Herman Melville

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Moby Dick, as illustrated in a 1902 edition

Herman Melville (Aug. 1, 1819 - Sept. 28, 1891) was an American novelist and poet. His masterpiece was Moby-Dick, which was considered to be a failure until it was recognized long after Melville's death to be a literary masterpiece. Moby-Dick contains multiple biblical references, including the character names Ishmael and Ahab.

During his lifetime, Melville was best known for his 1846 book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, a fictionalized account, told in the first person, of Melville's experiences as a beachcomber on an island in the South Pacific, and its 1847 follow-up, Omoo. Those books were successes, but not enough to support Melville and he had to work at a day job to sustain his family. These jobs included working as a farmer, being unemployed, and ultimately obtaining a government position at the New York Custom House due to future president Chester A. Arthur (see below).

Use of Infinity

Melville frequently used the concept of "infinite" in his writings, to great effect. He expressly invokes "infinite" seven times in Moby Dick, as in Chapter 23 ("The Lee Shore"):

But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God - so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!

In his 1850 letter about his unbounded admiration of fellow writer and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, entitled "Hawthorne and His Mosses" (as published in The Literary World, August 17 and 24, 1850), Melville used "infinite" five times in merely 6,929 words, as in:

Once more -- for it is hard to be finite upon an infinite subject, and all subjects are infinite. ... [T]he assumption that the books of Hawthorne have sold by the five-thousand, -- what does that signify? -- They should be sold by the hundred-thousand, and read by the million; and admired by every one who is capable of Admiration.

Moby Dick

Melville, who had poor eyesight due to a childhood bout of scarlet fever, wrote Moby-Dick based on his experiences in whaling in the early 1840s. The book did not even sell out its first printing and Melville died in relative obscurity. An 1890 note in the Buffalo Courier commented that "Forty-four years ago, when his most famous tale, Typee, appeared, there was not a better-known author than he" but that "There are more people to-day who believe Herman Melville dead than there are those who know he is living."[1] He had only one obituary, a mere seven-liner in the New York Times which read entirely as follows:

Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East Twenty-sixth Street, this city, of heart failure, aged seventy-two. He was the author of Typee, "Omoo," "Mobie[sic] Dick," and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville.[2]

Final years

Melville passed away of a heart attack shortly after midnight, at the age of seventy-two. He had published his last novel (The Confidence-Man) more than three decades prior. He was a virtual unknown and forgotten author at the time of his death, aside from a few followers in the United States and Great Britain.

Melville rests aside his wife, Elizabeth Shaw, in the Woodlawn Cemetery located in Bronx, New York.[3]

Billy Budd

Billy Budd was a novel by Melville that was not discovered three decades after he died, and was first published posthumously in Raymond Weaver's "The Collected Works of Melville" (1924). This brilliant novel plus Weaver's biography, "Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic" (1921), promoted Melville from obscurity to prominence.

Custom House employment

In 1860, Melville was unemployed, once he had given his last lecture, and he remained unemployed till near the end of 1866, when he gained his appointment in the New York Custom House. ... Melville’s nineteen years of uninterrupted employment were achieved only through the intervention of an angel in the Custom House, a man with a Lansingburgh connection, Chester A. Arthur.


  1. LITERARY FAME. From the Buffalo Courier. The New York Times, November 12, 1890, p. 7
  2. OBITUARY. The New York Times, September 29, 1891, p. 8
  3. Melville.org