From The Oxford Companion to American Literature, by Hart and Leininger:
Herman Melville was born in New York City , a descendant of English and Dutch colonial families in whom he took great pride. His father, a cultivated gentleman, underwent financial reverses, entered bankruptcy and died when Herman was 12 years old. The boy's mother, left virtually destitute with seven other children, seems from the portrait of Mrs. Glendinning in Pierre to have been an imperious, unsympathetic woman. His schooling ended when he was 15, and, after clerking in a New York bank, working in his brother's fur and cap store, farming, and teaching, he shipped as a cabin boy to Liverpool (1839). This voyage, described in Redburn, was both romantic and harrowing, and ingrained in him a love for the sea. Upon his return, he again taught school in upstate New York, until he sailed on the whaler Acushnet for the South Seas (Jan. 1841). The 18-month voyage provided a factual basis for his later novel Moby-Dick. When he tired of whaling, he jumped ship at the Marquesas (July 1842) with a companion, Richard Tobias Greene, and lived for a month in the islands, as he later described in Typee and Mardi. He escaped from the savages who were holding him captive in the valley of Typee on an Australian trader, from which he deserted at Papeete (Sept. 1842). In Tahiti he worked for a time as a field laborer, studying the island life that he later depicted in Omoo. He left Tahiti on a whaler, and at Honolulu enlisted as an ordinary seaman on the frigate United States (Aug. 1843). His life aboard the man-of-war until his discharge at Boston (Oct. 1844) is the basis of White-Jacket. Having completed his education in what he later termed the only Harvard and Yale that were open to him, he returned home to begin fashioning novels from his experiences, and to enter literary society in New York and Boston.
His first five books, Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), and White-Jacket (1850), won him fame and a wide following. He became a member of the literary circle of the Duyckinck brothers, who opened a new world of literature to him through their great libraries. In 1849 he made a trip to England to arrange for foreign publication, and visited Paris. The following year, with his wife, whom he had married in 1847, he moved to the Massachusetts farm that was his home for the next 13 years. Here he formed a friendship with his neighbor Hawthorne, who became his confidant after he outgrew the Duyckinck set of New York literati. His greatest work, Moby-Dick (1851), was dedicated to Hawthorne, and it is worth noting that the tortured novel Pierre (1852) was published at the same time as Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, since both deal with idealists who are crushed in their attempts to pursue the ways of heaven upon earth.
Melville's popularity, which began to wane with the publication of Moby-Dick, was entirely lost through the confused metaphysics and iconoclasm of Pierre, for the public's preference was always for his early exotic romances. Opportunity for revaluation was lost when a fire at his publishers (1853) destroyed the plates of his books and most of the unsold copies. Hawthorne's removal to Concord deprived him of his last great stimulus, and from this time he drew farther within himself in his tireless search for a key to the universal mystery. Israel Potter (1855), the story of the Revolutionary soldier, was a weak historical romance, but it was followed by Melville's finest achievements in short fiction, The Piazza Tales (1856), which includes "Bartleby the Scrivener," "Benito Cereno," and "The Encantadas." After The Confidence Man (1857), an abortive satire on the commercialism and selfishness of the age, he wrote no further prose except the novelette Billy Budd, completed just before his death .
Clarel (1876), a long, involved poem concerned with his search for religious faith, grew out of a tour to the Holy Land (1857). His diary of the trip was published as Journal Up the Straits (1935). Melville's other verse includes Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), and Timoleon (1891), the last containing poems based on his travels in Greece and Italy. Clarel, John Marr, and Timoleon were privately financed and published in small editions. About 80 short uncollected poems were first printed in the collected edition of his works (1924).
