Herman Melville

Portrait of Herman Melville

Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet of the American Renaissance period. He was born in New York City, USA on 1st August 1819 and died there on 28th September 1891 aged 72.

Major Works

“Typee” (1846)
Omoo” (1847)
“Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” (1851)
“Enchanted Isles” (1854)
“Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile” (1855)

Biography Timeline

Herman Melville was born on 1st August 1819 in New York City. His father Allan was a merchant importing dry goods from Europe and spent much of his time there. His mother was Maria nee Gansevoort. On 19th August Melville was baptised at home by a minister of the South Reformed Dutch Church reflecting his mother’s Dutch heritage. Melville was the third of eight children and lived in a comfortable house with servants although his father lived beyond his means and borrowed heavily. 

1824: He begins his schooling aged five. The Melville family move to a newly built house at 33 Bleecker Street in Manhattan.

1826: He contracts scarlet fever.

1829: His older brother Gansevoort and he transfer from the New York Male High School to Colombia Grammar and Preparatory School in September.

1830: His father opens a fur business in Albany, New York. His mother’s family end their financial support for the Melvilles and his father begins to run up debts. Melville moves to the Albany Academy where he reads widely in history and literature.

1831: Melville and his siblings leave school to work in the family fur and cap business as their father can’t afford the school fees. Melville holds down several other positions to help the family finances such as teaching at local schools and working on his uncle’s farm.

1832: His father begins to show signs of delirium and he dies on 28th January. His mother seeks consolation in her faith and in April she is admitted as a member of the First Reformed Dutch Church and gives her children a religious upbringing. His uncle, Peter Gansevoort, gives Melville a position as a clerk in the New York State Bank where he is a director. His paternal grandfather dies on 16th September but his mother only receives $20 dollars as she finds her husband has already spent the remainder of her inheritance.

1834: In May the family move to another house in Albany. His uncle’s skin preparing factory burns down and he has to lay many of his workers off. Melville is pulled out of the bank to man the family’s cap and fur store.

1835: Whilst still working in the store, Melville enrols in Albany Classical School and joins the local Young Men’s Association for Mutual Improvement which his brother Gansevoort had become a member of the year before.

1836: In September he enrols on a Latin course at the Albany Academy and takes part in the local debating society.

1837: Due to the financial “Panic of 1837” the business hits a crisis and both Melville and his brother are withdrawn from the Academy due to lack of funds. Gansevoort begins studying law in New York City and Herman gets a teaching position at Sikes District School near Lenox, Massachusetts. 

1838: He is elected president of the Philo Logos Society, which his uncle Peter Gansevoort allows to use Stanwix Hall for no rent. Melville publishes two letters in the “Albany Microscope” about issues discussed in the debating society. In May, the family move to a house in Lansingburgh.  His first known published essay appears in the “Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser” entitled “Fragments from a Writing Desk”.

1839: He teaches at Greenbush, New York but leaves after one term as he is not paid. Melville, now aged twenty, takes a job as a cabin boy on the merchant ship the St. Lawrence traveling from New York City to Liverpool in England which leaves on 31st May.

1840: On his return in the summer he and his friend James Murdock Fly go to Galena in Illinois to see if his Uncle Thomas can help them find work. Unsuccessful they return home in the autumn after a long tour in the west. 

1841: Herman and his brother then go to New Bedford, and Herman signs up for a whaling voyage aboard a new ship, the “Acushnet”, in January. Melville sleeps in the forecastle with twenty others whilst Captain Valentine Pease and the skilled men sleep aft. Whales are found in March near the Bahamas and whale oil is sent home via Rio de Janeiro. On 15th April the Acushnet rounds Cape Horn without catching any more whales. On 7th May off the coast of Chile they are lucky and board more oil. On 24th October the ship crosses the equator heading north.

1842: They land at the Galápagos Islands on 6th January. No more whales are captured and on 23rd June the ship anchors at Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. Melville and his shipmate Richard Tobias Greene decide to jump ship only to be captured by the Typee cannibals. They are finally rescued by the Australian whaler ship “Lucy Ann” when it arrives a month later. This ship is bound for Tahiti but a mutiny takes place on board and Melville is briefly jailed in the Calabooza Beretanee (English Jail). In October he and crew mate John B Troy escape Tahiti and travel to the Island of Eimeo where they spend a month and then on to Moorea. In November he becomes a harpooner on the “Charles and Henry”, a ship from Nantucket. 

