Herman Melville

Born: 1819

Place of Birth: New York City, NY

Died: 1891

Herman Melville

Herman Melville is a noted author and poet best known for his book “Moby-Dick.” His realistic stories about life at sea was based on the fact that he had been a crew member on a number of vessels. Melville’s books weren’t looked at very highly during his time and instead they were valued after his death. He is considered to be one of America’s great writers.

  • Herman was born in 1819 to Allan and Maria (Gansvoort) Melvill. When Allan died, Maria added the additional “e” to their last name. Herman fell ill with scarlet fever in the 1820s. This was a common disease at the time and while Herman did recover, it left permanent eyesight damage that he would have for the rest of his life.
  • Melville’s young life with his family was a rather good one due to his father’s success as a merchant and importer. His father did borrow a lot to help to finance his business and when they relocated to Albany, New York, the family fell on harder times. His father had failed in his attempt to expand on his business in 1830 into the fur trade. When Herman’s father died suddenly, the family was in fairly bad financial shape.
  • To help with family income, Herman took a job as a bank clerk and his brother took over the family business in the cap and fur trade. By the 1830s Herman was attending the Albany Academy and Albany Classical School. His studies included classic literature and it was at this time that Herman started writing essays, poetry, and short stories. Although he took a teaching job in Massachusetts he wasn’t happy and quickly returned to New York.
  • When the family fur and cap business failed it put their family in even worse conditions. They moved to Lansingburgh, New York and Herman enrolled in the Lansingburgh Academy. He studied surveying in the hopes of getting hired with the new Erie Canal project. However, when that hope failed he took a job in 1839 as a crew member on a boat.
  • Herman was originally listed as a merchant ship cabin boy and they sailed from New York City to Liverpool, England and back again. By 1841 Melville was hired on a whaling ship and it was here that he gained the experience and knowledge that would be revealed in his later book. The ship landed in 1842 at the Polynesian Marquesas Islands. Having had enough, Herman and another member of the crew deserted ship and were then captured by local tribes of cannibals.
  • Melville was treated well by the tribe and four months later he escaped and joined another whaling ship. However, that didn’t go well for him because he became a member of a crew that mutinied and he was put in jail. He got out and ended up in Hawaii and later hitched a ride back to Massachusetts. By that time he had been gone for three years.
  • Once he had returned home he sat down to begin writing about his adventures. His first release was in 1846 in the “Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life.” These were stories about both his real tales and made up events, and while it did capture the attention of some, most thought the stories to be too outrageous to be real. He followed with a second group of stories that were successful in 1847 called “Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas.”  During this time he met and married Elizabeth Shaw and they would eventually have four children.
  • Herman had found that people liked reading about sea adventures so he continued his writings in 1849 with “Mardi: and a Voyage Thither” and “Redburn: His First Voyage.” In 1850 he wrote “The World in a Man-of-War” or “White-Jacket.”
  • It wasn’t until 1851 that Melville wrote his book that was originally called “The Whale” but would later be changed to “Moby-Dick.” It was partially based on the true story of a ship called the “Essex” that had been attacked by a sperm whale, leaving the crew in small whaleboats to face starvation and illness. The story was widely known and it led to the popularity of his book which was about the captain of a ship that was looking for the whale that caused the devastation to the ship and crew.
  • Melville’s story didn’t get the kind of popularity while he was alive, because again, many thought that it was filled with too much imagination. He did give a series of lectures in the 1850s and later wrote a number of poems in collections. He died of a heart attack in 1891 in New York City.


What business was Herman Melville’s father in?
Merchant trader

How did Melville end up in jail?
On a ship where the crew had mutinied

What happened to Herman and a crew member when they deserted the ship?
They were captured by local tribes of cannibals

What year did Melville write his famous book “Moby-Dick?”

What Polynesian location did Herman land in that helped him to write other books?
Marquesas Islands

Why did Herman’s family fall on bad financial times?
Their father tried to expand the business to the cap and fur trade