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Herman Melville, Author

The author of Moby Dick, or The Whale, led an adventurous life. Popular during his lifetime, recognition as one of America's greatest novelists came only after his death.

Arrowhead, Herman Melville's farm, Pittsfield MA
Arrowhead, Herman Melville's farm in Pittsfield MA in the Berkshire Hills.

Born in New York City to a merchant family, Herman Melville (1891-1891) ran away to sea in 1839, signing on as a cabin boy on the whaling ship Acushnet bound for the South Seas.

Conditions on board were unbearable, however, and Melville jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands, only to be captured by Typee cannibals.

Happily, he became their guest rather than their dinner.

He was rescued by Australian whalers, spent some time in Tahiti, Hawaii and other islands, and returned home to the USA in 1844.

Melville's Novels

Melville wrote up his adventures in romance novels (1846-1850) that enjoyed huge popularity and sales (especially in Great Britain), the best-known of which was Typee (1846).

In 1850, Melville bought a farm in Pittsfield, in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, that he named Arrowhead. Nathaniel Hawthorne was then living nearby at Tanglewood, and the two authors became friends.

Melville wrote most of his masterpiece, Moby Dick, or The Whale, while at Arrowhead. The novel is the story of whaling Captain Ahab who encountered a white whale at sea. The whale wrecked Ahab's ship and severed his leg at the knee. Ahab spent the rest of his life seeking to find and destroy the leviathan.

Published in 1851, Moby Dick was far deeper than his adventure novels, with complex symbolism, and was not well-regarded by the public at first.

His later novels also were deeper and more tragic than what the popular readership enjoyed, and the author began to have money problems.

Melville died in New York, broken in health, in 1891. Few but family and friends noted his passing.

Thirty years after his death, Moby Dick began to be hailed as the greatest American novel ever written, and a significant contribution to world literature.

Novels by Tom Brosnahan
Further reading...