Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. He set himself up as a farmer and writer on 160 acres in the Berkshire Hills near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and befriended his neighbour, Nathaniel Hawthorne. The estate financed his writing for a short time, but in 1863 (during the Civil War) Melville moved back to New York City and was the deputy inspector at the Custom House from 1866 to 1885.
By the age of 31, he had been on numerous adventures and written a large body of work, including Moby-Dick (1851), his masterpiece . However, his writing career ended as abruptly as it began. Moby-Dick was not received well by critics, though now it is considered a landmark literary work, with the well-known opening line: “Call me Ishmael”.
He did not receive recognition for Moby-Dick during his lifetime. He did, however, have success with the novels that he wrote as a result of his adventures as a younger man. He tried work as a bank clerk, cabin-boy and school teacher, and in January 1841 he boarded the whaler Acushnet bound for the Pacific. His experiences on the Acushnet inspired him to write Moby-Dick. He deserted ship in 1842 in the Marquesas and found his own way to Honolulu, returning to Boston as an ordinary seaman on the frigate United States in October 1844. His books on these adventures earned him success: Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Redburn (1849), Mardi (1849) and White-Jacket (1850).
Melville wrote eight other novels, plus a collection of essays and a study of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. He is also known as an accomplished poet and for his collection of short stories, Billy Budd, Sailor (1924), published posthumously after his wife discovered the manuscript.
Melville was interested in the dynamic created between reader and text, and his works often call attention to the connections between writing, reading and interpretation. An example is the similarity between the act of reading Moby-Dick and the trajectory of the voyage. Issues of racial representation are also important in Melville’s work, particularly in Typee, White-Jacket and “Benito Cereno” and this aspect of his work has received a large volume of critical attention, particularly from a postcolonial perspective.
He is now recognised as one of the great American writers. He has been described by Robert S. Levine as “the monumental writer of nineteenth-century America whose presence of the literary and cultural landscape is all but inescapable”. There is renewed scholarship into Melville’s life and works, provoking debate between “traditional” and “revisionary” Melville scholars, particularly regarding charges of misogyny and wife beating.