1843: He is discharged from the ship in the Hawaiian Islands. In April he works as a clerk and bookkeeper in a store in Honolulu and then in August he enlists in the US Navy and works on the ship “United States” through the Pacific.

1844: In October after being discharged from the Navy Melville finally returns to his mother’s house wanting to write about his many adventures. 

1845: His first manuscript “Typee” is rejected by US publishers as they refuse to believe it is true but his brother Gansevoort, now working for the American Legation in Troy, New York, sends it to British Publishers.

1846: “Typee” is published in February by John Murray in London and it becomes a best seller almost immediately. Due to this success it is published separately in New York in March.

1847: He tries to find a job working for the government in Washington but is unsuccessful. He marries Elizabeth Shaw on 4th August. She is the daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts and a family friend. Her father had turned him down at first but then relented. They avoid a church wedding due to Melville’s new-found celebrity. The couple move to New York City and live with his younger brother, mother, and four sisters. He publishes his next novel “Omoo” which is equally successful and he begins his third book of adventures.

1848: Mardi and a Voyage Thither” is published in London and in New York. 

1849: On 16th February Malcolm, their first child is born. He meets Nathaniel Hawthorne who becomes a friend and constructive critic. Melville begins to write two more novels, “Redburn: His First Voyage” and “White-Jacket” which he later claims were simply for the money and the prestige. They are moderately successful when they published.

1850: “White Jacket” is published in January in London and in March by Harper in New York. The earliest surviving mention of “Moby-Dick” is in a letter in May to a fellow author Richard Dana junior. During August he spends time with literary friends including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He writes a review of Hawthorne’s latest work in “The Literary World” entitled “Hawthorne and his Mosses”. In September he borrows money from his father in law to buy a farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts which he calls “Arrowhead” due to the articles dug up on the land.

1851: “The Whale” is published in London in October and in November in the United States as “Moby Dick.” Despite his high hopes for the novel literary critics are not impressed and the book does not sell well. Their second child Stanwix is born on 22nd October.

1852: His financial security now goes downhill. His psychological romance “Pierre, or the Ambiguities”, based on his own childhood is also badly received and in September the newspaper “The Daybook” prints an attack on him with the headline “Hermann Melville Crazy”.

1853: He now turns to writing short stories and poetry, publishing them in “Putnam’s Monthly Magazine”. Their first daughter Elizabeth is born on 22nd May. He finishes work on the “Isle of the Cross” and cannot find a publisher for his next novel “Israel Potter” which is then serialised in “Putnam’s” followed by fourteen other stories over the coming months. 

1854: He writes “Enchanted Isles”.

1855: Their child Frances is born on 2nd March. In December “The Piazza Tales” collection is published by Putnam’s new owners Dix and Edwards.

1856: He visits Nathaniel Hawthorne in November in Liverpool in England, who is now a US Consul, and then sets off on a grand tour of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Holy Land.

1857: On 1st April Melville publishes his last full-length novel, “The Confidence Man” which again receives poor reviews. He begins giving a series of lectures in Italy on Roman statuary, the South Seas and anecdotes about his travels.

1860: He boards the clipper “Meteor” bound for California with his brother Thomas at the helm and they arrive back in New York in November. He submits his poetry for publication but it is not accepted and the manuscripts have now been lost.

1863: He buys his brother’s house at 104 East 26th Street in New York City.

1864: He visits the Virginia battlefields of the American Civil War. 

1866: He becomes a customs inspector for New York City. He publishes “Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War” which is a collection of 72 poems. This work does not sell well and he begins to suffer from nervous exhaustion.

1867: His son Malcolm dies at the age of 18 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. No one knows if it is accidental or deliberate. In May his wife’s brother Sam tries to get her to leave him and declare to a court that he is insane, however she refuses.

1876: His poem “Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land”  is published after he has spent years writing it. Only 350 copies are bought and the unsold copies are burnt.

1884: His wife Elizabeth receives a legacy that enables him to buy books and prints.

1885: In December several of his wife’s other relatives support them financially.

1886: On 22nd February their younger son Stanwix dies of tuberculosis in San Francisco.

1888: He still writes poetry and prints “John Marr and Other Sailors” privately for friends and family.

1889: He becomes a member of the New York Society Library. 

1891: He publishes “Timoleon” and starts work on “Billy Budd, Foretopman” about a sailor falsely accused of involvement in mutiny which is incomplete at his death.

Herman Melville died on 28th September 1891 in New York of a heart attack. He is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx in New York City.

Further Information

List of books by Melville in chronological order.