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Herman Melville

(1819-1891)

from: "Fields of Vision" by Denis Delaney

 Life

Family Herman Melville was born in New York in 1819. When he was only twelve years old his father died, leaving his wife with eight children and large debts.

Experiences at sea Herman left school and took a variety of jobs until 1839, when he boarded a merchant ship bound for England as a cabin boy. It was the first of a long series of sea voyages. In 1841 he found work on a whaler, but the very hard conditions persuaded him to desert the ship during a stop at a Pacific island. Captured by the natives, he lived among them for a month. After his rescue, Melville continued his adventures. His participation in a mutiny caused him to spend dome time in prison in Tahiti. On his release he joined the US Navy and finally returned home in 1844.

 Writing Melville settled in Boston and began to write fictionalized accounts of life among the natives of the Pacific Islands, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), which were immediate best sellers and allowed him to marry and buy a farm. He dedicated his next book Moby Dick; or The White Whale (1851) to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. The novel, although hailed as a masterpiece by a handful of critics, was not well received by the general reading public.

 Decline and pessimism With the decline in his popularity, Melville fell into depression. The lack of commercial success forced him to sell his farm and caused him to have a serious nervous breakdown. Unable to make a living from writing, in 1866 Melville took a job as a customs official in New York, a position which he held for almost twenty years. During this period he published some poetry at his own expense before returning to fiction with his last work, Billy Budd, which was published posthumously. Melville died in poverty and obscurity in 1891.

While during his lifetime the adventure books Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) brought him success and financial stability, today Moby Dick (1851) is considered to be Melville’s great masterpiece.

Works

Moby Dick The central theme of the novel is the obsession of Captain Ahab, master of the whaler Pequod, with a great white whale that had torn off one of his legs. Ahab’s life and journey are dedicated to hunting and killing the whale, a vendetta that drives himself, his ship and crew to destruction. Moby Dick is complex, multi-faceted novel. The narrative is at times naturalistic, at times fantastic and it is interrupted by metaphysical debates, soliloquies and long digressions on whales and the art of whaling. It is written in an extraordinary variety of styles which range from sailor’s slang to biblical parable to Shakespearean verse. Several themes can be found in the narrative: madness and monomania, the conflict between man and nature, the impossibility of escaping fate. Numerous symbolic associations have been made with the figure of the whale itself. It has variously been interpreted as the personification of evil in the world, the mirror image of Captain Ahab’s soul and the representation of the hidden and powerful forces of nature.

Other novels Melville’s other novels, The Confidence Man (1857) and Billy Budd, bear testimony to the writer’s considerable talent and to his increasingly pessimistic state of mind.  

       

External Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Melville

 
 
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