“To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee”
Herman Melvill was born this day on 1819 in New York City. Today is the 193 Anniversary of his birth.
He was the third of eight children. He grew up in Boston and Albany. His father, Allan Melvill, was a successful merchant and the family lived comfortably for several years until an unsuccessful trading venture led to financial ruin. The elder Melvill sparked Herman’s love for adventure and the sea with stores of seafaring excitement and faraway places. Herman was 12 when his father died and the family moved to Lansingburg on the Hudson. It was then that his mother added the “e” to the end of the family name, and Melvill became Melville.
He got a job on a ship bound from New York to Liverpool as a cabin boy. After several years as a teacher he heard the call of the sea again. In 1840 he signed on with the Acushnet from Fairhaven, Massachusetts. The ship left port for an 18 month journey in Pacific journey in January of 1841. The Acushnet was a whaler and much of his material for Moby-Dick came from his time on board the ship. By the time they reached the Marquesas Islands in July of 1842 Melville had had enough of life on the Acushnet.
He deserted the ship and lived among the Typee tribe for three weeks. He then joined the crew of another whaler, this one, an Australian ship called the Lucy Ann, was bound for Tahiti. Melville participated in a mutiny and landed in jail. Upon his release he signed up with yet another whaler and made it as far as Honolulu where he jumped ship again. He worked as a clerk until he was able to sign on with the USS United States which got him back to Boston in 1844. There Melville began to write about his adventures.
Typee is a quasi-autobiographical adventure novel about Tommo’s four month stay on a tropical paradise amidst the “nobel savages” (or cannibals) who may or may not be about to eat him, and his relationship with the beautiful, and exotic, Faraway. He had trouble fining an American publisher, but the book was an overnight success when it was published in England. Omoo, continued the tale, again roughly following Melville’s adventures in the Pacific. Mardi, and a Voyage Thither showed a more sophisticated writing style. It was not a successful as the straight forward narratives of Typee and Omoo. In 1849 He published Redburn : His First Voyage, the fictionalized account of his first sea journey as a cabin boy. In 1850 White-Jacket, based on his time as a seaman on the USS United States, was published. Because of its graphic depiction’s of flogging the U.S. Navy banned the punishment.
Sadly at this point the tides seem to have turned in his literary career. His popularity waned. Other books didn’t garner critical or popular acclaim in his lifetime. The Confidence-Man, Pierre, Billy Budd, and even Moby-Dick had to wait until a Melville revival, some 30 years after his death, to get their rightful praise.
Melville went on the lecture circuit to supplement his writing income. He then moved his family to New York City and worked at the New York Custom House. He continued to write, working on both poetry and fiction, until his death.