Melville's great creative period having perished from public neglect and his own inanition, he attempted to eke out a living by lecturing. Failing to receive a desired consulship, after a trip to San Francisco (1860) on a clipper ship commanded by his brother, he moved to New York City (1863) and three years later received a mean appointment as an outdoor customs inspector, in which position he continued for 19 years. His last years were spent in complete obscurity, and his death passed virtually unnoticed. It was not until 1920 that he was rediscovered by literary scholars, and in subsequent years the previous neglect was atoned for by a general enthusiasm. An elaborate collected edition appeared (12 vols., 1922-23) including some work left in manuscript; individual works were frequently reprinted; and some magazine sketches were collected as The Apple-Tree Table (1922). Other books published for the first time included Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent (1948), Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant (1955) and Letters (1960), including all 217 then known.
A wealth of scholarly research on his life and writings has been made, and recent students have revaluated his long-obscure literary reputation. Publication of a scholarly edition of his Writings was begun in 1968 by Newberry Library and Northwestern University Press, and by the 15th volume had reached the Journals (1989). He has come to be considered not only an outstanding writer of the sea and a great stylist who mastered both realistic narrative and a rich, rhythmical prose, but also a shrewd social critic and philosopher in his fiction.
Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, novel by Melville, published in 1851. Within this realistic account of a whaling voyage is set a symbolic account of conflict between man and his fate. Captain Ahab declares, "All visible objects are but as pasteboard masks," and Melville, holding this thesis, strikes through the surface of his adventurous narrative to formulate concepts of good and evil imbedded as allegory in its events.
The outcast youth Ishmael, feeling "a damp, drizzly November" in his soul, goes to New Bedford, planning to ship on a whaler. There he draws as a roommate Queequeg, a Polynesian prince, and the two become comrades. After Ishmael hears a symbolic sermon by Father Mapple, he and Queequeg go to Nantucket and sign on the Pequod, which sails on Christmas Day. The captain, Ahab, is a monomaniac whose one purpose is to capture the fierce, cunning white whale, Moby-Dick, who had torn away his leg during their last encounter. He keeps below deck for some time, but finally declares his purpose and posts a doubloon on the mast as a reward for the man who first sights the white whale. The characters of the sailors are revealed by their reactions. The chief mate, Starbuck, earnest, prudent, and fretful, dislikes it. Stubb, the second mate, is happy-go-lucky and takes perils as they come. Flask, the third mate, is incapable of deep thought and for him killing whales is just an occupation. Others in the crew include Fedallah and his mysterious Asiatics; the American Indian harpooner, Tashtego, the African, Daggoo; and the black cabin boy, Pip. Through the plot of the voyage, which carries the Pequod nearly around the world, runs a comprehensive discussion of the nature of the whale, the history of science and art relating to the animal, and the facts of the whaling industry. Whales are captured during the pursuit, but circumstances seem to conspire against Ahab: storms, lightning, loss of the compass, the drowning of a man, and the insanity of Ahab's favorite, Pip. The white whale is finally sighted, and in the first day's chase he smashes a whaleboat. The second day, another boat is swamped, and the captain's ivory leg is snapped off. On the third day the whale is harpooned, but Ahab, fouled in the line, is pinioned to Moby-Dick, who bears down on the Pequod. The ship is sunk and, as the final spars settle in the water, one of the men nails to the mast a sky hawk that pecks at the flag he is placing as a signal. The ship, "like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it." Ishmael, the only survivor, is rescued by another whaler, the Rachel.
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, novel by Melville, published in 1852. It is considered to be semi-autobiographical.
Pierre Glendinning, only son of an affluent and haughty widow, is engaged to Lucy Tartan, daughter of another prominent family in upstate New York. He accidentally meets Isabel, discovers that she is his illegitimate half-sister, and feels that it its his duty to protect her in opposition to his proud mother. To acknowledge Isabel as a sister would disgrace his father's memory, so Pierre pretends to marry her. They seek refuge in New York, and Pierre, poor and without friends, turns to writing a book that no publisher will issue. Lucy, still in love with Pierre, follows him to New York. Threatened by her brother and his own cousin, Pierre kills the latter. Both Lucy and Mrs. Glendinning die of grief, and Pierre and Isabel, now in love with each other, commit suicide in his prison cell. In grappling with the ambiguities of good and evil, Pierre has followed the "chronometrical" standards of ideal Christian conduct, instead of the "horological" standards of contemporary society. He is accordingly undone by his ideals, and becomes "the fool of Truth, the fool of Virtue, the fool of Fate."
