Herman Melville

And God created great whales. -- Genesis

	Oh, the rare old whale, mid storm and gale
	In his ocean home will be
	A giant in might, where might is right,
	And King of the mindless sea. 
						-- Whale Song

His very name conjures up space, the sea, above all, as microcosm, as either elemental womb or tempest. -- A Robert Lee, introduction to Everyman edition of Billy Budd and other stories

Herman Melville (1819-1891), American poet and novelist. Born in New York, worked as a cabin boy on a packet steamer to Liverpool (1839), joined a whaler to the South Seas, where he jumped ship and joined the US Navy. Three years later he returned to the US to write.

Typee (1846), the most popular book during his lifetime, was largely an account of his life in the South Seas.

In 1850, Melville moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he became friends and neighbours of Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Moby-Dick (1851) was published to critical acclaim, but surprisingly, especially in the light of its appeal today, it did not sell. The book was dedicated to his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Melville's own thoughts on Moby-Dick:

It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ship's cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.

Following the publication of Moby-Dick, the popularity of Melville declined and he sank into obscurity. On his death he had been virtually forgotten.

Billy Budd (1926), written in the 1880s in the period leading up to his death, was published posthumously.

Melville drew heavily upon his life and experience for his works, travel and experience of poverty in Liverpool Redburn (1849), life in the South Seas Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Mardi (1849), experience on-board a US frigate White-Jacket (1850), and life aboard a whaler Moby-Dick (1851).

In the Cambridge History of American Literature (1917) Melville merits little more than an appreciative footnote, and that was as a travel writer for Typee and Omoo. Without these two novels it is doubtful he would have even warranted an entry. Moby-Dick is not mentioned.


Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, eds Andrew Delbanco & Tom Quirk, Penguin Classic Books, 1992

Herman Melville, Typee, ed George Woodcock, Penguin Classic Books, 1972

Herman Melville, Redburn, ed Harold Beaver, Penguin Classic Books, 1976

Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor and other stories, ed Harold Beaver, Penguin Classic Books, 1967

Literature ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ Edgar Allan Poe
(c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- June 1999 rev 0