Herman Melville

Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American novelist, writer of short stories, and poet from the American Renaissance period. The bulk of his writings was published between 1846 and 1857. Best known for his sea adventure Typee (1846) and his whaling novel Moby-Dick (1851), he was almost forgotten during the last thirty years of his life. Melville's writing draws on his experience at sea as a common sailor, exploration of literature and philosophy, and engagement in the contradictions of American society in a period of rapid change. Melville's way of adapting what he read for his own new purposes, scholar Stanley T. Williams wrote, "was a transforming power comparable to Shakespeare's".

Born in New York City, he was the third child of a merchant in French dry-goods who went bankrupt. After the death of his father in 1832, his formal education stopped abruptly and the young man briefly became a schoolteacher. He then signed on as a common sailor for a merchant voyage to Liverpool in 1839. A year and a half into his first whaling voyage, in 1842 he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands, where he lived among the natives for a up to a month. He described these experiences in his first book, Typee (1846), a best-seller, as was the sequel, Omoo (1847). The same year Melville married Elizabeth Knapp Shaw; their four children were all born between 1849 and 1855.

In August 1850, Melville moved to a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he established a profound but short-lived friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Moby-Dick (1851) was not welcomed by readers or reviewers, and the cool reception of Pierre (1852) put an end to his career as a popular author. From 1853 to 1856 he wrote short fiction for magazines, collected as The Piazza Tales (1856). In 1857, Melville voyaged to England and the Near East and The Confidence-Man appeared, the last prose work published during his lifetime. From then on Melville turned to poetry. Having secured a position of Customs Inspector in New York, his poetic reflection on the Civil War appeared as Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866).

In 1867 his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot. The epic poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876) drew upon Melville's experience in Egypt and Palestine from twenty years earlier to meditate on religious experience. In 1886 he retired as Customs Inspector and privately published two volumes of poetry in small editions. During the last years of his life, interest in him was reviving, but his death in 1891 from cardiovascular disease subdued the revival. In his final years he had been working on the manuscript of Billy Budd, Sailor, which was left unfinished at his death and published only in 1924. In the 1920s a "Melville" revival led to eventual appreciation of his writings as world classics.

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Early and Antebellum America (1789-1860)

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