Born in New York City in 1819, Herman Melville, whose death in 1891 drew little attention, is now regarded as one of America's greatest writers. His novel "Moby Dick" is considered by many to be one of the great American novels, admired for its richness and complexity. The story of Captain Ahab and his obsession with an enormous white sperm whale is widely known, even by those who have not read the book. The 1956 feature length movie with Gregory Peck is still viewed and the recent movie " In the Heart of the Sea" is about a real event in 1820 that Melville used as the basis for his novel.
Melville had a difficult, yet fascinating youth. His family was prosperous until his father made some bad business decisions and then suddenly died in 1832. The family soon found itself struggling financially and Melville was forced to curtail his education to begin working in a series of jobs to help his family survive. He managed to enroll in an academy in Albany where he studied literature. In 1837 he took a teaching job in Massachusetts but dislike the work and soon returned to New York. His brother's business soon failed, making things even more difficult. Melville studied to become a surveyor but was unable to find a job. In 1839, following his brother's advice, he went to sea as a cabin boy for a merchant ship. In 1841 he signed on as a crew member of a whaling ship. This turned out to be an epic adventure: he deserted the ship in Polynesia, he was captured and held for several months by the Typees, he was jailed for mutiny, served on other ships, joined the U.S. navy and finally after more than 3 years away from home, was discharged from naval service and returned to the United States. His friends encourged him to write about his experiences. In 1846 he published "Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life" The book was well received . In 1847 he continued his success with another book "Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas."
In 1847 he married Elizabeth Shaw. The marriage produced 4 children. The mariage was troubled over the years by Melville's financial insecurity and bouts of depression. The young family moved to the Berkshires. It was there that Melville became a neighbor of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The reclusive Hawthorne and Melville became close friends. He continued to publish: "Mardi" and "Redburn" in 1849 and "White-Jacket" in 1850. In 1851 he published what is now considered his masterpiece: "Moby Dick- or the Whale." The book was dedicated to Hawthorne. It is based on his years at sea and his knowledge of the then widely known true story of the fate of the "Essex", a whaleship that was sunk by a huge sperm whale in 1820 in the middle of the vast Pacific ocean and the terrible struggles of the surviving crew members. ( the movie " In the Heart of the Sea" is itself based on a recent book about the "Essex.")
While "Moby Dick" is now considerd a masterpiece, it was not well received by critics and the reading public when first published and earned Melville little money as did his other later novels. By 1857, Melville stopped writing novels and turned to poetry. However he still needed to support his family. His wife's relatives were concerned for her as Melville was often depressed and strapped for money. He finally secured a position as a customs inspector in New York City and remained at that position for 20 years, all but forgotten as a writer. In 1876, he published the epic poem "Clarel." In 1891, while working on another novel, he died of a heart attack at the age of 72. During his lifetime he published over 20 works. Despite this impressive output, his death was only briefly, but respectfully, noted in the local New York newspapers. He was all but forgotten but slowly over the years his reputation grew. In 1924 his last novel "Billy Budd, A Sailor" ( also made into a movie) was published. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York.