Today in History: Author Herman Melville born in 1819

August 1st, 2013

Famed American author Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 to a well-respected New York family. The author, best known for penning Moby Dick, had a tumultuous literary career, with early acclaim giving way to sharp criticism.

Growing up, Melville was not a particularly gifted student; Melville’s father described him as “backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension…of a docile and amiable disposition.” Despite his early lack of a literary disposition, Melville found inspiration for his novels in his many travels. Melville’s early interest in the sea can be tied to his financial problems as a young man, which forced him to work on merchant and whaling vessels. Unable to find consistent work in the United States, Melville sailed on a whaling vessel headed on a voyage to the South Seas. When the ship arrived in the Marquesas Islands in what is present-day French Polynesia, Melville embraced the exotic locale and spent four months as a captive of the cannibalistic Typee people, inspiring his first novel, Typee. Melville later joined a mutiny led by fellow shipmates, which led to Melville’s incarceration in a Tahitian jail. Melville’s escape from the jail contributed to his second book, Omoo.

Upon returning to the United States, Melville published his first two works, earning enthusiastic reviews in the 1940s. By the end of the decade, Melville was one of the most popular American authors. However, later works by Melville, including 1851’s Moby Dick, received less positive acclaim, and Melville became a recluse, unable to regain his earlier financial success. Throughout this difficult period, Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne shared a close friendship and frequently wrote letters back and forth.

Melville’s melancholy disposition is evident in his later works like “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” neither of which received much acclaim when first published. Melville passed away in 1891, forgotten by most of the public. It was not until the “Melville Revival” of the 20th century that Melville’s work received widespread acclaim.

To learn more about Melville, read “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and then consult our study guide.

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