Moby Dick Author/Context
"No American author has been more puzzled over and written about, more lambasted and lionized, than Herman Melville." ~ Laurie Robertson-Lorant, Melville
Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 to Allan and Maria Melville, the third child of a family eventually including four boys and four girls. In 1826, Melville was stricken with scarlet fever, permanently weakening his eyesight. His father died in 1832, leaving the family in severe financial trouble. In spite of this, Melville managed to go to college, and find a job as a teacher, a profession he would soon quit, unsatisfied.
The rest of his young adulthood became a quest for financial security, and he shipped out as a merchant sailor. In 1842, he set sail on the whaler "Acushnet." The ship anchored in the French Polynesia, and his encounters with a cannibal tribe there became the subject of his first novel, Typee(1846). His second novel, Omoo(1847), is based on the later mutiny aboard the "Acushnet," one in which he took part.
His first two novels were received well by the public, but did not bring in enough money. In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, making it even more difficult to support his family. He wrote three more novels, Mardi(1849) an allegorical fantasy, Redburn(1849), and White-Jacket(1850), a return to the more realistic style of Typee. Melville began to study Shakespeare more closely, deeply affected by passages in King Lear, driving him to write more profound prose. It was also around this time that Melville befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter. Under Hawthorne's influence, Melville grew greatly concerned about the spiritual state of man, transfixed by the conflict between good and evil.
Melville originally promised his publishers a manuscript, The Whale, in the autumn of 1850, however, he was delayed in submitting it. The novel, the title of which would change to Moby-Dick, was first published in London in October of 1851, followed by a publication in America a month later. The novel was not a success. Critics lambasted it for its confusing, polymorphic nature, as it swung between metaphor to comedy to science; readers did not flock to buy it.
In later years, however, the novel has come to be regarded as one of "literature's ultimate achievements."(New Essays on Moby-Dick,p.1) It's refusal to stick to one genre, jumping from comedy to tragedy, metaphysics to exacting realism, has influenced scholar and writer alike. Hundreds of thousands of essays have been written on the novel, studying its allegorical complications, and the debate it raises between Calvinism and the necessity of Free-Will. The character of Ahab and the White Whale he so mindlessly pursues, have become two of the most well known characters in American literature.
After writing Moby Dick, Melville became more and more of a recluse. His later novels and short stories, including "Bartleby the Scrivener," (1853) and The Confidence-Man(1857), are increasingly dark and satirical comments on the American way of life. In his later years, Melville tried his hand at poetry, and one final prose novel, Billy Budd(1891). He died September 28, 1891, in virtual obscurity; it was only in later years that his works were reevaluated, and received the critical respect they so richly deserved.
Brodhead, Richard H., ed. New Essays on Moby-Dick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Encyclopedia Britanica. "Melville, Herman." Vol 7, 1998 edition, pp. 1036-1037.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993.
Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1996.