Melville became a member of the New York Society Library.
Melville had a modest revival of popularity in England when readers rediscovered his novels in the late nineteenth century. A series of poems inspired by his early experiences at sea, with prose head notes, were published in two collections for his relatives and friends, each with a print run of 25 copies. The first, John Marr and Other Poems, was published in 1888, followed by
Timoleon in 1891. Melville began reworking the headnote of one of these poems, expanding it first as a short story and eventually as a novella. He worked on it periodically for several years, but when he died the morning of September 28, 1891, the piece was unfinished.
The gravestones of Herman Melville and his wife in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City
New York Times obituary notice, September 29, 1891, which misspelled Melville's then-unpopular masterpiece as Mobie Dick
His death certificate shows "cardiac dilation" as the cause. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City. A common story recounts that his The 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.
Lizzie edited the novella Melville was working on at his death and added notes to it. The manuscript sat until 1919, when it was found by Melville's first biographer, Raymond Weaver. Weaver transcribed and edited it into a full text, which he published in 1924 as Billy Budd, Sailor. It was an immediate critical success in England, then in the United States. It was adapted as a stage play on Broadway in 1951, then an opera, and in 1961 as a film. A revised version of the novella was published in 1962, after two scholars studied the papers for several years. Another volume of poetry, Weeds and Wildings, and a sketch, "Daniel Orme", were also left unpublished at the time of Melville's death.