Herman Melville

Early Life

Herman Melville, a celebrated American author and poet, was born on 1st August 1819 in New York. His father, Allan Melville was a prosperous merchant and importer in New York City, and his mother, Maria Gansevoort Melville, a dedicated and spiritually strong homemaker. The family’s prosperous life for several years owed a great deal to Alan’s business success but their lives took a tragic turn when he breathed his last in 1832. This tragedy brought changes in their spiritual and material circumstances, too. To reduce their expenses, the family shifted to Lansingburgh in 1837, where young children took up odd jobs to make both ends meet.


Herman Melville’s formal education started at New York Male High School followed by his joining Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School. Later, he attended Albany Academy and Albany Classical School respective, where he studied Roman Greek and English history, geography, natural history, classical biography, and Jewish antiquity. However, it is his intensive readings and love for literature that provided him with a ground for writing. He started using words to his ideas and emotions the shapes of poems, short stories, and essays. Despite possessing a profound passion for reading and writing, the financial position of the family forced him to quit his education to support the family. Despite having little formal education, Melville’s writings turned into specimens of literary pieces on account of the descriptions of the originality of his life experiences.

Some Important Facts about Him

  1. He married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Knapp Shaw in 1847 at the age of thirty and the marriage produced four children.
  2. He is widely known for his work, Moby-Dick,  adapted for a film in 1956.

His Career

Herman Melville started writing at a very young age. Therefore, much of his writings are the outcomes of his extensive voyages. He became a published writer in 1846 with the publication of Typee followed by another successful book, Omoo. The success of these two books further aided his passions and made him believe that he could make a prosperous future as a professional writer. Later, when in 1849, he came up with another publication, Mardi, he felt disappointed when readers rejected this. Hence, his next attempt, Redburn, revived his lost worth. Prompted with this success, he set to work again with renewed passion and produced his signature work, Moby-Dick, in 1851. The book not only outlined his personal experience of life but also pictured a real-life disaster of the Essex whaleship. The success brought by this novel came quite gradually, for meanwhile, he breathed his last when the critics lashed out at him. However, later the novel started demonstrating its seductive power of capturing the imagination. His other notable works include Billy Budd, Sailor, The Ambiguities, and White-Jacket.

His Style

Herman Melville’s writing style shows various changes and consistencies over the years. Since most of his works are the product of his personal experiences, he has used complex structures and varied word choices to delineate his experiences properly. For instance, in his documentary adventures, Typee, and Omoo present the division of the story in short chapters. However, this short narrative changed into a concentrated narrative in White Jacket and Redburn. On the other hand, his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, reflects the factual and almost encyclopedic style that follows a wistful tone intended to exemplify the defiance of nature. He also used emotional personifications to exhibit the dark and shallow side of human nature. Regarding literary devices, he often uses imagery, symbolism, allusion, motif, and allusions to show the thematic strands of man versus nature, love for adventure, self-reliance, and individualism, religion, and death.

Some Important Works of Herman Melville

  • Best Works: Some of his remarkable pieces include Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Isle of the Cross, “Benito Cereno”, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War and White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War.

Herman Melville’s Impacts on Future Literature

Regarded as an extra-ordinary writer during his time, Melville’s services for literature enjoy global appreciations. His works and ideas about the tragic sense of life and human nature are not only true to life but also seem universal, happening in almost every corner of the world to anyone. His adventurous life presented in comprehensively accurate descriptions of the events won him general acclaim. His works stand remarkable not because he struggled to portray the factual description of his life events, but because he painted the negative and dark sides of human nature he witnessed during trying times with the same efficiency as he presented the positive aspects. Carl Van Doren, an American critic, and biographer, also praised his work, especially Moby Dick. To him, Melville brought the sound knowledge of actual whaling. The successful combination of the speculations of philosophy, dramatic staging, and authenticity of events present in his works provides ground for the new authors to follow his style of writing.

Important Quotes

  1. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” (Moby-Dick)
  2. “Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.” (Billy Budd, Sailor)
  3. “Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.” (Moby-Dick or, the Whale)
  4. “…and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” (Moby Dick)