Benito Cereno, story by Melville, published in The Piazza Tales (1856). Its source is a chapter in Amasa Delano's Voyages and Travels (1817). Robert Lowell adapted Melville's story in a one-act verse play of the same title in The Old Glory (1965).
In 1799 Captain Delano puts in for water at an uninhabited island off Chile, where he encounters a Spanish merchantsman in ruinous condition, commanded by Benito Cereno, a sensitive young Spaniard now gravely ill and enabled to pursue his duties only with the solicitous care of his black servant Babo. Cereno tells the American that he sailed from Buenos Aires for Lima, with a crew of 50 and a cargo including 300 Negroes owned by Alexandro Aranda. Off Cape Horn, he says, many of the crew were lost in a storm, and disease destroyed most of the other whites and blacks. Delano offers aid, but is uneasy at the insubordination of the slaves and the careless seamanship and seeming ingratitude of Cereno. He is about to return to his ship when Cereno jumps into his boat, precipitating an attack by the Negroes from which they barely escape. Cereno explains that the blacks had mutinied, led by Babo, and wanted to be carried to Africa. Delano seizes the slave ship, and takes it with his own to Lima, where Babo is executed. Cereno enters a monastery, but soon dies.
Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, symbolic tale by Melville published anonymously in Putnam's Magazine (1853) and reprinted in The Piazza Tales (1856). One view is that it reflects Melville's futility at the neglect of his novels ("Dead Letters") and his uncertainty about how to relate to society.
A Wall Street lawyer hires Bartleby, a curious, wraith-like figure, as a copyist. Barleby refuses to mingle with the other employees, and, when asked to do anything besides copying documents, invariably says "I would prefer not to." Some inner dignity or pathos in him prevents his being discharged, even when he ceases to work and uses the office for living quarters. The lawyer moves to another building, and the new tenant has Bartleby arrested. Visited in prison by the lawyer, he is silent and refuses favors. Soon he dies, and the lawyer hears a rumor that Bartleby was formerly a clerk in the Dead Letter Office, whose strange atmosphere affected his attitude toward life to the end.
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, unfinished satirical novel by Melville, published in 1857. This last novel printed during the author's life shows a pessimistic view best described by the title of a handbill that figures in the story: "Ode on the Intimations of Distrust in Man, Unwillingly Inferred from Repeated Repulses, in Disinterested Endeavors to Procure His Confidence."
A deaf-mute boards the Mississippi steamboat Fidèle, bound from St. Louis to New Orleans, and displays to the passengers a slate on which he writes: "Charity thinketh no evil; suffereth long, and is kind; endureth all things; believeth all things; and never faileth." This is regarded as a proof of lunacy, although the passengers consider the barber's "No Trust" sign as wise and well expressed. Optimistic, faith-seeking mankind then appears in a variety of other disguises, as the "Masquerade" continues, and distrust replaces confidence in the course of each episode.
Billy Budd, a novelette by Melville, was written during the five years before his death and published in 1924. The much revised manuscript, left without definitive form, was reissued in a very careful edition in 1962. A dramatization was made by Louis O. Coxe and Robert H. Chapman as Uniform of Flesh (1949), revised as Billy Budd (1951).
Billy Budd is the typical Handsome Sailor of 18th-century balladry, and because of his innocence and beauty is hated by Claggart, a dark, demon-haunted petty officer. In his simplicity, Billy cannot understand why Claggart hates him, why evil should desire to destroy good. Claggart concocts a fantastic story of mutiny, supposedly plotted by Billy, whom he accuses to the captain. Billy, unable to speak, in his only act of rebellion strikes Claggart a fatal blow. Captain Vere, who sympathizes with Billy and recognizes his essential innocence, is nevertheless forced to condemn him, and though Billy is hanged he lives on as a legend among sailors.